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Psychology of the Mind at Sub Threshold

Our mids are incredible... So I wanted to take today to dive into psychology.

Understanding Sub-Threshold Performance

Sub-threshold efforts in cycling are those exerted just below your lactate threshold—the point at which your body starts to accumulate lactate faster than it can be removed, leading to fatigue. Operating just below this threshold allows you to maintain a high intensity for a longer duration, making it a critical aspect of endurance cycling performance.

The Role of Mental Toughness

Mental toughness is paramount when you're pushing your limits without crossing into the red zone. It involves maintaining focus, managing discomfort, and keeping a steady pace, even when every part of you screams to either give up or go harder. Strategies for developing mental toughness include setting realistic, achievable goals, practicing mindfulness and positive self-talk, and visualizing success.

The Power of Goal Setting

Effective goal setting is crucial. You should set specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART) goals for your sub-threshold efforts. For example, aim to maintain a certain power output or heart rate for a specific duration. These goals can help you focus your training and give you a clear target to strive for, enhancing your motivation and sense of accomplishment.

Focus and Concentration

The ability to focus and concentrate on your effort, breathing, and technique can significantly affect your performance at sub-threshold levels. Techniques like mindfulness meditation can train your brain to stay present and avoid the distraction of discomfort or fatigue. Regular practice can improve your concentration, allowing you to maintain optimal effort levels for longer.

Coping with Discomfort

Sub-threshold efforts are inherently uncomfortable. Learning to cope with this discomfort is a vital psychological skill. Techniques such as controlled breathing, positive self-talk, and dissociation (focusing on something other than the discomfort) can be effective. Understanding that discomfort is a temporary state and a sign of your effort can also help you push through challenging moments.

Motivation and the Role of Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Factors

Understanding what motivates you can unlock higher levels of performance. Intrinsic motivation—such as the joy of cycling or personal achievement—tends to be more sustainable than extrinsic motivation, like rewards or recognition. Focusing on intrinsic motivators can help you maintain a consistent effort and enjoy the process of training and competing.

The Impact of Psychological Fatigue

Psychological fatigue can significantly affect your sub-threshold performance. It's not just your body that gets tired; your brain does, too. Strategies to combat psychological fatigue include adequate rest, mental training, and ensuring variety in your training to keep it engaging. Additionally, nutrition plays a role in mental endurance, with certain diets potentially enhancing cognitive function and resilience.

Recovery and Psychological Well-being

Recovery isn't just physical; it's also psychological. Ensuring adequate rest, engaging in activities that you enjoy and that relax you, and maintaining a balanced perspective on training and competition are all crucial. Techniques like yoga, meditation, and even simple leisure activities can help restore your mental energy, preparing you for your next training session or race.

Understanding the interaction between our nervous system, cellular mechanisms, and the mind during strenuous exercise involves delving into several complex physiological processes. This intricate relationship highlights the body's remarkable ability to adapt, respond, and optimize performance under stress. Let's explore the science behind what happens in your body and brain during hard exercise, such as cycling at or near your threshold.

Neurological Response to Exercise

Central Nervous System (CNS)

The CNS plays a pivotal role in regulating exercise intensity and duration. As you begin to exercise, the brain sends signals to your muscles to contract, coordinating movement. This is mediated by neurotransmitters, such as acetylcholine, which facilitate communication between neurons and muscles.

During strenuous exercise, the CNS also monitors and responds to feedback from the body, including signals of fatigue, oxygen levels, and carbon dioxide levels. This feedback helps regulate effort and pacing to prevent overexertion. The perceived effort or how hard you feel you're working during exercise is largely a product of CNS processing.

Peripheral Nervous System (PNS)

The PNS includes all the nerves outside the brain and spinal cord. It's responsible for sending sensory information to the CNS and carrying motor commands to the muscles. During intense exercise, the sympathetic nervous system (a part of the PNS) increases heart rate, blood pressure, and blood flow to muscles, preparing the body for sustained effort.

Cellular Response to Exercise

Energy Production and Metabolism

At the cellular level, exercise demands increased energy production. Mitochondria, known as the powerhouse of the cell, ramp up ATP (adenosine triphosphate) production through aerobic respiration. During high-intensity efforts, when oxygen supply is limited, cells rely more on anaerobic glycolysis, leading to the production of lactate. The body's ability to manage and clear lactate is crucial for sustained performance.

Calcium Signaling

Muscle contraction is regulated by calcium ions. When a motor neuron stimulates a muscle fiber, calcium is released within the muscle cell, enabling actin and myosin filaments to slide past each other and produce a contraction. The efficiency of this process and the reuptake of calcium can impact muscle endurance and strength.

Neuroplasticity and Exercise

Regular, strenuous exercise not only adapts the muscles to increased demand but also leads to neuroplastic changes in the brain. Exercise has been shown to increase the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that supports neuron growth and survival, enhances learning, and protects against cognitive decline. These changes can improve cognitive function, mood, and resilience to stress.

Mind-Body Interaction

The psychological response to exercise is a critical component of performance. The endorphin release during exercise contributes to a sense of well-being and can reduce the perception of pain. Additionally, the mind's ability to tolerate discomfort, stay focused, and remain motivated is key to pushing through the physical and mental barriers encountered during strenuous exercise.


This field studies the interaction between psychological processes, the nervous system, and the immune system. Exercise influences this interaction by modulating stress hormones like cortisol, which can suppress immune function if chronically elevated. However, regular moderate exercise can bolster the immune system and reduce stress, showcasing the complex balance between mind, body, and health.

The relationship between the nervous system, cellular mechanisms, and the mind during strenuous exercise is a testament to the body's integrated and adaptive capacity. From the initial neural activation of muscle fibers to the deep neuroplastic changes in the brain, every system is involved in optimizing performance and ensuring recovery. This intricate dance highlights the importance of holistic training approaches that consider not just the physical but also the mental and emotional aspects of athletic performance. Understanding these processes can empower athletes to train smarter, perform better, and enjoy a healthier, more balanced relationship with exercise.

The mind-body interaction, especially during exercise, involves a complex interplay between the nervous system and various brain regions. This interaction is crucial for regulating physical performance, managing stress, and influencing how we perceive effort and pain. Understanding this intricate relationship requires exploring how nerves communicate with the brain and which specific areas of the brain are actively involved during exercise.

Nervous System Communication

The nervous system is divided into the central nervous system (CNS), comprising the brain and spinal cord, and the peripheral nervous system (PNS), which includes all other neural elements. During exercise, the PNS detects physical stress and sends signals to the CNS, which then processes these signals and responds accordingly.

  • Sensory neurons in the PNS detect changes in muscle tension, temperature, and chemical composition (such as increased carbon dioxide or lactate levels) and convey this information to the CNS.

  • Motor neurons then carry commands from the CNS to the muscles, adjusting the intensity of muscle contractions to meet the demands of the exercise.

This bidirectional communication is essential for coordinating and optimizing physical performance.

Brain Regions Involved in Exercise

Several key areas of the brain are involved in the regulation and perception of exercise:

Prefrontal Cortex (PFC)

The PFC is involved in decision-making, planning, and inhibiting inappropriate behaviors. During exercise, it helps regulate effort based on goals and environmental feedback, such as pacing during a race or deciding when to push harder. The PFC is also involved in the perception of effort and fatigue, making it crucial for endurance activities.

Motor Cortex

The motor cortex is responsible for generating neural impulses that control the execution of movement. It plays a direct role in determining the force and coordination of muscle contractions during exercise.

Basal Ganglia

The basal ganglia are involved in the control and regulation of voluntary motor movements, procedural learning, routine behaviors, and emotions. They help modulate intensity and efficiency of movements, contributing to the fluidity and precision of physical activities.

Limbic System

The limbic system, including the amygdala and hippocampus, is central to emotion and memory. It's involved in the emotional response to exercise, such as the feeling of euphoria often associated with the "runner's high," which is attributed to the release of endorphins and other neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin.


The hypothalamus plays a key role in the autonomic nervous system and endocrine system, regulating body temperature, hunger, thirst, and the circadian rhythm. During exercise, it helps maintain homeostasis by managing the body's response to stress, including adjusting hormone levels and sympathetic nervous system activity.

Insular Cortex

The insular cortex is involved in the perception of bodily sensations, including pain, hunger, and the internal condition of the body. It is crucial for processing and regulating the emotional response to physical discomfort experienced during strenuous exercise.

The Role of Neurotransmitters and Hormones

  • Endorphins: Often cited for their role in the "runner's high," endorphins are produced in response to physical stress and pain, reducing the perception of pain and promoting a sense of well-being.

  • Dopamine: This neurotransmitter is associated with reward and motivation. Exercise increases dopamine release, which can enhance mood and motivation, making physical activity rewarding.

  • Serotonin: Involved in mood regulation, serotonin levels can also increase with exercise, contributing to improved mood and possibly playing a role in the regulation of appetite and sleep.

  • Norepinephrine: This neurotransmitter and hormone is crucial for arousal, alertness, and focus. Exercise-induced increases in norepinephrine can improve concentration and energy levels.

Given the intricate interplay between the nervous system, brain functions, and the physiological responses to exercise, there are several strategies, often referred to as "hacks," to optimize mental resilience and push past discomfort during physical activity. These techniques are grounded in scientific understanding of how our brains and bodies interact during exercise, allowing us to tap into hidden reserves of strength and endurance.

1. Psychological Skills Training

Goal Setting: Setting specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART) goals can increase motivation and focus, making it easier to push through discomfort by concentrating on tangible outcomes.

Visualization: Mental imagery, or visualizing successful performance and overcoming obstacles, can prepare the brain for the actual event, making challenges seem more manageable and less intimidating.

Self-Talk: Positive self-talk can significantly alter our perception of effort and pain. Changing negative narratives into positive affirmations can boost confidence, reduce perceived exertion, and enhance performance.

2. Mindfulness and Meditation

Practicing mindfulness can increase awareness and acceptance of present-moment experiences, including discomfort. It helps in dissociating pain from the emotional response to pain, making it easier to manage. Meditation can also improve focus, reduce stress, and enhance recovery, contributing to overall mental toughness.

3. Cognitive Behavioral Techniques

Cognitive-behavioral strategies involve recognizing and then restructuring negative thought patterns. By challenging these patterns and replacing them with more constructive thoughts, athletes can improve their response to pain and fatigue, pushing past previously perceived limits.

4. Biofeedback and Neurofeedback

Biofeedback techniques provide real-time data on physiological processes, such as heart rate or muscle tension, allowing individuals to learn how to control these processes consciously. Neurofeedback focuses on brainwave patterns, offering the potential to train the brain to enter states of higher concentration, reduced anxiety, and optimal performance.

5. Incremental Exposure to Discomfort

Gradually increasing the intensity and duration of workouts can help the body and mind adapt to discomfort. This method, akin to the principle of progressive overload in physical training, also applies to mental resilience, making higher levels of exertion more manageable over time.

6. Enhancing Endorphin Release

Since endorphins play a key role in pain relief and well-being, activities that increase endorphin release can help push past discomfort. High-intensity interval training (HIIT), for instance, has been shown to boost endorphin levels significantly.

7. Nutritional Interventions

Certain nutrients and supplements, such as caffeine, beta-alanine, and nitrates, have been shown to improve performance, reduce perceived exertion, and enhance pain tolerance during exercise. Adequate hydration and energy availability are also crucial for optimal brain function and mood regulation.

8. Recovery Strategies

Optimizing recovery with adequate sleep, nutrition, hydration, and stress management can enhance psychological well-being and resilience, preparing the mind and body for the demands of subsequent exercise sessions.

9. Social Support

Training with a partner or group can provide motivational boosts, accountability, and a competitive edge, making it easier to push through difficult parts of a workout. Social support can also reduce stress and improve mood, contributing to better overall performance.

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