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While doing high-intensity aerobic exercises, do we really know what our physical limits are? Do we stop or quit way too soon? Is this applicable for every person who goes out there to exercise but is in the habit of quitting early just because he or she believes that their body is capable of much less than it actually is?

Coaches and athletes have long known that both body and mind come together to push the limits in high-intensity aerobic exercises. But they have always been very keen to find out which of the two really pushes the human body to perform even better.

Push: Perception is what limits you.

During the 1920s, British Prof. Archibald Vivian Hill, who won the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 1922 for his contribution to human exercise physiology, addressed the same issue. His theory suggested that muscle fatigue causes exhaustion during high-intensity aerobic exercise. The principles of this theory have been used in the most popular developments in exercise physiology. Devices such as heart rate monitors are used by most serious runners and gym-goers nowadays, along with the most popular test in exercise physiology, i.e., measuring maximum oxygen (VO2 max) consumption to find out how the body is functioning. Even the concept of eating carbohydrates to replenish glycogen in tired muscles originally comes from this theory, something followed by most marathon runners. It’s exactly what I too studied at both medical schools during my bachelor’s in medicine and then master’s in sports medicine.

It was in 2004 that I heard Prof. Timothy Noakes at the “LTA Sports Medicine Seminar", London, openly challenge Prof. Hill’s theory. He suggested that our brain subconsciously paces the body during exercise, specifically to ensure that the pre-planned physical activity is completed without any loss of cellular homoeostasis. Since then, Prof. Noakes has written a series of papers in the Journal of Sports Medicine on the same topic.

In another groundbreaking study, Effects of Deception on Exercise Performance: Implications for Determinants of Fatigue in Humans (first published online in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise in August), lead author Mark Stone, under the supervision of Kevin Thompson, head of sport and exercise science at Northumbria University in England, looked at tricking trained cyclists to go faster during the 4,000m time trial on stationary bikes. Once the cyclists were familiar with the test, they were shown an avatar on the computer screen which they were told depicted their fastest effort. Effectively they were told to race against themselves. All the cyclists were able only to match the previous best effort. But in the next trial, the scientists tricked the cyclists. The avatar on the computer screen was faster than the cyclists’ fastest efforts by 1%. Surprisingly, all the cyclists did substantially better when they were deceived into racing against the avatar at a slightly higher speed. Dr Thompson said these faster times were “not just day-to-day variability, but a true change in performance".

Later, the cyclists were made aware that they would be racing avatars whose speeds would be faster than their best, and they didn’t even come close to matching the speeds. Most cyclists gave up from the beginning itself.

The above-mentioned study clearly demonstrates that among the highly motivated athletes doing high-intensity aerobic exercise, perception of effort is the limiting factor in how much they can push themselves. It also shows that both body and mind do have a very important role to play in pushing their bodies to the optimum level they are capable of. This level is almost always far beyond what we think we are capable of. The same thing is true for non-athletes.

Just as athletes need to believe in themselves if they enhance their performance, people need to believe that they have hidden sources of energy and strength they can draw from, in order to improve their fitness regime. Sure, it is risky, but only if you push too much too soon. Once your body has reached a plateau, the only way to get it going is to push harder.

Rajat Chauhan is an ultra marathon runner and a practitioner of sports and exercise medicine and musculoskeletal medicine, and CEO of Back 2 Fitness.

Write to Rajat at

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