I am always in awe of how our mind can influence our physiology. Nothing fascinates me more than the placebo effect, especially when it comes to exercise.
Athletes tend to have a lot of quirks when it comes to optimizing their performance. They eat the same foods, workout at the same time of day, even wear certain clothes believing that these things have a huge impact on their performance.
While some of these things clearly have no direct impact on their performance, we can’t discount the role the mind plays in affecting how we perform. If I believe I run slower when I wear my red colored running shoes as opposed to my blue colored running shoes, even though they are the same exact shoe, I am most likely going to run slower. It’s not the color of the shoe that is affecting my performance, it’s my mind.
Food, especially food we consume before, and during exercise is another variable that can impact our performance. Food plays a strong physiological role in our performance because it provides us with the energy we need to perform. Food also has a strong psychological impact on our performance as your belief in the impact the food has on your physiology plays a role in your exercise performance. If I believe eating a banana before my run makes me run my best but I am given a shake instead, I probably won’t run my best even if that shake has the same macronutrients as the banana.
Another interesting example of where the physiological and psychological impact of food on our performance is rinsing your mouth with a carbohydrate solution.
It is well known in the performance space that rinsing your mouth with a carbohydrate solution has been shown to improve performance. That’s right, you don’t even have to ingest the carbohydrates to get a performance improvement, just putting a carbohydrate solution in your mouth and spitting it back out can give you a 2-3% increase in performance!
Wasn’t it the additional glycogen from carbohydrates that was causing the performance improvements? If you are not ingesting the carbohydrates what are the mechanisms behind the 2-3% performance improvement?
In the case of shorter duration events that are lasting less than an hour or so, you would have plenty of glycogen to make it through the event without requiring more. In other words, the amount of carbohydrates stored in your body is not really the limiting factor. Instead the carbohydrates, whether they are ingested or not, appear to have an impact on the central nervous system, causing it to relax and for you to therefore exert yourself to a greater degree resulting in improved performance!
You are kind of tricking your brain, telling it to take a chill pill.
Most people don’t know the physiological mechanisms at play here.
What they do know, or believe based on what they have been told, is that carbohydrates make you perform better and the more carbohydrates you have the better you can perform (this is not true by the way, but we are talking about the physiology here not the psychology).
If it is just the belief that carbohydrates improve performance, could the fact that someone believes they are rinsing their mouth with carbohydrates be part of the reason why they see improved performance?
Turns out the answer may be YES!
Researchers recently blinded 10 male and female runners and told them they were going to be testing two carbohydrate mouth rinses for performance during a 30 minute treadmill test. The mouth rinses the researchers gave them both had no calories and were sweetened with sucralose, a zero calorie sweetener. The only difference between the two mouthwashes was that one was clear, and the other was colored “pink” (I don’t know why they chose pink, that doesn’t sound too appetizing to me).
At the end of the study researchers found that when participants rinsed their mouth with the pink mouthwash they, on average, had a 4% increase in distance covered and a 4% increase in speed! Participants also reported an increase in the feeling of “pleasure” when using the pink mouthwash over the clear mouth rinse.
Researchers theorize that this increase in pleasure when using the pink mouth rinse is a result of them perceiving the color pink with carbohydrates and could have a physiological impact causing them to improve their performance (3).
To think that our mind doesn’t play an important role in working towards our goals would be a huge mistake. Much of my work as a health coach revolves around trying to work through many of the mental aspects of making lifestyle changes. Everything from combating fear of failure, dealing with actual failure, being uncomfortable, doubt, self-sabotage, and much much more.
Working through what is going on in our brains is just as important as what we eat, how we exercise, how much sleep we get, and the carbs, fat, and proteins we choose to eat or not eat. If your mind is not in the right space you will eventually hit some kind of road block and chances are you will crumble and end up back where you started.
If you don’t have a coach to turn to in order to work through the mental aspect of lifestyle change what can you do?
This is where community and social connection come in. Everyone goes through these mental challenges on their path to change so there are tons of people out there that have experienced the same things you are going through and are willing to offer up advice. Having someone or a group of people you can turn to and talk through these problems is a key to long term success. Objective opinions always help. It helps you get out of your own way. The community could be online or it could be in person, it could be a family member or a complete stranger, the specifics don’t matter, you just need something. I am not going to lie and say finding a community or meaningful social connection is easy, it’s not. Searching online for groups of people with similar interests is a good place to start and of course turning to close family and friends for advice is also something that you can do. It might take time to cultivate the social connections you are looking for but as with everything being patient is an important part of success.
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(n.d.). CARBOHYDRATE MOUTH RINSE: PERFORMANCE … – footprint. Retrieved May 21, 2021, from https://secure.footprint.net/gatorade/stg/gssiweb/pdf/118_CarbohydrateMouthRinse-Jeukendrup_SSE.pdf ↑
(n.d.). Carbohydrate sensing in the human mouth: effects on … – NCBI – NIH. Retrieved May 21, 2021, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2683964/ ↑