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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Mind vs Matter

The Four-minute mile: The value of integration of physiology and mental aspects of performance

Yesterday's discussion on mind vs. matter, and the role of mental aspects to performance, left off with the short recap of a fatigue series that I wrote almost a year ago. It reminded us that the brain is ultimately in control of exercise, and that fatigue, or the decision to slow down during exercise is not taken because the muscles are failing, but rather because the brain is regulating the degree of muscle activation so that we are protected from physiological harm.

This was of course an extension of the somewhat philosophical argument of whether physiology or psychological is the key separator or differentiator between good and great athletes. The question "How important is the mind to elite performance?" forms the basis of this series, and specifically, I'm interested in understanding the integration, and overcoming the rampant over-simplification of this very complex argument that tends to infiltrate it.

The 4-minute mile

Perhaps the best illustration of both the good and bad aspects of this debate comes from the story of the 4-minute mile, which I'm sure is quite well known to many of you. I'm not going to recap the whole story here, there are plenty of good books that will do that for you (so no history lessons - it's not the point!), but will attempt to summarize the salient points into a relevant story, because it really does highlight both the importance of the mind, and the tendency people have to overstate that importance and hype it up.

Go back to 1945. The world record for the mile stood at 4:01.3, held by one of the great Swedish runners of that generation, Gunder Hagg. His performance was actually the culmination of a golden generation of Swedish runners, and in particular, Arne Andersson and Hagg were a dominant duo between 1942 and 1945. They set FIVE world records between them, taking the record down from 4:06.4 to 4:01.3 in the space of four years.

Inevitably, then, attention turned to the sub-4 minute mile. It was only a matter of time...

Turned out to be a long time. It was not for a lack of trying however, and the race to be the first to crack this magical barrier captured the world's attention. It co-incided, incidentally, with the race to conquer Mount Everest, which gives a nice illustration of how the achievement was being judged! Which was tougher - Everest or sub-4 minutes for one mile?

And the world waited. And waited. It would take a full 9 years before the record would fall (one year AFTER Everest was conquered, incidentally). This large gap is often cited as proof of the mental barrier, and we'll see shortly that this is only partly correct. However, it must be remembered that the world had just emerged from a war that claimed the lives of many young men, and also ruined the infrastructure and robbed athletes of training time required to produce decent performances (despite it being amateur back then). It would have taken a very unusual set of circumstances for a record-breaking performance during the aftermath of the war, given that the nations most likely to produce the athletes were also those affected most by it.

However, the action really started in about 1952. That was when John Landy started what would become an agonizing quest to crack the barrier. He would, over the course of a two year period, run the following sequence of times:
4:02.1 – 4:02.6 – 4:02.8 – 4:02.5 – 4:02.7 – 4:02.3

Points for consistency, yes, but not so much for the breakthrough everyone was waiting for.

After the last of those performances, in a race where he was on track to break 4 minutes until the final 100m, he was quoted as saying the following to journalists: "Frankly, I think the four-minute mile is beyond my capabilities. Two seconds may not sound much, but to me it’s like trying to break through a brick wall. Someone may achieve the four-minute mile the world is wanting so desperately, but I don’t think I can.”

So that was to become Landy's "legacy" - that quote, and a string of so close, so yet far performances.

Then enter Roger Bannister, on 6 May, 1954, in Oxford, and a performance that stopped the clock at 3:59.4. The four-minute barrier was gone, and Bannister was the man, not Landy.

What happened next is the fuel behind the mind vs. matter debate. 46 days later, John Landy, who had said "I don't think I can", went out and ran not sub-4 minutes, not sub-3:59, but 3:57.9! A full 4 seconds faster than he'd ever managed before, his own sub-four minute clocking, and proof that the four minute mile was most definitely NOT beyond his capabilities, as he himself had suggested!

The interpretation - a bit of moderation required

Now, this story has some very obvious interpretations. Physiologically speaking, we have to ask what might have changed in 46 days for John Landy? There's not likely to be some difference in his training, in his physiological make-up that allowed this huge improvement. The answer most settle on, of course, is that Bannister had broken down Landy's mental wall. Having removed a mental barrier from Landy's mind, Landy's physiology was able to express itself and produce the time his physiology allowed.

I have no argument there. I suspect part of it, a much more mundane explanation, is that Landy may have learned from Bannister how to pace the effort a little better (let's not forget Landy had blown in the final 100m of his previous attempt while on course). I'd argue, however, that this is still a psychological effect, and Landy's improvement is down to his improved mental approach to how to structure the race.

The mental barrier removed, and belief drives physiological performance

But I also believe that Landy went into that record race freed of the pressure, the barrier and the expectation and was able to more closely run to his own physiological limit. Quite what it is that allowed this beats me. I'm sure there is a psychological theory for it. But in line with yesterday's post, I would propose that the ability to maximize this physiological talent is dependent on the right psychological, or mental attitude. Whether that is belief, confidence, anger, composure, fear, doesn't really matter right now (it's worth unpacking another time), but I would certainly propose that Landy was a case of a runner who under-achieved under the pressure, and once it was removed, and belief was provided by Bannister's example, he expressed his physiology far more effectively.

Overstating the presence of the mental barrier

Where I think the role of psychology has been over-hyped is the assertion that was soon made that the four-minute mile is a mental barrier. (Thanks to Simon for pointing this out in his comment to yesterday's post and for inspiring this story, incidentally.)

People were quick to jump onto the "mental barrier" bandwagon, and argued that the long delay between 1945 and 1954, followed by the Landy performance, was proof that breaking four minutes was mental, and a deluge was predicted. What is interesting is that there was no flood. Simon's words now: "the number of people subsequently getting through the "psychological" barrier after that were 3 in 1955, 7 in '57, 4 in '58, 1 in '59. 5 in '60 and zero/no one in 1961, and so on. Certainly no flood. (Figures from "Bannister and Beyond" by Jim Denison)."

So the flood never came, but the story has survived nevertheless. It's still a fascinating story, because I do believe it illustrates the value of belief, confidence and mental preparation (including composure and pacing), while highlighting how detrimental to performance things like self-doubt, anxiety and excess expectation can be. It seems that Landy was at the end of his tether when he spoke to the journalists after that last race - that frustration and self-doubt, once replaced by belief and a removal of the pressure, allowed him to find a performance that he himself thought impossible.

And therein lies what I believe to be the take-home message from this story. Not that the four-minute mile is a mental barrier, because it's clearly not - more people would have followed Bannister and Landy if it was. Even today, breaking four minutes is not a Jedi mind-trick that any determined athlete can pull off.

Rather, the message is that we can each improve within ourselves by reframing our expectations, by challenging our beliefs, by identifying our own mental barriers and then breaking them down. I really do believe that whether you're running a 4-hour marathon or a 32-minute 10km off the bike in a triathlon, you will find a benefit in performance if you assess your mental approach to racing and work at believing what is possible for you.

Linking in training - mental and psychological factors are forged in training

And then very importantly, perhaps most crucially of all, is that your mental approach to racing, your confidence, your belief, are not simply mental tricks. This is not about just hypnotizing yourself into running faster, into suffering a little more. It's an approach to training. Once again, in the words of Jamie from yesterday's post:

"Training responses are initiated, determined, and dictated by the brain. Without attention to the control of thought processes...or attention to the encoding of exact movement patterns, many athletes will be trained inappropriately."

So the point is, training is an act of physiology, but it's also an act of psychology, and it's in training that the thought patterns, the elusive concept of mental strength, the belief and the ability to regulate pace, are laid down.

So let me end with another bit of information about Bannister and Landy. Roger Bannister would go on to become a decorated neuroscientist - he was studying medicine when he ran his 4-minute mile, and specialised in understanding the very organ that may have provided his edge - the brain. Part of his training included a session of 10 x 400 m repeats, run at race pace (59 seconds), with a 1:30 recovery. He was preparing his brain, and his body, and his mind (for the brain is not simply a mind - it's an organ of physiology!), for the effort it would take. Of course, I can't account for Landy's training, but Bannister's career focused on understanding the physiology of the brain. I dare say he did the same in his training. The result? 3:59.4, and a place in history

Conclusion from this story: Integrate and understand

The conclusion then, apart from what I wrote above about how everyone one of you must examine your own belief, mental approach and potential "brick walls", is that if you want to be a better athlete (regardless of your sport), you must challenge yourself, both physiologically and mentally. It's not good enough to isolate one and train simply for fitness. Training must be thoughtful, it must have a purpose and it must be understood. I really do believe that the simple act of concentrating during your performances will add to your physiological ability. You'll be benefiting from your own understanding, and approaching your own limit.

Preview of what's to come - more on this debate, plus our first race of 2009

So that wraps up this little history lesson. It's something of a departure from what I had planned after last night, but Simon's comment inspired this "detour", which really is a great story. I have a bit more to say about this issue of mind over matter, and I'll do so next week.

However, before then, we have the first big marathon of the year, in Dubai on Saturday. Haile Geb is going for another time-trial, um, world record, on a course where last year, he broke 2:06 after going off ridiculously fast early on.

So we'll take a break from "philosophy of sport" for a little while, and Jonathan will do a preview of the race tomorrow, and we'll bring you the splits and reports as they come through this weekend!

Then next week, we'll resume this debate, and also get into some new territory!

Thanks as always!


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JM said...

Is there any data on the pacing strategy used by Landy before and after Bannisters sub 4 performance?

Anonymous said...

Another little known fact about Bannister is that he had not raced for MONTHS before stepping on the track at Iffley Road. Contrast this with Landy, who was doing race after race - and every time he appeared he was under pressure to break the "barrier". So I think your assessment is right...when Bannister cracked it, the pressure was off.

From what I've read, Landy did more mileage than Bannister, with more sustained "tempo" style running than Bannister's fartleks round Harrow school cricket ground. (Both of them tended to train at night because of their studies). Landy did similar speed sessions to Bannister: for example 10 x 440 yards in 62 seconds.

The big difference for Landy in the race in which he went under 4 for the first time - and smashed Bannister's world record -- was having a pacemaker. Landy was used to racing on his own, from the front. This time he had with him Chris Chataway, the "third lap" man from Bannister's run. Chataway was on Landy's shoulder until 300 to go.

Bannister knew the four-minute mile was physiologically possible because as well as his normal medical training, he had been awarded a research scholarship at Oxford and was investigating... the physiology of exercise. He specialised in neurology after retiring from running.

Hawaii-based coach Brian Clarke intoruced me to his energy rating system, which includes categforiues such as "Too Lazy/Tired to Run Hard", "Ready to Run Hard" and "Eager to Race". Mentally, Bannister was BURSTING to run. Maybe Landy tried too hard, too often.

It's interesting that Bannister and bis team worked their way down tp 10x440 in 59 over a period of about four months. At one point they got stuck at 60/61 for weeks - so they all went climbing for a week, came back and nailed the sub-60s.

I'm fascinated by the application of all this to your work with the brain's impact o fatigue.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Lesser Idiot

No, unfortunately not. I alluded to it, and would have loved to dig deeper, but I don't know those numbers. I do know, as Simon mentioned below (and I should have mentioned) that Landy didn't use a pacemakers until he saw Bannister use them in his successful race. The presence of the pacemakers would have provided some benefit, I have no doubt. As I said in the post, that too is a psychological effect, whether it's exerted via belief or confidence or composure I don't know. But pacing was part of it.

Then to Simon:

Thanks for the added info. I know of Bannister's work in exercise science because there is ONE published study in an exercise science journal in which he looked at the effects of oxygen on performance. I think he might have specialised soon after and so that seems the only research that was published.

As for the racing, yes, I'm sure that may have been part of it. I only know those 6 Landy performances, and 6 races in 2 years is certainly not over-racing, but presumably he raced often outside of those attempts.

As for how this links with the idea of the brain, that's where I'm trying to head with this series. The concept of Bannister's training progressively moving him towards that target is key. It's pretty philosophical - as I may have said to you last year, the lack of evidence in how to apply this "central governor" theory is one of the big issues that frustrates me. But I'll try to apply it! After the weekend...


Anonymous said...

Lesser Idiot - as Ross and Simon have mentioned, I think that the key was that Landy started using a pacemaker after Bannister took 4 minutes down.

As far as their training mileage, Bannister was more the purist amateur (training at lunchbreak), and didn't cover nearly as much ground as Landy who used to log up to 20 miles per day.

Bannister may also not have raced for months leading up to the day, mostly because of the increased demands of his academics, but in the 3 weeks leading up to the 4 minute mile he ran 4 time trials, so he definitely had a good picture of where he was.

Landy and Bannister's running strategies as different as they could be both before and after the record fell - Landy was a hardened front runner who liked to take up the pace himself, whilst Bannister was known to hang on and then give a ferocious kick in the last 200 yards. This is exactly how it played out in the 'Mile of the Century' between them to settle once and for all who was the best miler in the world. Landy opened 5 yards in the first lap clocking 58.2, 15 yards by lap 2 at 1:58.3. Bannister brought it back to about 5 yards on the 3rd lap at 2:58.4 and took Landy on the final bend. Both men broke 4 minutes.

Interesting mental issue of the 'invisible rubber band' here..

mcgrathe said...

Good post guys,

Certainly I agree with the pacing strategy argument, the fact that Landy blew up in the last 100 suggests to me that mentally he was focused on that last half lap or so prior to Bannister's record. I would suggest that he spent two years trying to hang on for that last 100, without ever considering that his entire strategy may be flawed.

This is an interesting line of thought to follow in many sports - and I agree that it falls into the mental side of things. To take Tiger Woods as an example, the "Landy pre-Bannister" approach (around 03/04) would have been for him to tweak aspects of his game and continue training and practising. The "Landy post-Bannister" approach was to not assume that his upper end skills were based on sound foundations and to re-evaluate his game from scratch.

I would suggest that this may be easier to identify in certain sports, where athletes can completely reconstruct their technique, often under a new coach, leading to "one step backwards, two steps forwards".
Certainly it's a good example of athletes having the courage and confidence to really analyse their performances with an open mind.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Mcgrathe

Good point. What Woods did with his swing was quite amazing. Radical in concept, and mighty impressive in execution. I'm not sure many would have it in them to do that - I suspect it takes quite a remarkable level of confidence and also co-ordination to rewire the system like that. But, having said that, it may be very important for these elite performers to stay on top. Perhaps they should be looking at ways to rivitalize what might otherwise become routine.

But one can see how an elite sportsman would be reluctant. I guess Tiger had the insurance that his "brand" was worth a great deal, even if he didn't come back strong. I guess if I was a golfer on the borderline, making just enough to stay afloat, I'd see it as an enormous risk to change what was working at least moderately! Huge courage required for that!


petergrasse said...

This discussion of mind vs matter neglects the physiological responses to training. For example parasympathetic nervous system can cause things like endothelial dysfunction in overtrained athletes. This can obviously affect performance, controlled by the brain, but out of the athlete's control. Consider exploring overtraining in your posts.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Peter G

Sure, we will consider overtraining as a future topic, but we can't cover every avenue with every topic, it's just not possible. I mean, "neglecting" a topic while covering another one. I guess one could say we've also neglected to cover the role of diet in training adaptation as well. And about fifty other related topics. We could write a dozen books on "physiological training responses". Or, a series on whether performance is determined by mental or physiological factors. The physiological adaptations to training is another discussion entirely.


Anonymous said...

We must not forget a key factor in why the 4 minute mile took so long to be broken was that both andersson and hagg were banned from athletics as they were both deemed as professionals for accepting payments. Had they not been banned, surely one of them would have gotten history's first sub 4 mile, and the world would not have to wait 9 years.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to add, before my comment, how important I believe this topic to be, and how good a job the article does in stimulating both sides of the debate.

However, an issue stands that I believe hinders the attainment of what some call an "unanswerable" question; namely: mind or matter?
Physiological and psychological factors of performance are often put on opposite sides of the debate. In discussion, they are in competition for the greatest importance in performance.

Ross however, very astutely comments that, " the brain is not simply a mind - it's an organ of physiology!" Furthermore, the brain is frequently cited as the fountain out of which psychological processes emerge.

These viewpoints inextricably link physiology and psychology. Could we not, therefore, look at psychology as a manifestation of lesser understood brain phsyiologies? Should we not attempt to define "the wall", "the never give up attitude", "the second wind", and other psychological phenomena discussed [in marathons] in terms brain physiology?

To a certain extent, bio/neuro feedback has begun to do this and presents very interesting implications for linking the two.

I gladly invite feedback on this and whether this has occurred to anyone else. This linkage is something I would like to pursue through study and was hoping this community could share their feelings.

Thanks to all!