Adapted from How Bad Do You Want It? Mastering the Psychology of Mind over Muscle by Matt Fitzgerald with permission of VeloPress. Learn more at www.velopress.com/howbad.
Jenny Barringer (now Simpson) was the best college runner in the nation in 2009, maybe of all-time.
So before her final meet, the 2009 NCAA Cross Country Championships, Sean McKeon of Competitor was merely stating a fact when he wrote, “If she doesn’t win, it will be the biggest upset in NCAA history, bar none.” He was also right—more right than he knew—to add that nothing short of an “epic collapse” would prevent her from winning the title she coveted.
But something happened. Barringer was leading halfway through the race yet was unable to drop Susan Kuijken of Florida State, Kendra Schaff of Washington or Angela Bizzarri of Illinois.
At the midpoint of the race, Kuijken noticed that she no longer felt Jenny pulling her along. In fact, she was coasting a bit, running slightly slower than she might be if she were alone. So she put a little more juice in her stride and immediately drew even with Jenny, who flinchingly sped up to reassert a half-step advantage. Moments later, Kuijken was again crowding Jenny from the back, getting increasingly antsy.
Jenny’s head began to bob. It was subtle at first, then not so subtle. The bob turned into a wobble. The wobble descended into her shoulders, trunk, and hips, until Jenny was lurching like a swollen-eyed prizefighter fumbling for his corner. Her speed dropped precipitously and Kuijken pranced away, hardly believing her luck. Jenny now appeared to be speaking to herself, her mouth making sloppy movements as she stumbled ahead. Her eyelids drooped to half-mast.
Kendra Schaff, Angela Bizzarri, and Sheila Reid of Villanova passed Jenny in a merciless single file. Seconds later, the main field caught her.
Jenny was a lost calf caught in a stampede of angry steer. She dropped to 10th place, 20th, 30th. Jenny’s former high school rival Erin Bedell, now a senior at Baylor, came upon her and was moved to help.
“Run with me!” Bedell called.
The greatest female college runner in history crossed the finish line 163rd in her last collegiate race.
The 2009 NCAA Cross Country Championships were covered live on the Versus cable television network. A camera crew awaited Jenny Barringer 30 feet beyond the finish line. She was still recovering her breath when reporter Cat Andersen stuck a microphone in her face and asked her what had happened.
“I didn’t feel so good halfway into it,” she answered tearfully.
The next day, Jenny recorded a 24-minute video interview for Flotrack from her hotel room in Terre Haute. Very little was added to her understated first explanation of the meltdown.
“It was a wave,” she said. “It was all of a sudden: ‘I don’t know if I can run. I don’t know if I can stand up.’”
More revealing, perhaps, than what Jenny did say about her unraveling was what she did not say. She did not say that she had pulled a hamstring, or suffered an asthma attack, or was struck by an agonizing abdominal cramp caused by a floating rib jabbing her diaphragm (which is what happened to Susan Kuijken, who finished in third place). Rather, Jenny’s terse description of her implosion seemed to suggest she had been brought down not by anything physical but by a feeling.
Is this explanation even plausible? According to the psychobiological model of endurance performance, it is.
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.
In an overview of Samuele Marcora’s psychobiological model of endurance performance published in 2013, Brazilian exercise physiologists wrote that “perception of effort is the conscious awareness of the central motor command sent 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 4K mark of a 10K race might panic and slow down, whereas a runner who experiences the same effort level at the 7K point of a 10K 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.)
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.”
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.
Jenny Barringer failed to brace herself for the discomfort she should have anticipated in the 2009 NCAA Cross Country Championships, and it doomed her. Her first mistake was looking past the race to the future. The meet in Terre Haute was to be her final encore as an amateur runner. Soon afterward, she would hire an agent, sign a big shoe contract, and embark on a career as a professional athlete. Although Jenny had chosen to return to Colorado for the 2009 cross country season to fulfill a promise and a dream, she was ready to move on—and in a crucial sense she already had moved on before her nightmarish last competition in a Buffaloes uniform.
In addition to looking past the race itself, Jenny looked past her competition. “That’s another mistake,” she said to Fenton. “I didn’t go out yesterday just to win. I had to break Sally’s course record and win by 30 seconds.”
No matter how much an athlete pushes herself in a race, to win by 30 seconds is to win easily. Jenny’s goals reflected an expectation of winning the race comfortably, in both senses of the word. This expectation was not unreasonable, as she had won every preceding event of the season without being challenged. But as a consequence of all this cakewalking, Jenny not only stopped expecting to suffer against college competition, but she also fell a bit out of practice with it.