Introduction to the Mind of the Dancer

It is many months since I last posted on my blog. The main reason has been that I have been too busy at work, though I have also had some health problems.

In addition to a number of minor musculo-skeletal problems that have niggled me for many decades and are looming ever larger as I am advancing though my seventh decade, I have also had life-long problems with my respiratory tract. Mostly these have been merely a minor inconvenience, but not always. One of my earliest memories is a night of terrifying hallucinations in infancy when a severe bout of croup starved my brain of oxygen overnight. In those days the principle treatment was confinement in a steam tent. – hot, sticky and claustrophobic but these discomforts were relatively minor compared with the horrible sensation of gasping for breath and being unable to get enough air into one’s lungs. To this was added the frightening phantasmagoria generated by my anoxic brain.

For the sixty years following that near fatal episode, my respiratory problems were minor in comparison and I never sought specific treatment, despite the fact that effective bronchodilators such as salbutamol had become available. However a few months ago, I was being awoken frequently in the early hours of the morning by shortness of breath, and when I ran I was limited to a slow jog if I wished to avoid profound breathlessness and wheezing. So I decided it was time to see a doctor about the problem. I was given a peak flow meter and also a prescription for a salbutamol inhaler. The flow meter revealed that my ambient peak flow was around 540 litres /minute; about average for my height and age. After using salbutamol. I achieved a peak flow of 620 litres /minute – a respectable value even for a fit young man. However, when the wheeziness overtook me, my peak flow fell as low as 180 litres/minute. So the doctor added a prescription for a beclometasone inhaler.

For a few weeks the situation improved, but then two weeks ago I caught a cold, and my peak flow plummeted again. After the cold resolved I was left with persistent bronchitis that has left me feeling debilitated. My peak flow has yet to recover to its former level. The doctor has now prescribed oral steroids, but I am reluctant to take these. In the medium term there is risk of suppression of cortisol production by my adrenals, though that can be avoided if the steroids are taken for only a brief period. There is also the disconcerting fact that catabolic steroids, unlike the anabolic steroids abused by bodybuilders, have the opposite effect and turn muscle to fat. Since starting the inhaled steroid, I have lost weight, while increasing tightness of my belt suggests an increasing waistline. It might be a coincidence but I am a bit concerned that my muscles are turning to mush. So I have deferred starting the oral steroid for the time being.

I am running again, though slowly. It is disconcerting how rapidly one loses fitness after any set-back in middle age, and how difficult it is to regain that lost fitness. So I am facing the question of how to maintain morale. This is an opportune moment to consider the role of the mind in running, though I am still very busy at work and do not have time to do the subject justice today. So in this blog, I will outline the themes that I want to cover, and try to find time over the next month or so to develop each of these themes.

How the brain coordinates movement

Efficient running requires exquisite timing of the contractions of many muscles. Attempting conscious micromanagement would be a similar to a centipede trying to deliberately control each leg; chaos would ensue. So the trick is to create an image of the desired movement and let the non-conscious motor control systems of the brain look after the detail. Years of experience, since infancy, have established coordinated motor programs.

A few years ago it was thought that these programs were stored the cerebellum, like the code embedded in the pattern of punched holes in a pianola roll. That idea is over simplistic, but observation of any skilled performer, pianist, tennis player or runner, provides ample evidence that exquisite motor programs can be evoked by conscious thought, but are governed by non-conscious programs that have the flexibility to respond to subtle changes in circumstances.

Mirror neurons

Several recent discoveries about motor learning are relevant to a runner who seeks to understand the principles of motor control. One is the discovery of mirror neurons. When a human (or a monkey) observes another human (or monkey) carry out any action, the brain cells that would be engaged in executing that action if the observer were to perform the action, spring into action. Thus, we have the potential to learn motor skills merely by observation, even without conscious intent to perform the observed action.

Similarly, imagining an action cues activity in the brain cells that would be engaged in performing the action. This, we can enhance the ability to perform an action merely by imagining it. It is not even necessary to invoke a conscious image. Improved performance of a skilled motor task occurs between practice sessions. If an action is rehearsed repeatedly, the smoothness of execution increases during the session, but perhaps even more importantly, performance is often even better at the beginning of the next practice session after an over-night break from rehearsal.

Practical conclusions

I will hope to return to considering the implication of these observations for learning how to run efficiently, in a future post. Meanwhile, there are two practical lessons:

1) fostering a mental image of the running style we are aiming to achieve is likely to be more effective than attempting micro-management of the muscles.

2) running with good form one day is likely to enhance form the next day; conversely running with bad form is likely to entrench the unwanted form.

Mental mechanisms for lifting performance to a higher plane

The second theme I hope to develop in subsequent postings it based on the observation that running sometimes feels powerful and almost effortless. This phenomenon is observed most readily in cycling rather than running. The cyclist who comes from behind surges past his hapless opponent leaving him wallowing in his wake. However it also occurs in running. The most famous illustration was the Vancouver mile at the Commonwealth and Empire Games of 1954. That year, John Landy and Roger Bannister had both established that they were capable of running a mile in less than four minutes. Landy held the world record, but Bannister was the more experienced tactician. As Landy led off the curve into the home straight on the final lap in the Empire Stadium, he looked anxiously over his left shoulder while Bannister surged past on his right.

In subsequent years, after the instant has been cast in bronze by the sculptor Jack Harman, Landy used to remark wryly that while Lot’s wife was turned to a pillar of salt when she looked back to see brimstone raining down on the city of Gomorrah, he was the only person in history who had looked back and been turned into bronze.

The feeling of grace and power occurs not only as one overtakes an opponent in the home straight. It can also be achieved under other circumstances when one is running confidently and with good form. It is the experience that is sometimes described as being ‘in the zone.’ There are tricks for achieving it, but they will have to wait for a later posting.

Mental mechanisms that limit performance

The converse phenomenon is the non-conscious mechanism that apparently comes into play to protect the body against the dangers of pushing too hard. This phenomenon is perhaps most clearly demonstrated by the ill-famed wall that rears up in the final few miles of a marathon. No doubt physiological factors such as depleted muscle glycogen play a role, but the decisive mechanism is mental.

I have only run five marathons – in three I performed above expectation; in one, I started with mild respiratory tract infection and did not finish after severe broncho-constriction almost stopped me breathing. For the fifth I was inadequately prepared. Despite a creditable pace for the first 20 miles, I hit the wall in the 21st mile and struggled to the finish at a pace almost three minutes per mile slower than I had achieved in the first 20 miles. I simply could not move my legs any faster, despite all the mental tricks I could muster. However, in the final two hundred metres, despite my painful hobbling gait, I was slowly closing the gap on the runner ahead of me. By this stage there was nothing of importance to fight for, but the competitive spirit emerged and I was able to achieve a sprint finish – though I still failed to catch the runner ahead, by a few metres. The abiding lesson was that even though I had felt like a completely spent force for the preceding 5 miles, merely hobbling on to avoid the failure of not finishing, in fact there was still ‘gas in the tank’ that I was only able mobilise when I was within sight of the finishing line.

It appears that some protective mechanism come into play when there is a risk of over-reaching. It is probable that this mechanism also plays a crucial role in the phenomenon of over-training.

So I have at least made a start on exploring the Mind of the Dancer. I hope to develop these ideas in more detail soon.


4 Responses to “Introduction to the Mind of the Dancer”

  1. Simon Says:

    Good to see you blogging again, hope your chest issues resolve/become manageable.

    I’ve always maintained that one of the main differences between a champion and a contender is simply the determination to win at any cost; their psychology seems very simple – at that moment in time, nothing is more important than winning. I don’t believe in ‘mind over matter’, but I do think it takes enormous conscious will to overcome the safety systems and conservative notions of the sub-conscious to produce an optimal performance.

    Looking forward to your future blogs 🙂

  2. canute1 Says:

    Simon, thanks for your comments.

    I suspect that the ability to minimize interference by the brain’s inbuilt safety restraints is a crucial factor in becoming a champion athlete. However, even a champion is subject to the brain’s restraints.

    The extreme illustration of this is provided by marathon runners who collapse before reaching the point of lethal heat-stroke (eg Jim Peters at the Empire Games in Vancouver in 1954 – he collapsed two hundred yards from the finish but recovered after a few hours in hospital with no lasting ill effect ). Muscles stop working at about 40 degrees C, apparently due to cessation of normal drive from the brain, but fatal heat stroke usually does not occur until about 42 degrees C. Nybo and Nielsen showed that exercise on a cycle ergometer in a hot environment leads to exhaustion when core body temperature reaches 40 degrees. (Hyperthermia and central fatigue during prolonged exercise in humans. J Appl Physiol. 2001;91(3):1055-60) At exhaustion, maximum voluntary muscle contraction is substantially reduced but peak contraction generated by external electrical stimulation is not reduced, demonstrating that the loss of muscle power at exhaustion is due to a top-down limitation imposed by the brain. In a companion paper published a few months later (J Appl Physiol. 2001 Nov;91(5):2017-23.) Nybo and Nielsen reported that there was a change in the frequency spectrum of the EEG recorded over the frontal lobes of the brain at the point of exhaustion.

    While champions like Peters might be able to drive themselves to collapse, non-elite athletes tend to slow down on a hot day even before their core temperature has risen appreciably.

    Maybe the champion of champions is the one can voluntarily adjust his effort level to keep just below the point at which the brain would impose an involuntary loss of muscle power. In my youth (in Australia) the folk-lore was that the winner of the marathon was the one who could push his temperature highest without collapse. In training I sometimes pushed my temperature to 102 deg Fahrenheit (approximately 39 deg C). This was more than thirty years before Nybo and Neilson published their findings. I was shooting in the dark; I could scarcely have called myself a sub-elite athlete, and maybe I would have been a bit more successful if I had learned to push myself just a little bit harder. Of course, temperature is not the only limiting factor but if you are well trained, it is likely to be the one of the major determinants.

  3. Simon Says:

    Interesting stuff – I guess the temperature study also proved that if a message had been sent from the brain, it could reach the muscle i.e. that high temperatures don’t interfere with the actual transport of messages from the brain to the muscle?

    Personally, I don’t get anywhere near those limitations; simple pain and discomfort are enough to slow me down – I’m definitely not champion material!

  4. canute1 Says:

    I agree that the evidence from the study by Nybo and Nielsen does not exclude the possibility that it is the transmission of messages from brain to muscle that is obstructed, but the evidence for the EEG recording from electrodes over frontal cortex suggests that there was a change in brain function rather than in the nerves connecting brain to muscle.

    Oddly enough I do not think that simple tolerance of discomfort and pain is what makes a champion; there is also evidence that there are brain mechanisms that make discomfort and pain less distressing.

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