Why do I do this? There are so many other sports I could do. Why couldn’t I be good at baseball? I’m about to be in a world of hurt – remind me again why I signed up for this? Okay, stop thinking like this. You’ve been through this a million times, this one is no different. Remember all of the training you’ve done – those mile repeats last Monday, the 20 by a quarter the week before. Once the gun goes off the doubt will all disappear. Stay calm. It’ll go away, just hold it together until the gun goes off.
Let’s rewind 50,000 years or so. Picture the scene: our ancient ancestors are on the brink of a hunt in an area rife with dangerous predators that could tear them apart at any minute. Their senses are heightened and their bodies prepared – around the next corner could be dinner, or it could be a lion. Their bodies are primed and a myriad of stress hormones course through their brains, preparing them for either situation.
Fast forward to today and we still rely on these same systems, established in Paleolithic times and residing in the ancient limbic part of the brain, to prepare us for a modern equivalent of escaping the lion – to race.
Running is a basic human endeavor. Racing is something more – a battle of foot speed, a battle of the minds.
Over centuries the human body has honed its use of stress hormones – cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline – to react to the first sense of threat. To modern humans, a race may not be considered a threat, but our modern human brains still treat it that way. The brain reacts subconsciously with signals of heightened awareness, fear and fatigue. And it is up to our modern mind – our conscious mind – to control those signals and use them to our advantage in the situation at hand.
In simple terms, we have an internal battle between the “old” part of our brain (a relic from early evolution that provides powerful, intuitive responses to whatever we encounter) and the “new” part of our brain (adapted over centuries to allow us to use tools and interact in a more complicated world). The new part of our brain is more contemplative and logical, and we rely on it to second guess those immediate reactions of our old brain. This tug of war between old and new determines what decisions we make.
Before a race, subconscious feelings of fear, doubt and nervousness are an effective way of motivating us to start a task, as well as prepare us for what the task involves. The combination of hormones and emotional response serves to focus our attention. Leading up to a race you often can’t think about anything else; the brain is flooded with emotional reactions like fear and doubt.
Our bodies should be preparing us for the worst. In prehistoric time, those who weren’t prepared and didn’t have finely attuned stress and preparation responses most likely didn’t survive. And we’ve had millions of years to adapt and refine this jumble of nerves, stress, and anxiety – in fact, we’re the ones alive because of it.
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Bang! The gun goes off and I instinctually react. I’m on the inside. Get out, get out! Establish a good position. Don’t go out too fast, but make sure you have a clear path. It all happens so fast, there’s no time to think. But instinct takes over. Out fast – good. I’m on the inside, be careful, watch out. Shit! Everyone collapses in on me. I’m behind the leaders, but boxed. Trapped in a cage, nowhere to go. I’m at the mercy of others. Don’t panic. Just relax. Wait. Be patient. It’ll open up.
Once the race starts, those feelings of anxiety and stress quickly dissipate. The gun almost serves as a trigger for our old brain to switch gears from preparation to action – the ingrained movement pattern fires off down the spinal cord to our muscles. This leaves our conscious brains to worry about the chaotic mess that is starting to unfurl in front of it.
This battle of subconscious action versus conscious thought will predominate the rest of the race. The conscious part of our brain analyses a handful of thoughts and concepts and tries to find logic and direction, while the subconscious part a rapidly processes and evaluates cues in the environment and ourselves. If our subconscious finds something worthwhile, it will ring alarm bells to bring it to our attention.
Navigating the mess of runners trying to squeeze into that same spot in lane one requires processing and evaluating these cues in the environment. Going into a race, we have a general strategy for how we are going to move off the line and get into position when the guns goes off. But this strategy must be quickly adjusted based on what happens in our environment. We need to use external cues of how people are moving and where we are on the track to essentially predict how other people will move and how we should move. Our brains are preparing multiple action possibilities – whether to cut left, accelerate forward or drop back. What action we select in those split-second decisions is based in large part on the external cues our subconscious is rapidly evaluating.
A well-seasoned racer will have more actions and reactions ingrained than they could possibly need. Researchers have found that experts tend to have a strategy of how to proceed that is extremely flexible to change. In contrast, beginners have a very strict strategy, which they follow almost to a T regardless of external changes. Through experience, an expert’s subconscious has refined the ability to process and evaluate all of the external information quickly and effectively, while a beginner might as well be relying on doing arithmetic in his conscious mind to figure out how best to react.
Dear god, I can’t breathe, my lungs are on fire. My legs are about to go. Calm down calm down! Just hold on. How am I ever going to keep this up to the finish? Shut up! You’re fine. Embrace it. It’s a slow drip of pain from here until the finish. Break it into short segments, every 200m. Guys are starting to crumble! I just need to stay attached to the leaders. Just hang on. Make it to the last lap. “Stay focused, eyes up!” There’s coach reminding me to keep my head in it. I have to stay alert. Someone is going to get impatient and go, gotta be ready for that break. How much do I have in the tank? Just enough.
Welcome back our emotional friends: pain, panic, anxiety, and fear. They took a back seat while instinct got us off the line and into position. Now that we’ve settled into the rhythm of the race, they’ve come back fighting. The reason is once again motivation and preparation – our subconscious brains are trying to protect us from letting our down our guard.
Mid-race is a land of uncertainty. We are far enough along in the race that it’s starting to get tough, but still far enough from the finish line that judging how long we can hold onto this pace is difficult. This uncertainty triggers anxiety in our subconscious mind and if we let that anxiety go awry, it can become panic. The key to successful racing is to muster the strength of the conscious mind to delay panic until we are so close enough to the finish line that it can’t hurt dissuade us.
Now that we are actually running, the mind is continually calculating and comparing how we are actually feeling at this time point versus how we expected to feel based on our expectations going into the race. Any mismatch can have profound effects on the subconscious. Not surprisingly, if our actual effort is more than we expected, things start to go wrong: the brain amplifies the feeling of pain, fatigue and effort and we become more attuned to these sensations. As we become attuned to them, they can promote negative conscious thoughts because our brain is trying to tell us we need to slow down. This protective mechanism is built in so that we don’t cause bodily harm and stray too far from homeostasis. Mental toughness can override these subconscious thoughts for a while, but often our brains will give in to these warning signals, slowing us down to a flailing mess. Our worst races hurt the most.
On the other hand, if our actual effort is less than we expected, things start to go even better: the brains amplifies the feelings of excitement and anticipation. Feel-good hormones like opioids start to circulate and dull the pain, ironically making the pain feel less even though we may be running harder. Our brains are letting loose the reigns, communicating that we should do more of what we’re doing, which often gives a runner the ability to find another gear. As the mind crosses into a realm of fatigue and pain, an interesting phenomenon occurs. Due to the unique combination of stress and anticipation of a hopeful reward, the senses become very attuned to accomplishing the task at hand, rather than attuned to the fatigue and pain. In our best races, this combination causes us to enter a unique state of flow – where the subconscious part of our brain is in the zone and performing what it needs to automatically. In many cases, time seems to slow in a similar sense to when we go through a dangerous situation, such as a car crash. The senses are acting so rapidly and automatically, that there is no room for the conscious mind to act.
Move your legs! They went, now respond – respond! We still have 300m. The first guy can’t hold it, he’ll be done, but the second can. Can I? I don’t know – it doesn’t matter – I have to. Stay close, just maintain contact. God, my legs are burning. Doesn’t matter. I made it this far. Legs are starting to go, I’ve got one move, but when? Wait, wait, stay close. Not yet. Look! His shoulders are coming up, arms are losing coordination. 200m left, not yet, can’t make it to finish if I go. Agh, my body is trying to lean back, maintain form. Wait, wait. So close, do I have 150m of kick in me? I don’t know, start winding up. Off the curve and go! Arms, arms, pump, drive! Come on legs, hold it together!
As we enter the final stretch, the subconscious part and conscious part of our brains are either working in unison to push us towards the finish line or battling each other to push us towards the wall. Every cue in the environment that reinforces that we are doing well, whether it’s seeing a fast split or realizing the leader is suddenly in striking distance, gives us another dose of positive hormones and encourages our mind to push just a bit further into our reserves. And the more our conscious mind cares, the more it empowers our subconscious mind to keeping pushing. If we are competing for a state championship that we’ve trained for the last six months for, our brain signals that this one really matters and we should be allowed to push just a little further.
This interaction of subconscious and conscious sets the stage for how far we can dig in, but it’s still up to us to execute it. During the crucial finishing stretch of the race, our subconscious mind is assessing not only our own physical reserve capacities, but also that of our competitors. The mind runs that inner algorithm to predict how much anaerobic energy reserve we have left to use, which in turn dictates when we can unleash the last ditch sprint effort to the finish. But it’s often our assessment of the other runners that dictates when we should unleash that effort.
The same well-seasoned racer that is flexible in adapting their race strategy when the gun goes off will be able to use their experience to process and evaluate the cues of their competitors to best predict how to time their last surge. The raising of the shoulders, the slight leaning back or the ever-so-slight flailing of the arm all act as poker tells in the world of racing. We register these signs subconsciously and use them to make decisions on whether we can cover the surge or need to wait until our competitors starts to hit bricks. The ability to predict an opponents’ performance capacities is often what separates master tacticians in a race.
Similarly, as the ugly bear of fatigue jumps on our back and the levels of fear and doubt begin to rise, the experienced racer that has trained his body to stave off the fatigue and trained his conscious mind to override his subconscious panic will be better equipped to survive the final straight. Maintaining a laser-like focus on the finish in spite of the natural desire to lean back, windmill the arms and look up as if hoping for divine intervention is not luck or natural skill. The ability to surgically adjust and respond to the sensations, counteracting the tendencies that subsume less experienced competitors, takes serious mental training and preparation in addition to the physical requirements of the sport.
The result can be a painful, but calm, drive to the finish, knowing that if you can just hold it together, others may not. Timing your drive to the finish so your last ounce of energy is expended as soon as you cross the line. Timed to perfection, thanks to a combination of thousands of years of mental preparation and the training and experience to know how to handle it.
I won! I got him! I can’t believe I pulled that off!
With success comes another flood of opioids to the brain. We’re breathing hard, exhausted, tired, legs full of lead, but we don’t feel it. Our competitors are bent over gasping for air or collapsed on the ground. We’ve been there before, but not this time – this time our brains are satisfied. The positive chemicals flooding our brain signal completion of our task and our reward. We now get to enjoy that emotional and chemical high before reality sets in once it wears off.
The brain also starts to form memories of the situation, remembering the elation and good feelings while conveniently overlooking the pain and discomfort felt early on in the race. The great irony of good races is that they tend to hurt less and we tend to remember them as being effortless. Our minds are programmed to ingrain these memories based on the emotional reaction to the outcome, not the painful process for getting there.
Much like a drug addict, our brain wants to recreate this feeling again. And so we run again. And we race again. And it doesn’t always turn out so well. But once our mind has experienced the feeling of success and has encoded the positive outcome, it is a willing enabler to those of us who want to perform this cruel and unusual punishment of pushing ourselves to the depths of pain and fatigue that a normal person can seldom understand. Those, for example, that play baseball.
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This piece originally appeared in Meter Magazine.