Mind and Body
Why These Men Are Running 24 Hours in Complete Sensory Deprivation
For 24 hours, two insanely fit Canadians have vowed to eschew anything that might make working out enjoyable in an epic quest to push the limits of mental toughness. Starting at 5 p.m. EST on Friday, they’ll retreat into a 20-foot shipping container in complete darkness, replete with nothing but some provisions and self-powered treadmills. They’ll then run with no company or music for a day straight in complete sensory deprivation.
You’ll be able to livestream every grueling second of the event, called Locked and Loaded, 24 Hours of Isolation. But the real challenge for runners John Witzing, Brian Chontosh and Josh Chessman won’t be visible to the human eye. When they enter the sensory deprivation containers, they’ll be cut off from society — without even a clock to keep track of time. The only thing they’ll have to rely on is their internal monologue:
“Their bodies appear to be as physically ready as you can be for this event,” says Phillip Wallace, a Ph.D. student in Brock University’s Department of Kinesiology, who previously conducted a study on the internal monologue in elite cyclists. “But without light, they’re going to be left with focusing on their thoughts and going by feel so it’s going to be a constant battle between feedback from the body, heart muscles, breathing rate, and mentally what’s going to keep them focused for that entire duration.”
Can You Talk Yourself Through Exercise Hell?
Wallace’s previous research has identified internal monologue as a powerful tool for elite athletes. In a study conducted under the supervision of Stephen Cheung, Ph.D., a professor of Kinesiology at Brock University, and published in 2017 in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise Wallace demonstrated that cyclists who spent time engaging in positive self-talk, especially in harsh conditions, lasted 30 percent longer than a control group.
To study cyclists’ motivating monologue, the researchers split 18 participants into two groups: a motivational self-talk group, and a control group. The self-talk group spent two weeks workshopping individual phrases in trial workouts that they would use when the final test of the study arrived — a uniquely grueling cycling “time to exhaustion” trial in a 95-degree room with 50 percent humidity.
“At the end of it we found that everybody had different statements,” Wallace says. “Some people had things like, ‘shut up legs’ and that was more fatigue driven, some had ‘walk-on’ and that was more for focus. Others created their own little mantras that they would use throughout the actual experiment.”
How to Talk Yourself Through Exercise Hell
Witzing is an Ontario police officer who has completed three Ironman triathlons, so his body is already well acquainted with the type of endurance required for the challenge ahead of him. But it does raise the question: What can you possibly say to yourself during 24 straight hours of running that will carry you through the finish line?
A 2001 analysis published in Psychology of Sport Science and Exercise yields some insight into this. Researchers interviewed 164 regular exercisers about the types of statements they used to motivate themselves in the throes of a workout. In general, they found that most people tended to refer to themselves in the second person more often than the first person (“you can do this” rather than “I can do this”). Most exercisers also preferred short phrases compared to “cue words” or full sentences.
Of all the different statements exercisers used, 211 were short, meaningful phrases like “let’s go” or “come on.” Only 27 were single words like “focus” or “breathe” and 36 were full sentences like “remember why you’re doing this.”
Inside their isolation containers, the runners may find similar self-motivation to keep on going through the night. They describe the run as a way to “showcase that it’s okay to struggle and to be afraid to deal with adversity,” and are intending to raise awareness about the importance of mental health. This cause in itself may prove strong enough motivation for the three. Witzing, at least, as already set a high bar for himself:
“Short of putting a bullet in me, I’m going to make it to the finish line,” he said.