SUP Racing Fatigue: Perception IS Everything

What if exhaustion in a SUP race was not our physical inability to continue or push, but simply us giving up? SUP racing improvement may have little to do with physical abilities and everything to do with our perception of effort.

There is strong evidence suggesting it is perception of effort, and not muscle activity, that causes athletes to lower their intensity or give up. The implications of these findings are profound for SUP racers and all endurance athletes. According to scientific research, it is not entirely through physical training, but through positive thinking, experience and changing our perceptions, that we can push our bodies into increased performance.

‘Mind over matter’ is not a new concept in its application to life or sports. However, it has only recently been studied, quantified and scientifically supported in its application.

In his book on the subject of perception of effort, How Bad Do You Want It?, Matt Fitzgerald writes:

In endurance races, athletes pace themselves largely by feel. External feedback in the form of time splits and the relative positions of other racers may influence pacing, but it’s an internal sense of the appropriateness of one’s pace from moment to moment that has the first and final say in determining whether an athlete chooses to speed up, hold steady, slow down, or collapse into a lifeless heap. The scientific name for this pacing mechanism is anticipatory regulation. Its output is a continuously refreshed, intuition-like feeling for how to adjust one’s effort in order to get to the finish line as quickly as possible. Its inputs are perception of effort, motivation, knowledge of the distance left to be covered, and past experience.

In an overview of Samuele Marcora’s psychobiological model of endurance performance published in 2013, Brazilian exercise physiologists wrote that “perception of effort is the conscious awareness of the central motor command sent to the active muscles.” In other words, perception of effort is the feeling of activity in the brain that stimulates muscle work; it is not the feeling of muscle work itself. Except in the case of reflex actions, all muscle work begins with an act of conscious willing.

When experienced endurance athletes race at a familiar distance, perceived effort tends to increase linearly until it reaches a maximal level near the finish line. But perceived effort is subjective, and for this reason, what is considered maximal changes by circumstance. When athletes really want it, they are able to tolerate a higher level of perceived effort than when they are comparatively unmotivated. As a consequence, their pacing strategy changes. The same level of perceived effort that causes them to hold steady at a given point in a race for which they are unmotivated might cause them to speed up at an equivalent point in a race that matters more to them.

If you want to improve your SUP racing, ask yourself, how bad do you want it? Don’t be fooled, SUP race training and maintaining your health are important for SUP racing performance. Your body has physiological limitations. You cannot will yourself into paddling as fast as Danny Ching. However, once you have trained and adapted to a specific physiological level of performance, increases in SUP racing performance may be found in your brain, and not your muscles.

Another important point in the psychological approach to performance gains, is the impact that experience can have on our perception of effort and performance. The more you train and participate in SUP races, the more you can dial in your pre-race routine, SUP race pacing strategy and overall approach to performance.

In training for a 10-mile race, it is important to experience what it’s like to actually paddle 10-miles. Ensure this 10-mile paddle is completed in accordance with proper SUP race periodized training. Not only will this kind of preparation help produce physiological adaptations, it will help in the perception of your pacing and overall psychological approach to the race.

You need to experience your thinking on mile 8 when everything hurts and you feel like giving up. If your thought process is negative and self-defeating, then this is something that needs to be worked on. Practice changing your attitude by continually putting yourself in similar situations during your SUP training and racing.

As you move forward in your SUP race improvement, remember that perhaps it is not the physiological strength gained during SUP race training that gives athletes the biggest competitive advantage. Instead, it is the ability to feel pain and discomfort and push past it. Change your perception of effort, get better results in your next SUP race.

Read more about the study of perceived effort in sports at the link here.