Your body knows what it can do. Confidence is its way of telling you.
Written by: Matt Fitzgerald
There are two types of confidence: mental and physical. Mental confidence is confidence as we all know it: a belief that one is capable of performing specific tasks or achieving specific goals. Physical confidence is a subconscious calculation that predicts one’s physical limits with respect to a specific task. In cruder terms, mental confidence is what your mind thinks your body can do. Physical confidence is what your body knows you can do.
Both mental and physical confidence are important, but physical confidence is probably more important because it is usually more accurate and it is also the primary source of mental confidence.
To fully appreciate the importance of physical confidence, you must first understand how science now understands the role of the brain in regulating exercise performance. One of the leading researchers in this area is Ross Tucker, Ph.D., associate professor of exercise physiology at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. According to Tucker the brain’s primary role during exercise is to regulate the body in such a way as to optimize performance while preventing self-harm through extremes in body temperature increase, oxygen deficit, muscle damage, muscle fuel depletion and so forth. In endurance sports such as running, the brain performs this job by enforcing a pacing strategy. In other words, pacing is the brain’s way of enabling you to run as hard as you can without actually running yourself to death. But how does your brain know and enforce this limit? “The brain is constantly receiving inputs and signals from every system in the body,” Tucker explains, “and then interpreting these signals in the context of the exercise bout. It then alters the exercise intensity, by changing the degree of muscle activation to either slow the athlete down or allow him to speed up.”
Tucker’s preferred name for the physiological pacing mechanism is “anticipatory regulation” because it’s based on an anticipated endpoint of exercise—the finish line, in the case of running races. “The whole premise for pacing is that the brain is regulating exercise performance in order to protect the body from reaching a limit or a failure point or a potentially harmful level before the end of exercise,” he says.
Some of the best proof of anticipatory regulation comes from Tucker’s studies of exercise in hot environments. In one such study, cyclists predictably took longer to complete a time trial in the heat than in a cool environment. But their core body temperature rose to the same level in both trials, and while the cyclists started both trials at the same pace, they slowed down unconsciously within five minutes of starting the hot time trial, when their core body temperature was still well below the safety limit.
“The fact that this happened so early suggests that the pacing decision is made well before any physiological factor forces the athlete to slow down,” says Tucker, who suggests that the brain senses the skin temperature and the rate of heat storage and uses this information to calculate how hard it can drive the muscles given the anticipated duration of the time trial. In cool environments, other factors such as the pH level of the muscles and the glucose concentration in the blood are likely used to make similar calculations.
Anticipatory regulation works better in experienced runners than in beginners, because this mechanism uses past training and racing experiences to make accurate calculations about how fast the athlete can go without either bonking or finishing with too much left in the tank. Even in the most experienced runners, these calculations aren’t perfect—and thus a perfectly paced race is a rarity—but it is very reliable. It knows what your body is capable of. Thus, the primary goal of your training should be to make your anticipatory regulation mechanism believe that you can run whatever time you have established as your goal for your next big race. In other words, the goal is to build physical confidence.
How is this done? Adhering to the conventional principles and methods of endurance training will do the job, but I believe you can get even better results by sometimes straying from convention for the sake of building physical confidence in a particular way. Specifically, I encourage runners to step back from their training periodically and ask themselves, “What sorts of workout experiences would give me the most confidence of being able to achieve my race goal?” Mental confidence tends to follow the lead of physical confidence. Thus, if you execute key workouts and training patterns that leave you feeling mentally confident that you can achieve your race goals, it’s probably because those workouts or training patterns have changed your body and your subconscious brain in ways that make your anticipatory regulation mechanism predict that you can achieve your goals. So listen to your gut, cultivate hunches, develop those hunches into ideas and plans, and then act on them—even if they defy conventional wisdom.
For example, suppose you bonk after mile 20 every time you run a marathon, and these late-race slowdowns are preventing you from achieving your goals. There are a variety of measures you might try to address this issue. These measures include doing one or more over-distance (27-30-mile) long runs, doing longer runs at marathon goal pace (14-16 miles), and doing back-to-back 20-milers on consecutive days. Choose whichever option you think would give you the most confidence of breaking through your bonking problem and try it. I had this problem myself and chose to address it by actually running a full marathon tune-up race at about 94 percent effort. Conventional wisdom would call this move crazy, but guess what? It worked. Your brain knows best.
Check out Matt’s new book, RUN: The Mind-Body Method of Running by Feel.