winning a race photo

 

In a recent article in Business Insider, ultra-runner Zach Bitter stated that people’s biggest misconceptions about ultrarunning have to do with the fact they don’t think they’re capable of running a distance like that.

 

Bitter should know. While running the 2013 Desert Solstice Race in Phoenix Arizona, and on track to set the 100 mile American record, Bitter didn’t think he could possibly run the quarter mile track any faster. In his mind, he had already given everything he had. But then, the race director told him that if he pushed just a little faster, he could also set the world record for the farthest distance run in 12 hours.

 

And suddenly what Bitter didn’t think was possible became possible. He found another gear, picked up the pace just a few seconds per lap and ended up with two records – the American 100 mile record and the world record for 12 hours.

 

For Bitter, the only difference was that what he didn’t think was possible suddenly became possible, and his body responded by running faster.

 

Beliefs matter, and for Shawn Achor, the author of The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and performance at Work, in ways that have direct physiological consequences. Achor cites a study conducted by Ali Crum and Ellen Langer where, after gathering the cleaning staff of seven hotels together, they told half of the group how much exercise they were getting every day through their work, how many calories their daily activities burned, and how similar vacuuming is to a cardio workout. The other half of the group was not given the good news. At the end of the experiment, several weeks later, the results were shocking. Crum and Langer found that the hotel staff who had been primed to see their work as exercise has actually lost weight, and had lowered their cholesterol (Crum & Langer, 2007). In a more recent study, participants who held positive beliefs about exercise, not just had a better physical response, but enjoyed the exercise more (Mothes, et. al., 2016).

 

Achor points to what is now known in psychological circles as the “Expectancy Theory” a theory advanced by Dr. Marcel Kinsbourne, a neuroscientist at the New School for Social Research in New York. The theory explains that our expectations create brain patterns that can be just as real as those created by events in the real world (Achor, 2010).

 

In short, the belief that an event will happen – or in Bitter’s case, is possible – causes the same neurons to fire as though the event were actually taking place. This is also why in one study when participants were shown videos of Michael Jordan dunking a basketball it made no improvements on their dunking ability. Yet when they were shown simulated videos of themselves dunking, their dunking ability improved dramatically.

 

While Michael Jordan is compelling, as far as our brains are concerned, he is no match for our simulated selves dunking the ball. And that’s because when we see ourselves accomplishing something, suddenly the thought that we can enters the equation, and the body responds with the physiological readiness to complete the act.

 

So is the brain the limiting factor? It’s hard to look at examples like that of Bitter, or the studies that support his results and not also think of the very famous example set by Roger Bannister – the first man to break the four minute mile. Because before Bannister broke the record, the common knowledge was that man simply cannot run that fast. And after Bannister broke the record, a cascade followed, and the four minute mark was broke several times. Suddenly what was thought impossible was now possible.

 

In many ways we can limit ourselves without even realizing it. We buy a pair of running shoes hoping that we will take up the habit, and I’d be willing to bet one question we don’t ask ourselves is: Could I run a four minute mile? Similarly, we join a gym and wonder what devices we will use on ourselves to make it there three times a week, but we are probably asking ourselves: I wonder if I could bench press my body weight?

 

So what would happen if we starting asking what is possible – instead of focusing on what is getting in the way? Well, like Bitter, we might just surprise ourselves. And like those who followed Bannister, we might also find that what we didn’t think was possible, is not just possible, but is now our reality.

 

 

References:

Crum, A. J., & Langer, E. J. (2007). Mindset matters: Exercise and the placebo effect. Psychological Science, 18 (2), 165-171

Achor, S. (2010). The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and performance at Work. Crown Business, 2010.

Hendrik Mothes, Christian Leukel, Han-Gue Jo, Harald Seelig, Stefan Schmidt, Reinhard Fuchs, (2016). Expectations affect psychological and neurophysiological benefits even after a single bout of exercise. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 2016.