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Change your perception to make running easier

A social psychologist explains how your mind can override your body to make running seem easier and improve performance

What causes some people to give up on their goals while others don’t? Why do some runners manage to consistently push themselves to the finish line of a race while others need to stop? According to social psychologist Emily Balcetis, your ability to stick to a training plan, push yourself to the finish line or set a new PB comes down to perception. There are those who perceive the task ahead of them as easier than others, and your perception is affected by two things: fitness and motivation.

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How fitness affects perception

To understand why some people perceive exercise to be harder than others, Balcetis and her colleagues conducted an experiment in which they gathered objective measurements of people’s physical fitness. The participants then had to walk to a finish line while carrying extra weight, but before they did so they were asked to estimate the distance to the finish line. What they found was that participants who were less physically fit perceived that finish line as being farther away than those with a higher level of fitness.

To many runners, this doesn’t come as a surprise. If you’ve taken time off from running, either by choice or because of an injury, you’re likely familiar with how much harder running feels when you get back to it. The good news is there is one thing that can override this, and that is motivation.

How motivation affects perception

Balcetis points out in her TedX talk that our bodies and minds work in tandem to change how we see the world around us. To find out how our minds change our perception, she and her team conducted a second experiment where they asked the participants about their levels of motivation. They then had them walk to the finish line again, and like the first time, asked them to estimate how far away they thought it was. They found that with these participants, those who were more highly motivated perceived the finish line as being closer than those with low motivation, regardless of their fitness level.

This means that your mind can override your body when it comes to your perception of difficulty, and if you’re motivated enough, you can accomplish a physical task, regardless of where you’re at in your fitness journey. Does this mean you can go out and crush your 5K PB without training, as long as you’re motivated enough? No, but your level of motivation will improve the quality of your daily runs and workouts, which will eventually lead to a personal best.

How can you change your perception to make a task look easier?

Balcetis and her team conducted a third study to see if they could give people a strategy that would help them change their perception of how far away that finish line was. They decided to test their “eyes on the prize” theory, in which they directed some of the participants to focus solely on the finish line, and tune out everything else going on around them. Meanwhile, they told another group to allow their eyes to wander. They found that people who kept their eyes on the prize saw the finish line as 30 per cent closer than those who looked around as they naturally would.

Finally, in a fourth study, they made the task harder by adding extra weight to the participants’ ankles, then had them complete the “race” again. They found this time that those who used the eyes on the prize strategy perceived the task as being on average 17 per cent easier than those who looked around. They also moved 23 per cent faster.

The bottom line

So what does all this mean? Your fitness level will change how hard you think a task is, but if you’re highly motivated and stay focused on your goal, not only will you likely achieve a better result, but the work will actually seem easier. How can you apply this to your own running? Find what motivates you and remind yourself of that every time you lace up your shoes. When you’re in the middle of a training run or race, focus on your goal and don’t let yourself get distracted by what’s around you. Doing both of these things will make your training seem easier, and will help you achieve whatever goal you’ve set for yourself.

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