Endure | Alex Hutchinson

Summary of: Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance
By: Alex Hutchinson


Dive into the fascinating world of human endurance with the summary of ‘Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance’ by Alex Hutchinson. Explore the depths of our physical and mental capabilities, as the book takes you on a journey through captivating stories and scientific research. Discover the intricacies of pacing ourselves during long-distance races, pushing our pain thresholds, attaining better oxygen intake, managing core temperature, incorporating mindfulness practices, and the role our brain plays in exhaustion. The enigmatic nature of human endurance is brought into focus, offering insights on how much we can push ourselves to realize our full potential.

Pushing Boundaries of Endurance

British explorer Henry Worsley was known for his penchant for pushing the limits of human endurance. In late 2015, Worsley challenged himself to walk across Antarctica alone. After 56 days, his body began to experience dangerous strain, causing painful indigestion that kept him from sleeping. Despite these setbacks, Worsley continued his trek, at times facing severe headwinds and snowstorms. By the time Worsley called for rescue on day 70 of the trek, he’d lost 48 pounds of bodyweight and was only 30 miles away from his destination. His weakened body ultimately succumbed to a bacterial infection, prompting questions about the ethical and practical limits of extreme boundary-pushing expeditions.

British explorer Henry Worsley didn’t believe in limits. In fact, he dedicated his life to pushing beyond them and setting new benchmarks in human endurance. One such challenging expedition began in late 2015, when Worsley set out on an ambitious solo trek across Antarctica. The journey proved grueling – 56 days in, Worsley’s sleep was thwarted by painful indigestion.

Despite the ill-effects, Worsley hardly had a choice but to continue. With 200 miles left, he decided to rest briefly. The polar sun shining bright at midnight, he resumed his journey, climbing up the treacherous Titan Dome, a 3,100-meter-high mountain of ice. The challenge was exacerbated by strong winds and snow pelting against his frostbitten form, leaving him breathless in the thin air. After enduring 16 hours of this torment, Worsley finally stopped for another break.

Although armed with a satellite phone for emergencies, Worsley was reluctant to use it. The sense of security emboldened him to push his body past its limits, ultimately losing 48 pounds since the beginning of his journey. It wasn’t until the 70th day, when Worsley was only 30 miles from his goal, that he made the call for rescue.

Flown to a hospital in Punta Arenas, Chile, doctors diagnosed Worsley with dehydration and exhaustion. But there was more – they discovered bacterial peritonitis, a life-threatening abdominal infection that demanded immediate surgery. Unfortunately, Worsley’s body was too weak to combat the infection, and the explorer passed away on January 24, 2016.

Henry Worsley’s tragic demise brought forth provocative questions surrounding the ethical and practical extents of such perilous expeditions. While humans have astonishingly conquered numerous extreme environments, understanding the limitations of the human body is crucial to differentiate between achievable goals and acts that risk one’s life.

Unraveling Our Pacing Instinct

While pursuing his PhD, the author observed his own race performance, sparking an interest in the pacing patterns of long-distance runners. A 2006 study by researchers Tim Noakes and Michael Lambert revealed that the world’s best runners typically start fast, slow down in the middle, and speed up toward the end. Sports scientist Dominic Micklewright explored when humans develop this pacing ability and found that children over eleven began to exhibit this instinctual pacing pattern. Noakes and Micklewright attribute this evolutionary response to our hunter-gatherer past, helping us conserve energy to finish hunts with a burst of speed.

As a PhD student and Canadian national team runner, the author found himself speeding up toward the end of his races, even though it wasn’t a conscious choice. This observation led to a fascination with pacing patterns in long-distance runners. A study by Tim Noakes and Michael Lambert in 2006 unveiled that leading runners start off fast, slow down during the middle portion of the race, and then accelerate when nearing the finish line, despite seemingly running out of energy.

This pacing pattern may initially seem like a tactical decision; however, it is more likely rooted in our evolutionary past. Intrigued by this possibility, sports scientist Dominic Micklewright delved deeper into our innate ability to pace ourselves. Taking inspiration from Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget’s findings on distinct childhood behavioral phases, Micklewright examined how children from ages five to fourteen paced themselves in races.

He discovered that, on average, younger children (below 11 years old) tended to sprint at the beginning, then gradually slow down for the remainder of the race. Conversely, participants aged eleven and above adopted a pacing pattern similar to that of world-record holders—slowing down during the middle part before increasing their speed for the final stretch.

Micklewright and Noakes concluded that this pacing behavior is not a strategic choice but an instinctual response hardwired into our brains. They theorize that our ancestors developed this instinct as an energy-conserving method for long-distance hunting, enabling them to unleash a final burst of speed when necessary.

Mind Over Muscle Fatigue

Samuele Marcora’s journey from London to Beijing on his motorcycle led him to a deeper understanding of the mental aspect of endurance. Research conducted by Marcora and Swedish psychologist Gunnar Borg suggests that fatigue is not just a physiological experience, but rather a combination of muscle fatigue and perceived effort. By focusing on mental factors such as motivation and subliminal messages, individuals may be able to improve their endurance levels.

In 2013, Samuele Marcora rode his motorcycle over six and a half thousand miles from London to Beijing, turning an endurance test into an extension of his long-term study on the mental component of physical effort. This highly challenging trip reaffirmed Marcora’s belief in the importance of the mind when it comes to endurance. Fatigue, as it turns out, isn’t solely a physiological experience.

Back in 2009, Marcora conducted a study dividing participants into two groups: one played a mentally demanding computer game for 90 minutes, while the other watched a relaxing 90-minute documentary. Subsequently, all participants exercised on a stationary bike until exhaustion. Those who watched television outlasted the computer game players by an average of 15.1%, despite having no physiological differences. This suggests that mental fatigue from the game led to faster exhaustion.

Marcora’s findings build upon the theory that perceived effort plays a significant role in endurance. Swedish psychologist Gunnar Borg was the first to study and measure perceived effort, devising a scale from 6 (least effort) to 20 (maximum effort) in the 1960s. Borg’s research contradicted the traditional belief that exhaustion results exclusively from physical effort, just as long as the body’s mechanics, such as muscles, remain functional.

With his research, Marcora takes Borg’s findings a step further, identifying the point of total exhaustion as the intersection of muscle fatigue and maximum perceived effort. Acknowledging perceived effort is crucial, as it can be influenced by various mental factors like motivation and subliminal messaging. By paying attention to these mental components, one may be able to push their endurance to ever greater heights.

Pain Tolerance in Elite Athletes

Twice Tour de France yellow jersey wearer Jens Voigt believes pain is just a weakness to be overcome. This attitude might explain why athletes’ pain thresholds are higher than average people’s. In 1981, psychologist Karel Gijsbers compared the pain tolerance of elite and amateur swimmers, finding that while the initial pain threshold was similar for both, elite swimmers could tolerate more prolonged pain. Further studies revealed that increased pain tolerance correlated with greater athletic performance. More intense, shorter training sessions with higher pain levels resulted in better progress than longer but less intense workouts. While pain tolerance plays a significant role, there are other factors contributing to high performance as well.

Oxygen’s Impact on Athletic Performance

Breathing is crucial to athletic performance, and it all boils down to VO2 max – the maximum amount of oxygen one can intake during training. Higher oxygen intake leads to better performances, particularly in endurance sports. Athletes tend to excel at lower altitudes due to higher oxygen availability. One way to potentially break athletic records, like running a marathon in under two hours, might be hosting a competition at a location like the oxygen-rich Dead Sea.

Every coach emphasizes the importance of breathing to an athlete’s performance, and for good reason. The volume of oxygen you intake directly influences how well you perform in any physical activity. This crucial factor is measured by VO2 max, standing for volume, oxygen, maximum. Generally, the more oxygen a person can intake and circulate throughout their body, the better their performance, particularly in endurance sports like marathon running.

Norway’s Bjorn Daehlie, a cross-country skiing champion, held the record for the highest VO2 max ever measured at 96 ml/kg/min, while the average human capacity is 35 ml/kg/min. Although another athlete beat his record, it’s important to note that VO2 max is not the sole indicator of athletic ability.

An abundance of oxygen is also behind better performances at lower altitudes. The lower the altitude, the more oxygen is available, leading to improved athletic results. For example, Canberra University, situated about 577 meters above sea level, registered significantly lower VO2 max levels among runners, resulting in slower times.

In contrast, runners tend to excel in oxygen-rich atmospheres where they can surpass their personal bests and even break world records. Yannis Pitsiladis, a scientist, has suggested holding a marathon around the Dead Sea, an area 400 meters below sea level. This oxygen-rich environment could potentially help athletes achieve the remarkable feat of completing a marathon in under two hours.

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