Saturday, April 21, 2012

It's All In Your Head

Yesterday Mike and I took Clyde for a walk on the Radnor trail, a 2.4 mile paved path that was converted from train tracks into a tree-lined trail usually full of bikers, strollers, and well-accessorized dogs.  As usual, we negotiated our distance.  He started at 2.1 miles.  I started at 8.1 miles, hoping we could meet in the middle.  We settled on 3. (I think it's pretty clear who won that debate.)  It was a beautiful day with a light breeze and a sky so blue that it looked fake, and I couldn't imagine anything that I would rather be doing.  

We turned around at 1.5 miles to complete our 3 mile loop.  Even though I had campaigned for 5 miles, by the time we were at 2.5 miles I found myself eager to see the end of the path, ready to be finished.  It didn't matter that it was a beautiful day with wonderful company, and it didn't matter that I was perfectly fit enough to keep walking without getting tired.  If we had we decided to do 5 miles, I'm sure I would have felt the same way with .5 miles to go.  I realized that for me, it's not the distance traveled that seems to make me tired, but the distance I have left.

I've noticed the same phenomenon during marathon training.  If I set myself up to run 5 miles, by 4.5 miles I'm tired and ready to stop.  If I tell myself I'm going to run 10 miles, I'm tired at 9.5.  I have trouble believing that my marathon training plan is psychic enough to determine just when I get tired on a given day.  I think it's more that my body follows my brain.

This got me thinking.  How much of our fitness is in our head?  If we set our expectations higher, will our body automatically respond?  If we can learn to harness our brain, can we make our workouts feel easier and our runs seem faster?  If we set out to do 30 push ups, will our normal 20 seem like a cake walk?  If we try to bench 120 lbs. will 100 lbs. be no big deal?

Perhaps more importantly, is this phenomenon true in other areas of our lives as well?

I know it's true on car trips.  Growing up we drove up to Maine every year, on a trip that routinely takes between 8 1/2 and 9 hours.  I would be antsy by 8 hours.  So why would I get antsy just 3 hours into a 3 1/2 hour trip to Penn State?

If we set different expectations in our brain, could we change the way we feel about our lives?  Could we be happier, or make our day-to-day routines seem easier?

I'm not sure, but I think there is a lesson here somewhere, and I think that is that we might be capable of far more than we let ourselves believe, and that the first step of finding out just how much we can actually do may just be deciding to do it.

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