When I was in middle school, I decided to run cross country. I wasn’t very good, but I was very competitive. I have a clear memory of one particular race, where we had to go up this huge hill – not once, but twice (!!) during the race. It was awful. Towards the finish, I really wanted to beat someone that was just ahead of me, but my legs had never felt so tired. I just kept telling myself to move my legs faster. In that moment, I remember looking down at my body and feeling like it wasn’t my own. I couldn’t feel my legs moving or my arms pumping, I could only hear the words in my head telling my legs to keep going.
I don’t even remember if I beat the girl I was chasing down. I have no idea what my time was or what place I got during that race (although it probably wasn’t good). All I remember is suddenly realizing how much more I could push my body than I ever thought I could. That feeling helped me excel in athletics in both high school and college. I now know that even if my brain says I am tired, my body knows I still have something left.
Many researchers think that bodily fatigue during physical exertion stems from an emotion, and not actually from your muscles. It is a defense mechanism for your body so you do not harm yourself by overexertion. Your brain tells you that your body is tired (perceived fatigue), but you actually have energy left to expend.
Many of the best athletes have the ability to push their bodies past the point of perceived fatigue. Although you can’t force your body to suddenly beat records or do incredible feats, you are capable of pushing yourself much more than you think you can. However, this fatigue is there for a reason – you should never continually overexert yourself or it will undoubtedly lead to injury.
As a jammer, I frequently feel this fatigue. On the last 20 seconds of a 2-minute power jam, I am usually ready to be done. I have to fight that voice in my head that says things like, “You’re too tired,” or “Just stop fighting.” Once you start to believe that voice while on the track, you are done for. And it does happen to me – I get disheartened, tired, and beat up during some jams. But every time I fall, I tell myself to get up fast. Every time I get hit out, I yell at my legs to get me back on the track. Every time I feel stuck against a wall of blockers, I ignore the voice telling me to quit, and I make myself push harder.
It took an extremely painful and meaningless cross country race for me to learn the limits of my body. But since then, I have learned to fight my own mind when it tells me I’m tired. So the next time you are on the track and you find your brain saying, “I can’t,” instead tell yourself, “I most definitely can.”