Animals didn’t develop to consider long-term consequences and long-term planning even though it may be written in our DNA to behave in ways that will secure a future existence. We have to remind ourselves that we are animals and we act according to an ethical code and to the hormonal ebb and flow within our bodies. Impulse control is something that needs to be learned and practiced–we are confronted with this struggle daily as we crave and enjoy the units of life that instill the most pleasure. We can actually augment the overall pleasure in our lives if we, at times, delay gratification (something that is uniquely human) and execute patience. Creating and working toward goals provides us with an increased personal satisfaction. We feel productive and motivated if we implement something to look forward to. If we meet our goal, or come close to it, we feel successful and inclined to make more. The pride experienced after meeting a goal influences our ability to grow and feel good about taking risks. What we sometimes dismiss is that in that journey, when smaller milestones are met, we receive instant gratification and immediate feedback on our progress. Those small successes can make or break our ability to stay with a project or event, which is why I think it is something that athletes should evaluate and integrate into training.
Ultra-runners and other endurance athletes are voluntarily subjected to extreme physical stress, a condition which is actually unnatural and often avoided by other mammals. Outside of our infrastructure and super-markets and insulated homes, our metabolisms shift to accommodate our current welfare and we try to conserve as much energy as possible. Thousands of years ago, we would move swiftly and with great effort in an attempt to track down an animal or find the best field to collect resources. Food wasn’t abundant and we would sit, and sit, and sit, and sit some more so that we wouldn’t deplete our brains and muscles of precious calories. Sit with a group of hunter-gatherers from the African grasslands and explain to them that in our world we have so much food and so much free time that some of us run 26 miles a day, simply for the sheer pleasure of it. They are likely to say, “Are you crazy? That’s stressful.” Throughout hominid history, if you’re running 26 miles in a day, you’re either very intent on eating someone or someone’s very intent on eating you. But, here we are running longer and longer distances, climbing taller mountains, pushing our bodies to see just how far we can go.
The body is pretty magical as we are spectacularly adaptable, and it isn’t just our cardiovascular and muscular systems that have this amazing ability. It is our psychology and cognitive flexibility that is the most adaptable of all. We have this “superpower” to manipulate our environment and how we experience it just by changing the way we think. So, if we return to the original thought of not committing to the long-term, we can shift the way we think so that we can suffer now and claim our aims. We are extending our endurance and amplifying our tenacity. If you are in a race, the goal for most is to finish and feel good about your performance. Sometimes that finish is a good 5 hours away and you’re on a steep hill already feeling heavy and sore and ruing your spouse for snoring all night or for not using the port-a-potty one last time before the start. If you think in terms of long-term in this situation, you have a pretty good chance of letting yourself drop out because it’s hard. Our bodies are “designed” to stop an activity if it’s uncomfortable which is also a reason why, during exercise and labor, we produce hormones and opioids to block our pain receptor sites. What we need to do is take our big block of long-term goal setting and segment it into smaller, more digestible goals. Tell yourself a story, sell that story to yourself. If you can just make it 5 more minutes you’ll allow yourself to walk, if you make it to the next aid station you can reward yourself with M&Ms or that kiddie-crack neon-yellow sports drink, if you can make it to the tree 100 feet up you will treat yourself with a nice beer and a burger after the race. If you keep giving yourself these little mental rewards, you will find that you can cover a lot more ground without stopping. The stories you create can carry you further than you thought your body would allow. The trick is to champion the future by making the uncomfortable present feel more pleasurable and the ultimate goal seem less important. What we think or expect is largely what constructs our reality. These are live, instant successes that increase your performance endurance, and change your focus from your legs to the modest accomplishments along the way. Each time you reach that “mini-goal”, change it so that your cognition is sharp and doesn’t fall prey to muscular fatigue. So, the next time you’re on a long run or in mile 20 of your 50k, sell it to yourself.