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  • Sarah Merrell

Psychology & Medicine Both Say...You're Stronger Than You Think

Updated: Jun 5, 2020

On a spring day in 2015, I discovered what it felt like for every inch and part of my body to ache. I was running my first marathon, and by mile 20, the pain began to set in. My back hurt, my knees hurt, my legs hurt. Everything hurt. Even odd parts of my body that seemingly have nothing to do with running, like my hands, throbbed. But this was a special race. I was running it with my dad and I couldn't bring myself not to cross the finish line with him. Plus I had come so far and only had six more miles left to go. So I grit my teeth and tried not to think about how exhausted I felt. That last six miles felt was torture and seemed like an eternity. As we neared the finish line, my dad took my hand and we crossed the finish line together just like I had hoped. I realized afterward that I was ok and that the pain and exhaustion I experienced was temporary. How disappointed I would have been to have run all that way and not cross the finish line! I was thankful that I ignored my brain telling me I couldn't keep going and pressed on.

That moment during the marathon has been important throughout my time as a motorcyclist. There have been times when I've felt "I can't physically do this" and have wanted to bend and give up. The time I sprained my ankle during day one of my Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) course but swallowed the pain and completed the course. The times when I was worn out from being on the morning news at the crack of dawn but somehow had to find the energy to race pit bikes that night. Or the times when it was so hot during a race I felt like I might either vomit or pass out. When those times would happen, I would remember the marathon and that if I could make it through that level of pain and exhaustion, then I could make it through almost anything.

Recently, as track days and racing have started back up following COVID, I've begun to wonder more about the concept of we, as humans, being stronger than we think. Is it mental? Is it physical? I wanted to know what it is that drives us to place limits on ourselves when in reality we are capable of so much more.

In the article "Research Shows We're Stronger Than We Think" by Adrienne Beard, a study by Michael Deschenes, chair of William & Mary's Department of Kinesiology and Health Sciences, is cited. Deschenes specializes in the neuromuscular system, the network of nerves that connects our brains to our muscles. In a study, he found the two components of the neuromuscular system, nerves and muscles, do not respond in tandem to exercise training. In fact, the neural component of the system, the pathways the brain uses to communicate with the body, tired before the actual physical muscle. The loss of strength in their subjects was linked to "fatigue-related impairments in neuromuscular transmission," the study read.

"What we call muscle fatigue is a lot more likely to be neural fatigue," said Deschenes. "It's not that the muscle isn't capable of generating more force—it's that the nerve isn't capable of instructing the muscle to do the best it can. When you say, 'my muscles are tired,' it's more likely your nerves are tired. They can't activate your muscles as well as they did in the beginning."

We are, Deschenes explains, quite literally stronger than we think.

So that helps explain physical strength, but I felt there was a psychological component at work too. Here's why: I've watched documentaries on MotoGP racers who have experienced horrific crashes and painful injuries--yet they still race. In fact, there are many motorcyclists out there (not just MotoGP racers) who have had awful, haunting crashes yet they still ride. I've never had a bad crash (knock on wood), I've only had a couple minor low slides, so I don't know what it's like to mentally come back from a crash, but I can imagine it's extremely hard. And yet, people find not just the physical but the mental strength to do it.

The mental aspect doesn't just relate to crashes though. I could argue that riding is 75% mental--possibly more. I wrote about my experience riding Road Atlanta for the first time in a blog post. I described it as terrifying. It felt like a roller coaster. As I headed into the pit after the first session, I wanted to bump down to novice. My friend Anna Rigby convinced me not to. I had to give myself a pep talk and muster up all the strength I could. Coincidentally, that happens to me a lot while riding--the mental "I can do this" pep talk. It's a talk I have with myself when I'm trying to brake later or get my lines right. Or, sometimes I have that talk when about do something that's intimidating--like the first track day I attended on my own.

This article in Psychology Today explains why it's so important not to partake in negative self-talk or self-doubt. Just because you think you're not mentally strong enough to do or handle something doesn’t mean it’s true: You’re likely able to tolerate much more than you think. 

Thinking you can’t stand something influences how you feel. You’re likely to feel a sense of dread, anxiety, or even anger as you approach something you think you can’t tolerate. As you experience more negative emotions, your thoughts can become exaggeratedly negative, creating a cycle of self-doubt. This prevents us from achieving goals and makes us more likely to give up. And giving up every time you face a new challenge can become a habit--a very bad one. So it's critical to have that "I can" and not "I can't" attitude--it's all about possessing positive self-efficacy. If you believe you are capable of achieving something then you'll be more likely to actually achieve it.

I've found self-efficacy to be so powerful in my own life that I feel I've been evangelical about it. "Dream big" is cliche, but it's true. I have it on a coffee mug. But all those cliches like "turn your can'ts into cans" and fluffy quotes about believing in yourself and not giving up--I kind of love them, I'm slightly embarrassed to admit. Because banishing self-doubt is incredibly rewarding.

Here's the thing. Every day people all over the world achieve amazing feats of physical and mental strength. It could be kicking an addiction, leaving an abusive relationship or finally setting a boundary with a toxic family member. Or, it could be breaking a track record on a motorcycle or getting back on a bike for the first time following a devastating crash. No matter what it is, I want to end with this: We have so much more control over our physical and mental strength than we think we do.

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