Mind Over Matter

Training & Health

10/14/2008| 0 comments
by Jim Lehman and Jim Rutberg

Mind Over Matter

Your mind and its power to either enhance or hinder your ability to perform at your best.

There is no question that it takes more than skill and conditioning to be successful as an athlete, but sports scientists, coaches, and even athletes have struggled to define the precise extra component that separates champions from pack fodder. The clearest answer seems to lie with the mind’s power to either enhance or hinder your ability to perform at your best.

The Mind’s Impact on Performance

Sports scientists tend to focus on performance tests that minimize the variables between test subjects; in other words, they like the lab-based lactate threshold or VO2 tests because they can control the temperature, equipment calibration, etc. Yet, there are abundant examples of athletes who test poorly in the lab and then go out and uncork phenomenal performances in competition. Conversely, there are athletes who test wonderfully and then fail to perform anywhere near their potential in competitions.

The lack of a good, scientifically-proven, physiological reason for the discrepancies between test results and actual performance leads to the conclusion that successful athletes possess mental and behavioral attributes that enhance their ability to capitalize on their physical potential. Athletes who have the engine and skills to be successful may not be able to reach their potential if these mental and behavioral attributes are absent or underdeveloped. 

With the use of power meters, we can even see these discrepancies between individual workouts in training. One of the most common situations is a drop in wattage when a workout is moved from outdoors to indoors. Even after taking into account variables like tire pressure and the pressure of the flywheel on the tire, athletes consistently report difficulty reaching and sustaining the same power output indoors that they can achieve outdoors. And when they can reach the desired power output, their perceived exertion and heart rate are both considerably higher than during the outdoor workout. For instance, when an athlete is asked to perform 15-minute lactate threshold intervals outdoors, he may be able to hold 285 watts, but only be able to sustain 270 for the same workout on the indoor trainer.

The Upside of Arousal

Among the biggest differences between training indoors and out, and between training and racing, is the level of arousal you derive from your surroundings. Greater arousal leads to heightened performance because there are more stimuli; your brain is more engaged and your emotions are feeding your motivation to perform. Emotional arousal also has a physical impact on your parasympathetic nervous system (the one that triggers your fight-or-flight response) which sets off a cascade of hormonal and metabolic effects that lead to increased ability to focus, greater strength, and heightened reflexes. When you strip away stimuli by removing the competition, it becomes difficult to reach competition-level performance in cycling training. And when you remove the stimuli of the wind against your face and the sensation of speed from watching telephone polls go whizzing by, it’s more difficult to achieve the same level of motivation, and hence put out the same high-intensity effort, on an indoor trainer.

What You Can Do to Get Your Brain in Gear

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