There is no such thing as mind over matter. You can’t jump off a building and fly simply by willing it. But mind and matter can influence each other, because they’re really just two sides of the same coin. Evidence from Stephen McGregor’s research on the running stride and elsewhere suggests that athletes can use the capacity of the mind to change the body to sometimes achieve performance breakthroughs that are seemingly impossible.
This is what Dave Scott and Mark Allen did in their preparations for the 1989 Ironman. In the six Ironmans he’d done prior to that race, Allen had always run poorly, withering in the heat and finding himself unable to remain mentally focused for the full eight-plus hours it took to reach the finish line. So, at the start of the 1989 season, Allen set out to overcome this weakness by increasing his longest training days from six to seven-and-a-half hours, by seeking out harsh, Kona-like environments to train in, and by going out of his way to ride his bike against the wind and run in the hottest part of the day. A deeply spiritual person, Allen mixed these measures with mental preparations such as facing his fear of Dave Scott and performing rituals to make piece with the Island of Hawaii. But these mental preparations were also physical, just as his physical preparations were also mental—all part of using his mind to strengthen his body.
Dave Scott and Mark Allen faced each other at a major triathlon held in Australia in April of 1989. Allen beat Scott handily, averaging an astonishing 5:26 per mile in the 30 km (18.6-mile) run leg. Now it was Scott’s turn to be frightened of Allen. Dave Scott knew he had to find a way to match Allen’s new level of performance before they squared off again in Kona or he would lack the confidence he needed to again beat his longtime arch-nemesis.
Scott’s last chance to gain that confidence came at Ironman Japan at the end of July. He attacked that race more aggressively than he ever would have dared to do if he had not been trying to match Mark Allen’s new level of performance. When it was all said and done, Scott had obliterated the Ironman-distance world record, setting a new standard of 8:01:32.
Dave Scott and Mark Allen did not use their minds to do what their bodies could not in their preparations for what was destined to be the greatest race ever run. They used their minds to take the capacities of their bodies to new heights. And then they did it again in that unforgettable race.
There is a subtle but important difference between the false notion of mind over matter and the real possibility of strengthening matter (that is, the body) through mind. Think about this as you begin to prepare for your own next breakthrough as a triathlete.
Matt Fitzgerald is the author of Iron War: Dave Scott, Mark Allen & The Greatest Race Ever Run (VeloPress 2011) and a Coach and Training Intelligence Specialist for PEAR Sports. Find out more at Mattfizgerald.org.