The idea of mind over matter is more than just a catchphrase–it’s backed up by actual scientific evidence

By Catherine Orda | Photo by Farsai C./Unsplash

In the recently published book Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance by Alex Hutchinson, the South African scientist and sports nutritionist Tim Noakes says of a second-place Olympic marathoner: “Do you notice he’s not dead? It means he could have run faster.” Even if it were physically possible, most people wouldn’t normally want to exert themselves to such a point. Also, Noakes has long been known to make such hyperbolic remarks.

But beyond eliciting indignant reactions, that statement actually points to a rather important idea, namely that the brain plays a key role in setting the limits of physical endurance. Put differently, it’s like saying you can actually do more than you think if you just will yourself to believe it. The idea that the brain and the body are fundamentally intertwined is explored extensively in the abovementioned book. Here are some of the things we learned:

Performance Limits Are Mental as Well as Physical

The second-place Olympic marathoner could probably have run faster, if only his brain didn’t signal his body to slow down. In response to the pain of exertion, our brains force our bodies to stop even before we reach our true limits. This is not, however, the same as saying that it’s all in your head. Of course there are physical limits to consider—muscles not conditioned to perform a certain task will tear under enough stress; there’s a certain amount of time that a swimmer can stay underwater.

When you train, you not only increase the amount of stress your muscles can handle, you also teach your brain to not say no too soon (that is, to not too easily signal your body to stop)

Making a case for the overlooked vitality of the brain when it comes to endurance is to point out that performance limits are both physical and mental. And both limits can be expanded through training. When you train, you not only increase the amount of stress your muscles can handle, you also teach your brain to not say no too soon (that is, to not too easily signal your body to stop). As Hutchinson writes in his book, “The process of training expands the capabilities of the muscles and heart, sure, but it also recalibrates the brain’s horizons.”

You Can Always Do More (If You Can Will Yourself to Believe That)

Once you’ve trained both your mind and your body to endure greater measures of pain and discomfort, the next thing to work on is belief: You have to make yourself believe that improvement is always possible. This is perhaps what sets top athletes apart from hobbyists and regular fitness enthusiasts. As Hutchinson writes, “When the moment of truth comes, science has confirmed what athletes have always believed: that there’s more in there—if you’re willing to believe it.” In a professional athlete’s mind, there’s never a good reason to assume that they can’t always do better. On top of having such strong conviction, another factor that comes into play here is one’s emotions.

You have to make yourself believe that improvement is always possible. This is perhaps what sets top athletes apart from hobbyists and regular fitness enthusiasts

Studies suggest that emotions can significantly affect athletic performance. For instance, people in a positive mood (especially those who are smiling) are more likely to perform longer. A lot of research is currently being done on the possible intersections between belief, emotions, and performance—with some scientists even considering electronic brain stimulation as a means to alter mental capacities in a way that would facilitate peak performance. But that’s still in the works. For now, it’s worth training yourself to believe that you can always do better. And that goes without saying that it also may be just as important to always keep your physical limits in check.