Matt Fitzgerald: How bad do you want it?

In his fascinating new book How Bad Do You Want It?, coach Matt Fitzgerald examines more than a dozen pivotal races to discover the surprising ways elite athletes strengthen their mental toughness. Each chapter of How Bad Do You Want It? explores the how and why of an elite athlete’s transformative moment, revealing powerful new psychobiological principles you can practice to flex your own mental fitness.

Matt and his publisher Velopress, have kindly given us permission to republish a section of the book focused on mental preparation for races.

In endurance races, athletes pace themselves largely by feel. External feedback in the form of time splits and the relative positions of other racers may influence pacing, but it’s an internal sense of the appropriateness of one’s pace from moment to moment that has the first and final say in determining whether an athlete chooses to speed up, hold steady, slow down, or collapse into a lifeless heap. The scientific name for this pacing mechanism is anticipatory regulation. Its output is a continuously refreshed, intuition-like feeling for how to adjust one’s effort in order to get to the finish line as quickly as possible. Its inputs are perception of effort, motivation, knowledge of the distance left to be covered, and past experience.

An an overview of Samuele Marcora’s psychobiological model of endurance performance published in 2013, Brazilian exercise physiologists wrote:


“Perception of effort is the conscious awareness of the central motor command
ent to the active muscles.”


In other words, perception of effort is the feeling of activity in the brain that stimulates muscle work; it is not the feeling of muscle work itself. Except in the case of reflex actions, all muscle work begins with an act of conscious willing. This command originates in the brain’s motor cortex and supplementary motor area. Scientists are able to measure the intensity of these commands, and this measurement is referred to as movement-related cortical potential (MRCP). Marcora has shown that MRCP and perception of effort are high when subjects exercise at maximum intensity and also that they increase covariantly when exercise of lower intensity is performed for a long period of time. This is compelling evidence that perceived effort is indeed related to brain activity, not muscle activity.

When experienced endurance athletes race at a familiar distance, perceived effort tends to increase linearly until it reaches a maximal level near the finish line. But perceived effort is subjective, and for this reason, what is considered maximal changes by circumstance. When athletes really want it, they are able to tolerate a higher level of perceived effort than when they are comparatively unmotivated. As a consequence, their pacing strategy changes. The same level of perceived effort that causes them to hold steady at a given point in a race for which they are unmotivated might cause them to speed up at an equivalent point in a race that matters more to them.

The athlete’s conscious awareness of how far away the finish line sits also affects how a given level of perceived effort is interpreted and used. A runner who experiences a certain level of effort at the 4-km mark of a 10-km race might panic and slow down, whereas a runner who experiences the same effort level at the 7-km point of a 10-km race might get a shot of confidence and speed up.

These calculations, in turn, are strongly influenced by past experience. Through experience, athletes learn how they should feel at various points in a race of a given distance. An experienced athlete enters each race with preprogrammed expectations about how she can expect to feel at various points. Any mismatch between how she expects to feel and how she actually feels will cause her to adjust her pace accordingly. For example, an athlete who consumes dietary nitrates before a time trial is likely to feel better than expected and thus go faster than normal, while an athlete who is infused with Interleuken-6 (a cell-signaling compound linked to fatigue) before a time trial is likely to feel worse than expected and consequently go slower than normal.

Perceived effort actually has two layers. The first layer is how the athlete feels. The second layer is how the athlete feels about how she feels. The first layer is strictly physiological, whereas the second is emotional, or affective. Crudely put, an athlete can have either a good attitude or a bad attitude about any given level of discomfort. If she has a good attitude, she will be less bothered by the feeling and will likely push harder. Research has shown that when athletes feel worse than expected during a race, they tend to develop a bad attitude about their discomfort and as a result they slow down even more than they need to. (Of course, from a strictly physiological perspective, they don’t need to slow down at all.)

In 2005, Alan St. Clair Gibson studied the effect of thwarted expectations on perception of effort in a group of 16 well-trained runners. The experiment had two parts. In one part the subjects were required to run at a steady pace for 20 minutes on a treadmill. At the end of each minute, they were asked to rate their perception of effort as well as their “positive affect,” or enjoyment level. In the other part of the experiment, the subjects were asked to run for just 10 minutes at the same pace, but at the end of the 10th minute they were told they had to run 10 minutes longer. So the second run was in fact identical to the first, but the subjects expected it to be shorter and hence easier. (The actual order of the two runs was randomized.)

When he reviewed the data he’d collected, St. Clair Gibson found that the runners’ perceived effort ratings spiked and their positive affect scores nosedived right after they were informed that they would have to run 10 minutes longer than they’d expected to. The runners did not feel worse on a purely physical level, but they developed a bad attitude about how they felt, so in effect they did feel worse.

Research on the psychology of pain has produced similar findings. A number of studies have compared the effects of two contrasting anticipatory attitudes—acceptance and suppression—on pain perception. Some people have a natural tendency to look ahead to the repetition of a familiar pain stimulus with acceptance. They tell themselves, “This is going to hurt, but no worse than before.” Other people try to cope with the same situation through suppression, a form of denial. They tell themselves, in effect, “I really hope this doesn’t hurt as much as it did the last time.” Psychologists have generally found that, compared to suppression, acceptance reduces the unpleasantness of pain without reducing the pain itself. For this reason, it is a more effective coping skill.

The same skill also reduces perceived effort. In a 2014 study published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, psychologist Elena Ivanova looked at the effects of a certain type of psychotherapy called acceptance and commitment therapy on endurance performance in a group of nonathletic women. Acceptance and commitment therapy entails learning to accept unpleasant feelings as unavoidable features of certain experiences—in this case exercise. Ivanova found that the therapy reduced perceived effort at a high intensity of exercise by 55 percent and increased time to exhaustion at that same intensity by 15 percent.

In common language, this attitude of acceptance toward an impending disagreeable experience is called “bracing yourself.” Many of us use this coping skill instinctively to reduce the unpleasantness of everyday trials such as a trip to the dentist’s office. “Indeed,” observed psychologists Jeff Galak and Tom Meyvis in a 2011 paper published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, “people often choose to expect the worst of an upcoming experience in hopes of creating a more favorable contrast between their expectations and reality.”

In the context of endurance competition, this “favorable contrast” can enhance performance. The more discomfort an athlete expects, the more she can tolerate, and the more discomfort she can tolerate, the faster she can go. It’s no wonder, then, that champion endurance athletes habitually brace themselves for important races. 

You never know how much your next race is going to hurt. Perception of effort is mysterious. You can push yourself equally hard in two separate races and yet somehow feel “on top of” your suffering in one race and overwhelmed by it in the other. Because you never know exactly what you’ll find inside that black box until you open it, there is a temptation to hope—perhaps not quite consciously—that your next race won’t be one of those grinding affairs. This hope is a poor coping skill. Bracing yourself—always expecting your next race to be your hardest yet—is a much more mature and effective way to prepare mentally for competition.

Republished from How Bad Do You Want It? Mastering the Psychology of Mind over Muscle by Matt Fitzgerald with permission of VeloPress.

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Ahead of his first Marathon, Mo Farah said, “This will be the hardest race of my life.”

He wasn’t being negative; he was bracing himself.

The Daily Mirror, 2014

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