How is it that some human beings can enter and run ultra-marathon races that last 6 whole days, where they run the majority of that time and some human beings suffer such ultra-intense back pain that they feel unable to move from the house or a chair for days perhaps weeks on end?
The body’s physical tolerance has an enormous spectrum, using the example above we can see that some people believe their body capable tolerating great stress and some that it can tolerate very little. How can our bodies be accustomed to such a wide array of demands? Of course inherent genetic factors may exist, but there is another compelling theory. The neural system is a system aimed at maintaining balance, maintaining the norm; it is not good at judging what is healthy and what is not. The system relies heavily on past experience and repeated stimulus to adapt and advise it. Simply put it learns. It is impossible to learn, for example, a language or learn maths without experience and practice. Something that can be of little doubt is that the human neural system is good at learning. This appears true with the body’s protective systems, like pain, stress, anger. What if all of these systems adapt, change and learn from what inputs we give them. Then they reflect and adapt how to behave next time.
An ultra-marathon runner may have many natural abilities, ones that have adapted through their parents and other generations. But they will need to run, and run, and run in environments and to distances many times before their body will tolerate the demand. It is a common experience that someone who hasn’t run for a long time struggles considerably the first time they try again, perhaps they even find it impossible. Their neural system is shocked; it activates defensive mechanisms- perhaps panic, perhaps pain, breaths too fast, makes you feel uncomfortable. Depending on how shocked it is may influence the intensity of the feelings. But it learns that nothing went really wrong that time you tried to run 5 minutes…next time it is a bit more comfortable with the 5 minutes. In time it can be very comfortable with the 5 minutes. This is a key part of how the ultra-runners (or any other athlete) gets to the level they do. The opposite affect it also unfortunately possible. Your back hurts and you bend forward, the body doesn’t want you to do it, it activates pain- it thinks it is dangerous (even if it isn’t). It learns, leaning forward = danger, next time you think about bending the brain is quick, it says perhaps not. The body might stiffen muscles; it might produce pain even sooner or stronger than last time, it might make you move in a very unnatural. Gradually this process can become harder and harder, not easier and easier like the 5 minute run. It is better to be on the safe side- to be closer to the status quo. If the underlying motivation is to be safe your body can be quite happy to sit and wait. The brain might think, well this behaviour has served me OK until now- I’m still here, might as well carry on; even if it isn’t perfect. This theory is linked to why it is hard, really hard, to make life changes. People fail with diets, fail with New Year’s resolutions and fail with stopping smoking very often. If the brain’s game is to keep you going this makes a lot of sense. But unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be looking out for the best way, just the safest way! The good news is if you set your mind on a goal the body is really good at helping you get there, think about the ultra-runners- they say to their body, ok- we must run for 6 days, not sleep very much and just run. The body says- OK it might cost ya’ but we are going to give it a damn good go, because it is important.
Waiting for the neural system to adapt won’t work. You can’t rest up the fitness to run an ultra-marathon. Can we all be ultra-runners- maybe, if we train gradually and give the goal the attention it requires.