Mind Over Matter

Simply believing you’re young and fit might actually be the answer to your aches and pains.
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Simply believing you’re young and fit might actually be the answer to your aches and pains.

The other morning, I was drinking my tea and feeling generally grumpy about my shoulders. I can box-jump and burpee until the day after tomorrow and beat most 20-somethings in my box at a flat-out sprint, but if you ask me to do a series of heavy push jerks, heavy wall balls or — God forbid — a heavy snatch, my shoulders are like “Nope.” But I make them do it anyhow, and then as revenge, they spend a week punishing me by aching, crunching and popping — the internal, corporeal Rice Krispies that belie my aging bod.

Then I came across a video of Hidekichi Miyazaki, a 105-year-old Japanese man who set a Guinness World Record as a centenarian competitive sprinter by doing a 100-meter dash in 42.22 seconds. After the race, Miyazaki cried not because he was happy to have set a record but because he was disappointed in himself for not having hit his 35-second target. “I am still a beginner, you know,” he said. “I’ll have to train harder. I can still go faster.”

Mmm-kay. Time to woman up and stop being such a baby.

I often say that age is just a number, but so too are pain and weakness often a matter of mindset, and you can easily make something worse or better just by how you look at it. But is there really such a thing as mind over matter? Could I simply will my shoulders into performing better and make them stronger by simply imagining them to be?


A recent study done at The Ohio State University examined the role of mental imagery on people who had limbs in casts for a prolonged period. Half the participants performed mental exercises wherein they just imagined intensely contracting their wrist for five seconds, then rested for five seconds for 13 rounds; the other half didn’t use any mental imagery. At the end of four weeks, those who had practiced their mental imagery had lost 50 percent less strength and were able to regain full activation of their muscles sooner than those who did not.

Another study from the University of Colorado, Boulder, studied “cognitive self-regulation,” a secondary, emotional pathway related to cognition (not physical pain) that is activated when you’re injured, causing you to take your mind off the pain or believe it’s not as bad as it seems. Subjects in an MRI had a physical, hot object placed on them and were given three different scenarios to test their neural pathways. In the first, they were asked to keep their minds blank of all thoughts when the object was placed on them. In the second, they were asked to imagine the object was incredibly hot, sizzling the skin, and in the third, they were asked to imagine that they were very cold and that the object was warming them up. The results: The participants in all three scenarios experienced the same amount of physical pain, but the emotional pain was different, depending on which scenario they dealt with. Yes, of course there are some physical realities to your limitations as a Masters athlete: Your body is older, and some of the warranties are expiring on your most used joints. I mean, Hidekichi Miyazaki is 105 years old — he might not meet his 35-second goal … but then again, maybe he will. He believes in himself and his capacity for success, and maybe that’s all we really need in order to push past our sticking points. So instead of dreading deadlifts because your back will be wretched for a week, go in there and believe your back is a fortress, a monolith, a rock-solid foundation on which you’re building your person. I will do the same: I’m going to make a concerted effort to believe in my shoulders, trust that they’re strong, healthy and powerful, and talk about them as if they are — no complaining, no belittling, no bemoaning their shortcomings. As a benchmark: My snatch PR is currently 80 pounds. I will check back with you in six months and let you know how I fared.

Stay tuned…