You always have a final spurt left in you
You know how you can be absolutely dead tired, but still manage to summon the strength for an all out sprint finish?
That peculiar phenomenon helped early man conserve energy, and thus always have a buffer for unexpected dangers.
For you, unfortunately, it means you’ll quit long before you actually have to, no matter if exerting yourself physically or mentally. Blame it on the above molecule, adenosine.
Adenosine protects you from overreaching
What happens is this:
Adenosine builds up in the brain when you are awake. It’s probably to make sure you go to sleep when the day is over in order for the brain to work on the day’s impressions.
The process speeds up during hard work – physical as well as intellectual.
Adenosine molecules attach to the surface of brain cells and tell them to “cool it”, to relax and recover. This adenosine effect kicks in well before the body is in any danger, saving a hidden reserve. We are not supposed to be fully spent. Ever. In case a lion were to suddenly show up and charge you.
Being mentally tired translates to lower physical performance and vice versa. Studying hard for a test thus means you’ll perform less good at the gym or on the track afterward. Running hard the day before an important test is equally debilitating.
There is a similar aerobic/hypertrophy trade off, albeit for completely different reasons. Tough aerobic work stops muscle strength development and hypertrophy processes, and vice versa. Hence, keep your running and weight lifting far apart if possible. That’s a whole different article though.
If the motivation for a “final” spurt is strong enough, the adenosine effect can be overcome. Actually seeing the finish line or the charging lion are highly motivating factors.
It’s in this context you should view my “Just The One” and “Just One More” mantras.
By telling yourself “it’s only just this one”, or “just one more left” to do, the hurdle to get going or continuing is reduced significantly. It’s like spurting from one lion after the other. Before you know it’ you’ll have set a new Personal Best for 10 km. One caveat; you need to fully believe you’re (almost) done and then “just” spurt the rest (or rather, what you fool yourself into thinking is the rest). Repeat.
The opposite occurs if you constantly visualize the entire 10km race or your entire 4 year college education. Then every step feels like hundreds, instead of the one step it actually is.
Take control of your adenosine to get more out of your body
Train on moving the limit, decrease the reserve buffer, become adenosine tolerant: Sit a little longer with your tasks or run a little faster or longer. Ten seconds more is all I’m asking. And then another ten.
I, e.g., used to study natural sciences in the sauna during high school (age 16-18) to get an edge vs. my competition.
I typically challenged myself to finish a certain number of problems before being allowed to shower and go again. I reckoned that, if I could complete certain tasks at three times the required speed, while burdened by 80-100 degrees Celsius (176-212 F), a real test in an air conditioned room with 3 hours available should be a walk in the park. It was.
At the time I had no idea about the inner workings of the brain, nor did I realize that one of the best cross country skiers of all time, Gunde Svan, at the very same time (1987-1990) practiced exercising on days with bad weather for the same reason. He later told that story at a company event we had ca. 1998.
Why coffee makes you more alert
Caffeine looks like adenosine for the relevant brain cell receptors. Therefore, the caffeine molecules attach to the receptors and prevent the adenosine from getting through. That means the tiredness message the body is trying to convey to the brain never gets heard.
(K) caffeine molecules attach to brain cell receptors and block (A)denosine molecules from getting through, thus preventing the brain from getting the message of how tired the body is.
The hypophysis then interprets the increased brain activity (resulting from blocking the adenosine receptors) as stress, and releases hormones that stimulate adrenaline production, making the body ready for fight or flight. Dopamine is also released, creating a feeling of well-being. From tired to alert and feeling good. Get ready to do awesome work.
Just by knowing this, by understanding it’s your brain that’s tired, not the body, it’s easier to make that extra effort. What’s even better, you can start to consciously work on your adenosine tolerance by challenging your comfort zone systematically, and little by little move the level where you feel spent closer to where the body would actually be exhausted.
A chronopharmacological coffee break
If you’re interested in optimizing the power of caffeine, while protecting your sleep, you should take into account research on chronopharmacology.
In short, limit your coffee intake to times when your cortisol levels, and alertness, aren’t naturally high anyway. The typical person that rises at 7 am, should hold off having their morning coffee until at least around 9:30-10:30 am, or even 11:30 am if you are a late luncher, and have time to take advantage of the caffeine effect before leaving your desk.
I personally stop at that one cup – and only every second day (before my workout), but if you want a second cup, schedule it for between 2-5 pm, which corresponds to a circadian natural dip in cortisol levels.
Drinking coffee this way maximizes your alertness during the day, while increasing your caffeine response and limiting your caffeine desensitizing and addiction. If you constantly drink coffee the number of caffeine receptors increase, which reduces your sensitivity. The insecticide side of caffeine may not be that relevant to humans, but why drink more than you have to?
As a mindfulness side note, remember to savor every cup, let the aroma engulf your senses, and pay attention to the texture and taste, rather than absent-mindedly gulping it down while reading and then getting another one.
Indulgence cum discipline in a nutshell
The Just One More” principle isn’t just a personal preference. There is scientific underpinning connected to the reason you can always spurt when attacked or seeing the finish line, no matter how spent you thought you were the second before.
Improve your adenosine tolerance a small step at a time, by systematically going a little further in whatever you’re doing – at the gym or at work.
Use the knowledge that you are actually not that spent for getting more done, for running faster and longer or lifting more in the gym.
Take it easy with tough mental tasks the day before an athletic challenge, and avoid marathons the day before an important intellectual challenge, a test, a job interview, a client meeting etc.
Hold off on that morning coffee. Make it a reward to savor after a cortisol induced work spurt first thing in the morning.
Whatever you do, if you want to get further in your area, don’t do a 30 day challenge. Chances are you’ll either not even get started, due to taking in the daunting prospect of 30 days of hard work, or you’ll quit right after those 30 days, with no habit to show for it.
Instead, keep telling yourself you’ll just do one more, and then you’ll get to quit. Then do just one more. You can quit at any time,… just after this last one…
That way you’ll always be improving, always investing, always pulling ahead from the pack. Indulgence cum discipline in a nutshell. And it’s based on an actual brain molecule (and serious research). This one:
Try this the next time you’re in the gym or going running. Tell yourself you’ll quit after “this minute” or “this set or exercise” and give it your best. Then right at the point where you’re getting your reward (quitting), do just one more. Also remember to hold off your first coffee tomorrow until 10 am or so.
Please, do me just this one little favor, share this article in your network, with a friend, a quitter, a 30-day challenge junkie, a coffee drinker or somebody else that would benefit from artificial spurting and enhanced adenosine tolerance.
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