How do athletes manage to pull out all the stops at the end of a race when they have already been pushing themselves as hard as they can? Is it all in the body —or in the mind? (Illustration: vlad.georgescu /Shutterstock / NTB scanpix).
How do athletes manage to pull out all the stops at the end of a race when they have already been pushing themselves as hard as they can? Is it all in the body —or in the mind? (Illustration: vlad.georgescu /Shutterstock / NTB scanpix).

Here’s how to push yourself out of your comfort zone

And: Should you really push yourself to complete exhaustion every time you exercise?

You’re almost done with your run, just one more big hill before you finish. You’ve already run four kilometers, which is one more than you usually run. Now you’re almost there. Your legs are burning, your heart is pounding and you’re breathing so hard it feels like your lungs will burst. You just want to stop.

But you don’t.

Somehow you reach deep inside yourself and find the power to run up that hill.

But what really allows us to push beyond this threshold of exhaustion? Is it just a matter of willpower? And should we push ourselves this hard every time we train?

Working muscles, hard
Nicolas Lemyre is a department head at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences. (Photo: Andreas B. Johansen.)
Nicolas Lemyre is a department head at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences. (Photo: Andreas B. Johansen.)

Your muscles rely on a substance called adenosine triphosphate (ATP) for energy. Your body cannot store ATP, so it has to make ATP while your muscles are working. But the way cells make ATP changes depending on how hard you exercise.

If you are going easy, your cells can produce ATP via a process called aerobic metabolism. But if for instance you are sprinting, your body shifts over to anaerobic metabolism.

The graphic explains the differences between aerobic (to the left) and anaerobic (to the right) metabolism and the dangers of overtraining. Hold the arrow over the dots on the image to learn more.

Henning Ofstad Ness is a PhD candidate at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and studies endurance training. (Photo: Berre Foto.)
Henning Ofstad Ness is a PhD candidate at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and studies endurance training. (Photo: Berre Foto.)

Anaerobic metabolism is what allows us to go all out, even at the end of an extremely demanding workout or race. But what allows us to push ourselves this hard, when our bodies are so exhausted?

Two researchers offer their answers.  One is an expert in psychology and sports, and the second is an expert on endurance training.

Motivation is key

Nicolas Lemyre is head of the Department of Coaching and Psychology at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences. He explains how our performance is governed by our psyche.

“Generally speaking, we can push harder and do more than we think we can,” says Lemyre.

But he emphasizes that there are some important mental ingredients, in addition to the physical foundation that underlies your ability to push yourself as hard as you can when you are exhausted.

“Motivation is important—meaning, why you do what you do—and what you want to achieve by doing it. You can dig deep and push a lot harder when your motivation is linked to something that is important to you,” Lemyre says.

Self-confidence also important

“You also have to believe in yourself,” he says.

While this may sound like a cliché, Lemyre has specific advice for how to build the confidence you need to pull out all the stops, such as during a competition.

“You build your self-confidence when you know you have trained incredibly hard to achieve a goal,” he said.  “You know you have put in the hours. Or you know you can train long or hard because you’ve done something similar before.”

Another key is to always keep your focus on your goal, and work towards it, he says.

Listen to your body

This sounds all well and good in theory, but it does little to help when your head and legs are screaming for you to stop. How do you know when to stop, and when to keep pushing?

“In most cases it is not dangerous to exceed your limits,” Lemyre says.

But he still encourages us to listen when our body is sending us warning signals, because that is the best way to avoid injuries. With experience, he says, you learn to tell when you can push yourself a little harder, even though it feels like you cannot.    

Should we really go all out?

Henning Ofstad Ness is PhD candidate at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and studies endurance training. He believes it is important not to push yourself too hard.

“I have seen several cases in the media where people have suffered rhabdomyolysis (see the red dot in the graphic above) after CrossFit training. These are clear cases where someone has not listened to their body,” says Ness.

He encourages would-be athletes to build up gradually before pushing really hard.

“You cannot start with a marathon. You have to work up to it gradually, so your body can handle it,” he said.

Don’t train to exhaustion

Ness also points out that there is little point in going all out every time you do interval training, because research shows this actually reduces your ability to push yourself harder and pull out all the stops.

Ness's rule of thumb is to run four, four-minute intervals to improve your endurance. But after each interval should you feel as if you could have run one more minute. And after four intervals, you should also feel that you could have managed an extra interval.

In other words, you shouldn’t push yourself to exhaustion, even when you are exercising at high intensity. Ness adds that rest between workouts is as important as training hard.

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Read the Norwegian version of this article at forskning.no

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