Elite athletes are experts in mind over matter. They routinely push themselves beyond the normal limits of human endurance to gain a spot on the podium, but do their physically gruelling, near superhuman feats owe their success to mental discipline or physical prowess? More important, does pushing past pain translate into superior performance and results?
University of Regina's Patrick Neary studies biological fatigue to establish whether the brain controls the muscle or the muscle provides feedback to the brain to determine if there are prime conditions for peak physical performance. His team is exploring not only how the brain and muscles interact under acute exercise but what happens when factors such as age, extreme heat or high altitudes are at play. The 1968 Games in Mexico underscored the effects of elevation on performance; the only world records set at the Games were in anaerobic sports—those of high intensity and short duration.
Dr. Neary's research reveals that all the willpower in the world will only take athletes so far. Ultimately, factors such as weather and height above sea level do affect the ability of the brain to generate information to the muscle which enables it to perform optimally. Intense heat, for instance, reduces the brain's ability to keep the body cool, overloading the heart, muscles and skin. Earlier exhaustion and dehydration are frequent results.
"Your body can only do precisely what you are asking it to do under ideal conditions," he explains. "Otherwise, your performance is likely to be compromised."Fortunately for Canada's athletes, neither temperatures nor altitude are likely to be factors at the Games.
The ramifications of Dr. Neary's research extend beyond athletics. This new knowledge is useful for professions like policing, firefighting, mining and other physically challenging occupations that often involve fatigue that could lead to dangers on the job.