“Minds built to go the distance”

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Image by Cristòfol Josep Bordes

Boston Globe – A Kenyan man has won the marathon every year for all but two of the last 22 years. Kenyan women have won nine of the last 13.

Their dominance has prompted a flurry of scientific studies into why Kenyans run so well. Some say it’s their diet. Others say it’s the high altitude. Still others insist it’s a genetic gift of lean bodies and wiry legs. But those theories fail to account for perhaps the most important factors: the marathoner’s brain, and his or her concept of distance itself.

In that Kenyan town, nobody ran anywhere if they could help it, even though it was the home of Cosmas Ndeti, a three-time Boston Marathon winner. But most everybody, especially children, walked long distances routinely without complaint, and shared the perception that a few miles — even five or 10 miles — wasn’t really all that far.

Perceptions matter. Experiments by Samuele Marcora, director of research at the Centre for Sports Studies at the University of Kent, suggest our physical limits are set not by our bodies but by our brains. Fatigue sets in when our anterior cingulate cortex sends a message to our muscles that the physical challenge we are undertaking is too daunting to complete. When a runner collapses in exhaustion, it’s rarely because the muscles ran out of oxygen or fuel. It’s because the anterior cingulate cortex has decided that the cost of exertion is not worth the benefit. But if the brain believes that the distance is manageable enough — and the mission important enough — we push ourselves to the max.

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What I love about this article is that it’s pointing out how our limits are defined by how far we think we can go. So many of our daily obstacles are mental challenges that we have to overcome, whether it’s going another mile, starting a new project, going for anything that seems out of reach. It’s a good reminder to keeping pushing yourself, even when you think you can’t go any further.

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