top of page
Search

Pace yourself - when the going gets tough, give your brain a hand

Getting through the tough stretches in life might seem like an endless marathon. Trying to dissociate from the discomfort may not be the best strategy. Research with elite athletes suggests that processing sensations arising and focusing on effective techniques to keep going may be more effective than trying to distract yourself. Don't play tug of war with your brain or you'll end up grinding to a halt. When you could end up on the podium instead collecting that gold medal.




I champion an Adventure Neuropsychology approach to inspire and motivate others in the face of adversity and the challenges of life. This draws on escapades I have experienced as well as observing those who prevail in adventurous predicaments to provide insight into the mindset necessary to thrive under stress. As well as a basis in cutting-edge neuroscientific research into how the brain operates in extreme environments to optimise performance.

studies of experienced athletes suggest that dissociating from the sensations of discomfort can reduce performance. A better approach is to process the sensations, to recognise them for what they are...The brain uses afferent signals pertaining to physiological states in the muscles, heart and respiratory system to determine levels of energy available to meet the demands anticipated. Working with these signals to take control, anticipate what is needed to keep going and pace accordingly.This is a more effective strategy than trying to ignore them and divert attention to other brain processes which compete for that energy."

Anticipate the pain and break free of the pack


If you’ve ever taken part in a running event you’ll be familiar with that buzz of excitement at the start: everyone is bunched up and raring to go. The starting gun goes off and there’s a melee as the crowd en masse jostles and hurtles off.


Bodies everywhere.


The cognoscenti will try find some space to settle into rhythm, whilst the masses sprint away hell-for-leather.


Soon the crowd becomes strung out and you start to pick your way further through the pack.


For those less accustomed to running, an effective pacing strategy is lacking.


Pacing is all about managing energy resources to accommodate the demands of the race, and avoid exhaustion that will prevent reaching the finish line. It’s also about being canny, and strategic in order to optmise chances of success.


We can apply this concept to daily life and the demands placed upon us that threaten to burn us out with stress.


This relates to how we process the signals that come to our attention when the going gets tough.


Discomfort is a given. To achieve anything worthwhile, to respond to the inevitable uncertainties in life, you are going to be forced to up the pace. If you don’t you are going to fall behind. Or come to a stop.


Research focuses on the strategies that elite athletes adopt to manage pace effectively and run that successful race. This has bearing on how mental resources are managed efficiently.


As the brain requires energy to activate different parts for different needs, the key lies in investing in processes that DO NOT compete with the goal being pursued. Drained resource will slow the pace.


What do you think about when the strain starts to become more pressing?


One approach may be to distract oneself from the encroaching discomfort. That sounds logical enough. Think of something other than the pain. Some might perform mental calculations for example, counting backwards, or doing sums.


Yet if we think about it (!), by shifting our mental resource from the present moment and the sensations being experienced, to doing mental ‘work’ (such as arithmetic) this can create conflict. A tug-of-war between competing regions, and divided attention.


In fact, studies of experienced athletes suggest that dissociating from the sensations of discomfort can reduce performance. A better approach is to process the sensations, to recognise them for what they are. This is a process known as interoception – the perception of bodily signals pertaining to homeostasis.


The brain uses afferent signals pertaining to physiological states in the muscles, heart and respiratory system to determine levels of energy available to meet the demands anticipated. Working with these signals to take control, anticipate what is needed to keep going and pace accordingly. This is a more effective strategy than trying to ignore them and divert attention to other brain processes which compete for that energy.


One study found that using an associative strategy showed increased power in a cycling test relative to a dissociative strategy. That is, focusing on the technique and process of completing the task was more effective than putting the mind elsewhere.


When we feel rising discomfort and stress levels increase, focusing on breathing and heart rate can help us find that rhythm to get through the rest of the ‘race’. It might seem that the current moment is forever, but reminding ourselves of longer term goals can help the brain to take charge of the energy stores in the here and now.


Different strategies are employed in different events, so it’s not a one size fits all. You have to find which works for you.


Starting off fast and then settling into the pace might suffice if you have excess energy and need a quick burn, accelerating from the pack to find your space. If you are a steady soul, a constant pace throughout may better fit your nature. Others adopt a more variable pace that starts fast, becomes moderated then accelerates in the final phase.


Indeed, the situation one finds oneself in may invariably fluctuate in terms of intensity and demands. A hilly course will present sections in which to dig deep and downhill segments where you can coast.


Again, being mindful of the ‘course’ (as relates to life situations) can allow reflection on where best to put the foot on the gas or ease off.


I always had a tendency as an energetic child to steady my pace and find some excess at the end to finish strong. Even though I felt my reserves were running dry by pushing myself. I recall a formative time when I insisted on following my dad round a running track to complete the mile. I set off and stumbled my way through to the final section, then sprinted the last and fell into his arms exhausted.


An achievement! I was 4.


My favourite athlete as a kid was Steve Ovett. He accomplished so much in the middle distance events (such as the 1500m or dream mile), but stood out for his cheeky finishing power. Even set back in the pack on the final stretch he would smile, wave to the crowd as if to say “I’ve won!” then streak past the guys in front. Panache to the end.

By acknowledging the sensations we feel at the interface of body and outside environment, we learn to tolerate discomfort, and to work with the brain’s finite energy resources. Reducing competition between different brain regions that do extra work.


There is much more to be said on the subject of how we galvanise the impetus to act and make the most of our capabilities and opportunities. I’ll be expanding on this in forthcoming articles to consider the concept of affordances and ‘possibilities for action’. This ties in with the concept of embodied cognition. Our perceptions of the world depend on recognition of our capability to perform actions within it. We evolved to explore, and process the affordances inherent in our environment that tell us implicitly how to interact with the elements around us.


I'll talk more about how nature provides unconstrained stimulation in this regard, compared to the more manufactured environments we live in. And implications for motivation, wellbeing and performance.


Meanwhile, remember to pace yourself to reach that end goal so you don’t falter or become overwhelmed in the moment. And don’t shy away from the sensations of discomfort that threaten to stop you progressing.


Anticipating inevitable discomfort is a proactive step to managing the resources at your disposal and getting through the tough sections to move you closer to that finish line.


You might even achieve a personal best.



Footnotes


The insula and anterior cingulate cortices are key brain structures involved in the processing of fatigue and discomfort. The prefrontal cortex can have an inhibitory role in moderating activity in these areas.


Exercising in nature can confer benefits to wellbeing beyond that found in manufactured settings.

Nature invites exploration by virtue of the abundant possibilities for action: affordances are less constrained than in manufactured environments wherein a specific object affords a specific function acted upon in specific way (a seat affords sitting, perhaps standing on in the kitchen; a rock in nature might more readily afford as well as sitting or standing on, jumping off, or over, or from, rolling down a hill and so on, but not in so prescribed a way).


In low intensity phases of an activity having task un-related thoughts may not reduce pace, but when intensity increases, a shift to task-related thoughts may be necessary to sustain performance

Sometimes an associative strategy might coincide with an increase in perceived effort while also increasing performance; whilst external association – outward monitoring – might improve performance but not increase perceived effort…(Williams et al., 2015)



References


Araújo, D., Brymer, E., Brito, H., Withagen, R. And Davids, K. (2019). The empowering variability of affordances of nature: Why do exercisers feel better after performing the same exercise in natural environments than in indoor environments? Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 42 138-145


Gibson J. J. (1979). The ecological approach to visual perception. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.


Holgado, D., & Sanabria, D. (2021). Does self-paced exercise depend on executive processing? A narrative review of the current evidence. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 14(1), 130–153.


Smits, B.L., Pepping, G.J., Hettinga, F.J. (2014). Pacing and decision making in sport and exercise: the roles of perception and action in the regulation of exercise intensity. Sports Med. 44(6):763-75.

St Clair Gibson, A., Lambert, E.V., Rauch, L..H, Tucker, R., Baden, D.A., Foster, C., Noakes, T.D. (2006). The role of information processing between the brain and peripheral physiological systems in pacing and perception of effort. Sports Med. 36(8):705-22.


Whitehead, A.E, Massey, H., Williams, E.L., Rowley, C., Quayle, L., Marchant, D. and Polman, R. C. (2018). Investigating the relationship between cognitions, pacing strategies and performance in 16.1 km cycling time trials using a think aloud protocol. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 34 . pp. 95-109. ISSN 1469-0292


28 views0 comments

Comments


bottom of page