By Christopher Cudworth
It’s a fact that those of us who run, ride and swim take quite a bit for granted. See, it’s easy to complain about the fact that a workout or race did not go well. Or, you might get worked up that your training was interrupted by an injury.
All these are products of our perception. The fact that you can run, ride or swim at all is something to be grateful about. It is all the product of an evolutionary history that is downright miraculous in its ability to drive the basic biological functions needed to test yourself on the endurance front.
See, your brain has this thing called the hypothalamus that regulates the nervous system. Without that, you could not breathe. Your heart would not beat on its own. Your eyes would not blink. You’d have no reflexes at all. You could not cough, sneeze, swallow or vomit either. I’m sure you’re happy about that last one. It lets you know you finally gave your all in a race or workout.
Beyond the barf reflex things get a lot more subtle but no more colorful. Your digestive system is vital to process food and relies upon a number of functions about which you never have to think. Unless something goes wrong. There’s nothing like barfing and crapping your pants at the same time to slow you down or even bring you to a halt. But it does make you appreciate the fact that most of the time your body functions pretty well.
Originally we thought about some of this as “natural functions” that included excitory and inhibitory functions that help us to respond to stress or other factors. We now think in terms of a “sympathetic” nervous system that provides “quick response” and a “parasympathetic” nervous system that is more slow to react. The most notable exception to this rule (for men especially) is sexual arousal and orgasm. Any man that has experienced premature ejaculation knows that it doesn’t matter whether it is a sympathetic or parasympathetic response. The simple fact remains that you came too soon to gain much sympathy from your partner.
The fact that so many of our body functions do not require our thought process to make them work is quite a gift. Imagine if you had to tell yourself to take a breath every time you want to fill your lungs. Or imagine not knowing enough to blink when riding your bike at 25 mph or swimming.
It really helps an athlete to cough when you need to cough. The body says, “Hey that shit is not supposed to be in your throat” and cough! out it comes. You hope.
The point in all this is that you should stop bitching if your training is a little hard on a particular day. Your body could just go on strike someday and shut down the autonomic nervous systems and you’d find yourself up to your neck in trouble and facing the ultimate test in your life. And no, it’s not premature ejaculation.
See, we’re too hard on ourselves about these things. Spend some time on your next run, ride or swim taking inventory on all the things you don’t need to think about in order to perform your workout. It would be enough to make you crazy if your body did not take care of business all by itself.
Of course the ongoing dialogue between brain and body is another matter altogether. There’s nothing autonomic about motivation and pushing yourself to the limit. That all comes from deep inside the gray matter sitting inside your head. But then again, maybe that little voice in your head that says “Slow down! Slow down!” is an autonomic function after all.