There’s a suite of functions in the brain referred to as the Central Governor. Its job is to protect the overall organism that is each of us by limiting exercise and athletic exertion to safe levels. But the Central Governor is not only extremely conservative, but it’s also very convincing. It will generate nonspecific pain and muscle cramps and even manipulate neurotransmitters and mood-regulating hormones in order to reign in a body which is pushing past what the Central Governor deems a safe threshold. So, yes, it is important to listen to your body. But it’s equally important not to take its word at face value.
Reality testing and first-hand personal experience on which to base one’s judgments are the key factors for knowing how and when to override your body’s attempts to hold you back. The first time you find yourself deep in the wilderness moving along a trail in the dark chasing the illuminated cone of your headlamp beam can feel overwhelming, unnerving, and even scary. But the 100th time you do it could end up being one of your all-time favorite moments on the trail. The 98 times in between are when you learn how your mind and body feel under those circumstances, how to manage those feelings, how to fuel those efforts, how far you can push them, and what the real consequences are.
Mentally taking a step back and looking at yourself helps to put it all in perspective. In your own mind, everything novel about your undertaking takes on a skewed sense of significance; it’s the farthest you’ve ever gone in a single push, the longest you’ve ever stayed awake, the highest elevation you’ve ever attained, the hardest thing you’ve ever attempted, the worst you have ever felt. The superlatives are convincing, but inaccurate in their incendiary nature. It would be equally accurate to describe yourself as a biped moving along a trail in its natural habitat. Viewing your undertaking in terms of its animal ordinariness disconnects it from fear. A hungry, sleep-deprived animal moving through challenging environments is most likely to lay down and take a nap, not die suddenly and tragically of exertion and exposure.
Using these techniques, mentally connecting with my inner Hominid, my ancient animal self, doesn’t make me feel superhuman, it simply makes me feel like an ordinary Human Being. And ordinary Human Beings are capable of amazing and extraordinary things.