Written by: Kevin Cann
Being able to push ourselves through a grueling training session is not easy. Your legs and arms feel heavy and you can barely muster the strength to stand up on your own two feet. However, you walk up to the bar, unrack it, and the weight flies throughout the set.
I am sure many of us can relate to this scenario. Somehow when you physically feel like garbage you are able to hit an all-time best lift, sink the winning shot, or sprint to the finish line to win a marathon. Even when you feel like crap, you are able to push it a bit further, why is this? Why is it that some people have a higher ability to push through these situations while others do not?
I am going to tell you that this feeling, in many cases, is your mind playing tricks on you. When we exercise, our body releases dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, or chemical messenger, that enhances memory, focus, and energy. This is our hunt and reward neurotransmitter.
At the same time that dopamine is being released, serotonin is released as well. Serotonin plays a major role in our mood. Unbalanced serotonin levels have been associated with anxiety and depression. Serotonin also plays a role in making us tired.
When serotonin and dopamine are in balance, our memory, focus, energy, and mood are in the right place. We know we can get through this competition or training day, and we are mentally locked into the steps we need to take to be successful.
As we continue to exercise rigorously, our body will attempt to protect itself. The brain only contains roughly 1.5g of glycogen. Any decrease in this amount becomes alarming to the system. When this happens, dopamine levels drop, and serotonin levels continue to climb. This imbalance between dopamine and serotonin leads to a decrease in memory, focus, energy, and even mood. Those feelings of “I can’t do this anymore” begin to creep into our thoughts.
You may even think that your central nervous system is starting to tire and shut down. I can assure you that CNS fatigue takes a hell of a lot more to occur than training hard for a couple hours. Your hands might even be shaking after a set. This may again, just be your mind playing games with you.
Dopamine is implicated in diseases such as Parkinson’s, where the victims of the disease suffer from uncontrollable shaking. This might just be a sign that your serotonin and dopamine levels are beginning to get out of balance. Trembling is also a symptom of low blood glucose levels. Perhaps glycogen levels in the brain are beginning to drop, setting off a series of reactions, or your circulating glucose levels have fallen too low.
Stress and engaging in mental activity actually decrease levels of glycogen in the brain. This may be why some people have a hard time training after work. We are built to encounter a stressor, handle it, and then relax. Staying stressed for a prolonged period of time is not a good thing. This is both in the short and long term.
This is where training our mental capacity to train can have benefits in conserving energy within a training session and aiding recovery from session to session. Knowing when to relax and when to let the dog off of the leash is a very important tool to athletic success.
Often times I see people between sets putting their headphones on and attempting to get themselves ramped up for the next set. This can go on for 3-5 minutes between each and every one of their sets. They then yell, hit themselves in the face a few times, stomp around the room, and get under the bar. Do this enough and brain glycogen will decrease and our serotonin and dopamine will become unbalanced very quickly. This can lead to missed lifts.
Coming from MMA to powerlifting, this was unique to me. Between rounds we always focused on taking deep breaths and relaxing to try and bring everything back down and conserve energy. Now, I am not saying that everyone that gets fired up this way is doing it wrong. Some people may need that to get fired up and hit big weights (a topic we will discuss shortly). Save those behaviors for the platform, and conserve your energy in training.
Instead of putting on the headphones and listening to some death metal, try something that is a bit more even. Sit down and take some deep breaths. This will help elicit a response from our parasympathetic nervous system and help us conserve energy and balance our neurotransmitters. When it is time to lift, turn up the death metal (although I prefer to not lift with headphones in, as you cannot compete with them, and focusing on a song is not allowing you to focus on your technique).
There will still be times that you practice this, but still feel tired and feel like you cannot get through the session. This is a good situation to train your mental strength. Tell yourself this is your mind playing tricks on you and get under the bar and hit your numbers. Do this enough and your mind gets stronger just like your muscles.
Now, there is also a genetic component to all of this. Serotonin and dopamine levels absolutely have a genetic component to them. Mood disorders have very strong genetic ties. There are some people who thrive under those intense training situations, and others that falter. With that said, I do believe that those that are less genetically inclined to mentally fight through tough situations can train themselves and get better at it. The ones with better genes will just have an easier time with it.
Exercise has been shown to help with mood disorders, most likely due to the increase in the brain chemicals. However, perhaps if we train the mental aspect of relaxation between sets and from session to session, as well as learning to control our emotions while training, we can have even better success with treating mood disorders with exercise. This is merely speculation, but makes sense to me.
When we train we need to focus on the mental aspects of training as much as the physical. Our brain plays a crucial role in how our physical body performs. Our body is a compilation of many systems that work together at all times. Our training should do the same thing.