Endure, by Alex Hutchinson

Why I read it – as an amateur runner, I’ve always been intrigued to understand more about the relationship between my body and mind. Some runs I glide, sometimes I trudge in treacle. Is that physiological or psychological? I can’t get under 20 minutes for my 5k personal best – is that a fitness issue, or am I just not pushing hard enough in the run? Gazing far beyond to the world of elite running, and inspired by the books of Adharanand Finn, I wanted to explore how elite runners utilise every marginal gain possible to outperform their rivals and improve their performance. I chose Endure as I’d read that Alex Hutchinson followed the science carefully and thoroughly; firstly, I wanted to see the research behind elite performance, and secondly I was intrigued about whether these principles could be transferred to other areas of life, which is what I’ll attempt to do in this blog post.

In summary    

Why do we have the energy to bomb it down the last half mile of a 10K, when we were on death’s door half way through the race? How are some people able to push through pain while others are consumed by it? What techniques can you practice in order to improve the way you endure fatigue and pain? How far can humans really push themselves?

Alex Hutchinson explores a huge wealth of studies and examples from elite sport when considering the above questions and a range of others. Endure explains a lot about our bodies and the biology behind what we can do, while also detailing our brain’s relationship with the body. This is not one of those quick reference books with sub-headings, bullet point lists or charts. Hutchinson perhaps felt that a more concise style would dilute the complexity of the issues, and that the range of evidence he evaluates may unwittingly be summarised into a list of unhelpful catchphrases. Instead, the prose flows as Hutchinson navigates through the content, comparing studies and research and acknowledging any contentious issues. It is detailed, evidence-informed, and fascinating.

Key takeaways:

  1. Self-talk to push through difficulties – Studies conclude that it is better to consider pain non-judgmentally and non-emotionally and rather to view it as information – something that we can override. Hutchinson cites Samuele Marcora, who created a study where 24 volunteers were asked to cycle until point of exhaustion, with their cycling time recorded. They were then divided into two groups, and one was given some tips for ‘self talk’, that is, phrases to say during the task to help them push through, including “feeling good!” and “push through this!”. In the second cycling test, two weeks later, that group lasted 18% longer when they applied this positive self-talk to their exercise. Hutchinson also mentions the now infamous line that Jens Voight (cyclist) attributes to his ability to break away from the peloton when he is seemingly exhausted: “Shut up, legs!”.
  2. Pain and fatigue = information, not limitation – there is a lengthy chapter on pain and fatigue, and Hutchinson includes a number of studies about how our mind influences our decisions when we feel pain or fatigue. Essentially, feeling pain or extreme fatigue during exercise doesn’t mean your body is at its limit. Hutchinson likens it to a light coming up on your dashboard; a warning, information, but not a limit. Not yet. One example is how can we explain the fact that, no matter how fatigued we feel in the middle of a run, let’s say a half marathon, we find energy to unload in the final half mile? We burst to the finish line. The brain holds us back, or suggests we hold back, as a warning system. It does this with pain, too. We feel it, and feel the instruction to slow or stop. But elite athletes, especially, find a way to ignore these instructions, for a time at least, until they reach their actual limit.  Now, I’m not sure about you, but I haven’t got any elite-level sporting activities coming up. But we place limits on ourselves; when adversity arrives, it’s easy to think ‘well, I don’t want to feel like this any longer’. Like the self talk idea, can we reframe the dashboard light, and rather than stop the difficult task in front of us, use the warning system as information to reframe our plan and actions?
  3. Placebos can work – Hutchinson’s presents research showing that swishing a carbohydrate / energy drink around your mouth then spitting it out can offer a performance boost, without ever ‘consuming’ it. The brain relaxes its safety margin when it knows (or is tricked into believing, in this case) that more fuel is coming. Athletes don’t necessarily need take on the liquid, but simulate it; the sensors in the mouth seem to instantly recognise carbohydrate is on the way, and the performance boost is instantaneous. Of course, the research is more nuanced than that simple explanation, but it is fascinating that when the brain knows something good is coming, it can immediately up your level of performance. I’m now considering what other placebo effects I can utilise in my various guises as a teacher, dad, amateur runner!

Favourite quote

‘Science has confirmed what athletes have always believed: that there’s more in there – if you’re willing to believe it.’         

Favourite moment

Cyclists took part in a study on a stationary bike, with the aim of cycling for as long as they could. They pedalled in front of a screen which projected images – the cyclists who saw sad faces on the screen, on average cycled for three minutes fewer than those who saw happy faces. Those who saw the happy faces commented on the feelings of ease that were evoked during their effort.

This was the study that eventually evolved into the ‘self-talk’ research from takeaway 1. But I wanted to mention the visual side of this study. It made me think: are we as people, aware of how non-verbal cues could make others feel? Perhaps the right facial expressions or body language could not only sustain someone’s effort, but also make them feel more ‘at ease’ to quote the study, to perform with freedom and creativity.

Question and reflect

  • The science confirms that positivity and positive self-talk can improve performance: do we practise this enough, or encourage it in others?
  • If pain or discomfort is merely a dashboard light, and not our final limit, what steps can we take once it appears?

Read this if…

You are interested in elite performance and the potential of the human body and mind

You want to consider how to transfer the potential of the mind into other areas of life

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