I’m a runner. Or at least, I’d like to think so. With the number of hours I’ve spent just running on my own, plus the number of running events I’ve joint, I’m pretty sure I’ve earned the designation.
When you join a race or marathon, you generally get a race kit, which could contain any variety of running-related items. Among the stuff I’ve collected is a lanyard that says “defy your limits”. Now, this is great, motivating stuff for those with a sports mentality. With taglines such as “Impossible is Nothing” or “Just Do It”, sporting goods companies tap into the psyche of their target audience and earn their loyalty through an “I totally get you” kind of social proof. Whether this ends up as a prescription for on top of being a description of their audience’s attitude is anyone’s guess, I suppose.
As we are bombarded with images of successful athletes pushing themselves to an almost self-flagellating degree in order to be the best in their arena, it’s hard to see anything wrong with the “no limits” mindset. However, if one takes a second to think, one will realize that this is not always helpful.
Some Physical Limits Are Real and Unpushable
Let’s start with the obvious: the very reason they are called “limits” is that you could not or should not go past them. Consider what you have to invest when you train: you invest time, money, and energy. There are only 24 hours in a day, and the body needs a certain amount of that for rest and food intake. Obviously, you can’t train if you’re not properly refreshed and fueled up. So basically, “eat food” and “sleep” are some non-negotiables.
Also, you have to accept your own personal physical limits. A heavyset person will probably not have a good chance as a sprinter, just like how a skinny person will probably not do well in Highland games. Short people usually don’t have a good chance of making dunks in the NBA. Of course, you may talk about people who defy the odds and set physical records in spite of physical limitations. I’ve been guilty of seeing a news item about a disabled person running a marathon and telling myself “what’s your excuse?”, and some short basketball players would want to point out players like Spud Webb or Nate Robinson and expect themselves to do as well. However, I’d like to think my comparison is more reasonable: all I care about is that if a person with physical challenges can push himself, so should I. I don’t expect myself to set dunk records because of some exceptions to the rule about short people not dunking.
The problem is that people often don’t remember the basic principle of “ceteris paribus”, meaning “all other things being equal”. So while it might be fair to point out that other people have overcome physical limitations to set records, you shouldn’t expect yourself to do as well as they do because, let’s face it, they may just have won a genetic lottery to get where they are. Not accepting that could lead to serious consequences.
Some Limits Can Be Pushed at Your Risk/Expense
People often admire athletes for their ability to override their pain and their fear. In a stressful, high-pressure situation, we admire those people who, with odds stacked against them, channel the most ruthless, cold-blooded sense of competition they can muster and will themselves to perform beyond limits and pull off a victory. Heart, guts, nerves, backbone, stomach: all parts of the anatomy, all what we expect from a real competitor.
However, pain and fear are there as controls to keep you from acting like a suicidal maniac. In fact, the brain is wired to respond more to negative stimuli than positive stimuli. This is called negativity bias, and this is what allowed many of our loinclothed ancestors to avoid getting killed and make babies. Despite this evolutionary tendency, some people still deviate and develop a higher appetite for risks. They want the rush, the thrill, and the excitement, to the extent that they might get themselves hurt for not much good reason.
And this point is not all about fighting or contact sports. Consider our earlier point that people need rest and food, so you can’t do without it. If you’re a smart aleck, you’d probably ask “How little food and how little sleep can I do without? Maybe I can push it down to two hours’ sleep a day and just one meal to max my training time”. And to you I’d say “Have fun with that, you crazy anorexic insomniac gym junkie”. Like most people, you’d probably train yourself sick, injure yourself, or burn yourself out. You can push the limits, but the more they’re pushed, the more your choice becomes a dangerous tradeoff.
But again, there are exceptions. Consider Randy Couture, whose body basically says F.U. to lactic acid buildup, or crazy/lucky SOB Dean Karnazes, whose body has developed to the point that pounding out a marathon causes it no more stress than walking down a hall:
There are other examples of exceptions, and these should come not just with a “do not try this at home” disclaimer, but also possibly a “try body-swapping with these guys first” disclaimer.
Pushing Some Limits Doesn’t Make You Better
Imagine you’ve got a friend who’s simply insufferable when it comes to running. He talks everyone’s ear off about his training regimen, he always brags about his personal records, and he doesn’t let you forget that you’ve never, not once, gotten a better time than his in an official running event. Wouldn’t you want to shut him up? Wouldn’t you want to do anything possible to get yourself to the point that you can beat him and tell him to go suck an egg?
Not that you haven’t tried: you’ve trained yourself to the limit, you’ve tried different drills and workouts and routes, but you still can’t outdo him. And it’s eating you up.
Some elite athletes, those with an extreme “whatever it takes” mentality, will feel the exact same thing, only much, much worse. And they’ll resort to unethical means to perform better. They’ll do anything to get that edge, whether it’s through performance-enhancing steroids or some other non-training-related enhancement like blood doping:
Bottom line, they resort to dishonest tactics to push their limits. That’s not fair to the fans, that’s not fair to their competitors, and that’s not fair to the sport they’re a part of. And even discounting the moral angle, these methods can also cause significant harm to the user: the side effects of steroids are well-known, and there are also risks associated with blood doping.
So basically, like any type of advice or word of wisdom you encounter, take this with a pinch of salt. Feel free to defy your limits, sure, but consider carefully which hurdles to take on.