Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Selfbelieve Beyond Reason

Todd knew I'd appreciate Bill Gifford's article, The Transcendent Pain, in the August 2012 issue of Bicycling Magazine, when he handed it to me through his backyard fence post-time-trial-debriefing. Earlier in the day Todd had maintained an average speed of more than 42kph over 40 kilometers at the Ontario Time Trial Championships. Todd always impresses us with his ability to wring every ounce of speed from the limited time he has to spend training. How does he do it? Muscle memory? Yes, current science suggests that the cellular structure of our muscles gained through training stays with us. Its permanent. So if you were great at something in the past, you can de-train, then bring it back. Todd was an excellent speed skater and road racer in his youth and young adult years.

This poses an interesting question about how athletes who have used performance enhancing drugs should be penalized. If benefits are retained from cheating, should cheaters be banned for life? Complex question. One for another time and place.

Todd's got the muscle memory, yes, but is that enough? It isn't. He, like many other athletes who perform at high levels, has a very strong 'mental game.' Way back in 1989, Charles Garfield published Peak Performance. In brief, the book explains that an athlete's psychological strength and skills are more important than their physical training when it comes to performing at the limit of their ability. In other words, a physically weaker athlete can outperform a stronger athlete by accessing the power of the mind.

Gifford's article in Bicycling highlights recent research on the physiology and neurology of pain and suffering. Whereas lactate threshold and VO2 max were and still are thought to be the limiters of athletic performance, some, like Garfield, argue that the mind is the governor, not the 'parts of the machine.' This view resonates with my experience as a cyclist. To a degree, mind trumps matter. Herein lies a paradox.

Todd might not be able to perform at his true potential because he is too nice. Lance might have been as dominant as he was because he was an asshole.

Lets assume Lance used PEDs. He trained like a maniac. Nobody can say he didn't. He did. He killed himself day in and day out. PEDs let you do that and then do it again the next day. You have to be able to suffer. A lot. The more you can suffer, the better you can get. Lance surely feels he earned all he won with his suffering.

Self confidence it essential to excelling at the elite level. Lance was and continues to be very self confident. He might even selfbelieve beyond reason. That's a quote from Jens Voigt. This is what allowed Jens to win Stage 4 of this year's USA Pro Challenge in Colorado. He said 'shut up legs,' and  rode to a solo victory. Jens is rare; he has massive selfbelief, but is also very humble and kind. This is why he is a hero to many, including me (even though I feel certain he has doped).

Todd is like Jens, but with less selfbelief. This is a personality trait, one that many consider endearing. Humble people are easy to like. With more selfbelief, Todd would be even faster. Because he is gritty, he takes the pain, chews it up, and swallows it. But he knows he has limits. If he forgets about those limits on his bike, his selfbelief can extend beyond reason, and he can ride outside himself. I've seen it.

Neil also has the ability to selfbelieve beyond reason. Leading up to this past April's Almonte Roubaix, Neil stated he would attempt a break after the first wooded sector. He'd have a long way to go, and it would hurt like hell. I told him he'd have to think a lot about what it would feel like, prepare himself emotionally for the suffering. That's what he did. Neil is very good at this. And he did it. He went with Osmond Bakker, atayed away for about 60km, then still pulled off 4th. This achievement was not exceptional to us, his team mates, because Neil won external goods; he didn't. The race is not on the radar anywhere else. Rather, we are proud of Neil because his was a triumph of spirit. It was inspiring.

The PHDs are saying 'you can always go harder...until you can't.' Its true. Racing presents the opportunity to test this theory. The most satisfying riding experiences are those that involve suffering and perseverance. It is cathartic. Dogged tenacity is what allows us to access the inner strength we all possess. In physiological terms, we have to get our brain to allow more than a limited portion of our legs' muscle fibers to fire. Really, that's what the science guys are saying: we literally are always holding back, unconsciously.

Resolve. Decide you will make the break, stick with the leaders on the climb, maintain that target speed, whatever. You are either in or you are out. Go all IN. Commit to the effort, know it will hurt. Accept it. Deal with it. It sounds utterly cocky, but this is what you have to believe: failure is not an option. Believe it and your brain will allow you to access more muscle; fight or flight. You will not die. You are not even close to dying. Unless you are on drugs. Then you might; R.I.P., Tom Simpson. Simpson literally rode himself to death.

Be cocky, believe you can do better. Then do better. If you try, if you truly try, you will find gratification in whatever you achieve. For in going all in, in truly allowing yourself to believe in yourself, you will perform at the best of your ability. There is nothing more we can ask of ourselves, and there are few things in life more rewarding. Embrace failure as part of the process.

When you get off your bike, don't be cocky. That's key.


Pascii said...

Self-belief or delusion? What's the difference? Is fooling your "central governor" into thinking there's more to dish out a good thing to do on a regular basis? How many times can one get away with that?

Here's a great podcast on limits:

There's a bit on the "Race Across America".

Rodd Heino said...


'member i sent this around a ways ago
once the mind says stop they figger there's another 50%
least he did

Matt Surch said...

Glad this stimulated some thinking. BTW, 'selfbelieve' is how Jens wrote it in a tweet. I imagine its a literal translation from german.

To answer Pascal, I think self-belief occurs across a spectrum. We all believe in our ability to brush our teeth; the task does not challenge us. That's a 'realistic' belief. On the other end of the spectrum, if I selfbelieve to the point that I convince myself I am good enough to ride the Giro d'Italia in 2015, I am delusional. That belif goes waaaaay beyond reason.

By evoking Jens' phrase, I am talking about transcending what our analytic minds (people call this reason/rationality) 'tell us.' For example, riders with power meters can convince themselves that they cannot exceed a certain number of watts for a given period of time. That is an analytic perspective. As a result of believing that, they cannot surpass that power output. Another rider with selfbelieve beyond reason could look at the same monitor, know what his/her 'limit' is, and aim to surpass it. The science tells us that we can surpass the self-limiting we impose on ourselves. Believing this is not a delusion. Believing there are NO LIMITS is a delusion. For example, out there on the road/trail, sometimes we are tired, sick, whatever. It is delusional to think we can overcome that via sheer will and perform at the peak of our ability. We simply can't. But it is not delusional to believe we can do better than our analytical mind indicates.

Since we are talking about 'fooling our central governor' as a matter of degree, its hard to say anything meaningful about how 'good' the practice is. My daughter has a very low tolerance for pain. She does not understand that is is something we cannot always avoid. Sometimes we have to accept it. Like when you have to clean a cut. Not optional. She needs to 'fool her central governor,' her natural tendency to flinch, run, hide, and face the pain head on. I think it would be hard to argue that such an approach is 'bad' for her. Facing and accepting pain is a part of life.

Some athletes naturally have a higher threshold for pain and suffering. That is, the same physiological stress does not push them into the suffer zone, while the same stress would push another to tears. That's variation for you. To say that the athlete with the lower suffering threshold is doing damage by transcending their pain would be tantamount to saying the 'stronger' athlete was also doing damage to themselves at the same intensity. I think that claim wold be hard to defend.

I also don't think we are 'fooling' our central governor per se. We are 'messing with the wiring.' If I convince myself that I don't have to give up, that I can keep it up, even though my body screams 'NO,' I am merely allowing myself to continue what I am capable of continuing. You can always go harder until you can't. You blow up, whatever. It happens. The main point is that you rarely have to give up when you think the suffering warrants it. We tend to interpret the suffering as a paid due: 'I've put the hurt on myself big time, I can quit now and still feel good about myself.' Then we ease up. The lesson from the science is that we rarely actually need to ease up.

I will listen to the podcast soon, looking forward to it. I recall the NYTimes article about the RAM monster. His selfbelieve is very strong, but not delusional. I don't imagine his expolits are good for his longevity, but I'm not really qualified to say.

arbuckle said...

Of course, there may be a reason your body wants you to stop before pushing to your absolute limit. Consider, for example, the Potential Adverse Cardiovascular Effects From Excessive Endurance Exercise:


That being said, pushing beyond a mental threshold is not necessarily going to lead to health problems. But taken to extremes it could. All things in moderation.

arbuckle said...

By the way, the article you're referring to in the post is available online (quite a good read):


Matt Surch said...

Thanks arbuckle. I read the article on Potential Adverse Cardiovascular Effects, and found it interesting. It is not surprising to me that there is evidence of long-term endurance activity being somewhat damaging. I've said before that Pro cycling is not healthy. Its good to have a sense of what is on the line, and decide how to dose. Most endurance athletes I know ride or run as they do because they love it, not because its healthy. I fall in that camp. But thankfully, we are coming to understand more about how to manage the damage. Antioxidants are an example. Its always good to take a hit upon completing a ride.

Reading the article, I cold not help but wonder how many of the PRO cyclists studied were using PEDs. If any, how would that impact their indicators? PEDs allow cyclists to REALLY push beyond reason, and more often. I'd also like to know whether there is any distinction to be made between endurance cycling like a randonnee, wersus an 'alpine race.' Randonnees are generally ridden at a relatively steady pace, while alpine races shift from cruising to full blown attacks. So concerned athletes might like to know whether the manner in which they ride matters, not just how long.

arbuckle said...

You ride a lot Matt, and you ride hard, but that doesn't necessarily put you in the "excessive" endurance camp. Pro certainly would, but it also depends on how long they are pro. I think when it crosses the line to doing damage is subject to debate.

As you've pointed out, there's a big difference between a randonee and alpine race. But to get a (statistically and biologically) significant effect in these types of studies they need to look at the most extreme cases. But at some point it becomes harmful, and there will be a "dose response", whereby more suffering does more damage.

My point was only that the pain you feel, and your brain trying to stop you from continuing, may very well be a signal meant to avoid harm. That doesn't imply immediate damage, just a warning that you may not want to do this for too long, and too often (whatever those subjective terms mean).

The idea of (isolated) antioxidants having health benefits was questionable from the start (see the first link below). It's marketing jargon, as far as I'm concerned. When looking at scientific evidence, go for systematic reviews and meta-analyses (studies by the Cochrane Collaboration are fee in Canada).

Bin the pills, eat your greens:

Antioxidants fall from grace:

Antioxidants for preventing and reducing muscle soreness after exercise (to be completed):

arbuckle said...

The RadioLab podcast on limits is really good, but they got something wrong: the study with Jones was a carbo mouth rinse, not glucose.
Details here [pdf]: The Effect of Carbohydrate Mouth Rinse on 1-h Cycle Time Trial Performance

It's been replicated. This is a pretty cool (and well done) systematic review, and the results are somewhat startling because they are so strong: Carbohydrate Ingestion during Endurance Exercise Improves Performance in Adults