If you recall, this did not end well for me either.
Lies I have told myself:
– The sunglasses I bought for $10 in Mexico really are Oakleys.
– If it’s on clearance then I have to buy it because it’s practically giving me money back.
– No one will notice if my son isn’t wearing underwear because I forgot to change the laundry.
– I’m only doing 4 Tabatas today.
While believing the first three certainly haven’t done me any favors (it would have helped if my son had kept his mouth shut), according to research reported in the New York Times, lie #4 may be the key to increasing my exercise performance. Who knew that lying could be as good for you as it is fun? (Okay it’s only fun sometimes like when I told my husband they named the city Elk Mound because a mysterious disease killed all the elk in a week and they had no place to bury all the rotting carcasses so they covered them up with dirt and called it a hill. He totally believed me!)
I really got thinking about this last weekend when I went for a run with one of my new running friends. She is training for a race and wanted to try to increase our mileage that day. I was game for it. (Thankfully I do seem to be acclimating to the altitude and it does seem to be getting somewhat easier to run here.) But then I had the brilliant idea to take our run off-road to a popular hilly trail too. Aside from the fact that neither one of us is great with directions and we were heading off into the wilderness without so much as a packet of Sport Beanz to leave as a Hansel-and-Gretel-trail, neither one of us really thought about the impact of upping our miles and trail running at the same time.
Yet all was sunshine and roses and unidentifiable animal droppings (from an animal that apparently had explosive diarrhea) until about a mile from the end. Suddenly my friend was overtaken by that feeling familiar to most runners. You know: I caaaaaaannnnn’t!!!!! Eventually you reach a point where your body is basically kaput and your mind is in total rebellion. So we started walking to give her a little break but almost immediately she started running again.
“What are you doing?” I asked, trotting beside her. “I thought you were done?”
“I don’t want you to tell me I can’t do this; I want you to push me so I can!” she said through gritted teeth. Reaching that particular milestone (ha! get it??) was more important to her than I thought. But I know that feeling. And sometimes you just need someone to push you through the “I can’t” by blocking out all the mental noise. My method, naturally, is to tell them a really juicy story – usually from my own sordid past. First, it takes their mind off the pain and second, allows for many awkward future dinner party conversations! There’s also the “well at least I’m not you!” benefit. Never say I don’t do anything for you!
[Time out: I would like to be clear that I was not abetting my friend in doing something totally crazy. The mileage increase she wanted was reasonable and she was trained for it. I don’t think that “pushing through the pain” is a good idea at all when it comes to workouts. Pushing through discomfort however, well that’s just another name for exercise.]
But what do you do if you’re alone, my friend wondered. What tricks are there for motivating yourself to keep running when your mind is 99% sure that that is as bad a plan as setting up a frozen banana stand in Death Valley? (There’s always money in the banana stand!)
I ticked through my usual (lame) answers – focusing on my breathing, doing a posture check, counting steps, using landmarks to run to, repeating a cheesy mantra, cranking the tunes – and then I remembered the research. “Well, I lie to myself!” I exclaimed cheerfully.
I first put this trick into action during my Great Tabata Experiment with the Gym Buddies: One morning, having just finished my Tabatas (maximal intensity running sprints), sitting on the end of my treadmill and trying not to see stars, Gym Buddy Krista came up and said, “I don’t want to do Tabatas!”
“Nobody wants to do Tabatas,” I gasped. It’s a fact that we couldn’t start our Tabata workouts until each of us had whined about how much we hate doing them.
“But how do you make yourself do them when they suck so bad?” she asked. (Truth: You’re not doing true Tabata intervals unless you kind of want to die at the end. It has to be your maximal effort. I cringe every time I see a 60-minute “Tabata class”. That’s just interval training. Even the most elite athletes can’t Tabata for more than about 15 minutes.)
“I lie to myself. I tell myself I only have to do 4 rounds (one Tabata is 8 rounds). And after 4 rounds then I tell myself it’s only 6 and after that what’s two more?” It’s true. Sometimes you can see me mouthing the words “just one more then I’m done!” until you are convinced I need remedial counting lessons.
“Well,” Krista declared, “I think your self is way more gullible than my self. I’d never believe me!” It should be noted that I am much more gullible than Krista in all senses so she’s probably right. I have no idea why I believe myself but I do! Every time! Even though I’m a terrible liar!
And yet the following morning when I got to the gym, Krista had already finished her intervals. “Wow, you’re already done? How’d you make yourself do it?” I asked.
“I lied to myself.”
See? It works.
And it doesn’t just work for the Gym Buddies and I. Researchers from Northumbrian University in England set up an experiment to see if they could increase the personal bests of professional cyclists by whispering sweet little lies. First the cyclists were tested over the course of a couple of weeks to see what their athletic limit was. Then they were set up with a monitor with two figures on it. The first, they were told, was them. This was true. The second was them also but going at their personal fastest pace. This was a lie. In actuality the second avatar was riding 2% faster than the athletes had ever ridden.
When the cyclists raced what they thought was their best time, they actually beat the avatar increasing their power and finish times by 2%. Two percent doesn’t sound like much but according to the researchers in the world of competitive cycling it’s the difference between being back-of-the-pack and getting a medal. Says Dr. Thompson, the results are “not just day-to-day variability, but a true change in performance.”
The Times article points out that this lends credence to the theory that our minds are more powerful than our muscles when it comes to setting physical limits. As Roger Bannister, first man to run a 4-minute mile, said, “It is the brain, not the heart or lungs that is the critical organ. It’s the brain.”
The trick isn’t perfect however, nor is it limitless. Once the cyclists were clued in to the game, all increases in performance disappeared and some cyclists even got worse. The researchers also discovered that while they could trick the athletes into a 2% increase, 5% was too much and they just quit. They also warned that this could erode the fragile balance of trust between athlete and trainer.
While these researchers were the first to study this effect, I am sure that coaches and athletes have been using deception ever since Noah told the animals all they had to do to win a spot on the ark was to run faster than the unicorns. S0 this study made me wonder what other ways athletes use to trick themselves. Is the “lucky socks” trick just another form of self-deception? What about those mysterious power band bracelets so many pro ballers have been sporting? What about repeating a certain mantra? Or having a particular pre-race ritual (two Immodium and a gas station bathroom totally counts)?
“It comes back to the belief system within the athlete,” says Dr. Thompson. “Within limits, if an athlete thinks a certain pace is possible, he or she can draw on an energy reserve that the brain usually holds in abeyance.”
What lies do you tell yourself? Have you ever used one to motivate yourself to do better? Do you have any mental tricks to keep yourself going when you are sure that you just can’t?