The sun, unshielded by clouds, beamed a pleasant warmth. A rare luxury to the city of London. But in a hangar-like windowless industrial warehouse where daily newspapers used to be printed, the lights were deliberately turned off, almost pitch-black, save for the agile spotlight trailing a sole runner. Separated by a thin wall, we huddled to watch through a one-way window as the runner, Olympic medalist Deena Kastor, steadily zoomed past us in laps — treading her stride within the white outlined track, visible only about two feet ahead of her thanks to the guiding spotlight.
The Asics Blackout Track was unlike anything we had seen before. It was, after all, the world’s first and only. Designed to challenge the mind, the 150-metre temporary track ran its course shrouded in darkness. Runners ran alone and the track was stripped bare from distractions — no music, no crowd, nothing — just a pair of reliable running shoes (in this case, the brand new tech cushion-equipped Gel-Kayano 25) and themselves. A zone scientifically calculated to explore the inseparable link between the mind and body.
Running it down to a science
“On the blackout track, the vision is limited. That’s going to make it much more demanding to navigate around the track. You can hear this humming white noise which is not encouraging, compared to positive music,” explained Professor Samuele Marcora, who spearheaded the research team behind the one-off Asics Blackout Track.
The monotonous aural tone permeating the track was composed to blur the sense of time, interfering the ability to gauge distance — thus testing the limits of your body and will.
Manipulating performance and perception through uncertainty was key in the mental-flossing experiment. “Motivational elements are reduced. Runners won’t have any information about their pace, their number of laps — they will only be left with their own perception, which is naturally not that precise,” said Marcora.
To conclude the result in accuracy, the participants would have to complete another run of the same distance. However, it would be set in a facilitative environment — bright lights, upbeat tunes, replete with a cheering crowd — an antithesis of its antecedent. The hypothesis here was that the motivational factors and lack thereof on the two contrasting tracks would prove that the psychological uncertainty on the blackout track would make it harder to pace a conducive run.
The mental marathon experience
Not knowing how much ground you’ve covered can be daunting. More so if you’re not a stranger to calculating your performance to a T, like Deena Kastor who, aside from bagging an Olympic medal under her belt, is also a marathon record holder.
“I usually have a set expectation of pace. To not have that out there, it felt very freeing,” a glowing Kastor let slip after completing her 10-kilometre run on the blackout track in less than 38 minutes. She found it to be calming: “I thought I’d be inside my positively constructed mind and reciting mantras to pass the time. Instead, I found myself running in some sort of meditative state without a notion of time passing quickly or slowly. It was just running in its simplest form.”
Hong Kong actor and avid sportsman Aarif Rahman thought the experience was rewarding, although he admitted to struggling with keeping his mind from straying out of control: “It starts freaking out, there’s all this noise coming in from your mind. I had to keep telling it to shut up. When all the elements you are used to relying on are taken away, you are pushed out of your comfort zone.”
Sound mind, sound body
The fact that physiological factors — “everything visible from the neck down, if you will,” pitched Marcora — are at the crux of endurance is a no-brainer. According to Marcora, studies from the last 15 years have revealed that although taking care of your physical health is salient, the mind is equally, if not more, crucial in endurance-building.
“Many tend to treat the mind and the body separately,” said Dr Jo Corbett, one of the Asics Blackout Track sports scientists. “Hopefully, what we’re doing here will show that the brain can influence performance and spark conversations on how we can best train the mind.”
Strengthening the mind isn’t solely for the betterment of performance. Kastor, who has been melding positivity into her practice for years, just published her memoir Let Your Mind Run on her mind-wrestling journey. In the book, she talked about how the effects of positive-thinking seeped beyond her workouts, boosting her mental health.
“By identifying and replacing a thought that was holding me back, I undid years of self-destructive thought patterns that had left me unhappy and injury-prone,” Kastor divulged. “I became fitter and faster and reached goals I’d believed were improbable. Our mental health is the most important aspect of ourselves to be healthy. To work on our mental health and physical health all at the same time is taking care of our whole body.”
Training for a healthy mind
Building your own blackout track is out of the question. So how can we exercise our own mental flossing? Start easy, Marcora suggested. Psychological techniques like goal-setting, motivational self-talk, positive imageries may sound simple but they do wonders. Block out or start reducing negative thinking.
Mastering these skills can’t be done in the snap of a finger. “You need to train. It’s not that easy, you need to practice them during training. And you’ll get the hang of it in time,” assured Marcora.
If maximising endurance is your goal, increase the workload on the brain. Try running in the dark indoors with just a headlamp. Make sure the space you’re in is safe, or do so on a treadmill. When you need to challenge yourself, hit the park for a jog on uneven terrains to test your senses.
Another tip is to do a mental jog, which means pushing for a workout even when you’re mentally fatigued. For example, you’ve had a long day at work in front of your computer and are not physically tired but your brain had its share of workout. Don’t skip your physical workout session, instead, look at it as an opportunity to train mental fatigue resistance. Push through.
Kastor said, “Just like how Asics is an acronym derived from the Latin phrase of Anima Sana In Corpore Sano, translation: A sound mind in a sound body, it’s high time we thrive with both our mind and body. Together.”
Find out more about the Asics Blackout Track and the Gel Kayano 25 here.