Perceived Effort and Actual Effort

in Article
October 28th, 2013


Frank Shorter and Bill Rodgers, Marathon Runners


Have you ever sat down to write a paper at 10pm the night before it is due? It is like setting out to run a marathon. You have all your necessary snacks lined up on the desk, the perfect playlist is on, breaks are not an option, and it will probably take you around 5 hours (more or less depending how much research and dedication you prepared for this moment). Most people are more likely to encounter this type of marathon than an actual marathon; however, according to a recent research in the field of psychophysiology, marathons require just as much mental effort as the aforementioned paper.

Samuele Marcora, a professor and researcher at the University of Kent, has recently theorized that the perceived mental effort during physical activity is just as important as how strenuous as the activity actually is. Previously, the common idea has relied on the afferent feedback model – “that perception of effort results from the complex integration of sensory signals from the active muscles and other organs” and relies little on what the person actually perceives to be difficult. In the general field of exercise physiology, it has been assumed that once a subject exerts a certain amount of energy, exhaustion is reacted because there are no more stores of energy to draw upon. Marcora’s studies are beginning to prove that this previously assumed idea is not the case. Marathon runners are still able to function after a marathon, before refueling, even though they may not have been able to push any harder during the race. This is just one example of how there may be enough glycogen (units of energy) yet the runner is unable to keep pushing harder.  According to these new studies, the actual energy available to a person during strenuous exercise, if there is enough glycogen present, relies on the person’s ‘brain strength’ to push past the mental boundaries caused by negative thoughts, boredom, and a build up of neurotransmitters – something that Marcora believes that runners can train to become easier.

The neurotransmitter involved in running a marathon, or more involved in the monotony of trying to keep a certain pace for 5 hours, is adenosine.  Resulting from a lack of sleep or repetition of a monotonous task for an extended period of time, adenosine is a neurotransmitter that many people are all too familiar with. Often combated with caffeine – queue the early morning coffee – which blocks the uptake of more adenosine, many runners resort to gels or sports drinks supplemented with caffeine to push through the mental lethargy of long runs. Marcora believes that, instead of a short term and repeated fix through caffeine, runners should instead train their brains to produce less adenosine. By overwhelming the brain day after day with adenosine, stimulated by monotonous computer simulations and games and then running, Marcora hopes to induce the neurons and synapses to produce less. Just as runners are used to logging long hours in running shoes, the next wave of training could be longing long hours on the computer.

Accompanying the waves of neurotransmitters are thoughts that you need to stop. Marcora hypothesizes that learning to turn these thoughts off could be just as important to pace and effort need to complete a task as physical strain and glycogen available. Training your brain to think you are actually still enjoying yourself could be as easy as smiling. Marcora is now researching the effect of the runners “race face” – a resonating grimace of pure exertion – and how it could be causing runners to experience the race as more difficult. He also recommends repeating mantras and thinking of funny memories to make the race feel more effortless and enjoyable -a proposal that could easily be applied to any other aspect of life. In contrast to this idea, Marcora suggests that building up events as arduous in one’s mind or wholly dreading a future activity could in turn make something you don’t want to do even worse.

Although that paper might not be strenuous physical activity, thinking it will take you 12 hours and kill you in one simple thesis can make it harder for you to write; however, the self imposed mental effort and stress you exert while writing it could help you increase your running pace. So in order to win the Boston Marathon and graduate school with honors, follow these simple steps – procrastinate, tell yourself the paper will be a breeze, write the paper, go running. Just some words of wisdom from a fellow procrastinator and avid runner.

NYC Marathon


-Emily Horton


The limit to exercise tolerance in humans: mind over muscle – European Journal of Applied Physiology

Pyschophysiology of perceived effort during physical tasks – International Journal of Psychophysiology

How to Build Mental Muscle – Runner’s World Magazine

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