Hey friends, in the next 5 minutes I want to share some thoughts with you about how we mentally experience the physical demands of exercise, what I think is going on, and a few action steps for making sure we get the most out of each workout that we’re doing.
I’ve been thinking about exercise psychology a lot more since reading Alex Hutchinson’s Endure, which includes the subtitle: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance.
The book delves deep into the history of human performance, and while it begins by telling the tale of exercise physiology, it quickly turns to the impact that the brain has on what our bodies are capable of.
Fatigue has traditionally been considered a result of limitation in the muscles, that we basically run out of energy. In 1997, South African researcher Tim Noakes proposed the idea of a “Central Governor”, which says that the brain basically limits physical activity so that we can’t go so hard that we threaten our body’s homeostasis.
As we approach intensities or durations that are potentially dangerous, our brain begins to reduce the neural recruitment of muscle fibers. Basically, your brain knows to slow things down before you do.
The vast majority of humans are not pushing the envelope of intensity as far as world class athletes are, but I think that we’ve all experienced the effects of the central governor before.
Have you ever exercised at a high enough intensity that it’s drastically impacted your mood?
I don’t mean you exercised at a moderate intensity and found yourself experiencing the euphoria of a runers high. I mean you’ve exercised so hard that you get sad, angry, or upset that you don’t want to continue.
The more I learn about evolution, anthropology, and psychology, the more I think that that is a completely normal and totally appropriate reaction.
Think about it this way: We are the descendants of the ancestors who were the most adaptable to their environments. Most of that adaptability was based on our ability to consume a variety of food source, and having diverse metabolic pathways that let us refuel on almost anything.
Sometimes I think about humans as the original hybrid car. We can run on carbs (gasoline) on fat (electric) we can miraculously run on empty (fasted) if we need to, and our body can almost seemlessly make that switch if it needs to.
If you think of the Central Govenor as the Check Engine Light, and hitting the wall as the Gas Light, I think there’s something more nuanced to think about, and that’s when you step on the gas too hard and the “Eco” light turns on or off.
We were born into a modern world of food abundance with archaic DNA, and our cells don’t know about the bodega around the corner or the snacks you have at work. They simply know that our ancestors were better at conserving energy than the ones who didn’t make it.
When we’re exercising at high intensities and it has a dramatic impact on our mood, I’m pretty sure that’s this metaphorical “eco mode” light turning off, reminding us that we’re starting to burn fuel at intensities that are unsustainable. I think it’s the first sign of the Central Govenor.
For a lot of athletes, this is normal – there’s affectionate talk of the pain cave, of digging deep.
But if you haven’t competed or performed at high intensities, that emotional change might not be normal. There’s also a chance that the exercise experiences you’ve had in the past were so physically or emotionally uncomfortable that you’re capable of high-intensity exercise, but simply don’t want to do it.
Our newest round of Kickass Conditioning at MFF was designed by Amanda Wheeler, and she wrote a brilliant class that offers tremendous benefits for our physical work capacity. It also brings us face-to-face with our emotional resilience, because if you do the class as intended you’re faced with at least 15 minutes with heart rates at or over 85% of your maximum heart rate.
In the 6 Kickasses that I’ve taught since Week 1 began, I’ve seen a lot of those “pained” faces as Ninjas check to see how much time is left in the 5 minute sets. It’s not about physical pain, but about the emotional discomfort of working out at those high intensities. Your body is gently asking you to slow down, and it changes your mood in an attempt to make that happen.
The deep work of reclaiming our health and wellness might mean that you allow yourself to experience all of those emotions, as a result of that particular intensity or past experiences of that intensity, and then trusting yourself to continue or adjust accordingly.
Recently a Ninja named Alyce who’s a brilliant therapist told me that in some ways we’re creating a “Corrective Emotional Experience, in which we’re “trying o reexpose ourselves, under more favorable circumstances, to emotional situations which we could not handle in the past.”
I’m fascinated by this concept, and it’s something that I ask you to explore in the high-intensity workouts you may have planned in the coming weeks.
If that’s during Kickass at MFF, during a hard run or bike ride, or if you’re having a hard day or going through a rough time, consider that our emotional intensity may match our metabolic intensity, and you have the power to choose if and how you experience those paralells.
What I’ve found to be most helpful in this work is to focus on the experience of breath. At Perform Better, Sue Falsone said that, “If you can control your breath, you can control your mind” and I’ve found that to so succintly clarify what I’ve been thinking about in my coaching process.
I believe that with breath control comes the gift of emotional clarity, and that if you can currate that control at a variety of intensities, you’ll be more physically and mentally resilient.
Some exercise intensities are not physically sustainable, and most aren’t emotionally sustainable, but as you work to explore the elasticity with which they’re linked, I believe there’s a lot to learn about what’s inside of you.
Thanks for joining me for this article. If you’d like to watch a video of this piece, you can head over to IGTV. Thanks y’all!
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