Understanding My Inner Chimp To Train And Race Better

Can’t be assed with training and lack the motivation to run? Do you face a consistent inner battle to achieve your goals, despite the will to see them through? Reading ‘The Chimp Paradox’ helped me make sense of what really happens inside my head and with this post, hopefully you can too.

Steve Peters book explains how we can manage our mind to live a confident, happy and successful life. I want to skip the management part and jump straight to recognizing your chimp. For me, this part of the brain can hamper training and play havoc on my otherwise logical, rational mind.

The Chimp Paradox splits the brain into three sections, the human (frontal brain), chimp (limbic brain) and the computer (parietal brain.) We’ll focus on the human and chimp, both try to work in harmony, but frequently clash to gain control. Let me summarize both with a spin on training and your motivation to run.

The Human – Frontal Brain

Essentially the human brain is you, it represents logic and makes decisions based on fact and evidence alone. The human brain has your best interests in mind and acts on your need for achievement and purpose.

The Chimp – Limbic Brain

This little monkey makes decisions too, but independent from your human brain. The chimp is emotive, irrational and acts on feelings. It can be unpredictable, not bad and not ALWAYS wrong but very often acts on poor reasoning.

The chimp is that voice inside your head, ‘I can’t be bothered’, ‘I have no motivation to run today’. The chimp acts without logic and it definitely lacks perspective.

The Inner Battle – Recognizing Your Chimp

That inner battle, the conversation deep inside your head is held between your human and your chimp. Any phrase that begins with ‘I feel..’ or ‘but what if…’ is your inner chimp talking, not you. Simply ask yourself, is what I am thinking getting in the way of my ambitions and need to achieve? More often than not, this chimp speaks before your human brain has time to react. Have you ever quit only to wonder ‘why?’ in the aftermath or eased off and later wish you’d pressed on? This could be your inner chimp hijacking your brain and acting on emotions, feelings and a lack of perspective.

So, why can’t we just think with our own, human brain and detach the primitive, emotional side? Because the chimp is deeply ingrained within us and much stronger than our more rational, human brain. All events and actions are jumped on by the chimp (our emotional, irrational side) before the human (our ambitious, fact driven side) has time to think.

It is worth noting your inner chimp is not bad and you may agree with its emotional assessment at times. Your chimp acts on a primal need to survive, understanding when to listen to or ignore your chimp is important. Your inner chimp interprets events emotionally and then makes an ‘offer’ to the human brain on how to proceed. You (the human) then have a choice of whether to go with the chimp’s offer or deviate to what is in line with your goals, ambitions and need to achieve.

Motivation To Run – In Practice

Let’s pause for a second. I am not here to rehash Prof. Peters work, I simply want to put it into running terms. ‘The Chimp Paradox’ goes into great detail on managing your chimp but I don’t think that is necessary here. Simply by understanding which part of our brain is talking, ourselves or our emotions we can steer towards a goal based decision. OK let’s press play again and put this mumbo jumbo into context.

Scenario – You wake up fresh and full of energy. Work begins and you can’t wait to finish and commence the evening run. However, 9 hours later your mood has changed, you ‘feel’ tired and lack motivation. So what is actually going on inside your head?

The Chimps interpretation – The chimp creeps in before the human has time to talk. “I don’t feel like running, there’s always tomorrow, let’s just go home.” Remember the chimps primal purpose is survival, so it will try to conserve energy. You are tired so the chimp wants to be done with effort and rest. The chimp lacks perspective and doesn’t care about your ambitions, so won’t take into account how conserving this energy could deter your goals. It also fails to recognize how missing the session may make you feel later.

The humans interpretation – “Its been a long day but I’m fine. I am not injured and training will not have any ill effects on my health. I want to run a marathon and every day I do not train deters my goal which I as the human want to achieve to feel fulfilled.” The human brain is thinking with perspective and acting on a need to achieve.

Motivation To Run – Thoughts Explained

Why would you want to train in the morning but not after work? Its quite simple, you woke up with no issues, so your chimp remained dormant, leading the blood flow to your human brain which wants to achieve to feel fulfilled. Therefore you interpreted running as wonderful and a good idea. As the day went on you started to tire from work and your inner chimp, sensing the change woke up…its primal instinct to conserve energy gave it flawed and short sighted logic that you should cancel the run. But that is not in line with your human agenda and because you are not in any danger (injured for instance) the correct decision would be to listen to your human brain.

That was one example, there are many more. The flutter in your belly on race day, yep, your chimp. The injury that never was, yep, your chimp and even your anxiety about the racing gear adorned…you get the picture. Anything that evokes a strong feeling, irrational thought or isn’t inline with your goals, is probably your chimp and you should proceed with caution.

Motivation To Run – Conclusion

This may seem like a lot of detail and to some a little far fetched. I want to drive the point home that not everything you think should be followed. Accept your thoughts for what they are and understand some are not truly your own, then they can be surprisingly easy to deal with.

Science has proven these two ‘voices’ exist, look at a live scan of your brain and you can see the blood flow transfer from one to the other with relevant thoughts. So the human and the chimp think independently like the devil and the angel on your shoulder. One is primal, emotional and irrational, the other achievement driven and works with the facts. Next time you don’t feel like training, or hit a tough patch mid race it may be worth asking, ‘who is talking this time?’ and then find the voice which holds the motivation to run.

If you ignore the chimp and listen to your human brain but still struggle to train, your goals may lack ambition. The goals you set need to almost scare you into action. Remember, the chimp acts with strong emotion and to override this you’d better have a good excuse, or it may not work.

There are many subjects which branch off from here, but I won’t bore you further. I may, at a later date, talk about unhelpful and unrealistic expectations though…as these two gremlins have halted my progress in the past.

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Darren Smith

Training with purpose since October 2016 Darren has gone from trailing the pack to winning local races and the times keep on falling. A true believer in hard work over natural talent he writes to help others realise their true potential. Darren's race schedule for 2018 includes the Hardmoors Wainstones marathon (1st place), Keswick Mountain Festival (10th place), Scafell Skyrace and Salomon Ring Of Steall (World Championship race.)

6 thoughts on “Understanding My Inner Chimp To Train And Race Better

  • March 12, 2017 at 7:33 pm

    Thanks Darren, a really interesting post. Yep, the chimp, so often gets in the way of so much – the drive to take the immediate easiest option even when it doesn’t help at all in the longer term…still working on it!

    • March 12, 2017 at 9:00 pm

      Thanks Sophie. I think its something we all struggle with in life across the board…theres so much I could improve for thats for sure and so much not even running related 🙂

      • September 11, 2019 at 7:20 am

        Really interesting Darren. I argue with my inner chimp when running all the time.
        It’s a noisy little shit when it wants to be..!!

        • September 11, 2019 at 7:51 am

          Thanks Charlotte, I like the idea when reading the book. Easy concept, hard to master lol 🙂

  • March 24, 2017 at 6:46 am

    I like the chimp model and so am glad to see it getting more attention through blogs such as yours. It is important, in my view, to appreciate that our chimps differ -as the author, Dr Peters, emphasises, we are all unique- and so not all chimps will respond well to strong emotion, and not all will be up for the run in the morning rather than after work. Likewise, not all humans have the same beliefs or values around ‘needing to achieve’. That’s why it is common to find, as people age and have more life experience, that humans give more priority to ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’. These are just my opinions, and you may disagree. Like you I have gained a lot from the model and I would encourage you and others to explore it further.

    • March 24, 2017 at 8:26 pm

      Thanks for the comment David and yes I agree with your point. In fact I believe there was mention in the article about our chimps differing, if not it may have been edited but still, a valid point. There is so much in that book to absorb I didn’t want to overwhelm the reader and also just copy text…I wanted to really hone in on the most important part for me which is recognizing that there are parts of our brain which we don’t have full control over and these are usually the parts which work against our better interests.


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