Dig Deep: You’re Stronger Than You Think

by Brett & Kate McKay on November 4, 2013 · 37 comments

in A Man's Life, Personal Development


Awhile back I was doing a HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) workout over on a nearby running/biking trail. Along the trail there’s a fairly steep hill that takes about a minute to sprint up at full speed. For my workout, I would charge up the hill as fast as I could, walk/jog back down, and repeat the sequence ten times. It puts you in a nice amount of pain.

Halfway through the last sprint in my set, my legs and lungs were crying for mercy. I felt sure my body could not possibly run a single more step. But just as I was about to slow down into a walk, a pair of lovely ladies crested over the top of the hill and came jogging towards me. In that moment, an involuntary pride response kicked in, and I somehow found another gear and continued to haul butt to the top of the hill.

A seemingly insignificant moment in my life, but it actually spurred a great deal of reflection. I had felt sure I was physically spent, but then found deeper reserves of strength left to tap. My mind had lied to me. What else, I wondered, might my mind be lying about?

As it turns out, a great deal. We all have deep wells of strength that we may never even know exist, as they are closely guarded by a brain that would rather loaf and maintain the status quo than take you to the next level. But don’t be fooled by this tight-fisted sentinel – you’re physically, mentally, and emotionally stronger than you think.

You’re Physically Stronger Than You Think

Athletes have always known there is a connection between one’s mind and one’s performance – that you can will yourself to keep going when the body grows fatigued. But recent studies have shown that the mind can have quite the opposite effect – slowing you down before you’re actually physically spent. In essence, the very fatigue your brain fights against was created by…your brain!

This fact was fascinatingly demonstrated in a study conducted by scientists from the University of Kent in England and the French Institute of Health and Medical Research. In the study, two groups of men spent 90 minutes sitting in a chair. The first group was asked to count flashing letters on a computer screen (a task proven to induce mental fatigue), while the second group watched a relaxing nature video. Then the men in both groups pedaled a specialized ergometer, while electrodes zapped their leg muscles in order to produce “maximum contractile force.” The more fatigued a muscle is, the less it will respond to these shocks.

The men in the first group who had done the letter counting task tired out 13% faster than those who had watched the movie, and they perceived the exercise as being much more difficult than the second group did.

Yet the muscles of both groups responded exactly the same way to the electrodes, producing just as much force from the shocks. The men in the first group, whose minds had been tuckered out by the counting task, felt more tired and gave up more easily, but their muscles were in fact just as fresh as the men who had simply watched the movie. As the researchers concluded, “our feelings do not always reflect our physiological state.”

In another study conducted at Northumbria University in England, cyclists were put on stationary bikes and told to pedal as fast as they could for about 2.5 miles. After several of these sessions, the cyclists had gotten a sense of what seemed to be the fastest pace they were capable of.

Then the researchers put a computer screen in front of them which displayed a virtual course and two avatars – one which would represent the current rate at which the participant was pedaling the stationary bike, and one which the cyclist would be “racing” against. In the first group, the cyclists were deceived and told that the avatar they would be “competing” against would be moving at the pace of their own previous best effort. In fact, the avatar would be going 2% faster than the cyclist’s personal record. In the second group, the participants were informed upfront about the competing avatar’s speedier pace.

Cyclists in the second group, doubting they could possibly go 2% faster than their previous best effort, gave up and simply matched their old PR.

But the deceived cyclists, believing that the competing avatar was simply going at their own best pace, and knowing they were capable of duplicating that pace, sped up to catch it, and thus unknowingly went 2% faster than they ever had before. (2% may not seem like much, but it can make a huge difference in a race environment.)

What’s going on in these studies? While the extent of an athlete’s capabilities has usually focused on things like muscles, heart, and lungs, it seems the mind also plays a crucial role in setting limits for one’s performance. Timothy Noakes, professor of exercise and sports science at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, calls this limit-setter the “central governor” of the brain. And this governor is conservative. It’s easily worried about you using up your body’s limited fuel, and so puts the brakes on your exertion long before you’ve reached your true physical limits. Yet you may never know that you’ve got more to give, as your brain is very adept at deceiving you into thinking that you can’t possibly go any faster or harder.

In other words, your brain is lazy, and a no good, yellow-bellied liar.

You’re Mentally Stronger Than You Think

Just as your brain can convince you that you’ve reached your physical limits when you really haven’t, it can also tell you you’re too tuckered out for mental tasks, when your noodle actually has more to give.

Some of the most fascinating studies on the link between the mind and physical exertion have shown that simply swishing a sugary drink in your mouth and then spitting it out without swallowing it can boost athletic performance by 2% (again, despite the small number, this represents a significant boost). Your body uses glucose for fuel during exercise, but the swish-n-spit effect occurs even when the muscles still have plenty of glucose left to burn, and even though the athlete hasn’t actually ingested any glucose! The sugary drink in the mouth tricks the brain’s anxious, bean-counting central governor into thinking that more fuel is on the way, leading it to relax its guard on your supply so you can continue to push yourself.

Researchers wondered if the swish-n-spit effect would also work when it came to sticking with purely mental tasks. As we’ve discussed before, your willpower is a finite resource that is depleted each time you exercise your self-control. If you use your willpower up on one task, you then have less of it for the next one. It used to be thought that this process of willpower depletion occurred because exercising self-control utilized glucose in the body, and the lower your glucose went, the less willpower you had at your disposal. For this reason, eating something was suggested as a way to replenish your willpower supply, and indeed studies showed that willpower-depleted individuals were able to exercise greater self-control after they had a snack, particularly something sweet.

But a recent study found that simply swishing a sugary drink in the mouth without swallowing it had the very same effect. Participants were first given a willpower-sapping task like working on impossible-to-solve math problems, reading a boring piece of writing, or avoiding a plate of cookies and eating radishes instead. With their mental fortitude sapped, they would then give up more easily when presented with another tedious task. However, when the participants swished their mouths with a sugary drink in between the self-control-requiring tasks, they stuck with them longer. Even though the participants hadn’t actually ingested any glucose, sensing sugar in the mouth was enough to trick the anxious, fuel-monitoring central governor into girding up their minds for another round of effort.

Just as with physical exertion, your brain lies to you about what you’re mentally capable of; it tells you your willpower is tapped out, when really there’s plenty of mental energy being held in reserve.

You’re Emotionally Stronger Than You Think

The brain not only gets anxious about expending too much energy in the midst of physical and mental exertions, it also wrings its metaphorical hands when simply anticipating a challenge to your emotional capabilities.

People often think that if something tragic befell them – like losing a spouse or becoming paralyzed in an accident – they’d be crushed and could not possibly go on and lead a happy life. But as we discussed in this post, studies have not born this out and in fact show that human beings are far more resilient than we usually give ourselves credit for.

In studies done on older couples — those who had been married for decades — 6 months after losing their spouses, 50% of the surviving partners experienced little to no symptoms of acute grief or depression, and only 10% of participants suffered from a chronic depression that lasted longer than 18 months. This is not to say the participants did not miss their deceased spouses a good deal, but that happiness did return to their lives relatively quickly, and their grief was not as debilitating as many people imagine it would be.

Another study that followed people after they had become paralyzed in an accident found that the happiness of the victims returned to near their baseline pre-accident levels within months following the injury. And they took more pleasure in mundane tasks and felt more optimistic about their future prospects of happiness than another group which was also studied — those who had won the lottery.

Contrary to what you might think when you ponder dealing with a tragedy and feel a pit in your stomach, human beings have an incredible capacity to bounce back from even the most crushing of blows.

Tapping Into Your Hidden Wells of Strength

Now in fairness to our dear old brain, it’s anxious and lazy for a reason. Back when basic survival was its most paramount concern, conserving your energy helped keep you alive.

Nowadays, since most of us have the basic necessities of life, we can afford to turn our focus to the top tier of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, i.e., self-actualization. Thus in the modern world, our brain’s desire to maintain the status quo can hold us back instead of moving us forward, and can keep us from becoming “superhuman.”

So how do you gain access to these well-guarded reserves of strength?

The first step is to simply call your brain out on its bluff. When I want to rest during my workout or feel like I don’t have enough mental energy to focus while I’m reading, I seriously have found it quite helpful to think something like, “Shut the flip up brain! You’re lying to me, bro!” (My brain and I are bros.) It’s like telling the emperor he has no clothes. Simply acknowledging the illusion can vaporize it, providing the spurt of motivation you need to dig deeper.

With HIIT training, using a treadmill is something else I have found that works in upping the intensity of your effort. As opposed to running outside or on a track where you can often unconsciously slow down even when you feel you’re busting butt, on a treadmill you can lock in a very challenging pace, and then have no choice but to run that fast.

When it comes to both physical and mental challenges, introducing competition is key in helping you reach a level you wouldn’t have been able to training by yourself. In a study similar to the first one mentioned at the start of this article, cyclists were told they were racing against a competitor who was hidden behind a large screen. This competitor and his pace were projected for the cyclist to see as he pedaled furiously on a stationery bike. In reality, the “competitor” was simply an avatar moving at the participant’s own previous best pace. Spurred by the fire of competition to work harder, the cyclist was able to beat himself and go faster than he ever had before.

Deadlines are also an effective tool for helping you grow and get outside of your comfort zone. When you can’t back out of something, you have no choice but to push past the resistance and dig deeper, or risk losing your reputation as a reliable man. As an example, when we published the first post in a series on honor, we promised more articles on its history, decline, and possible resurgence. But when we dug more into the research, we realized how insanely complicated both the history and meaning of honor really are. Attempting to synthesize the information and make a coherent argument taxed my mind like it has never been taxed before. It was mentally excruciating. Had I not promised more articles on the subject, I simply would have given up, but what could I do? I had to deliver. Even though finishing each article felt like crapping out a pineapple every couple weeks, the task was accomplished. Having discovered another layer of what my brain is capable of, I now feel undaunted about tackling other ambitious projects.

And of course, you can always try swishing your mouth with a sugary drink! You have to use the real stuff though; you won’t get the same boost from something that’s artificially sweetened. Try sucking on a hard candy if you don’t mind the calories.

Of course, emotional challenges are a little more complicated. Telling your brain to buck up in the midst of grief or depression is not usually terribly effective. What can help is talking to people who have been through something similar and come out the other side. Journaling can help too. By being able to look back on past dark periods of life, and remember you made it through, you can feel greater hope and confidence that you’ll be able to handle this challenge as well. That this too, shall pass.

Physically, mentally, emotionally…when you feel like you can’t go on, don’t believe the lie. Dig deep. You’re stronger than you think.

{ 37 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Geordi Ferguson November 4, 2013 at 6:57 pm

This is very true.
Last March I went for a fit test for forest fire after a year of poverty living and very little physical activity compared to most years. I was afraid I wouldnt even finish.
At one point I remember being in so much pain, I was debating on stopping, but I knew I’d regret it forever. So I mentally decided I’d go until I passed out, fell or finished the thing.
For national time I needed 14:30 for Ontario – 17:15. I finished at 16:03. I didn’t get the national time, but I was proud to finish and never pushed harder. Next time I’ll rock it.

2 Zold November 4, 2013 at 7:02 pm

My life changed one day when I caught myself whining about having to lean over and pick up a dirty sock off the floor, when just a few days earlier I’d been dead-lifting 200lbs at the gym. I realized that at the gym, completely focused, I exerted myself on every move, but not outside the gym at all.

Now, I make everything a challenge: stairs, walking across a parking lot or mall, taking clothes out of the dryer. It definitely makes life more interesting.

3 Shaun November 4, 2013 at 7:04 pm

Great article. This came at the right time, since I’ve been training for my first half-marathon in a month, and it gets a little mentally taxing those last couple miles. Also this helps explain to me why I seem to have no problem consistently setting a PR in actual 5K races, but can’t PR in a solo jog for the life of me.

4 Greg November 4, 2013 at 8:53 pm

I agree on everything written in this article. I was forced to learn, one might say, to take my mind out of the equation while working it, in college. I was a sprinter and after years of learning form, running was engrained in my muscle memory. Our coach my junior year began subjecting us to a workout he called the Nervous System Shock. Normally, during speed interval training (450′s, 400′s 300′s etc) we would naturally fatigue mentally and physically. However, the Nervous system shock workout was full speed, 30 seconds rest 120 meter sprints. The first four or five times we did this workout, it was torture. Something changed, however, when we discussed shutting the mind off before the workout. After the second rep, we learned to rely on muscle memory and fool ourselves into thinking it was easy.

This rapidly evolved into our other workouts, and we learned how to beat the fatigue mentally and make each rep as high quality as our bodies would allow. We even began to “enjoy” full speed workouts. This transitioned into weight training as well, once a movement was learned, all the mind work was counting reps, the mind was free of the “fear” of the weight.

I wish I am able to explain it better, but this article did a great job of describing how to get over the mental hurdles.

5 Daniel Rojas November 4, 2013 at 8:58 pm

Thank you to your website Brett and Kate I am constantly improving on my basketball skills and in the everyday challenges as I am pushing myself a little step further every time, even if it hurts.

Thank you very much.

6 Max November 4, 2013 at 9:14 pm

That’s funny: most of the stories that I’ve heard throughout my life say that old folks tend die after their spouse passes away in an amount of time as short as half a year, sometimes a couple of years. Guess that really testifies to the quality of the connection between two people.

7 Pat RIOT November 4, 2013 at 9:33 pm

Great article. I noticed after running intervals alternating for 2:30 on treadmill between 7.1 and 9.2 mph that I had a lot more stamina. At 33, I am still making gains and losing weight, I’ve lost about 20 lbs this year by stopping the purchase of dairy when I go grocery shopping and by maintaining a steady workout schedule of every other day, as well as pushing myself on the treadmill. I agree with most of the article except for the premises of the first scientific experiment where people who had used their energy counting numbers were fatigued only because they’re brain lied to them. On the contrary, involved mental activities burn a lot of energy and total body energy is affected. Indeed we should all learn to talk to ourselves during periods of duress that we are capable of more than what we think! It’s Universal truth.

8 Dave November 5, 2013 at 2:08 am

Another amazing post. I am continuously impressed by the research, dedication, and timely subjects that you continue to crank out on this site.

This article reminds me of a quote from one of my favorite books, The Power of One, by Bryce Courtenay:

“The ‘Power of One’ is above all things the power to believe in yourself, often well beyond any latent ability you may have previously demonstrated . . . The mind is the athlete; the body is simply the means it uses to run faster or longer, jump higher, shoot straighter, kick better, swim harder, hit further, or box better.”

9 Jef November 5, 2013 at 2:52 am

As for the emotional resistance, I remember this poster saying “You remember that one person you said you couldn’t live without? Well look at you now, living and shit”.

10 Soren Knudsen November 5, 2013 at 4:12 am

I was going to quit smoking but after reading this I now know my mind is lying to me and I ain’t no quitter, thank you.

11 Josh November 5, 2013 at 5:40 am

The timing of this is impeccable. I had just given up studying for my exams about 10 minutes ago, and I idly opened up to AoM. Getting stuck back in right now. Thanks!

12 Marco November 5, 2013 at 6:59 am

I can back up the facts & stats offered in your post with my own experiences with “perceived” mental or physical fatigue, whether at work or play. I perform up to 25 deep therapeutic massages a week, so believe me, there sometimes is no room for allowing the mind to run the show. And, I’ve always been what I call a “second half” athlete, coming on stronger as the event or match goes into a second (or third!) hour… I wonder however if there might be a direct relationship between the level of interest or ‘passion’ for an activity and the amount of energy available to complete a task; that might also play a role in mining the depths of our strength reserves.

13 Pilgrm November 5, 2013 at 8:47 am

Great article. I am loving these articles on toughness of all kind.

14 Germano Tomassetti November 5, 2013 at 9:46 am

Thanks for this one! Couldn’t have came at a better time in my life. I just turned 25 years old a couple of days ago and feel as if I’m at yet another crossroad in life. Possibly the biggest one yet. This article is motivation for me to push through!

15 AJ Andrien November 5, 2013 at 10:39 am

This is great, thank you.
I do want to point out, though, that swishing a sugary drink in your mouth IS ingesting glucose. Glucose in particular transfers directly across membranes into the bloodstream without the need for digestion in the stomach. (Which is a blessing to very young Type 1 diabetics like my son: if their blood glucose is dropping rapidly from insulin overdose, stomach function can already be suffering, but sugar gel rubbed into membranes of the mouth can boost BG enough to revive them.)
I’m interested in the study you read, though- can you cite the reference? I’ve also learned that the brain makes its own supply of insulin separate from that of the pancreas, and they might be stumbling across a cool way to introduce sugar to the body closer to the brain, which could be a cool way to trick the brain into thinking the rest of the body has WAY more glucose available than it does.

16 AJ Andrien November 5, 2013 at 10:43 am

. . . and NOW the link works. The summary article seems to be entirely missing this particular physiological point, so I’ll have to go to the original study. Thanks all the same for putting this article together.

17 Ken F. November 5, 2013 at 11:04 am

Another insightful post, Brett and Kate. Keep up the great work!

18 scott November 5, 2013 at 11:20 am

Weakness can become a mindset, it also can become an identity that people adopt, believing the lie that ‘this is the best I can be”. http://choosetotrust.com/2012/07/weakness-and-identity

19 Brandon November 5, 2013 at 11:59 am

Good article. I’ve definitely noticed that my mind tends to make me feel more exhausted as I get closer to the mental “end” of the workout, ie. if my goal is 100 weighted pullups or to run 10 laps, i’ll start getting real tired around 90 pullups or the 9th lap. If I change my goal to 200 pullups or 20 laps, and I know I still have alot further to go- I go past the original mark easily.

20 Michael Holt November 5, 2013 at 12:44 pm

At 63, after several major health crises including a quad heart bypass, I am not the man with endless energy I used to be. My mind is pretty good, when I can remember everything required of me, but my spirit is the best. I have decided that losing all of the physical, emotional, intellectual stuff is worth knowing God and knowing that Heaven is not that far away anymore.

21 Glenn November 5, 2013 at 2:30 pm

Good stuff. Read another article referring to the (same?) U of Kent study in Runner’s World:

Worth a read of you’re a runner…

“…a radical idea: If you could train the brain to become more accustomed to mental fatigue, then—just like the body—it would adapt and the task of staying on pace would feel easier.”

22 Brendan M November 5, 2013 at 3:07 pm

I can’t stress how true this is. I spent two weeks at a course in Virginia run by Navy SEALS, active and retired, and had to learn these lessons first hand within the first few hours, otherwise I would have failed miserably. It completely changed my life and the way I live it.

23 Rego November 5, 2013 at 3:35 pm

Holy cow…this is such a great read. I’m a certified fitness consultant and I couldn’t have put it better what you said about your brain and exercise. Just yesterday I changed my workout routine as I do every month, and everytime my brain was telling me I was exhausted, I literally had to tell it to shut the hell up and keep going.

It’s so true about the glucose, too. If you can find it, they sell the powdered version in some health stores. I usually take mine with a bit of lime and water, make a drink out of it. Really helps when you’ve got a big to-do list for the day.

Super, super good read. I’m tweeting this.

24 Evan Robinson November 5, 2013 at 5:24 pm

“…your brain is lazy, and a no good, yellow-bellied liar.” As a college student in my final semester, I can confirm. This is article has so much motivation in it contents. Those moments when we surprise ourselves by becoming better are the best moments to experience. Thanks for a great pick-me-up!

25 fazli November 6, 2013 at 6:47 am

Candy can boost your stamina to keep up with 5-8 hours concerts or music festivals. It works for me.

By the way, great article as always Brett!

26 Ed November 6, 2013 at 7:29 am

This article came at the perfect time. Yesterday I was did only 10 pullups in the morning. I just wasn’t “feeling it”. This morning I dug deep, told my mind and body to suck it up and did 25 pullups straight up! The mind is a powerful tool that can work to our advantage if one can control it.

27 mark November 6, 2013 at 7:54 am

Great read, Brett and Kate! Solid comments too!

28 Yes November 6, 2013 at 8:22 am

This write up is true.

I have the ability to use my mind to push my body physically.(I trained myself to to do so in my late teens)

In fact, I have the ability to push my body beyond its limits and have actually now had to attenuate my mind to stop me from hurting myself.(not always in time unfortunately)

I’ve played sports with broken bones, once finishing a rugby game with a separated sternum for example.

I just recently played a game of basketball(age 43) in which I exerted myself to the point of umbilical hernia to compete against a larger opponent, playing “big”…not realizing it until afterwords.

I’ve had to train my mind to be stronger than the average or above average athlete so I could compete as I have never been physically as gifted as high level athletes and have forced my body into a certain level of ability despite my given genes through hard work.

I was born asthmatic, and genetically small. Even now, when you look at me I appear physically stronger than the average, but at the upper levels of sports I have to will my body into competition, it often breaks against those with superior gene sets at high competition levels…so I have to suppress my mental ability to carry on so as to not permanently damage my body.(a lesson I occasionally have to “re-learn”)

The nice thing about all this mind training though is that it makes me relentless in my personal/profession life when I want/desire it.

29 Nate November 6, 2013 at 10:47 am

As an avid marathoner, I believe the article and comments about getting your second/third/fourth wind are spot on. There’s nothing like rounding the bend at mile 24 when your brain is fried and your legs on autopilot and you see and hear the crowd cheering you to the finish.

Then again, I’m a single guy so passing a couple fine examples of the fairer sex on the trail has the same effect.


30 Daryl Millard November 6, 2013 at 12:16 pm

Fantastic article that has floated around my mind for the last 24 hours. A question that came to mind while I was training is at what point MUST we listen to the old grey matter and realise that you HAVE reached your ultimate limit before complete burnout/breakdown is hit? I believe that our minds are the most powerful tool that we possess, but surely certain warning signs need to be listened to. Or maybe the fact that I have listened to this message from my own mind shows that I should be able to push myself still further through my own life.

Again a truly great article which has done for me what I expect AoM to do. Make me think about my own life and what it is that I am doing with it. Keep up the good work

31 Brian November 6, 2013 at 1:53 pm

A recent finish in a local half marathon left me to question my training from the months prior. My friend and training partner from the previous year had other commitments and we were unable get together this year, which left me to train alone. Without the friendly competition, I regrettably didn’t put forth the level I had the summer before.

Alone in your own mind, it can be difficult convincing yourself to run faster. I don’t necessarily think the focus was to cover athletic training, but it has made me reconsider the use of the treadmill (as mentioned in the article) when a running buddy is unavailable.

32 Christopher Boyd November 7, 2013 at 4:05 pm

Very Insightful and very well written.

33 Brian Beaven November 10, 2013 at 11:25 am

Really good article. I liked the way you included the physical, mental, and emotional aspects of strength.

34 Brian November 13, 2013 at 2:12 pm

“Now if you are going to win any battle you have to do one thing. You have to make the
mind run the body. Never let the body tell the mind what to do. The body will always give
up. It is always tired in the morning, noon, and night. But the body is never tired if the
mind is not tired.”
- George S. Patton, U.S. Army General, 1912 Olympian

35 Lewis November 16, 2013 at 12:27 am

I love this site. It’s an honest look at what is truly admirable in a man and a rebirth to me. Keep up the awesome work.

I really appreciate what you mentioned about depression. It’s like having that brain telling you to stop/quit/can’t/etc. but it’s about 15 lbs sitting on your head (and your chest when you’re down) and cursing at you. Telling you to get back in your “place.” I like to call it “Bushwhacker.”

36 Celia January 8, 2014 at 6:25 am

Thank you for this. It’s a great article!

Just now I was exhausted: I’ve been eating my frogs all morning and then some self-education (Brian Tracy is the best; an unbelievable motivating man)… So what’s a man (*cough* girl *cough*) to do when she’s drained mentally?
First you go read up on how to overcome the mind. Then you do it.
I just drank coconut water (it’s very sweet & better than water for hydration).
My headache & heavy mood is gone :)

This is a really great site!
Yes, I am very much female, it’s just that being a “real man” is really “being strong mentally and doing what needs to be done”.

Keep this up! I appreciate it

37 Muhammad Zaid February 11, 2014 at 9:10 am

Thank you so much for this wonderful website!

Best wishes.

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