Fuel + Fire (#2): Mind Over Matter

When I started up casual jogging in my 20s, I was surprised how hard it was to run more than a couple of miles at a time. When I wanted to increase my distance, my body balked and screamed, “I’m tired and cranky! My [insert various body part] hurts!” Mentioning this to a girlfriend (a steady runner),  she suggested, “When you think you can’t run anymore, just keep going…” Can it really be that easy?

I gave it a try. And, wonders, it worked.

Even though I wasn’t (nor wanted) to be a hardcore racer, I gradually increased my long runs from three to six miles using her mind over matter advice. Now, well into my 40s, my longest runs are in the double-digits, and I’ve got a few 20Ks and half-marathons under my fuel belt, too. While the marathon hasn’t been a goal of mine (yet…it’s on my bucket list), I’m amazed at what I can do when I tell myself to just keep going.

Last year, when we asked what your favorite motivational quotes were, Bill R. shared what George S. Patton, a U.S. Army General and 1912 Olympian, said on the matter:

If you are going to win, 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 morning, noon, and night. But the body is never tired if the mind is not tired. When you were younger the mind could make you dance all night, and the body was never tired. You’ve always got to make the mind take over and keep going.

Samantha‘s version, short and sweet“What the mind believes the body achieves.”

President Theodore Roosevelt, still a pretty popular guy apparently, was tagged twice by DMers: Once by Dave (“Strength is a matter of a made up mind.”) and again by Terry (“If you are going through hell, keep going.”). The running thread in these maxims?

Your body’s true engine — the driver’s seat of its power — is your brain. 

Muscles. Endurance. Innate physical talent and abilities. All of these are instrumental to your performance. But, master your mind so that it works for you and not against you, and you’ll own a skill that will serve you well in life. (Beyond exercise, even.)

Let me share a story that shows the value of a mighty mind.

Prepping for the 2004 Athens Olympics, the U.S. women’s softball team trained with the Navy SEALs (known for knocking out some of the strongest and fittest — in body and mind — individuals on the planet).  Hoping each athlete would “achieve more peak performances by becoming mental razors,” they were subjected to a program of intense physical and mental challenges and pressures.

Now, we all know that elite athletes already train hard, harder than most of us would or ever could. But, with the SEALS, each was pushed further than any mere softball game ever could. Players were forced to tap dormant stores of energy and attitude they’d never needed to access before. Relief arrived only after struggling through Hell Week: 5 1/2 strait days of training, with only 4 hours total sleep time allowed during the week.

Such training had never been tried before with ball players. At any level.

Did it pay off? Hell Week, yes. The women literally demolished the competition, scoring 51-1 in nine softball games (four of which were stopped using the mercy rule). The Olympians returned home with shiny gold medals. Read Collegiate Baseball for more.

A few tips from the U.S. Olympic Committee’s Guiding Principles for Mental Training:

  • Mental training can’t replace physical training. An athlete needs to be talented and well prepared physically for competition.
  • Physical training and physical ability are not enough to succeed consistently. Mental training needs to supplement physical training for consistent success.
  • A strong mind may not win an Olympic medal, but a weak mind will lose you one. Although mentally strong athletes do not always win medals due to a variety of conditions (e.g., health, training), athletes with a weak “mental game” virtually never win at the biggest competitions.
  • Thoughts affect behavior. Consistency of thinking = consistency of behavior. Understanding and controlling the thinking process help athletes control their behavior.

For we mere mortals plugging away at our workouts, what’s the take-away?

Direct your mind to overcome minor pain and exhaustion. Don’t let your brain dump on you, or let your mind talk you down. Be positive. Keep going. You can do more than you realize. Remember what Teddy said, “If you are going through hell, keep going.”

Aim high, but don’t overreach. The Navy SEAL program was a useful stepping stone for the softball players because they were already elites in peak condition. They weren’t amateurs biting off more than they could chew. They were pros at the top of their game, and ready to up their training. There’s a lesson in this for us, too.

Expect your brain to resist — at first. Kelly Traver, M.D., author of The Program: The Brain-Smart Approach to the Healthiest You, says your body and brain (as a physical part of the body) strive to achieve homeostatis.  You’re alive and kicking today, so let’s keep it that way. Play it safe. And so, the brain resists change — even toward healthier habits — because change can be stressful. Awareness of this biological resistance to behavioral change can make a big difference in your attitude in overcoming it.

Keep stress at bay by taking it step-by-step. If you’re trying to increase your workouts or do too much too quickly, be warned: Functional MRI scans reveal that your brain’s amygdala — the seat of the stress response — will light up. But make those self-improvements incrementally and the amygdala stays quiet.

The good news? Your brain is programmed for growth and change. Repeat a new habit enough, and your body and brain move to accommodate that new norm.

Soon enough, you’ll be ready for that Navy SEAL training, right?


Last week, we kicked off Fuel + Fire with Just Do It. We thought we’d share a few of your Mind Over Matter maxims in handy image-sharing format this time. Feel free to: 1) chose your favorite below, 2) download and save to your computer, and 3) share on your wall!

What’s your fav mind-over-matter quote? Add it in comments!

About Ilona M.

A Midwest-based digital journalist, author and 2011 dailymile team ambassador, Ilona loves trail running, forest hiking, road biking, open water swimming, free weights, meditation and yoga. Aiming to balance her love of motion with the sedentary and still pursuits of research and writing, she hearts dailymile because it keeps her moving, laughing, learning and growing.
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