Can a Shift in Thought Push us Past Limitations?


Around the country sportsmen and sportswomen are diligently preparing for the London Olympics.

Everyone wants to do the best they can and, if possible, perform better than they ever have before. Most are committed to competing and winning fairly although a few might be struggling with the temptation to take drugs to enhance their performance.

But what if we find ourselves pressed up against a limit we are apparently unable to get beyond, whether in sports or in our day to day routines? Is that the end of the story?

An experiment recently conducted by Northumbrian University Head of Sports Medicine and Exercise Science suggests it might not be.

The research was focusing on the influence of deception. However, the results also illustrate how physiological limitations we have come to accept for ourselves might not be as final as we believe.

Dr Kevin Thompson and colleagues had nine male cyclists pedal the equivalent of 4,000 meters on stationary bikes. In front of each was a screen showing two computer-generated avatars. One represented the speed of the cyclist himself, the other avatar was going at a pace he was told represented his baseline performance, which had been previously measured over that distance.

Without letting on to the cyclists, the second avatar was actually programmed to ride faster than the cyclist’s best time by using two percent more power. That represents an increase in speed sufficient to make the difference between first and last place in a 4,000m race.

Despite the second avatar’s added power the cyclists kept pace all the way to the finish line, each significantly bettering their previous best.

In an interview with The New York Times Dr. Thompson said the improved results observed in his experiment are “not just day-to-day variability, but a true change in performance.”

How could that occur?

The survey concludes that cyclists are operating with something in reserve even when they are stretched to the limit and “this reserve can be accessed following deception.”

If there is still something in reserve when we are tricked into believing we can perform better, what might it take to access that extra capacity without being duped or taking steroids and other banned substances?

Not just athletes but people in all walks of life use the “believe in yourself” approach to help push their performance boundaries. Others take a different approach by focusing on spiritual values like gratitude, calmness and joy to identify, challenge and overcome limitations.

An inspiring example of the latter is Punjab-born Londoner Fauja Singh. He recently completed the Toronto Waterfront Marathon in 3,850th place after eight hours, 25 minutes and 16 seconds, ahead of five other competitors.

Not the greatest result? Not bad for a centenarian, though! Mr Singh’s 100th birthday was in April this year.

Said the retired farmer: “‘The secret to a long and healthy life is to be stress-free. If there’s something you can’t change then why worry about it? Be grateful for everything you have, stay away from people who are negative, stay smiling and keep running.”

Could the real issue of deception perhaps be a question of self-deception? Are we often being duped into taking on board limitations we don’t have to?

No doubt research will continue to probe this and other possible implications of experiments like the Northumbrian study and performances like Mr Singh’s.

In the meantime perhaps the rest of us can take heart from these pointers and challenge some of the limitations in our lives.

This blog was first published on the Huffington Post UK.

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