When Exhaustion Plays Mind Games

James Walpole/ September 2, 2018

When I used to go for regular routed runs in my old neighborhood, I would notice that the last parts were  especially hard for me. Granted, I’m not the best runner in the world, but this was interesting. I was only running about a mile in distance.

Maybe it was pacing. Maybe it was that I hadn’t done enough training yet. Probably both are partly true.

There are other moments that seem only to bring us to a breaking point when we know their limit. How about those 40 push-ups? Things seem to get really hard around push-up 38 or so. I’ve noticed this enough that I’ve become intrigued by it.

I think our bodies are smarter than we think. My theory is that my body knew when the run was planned to end and so became “exhausted” to time with it. In other words, I think our exhaustion is often psycho-somatic*.

I didn’t feel the same kind of exhaustion when I ran new (and comparably long) trails. I didn’t even feel quite the same thing when I ran six miles (I felt exhaustion of a different and more honest kind).  In both situations, I didn’t have any exact idea of how many miles or for how many minutes I would be working my body. So my body didn’t “plan” to be exhausted.

There are multiple phenomena like this in physical training: as long as you know where the end is, there the exhaustion will lie in wait. If true, this speaks to human resilience and also to our capacity for self-deception. This also opens up an interesting question: how much more could we do if we didn’t know the exact ends we were striving for?


Intellectual influences: A recent read on Adlerian psychology made me more aware of the stories we tell ourselves. Exhaustion may be one of them. I was also influenced by listening to a LifeHacker podcast on endurance.

James Walpole

James Walpole is a writer, startup marketer, and perpetual apprentice. You're reading his blog right now, and he really appreciates it. Don't let it go to his head, though.

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