Alex Hutchinson's Endure explores the mind-body influence on sports performance
Endure: Mind, Body and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance
Humans are amazing. Members of our species have held their breath for 24 minutes, deadlifted 500 kilograms, free dived deeper than 200 metres, and pulled a 99 tonne truck. Humans have long jumped nearly 9 metres and high jumped almost 2½ metres. A person has swum 225 kilometres. Another skydived at 1300 kilometres an hour.
And we keep getting better. Cycling and swimming were among the sports that saw new world records set at the Commonwealth Games. There have been 100 metre races in which almost everyone finished in less than 10 seconds. Sometimes the improvement is remarkable, as when competitive eater Takeru Kobayashi doubled the hot dog eating record in 2001, devouring a gut-churning 50 hot dogs in 12 minutes.
We take such progress for granted, but other animals haven’t improved at the same rate. Winning times for major horse races like the Melbourne Cup and the Kentucky Derby have barely budged since the 1950s.
So what do humans do differently? In Endure: Mind, Body and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, sports writer Alex Hutchinson journeys to the frontier of performance. A Canadian national-grade runner in his own right, Hutchinson’s work will be familiar to many runners from his time as the ‘Sweat Science’ columnist for Runner’s World.
There’s plenty of running in Endure, but the deeper focus is on how much of sporting performance has to do with our mental limits. Remember that high school coach that kept telling you the only barrier was in your mind? I’m afraid she was right.
Researchers around the world, including many at the Australian Institute of Sport, are producing fascinating results on the mind-body connection. If you tell runners they look relaxed, they run more efficiently. If you give rugby players a positive post-game debriefing, they perform better the following week. A simple self-talk intervention, in which athletes were encouraged to use phrases like “Feeling good!” and “Push through the pain!” led to a marked increase in cycling performance.
Some studies blur the line between placebo and real interventions. Merely swishing a sports drink in your mouth and then spitting it out improves performance. So does applying small amounts of electricity – the equivalent of a nine volt battery – to the scalp. Simple Panadol improves endurance. Conversely, a mind-numbing task – involving matching words on a computer screen – reduced athletic endurance.
Endure has the ability to make even the toughest competitor feel feeble. A coach of marathoner Paula Radcliffe says ‘Her capacity to hurt herself was unprecedented’. Asked how he handled the pain when he broke away from the peloton, cyclist Jens Voigt replied ‘Shut up, legs!’. To train their bodies to burn fat, endurance cyclists and marathoners sometimes skip dinner the night before a tough workout. Researchers have shown that elite athletes feel pain like everyone else – they just have a greater capacity to withstand it. Perhaps to remind us that he’s familiar with hard training, Hutchinson tells us about one especially gruelling treadmill experiment that had him vomiting in the carpark afterwards.
What’s the key to great training? Hutchinson quotes a coach who says that you have to teach athletes ‘that they can do more than they think they can’. The coach’s cruel trick is to ask runners to run five one mile repetitions at maximum intensity. Then when they think the session is done, you ask them to run one more.
Sometimes, we’re able to push ourselves just to the goal. It was once thought impossible that anyone would run a mile in less than four minutes, scale Mount Everest without oxygen, or survive for a year by eating only fish and meat. And then it was done.
An equivalent barrier today is the two hour marathon, which involves running at 21 kilometres an hour. Ahead of his record attempt last year, Kenyan runner Eliud Kipchoge suggested that those who doubted it was possible suffered from a failure of imagination. In controlled conditions, he ended up only 25 seconds too slow. Few now think two hours is impossible.
Sports science can be complicated, but Hutchinson’s delightful book is replete with nuggets for anyone who wants to improve. My favourite is a haiku from physiologist Michael Joyner.
Run a lot of miles
Some faster than your race pace
Rest once in a while
As Alex Hutchinson notes, sometimes the most effective limit-changers are the simplest.
Andrew Leigh is a marathon runner and federal member of parliament.