Alex Hutchinson Explores the Limits of Human Performance


Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance – Alex Hutchinson (2018)

            I love Sport, and always have.  From my early youth in Puerto Rico watching ABC’s Wide World of Sports, (I can still hear these words in my head, “The Thrill of Victory…the Agony of Defeat”), to my obsession with the Summer and Winter Olympics, I have relished human athletic competition.  Athletic achievement is as grand to me as any artistic, literary, or musical achievement.  It is a human endeavor where we seek constant improvement, whether to defeat an opponent, or to outdo one’s own personal best.  This specific topic of surpassing one’s limits, and the inherent limits of the human body, is what scientist, author, and competitive runner Alex Hutchinson explores in this intriguing book.

            Even the most cursory sports watcher has seen the way runners often collapse after they cross the finish line.  It is an engrossing, if somewhat traumatic event, and underscores just how close to the limit these athletes pushed themselves.  Before the first sub-4-minute mile, many people thought a human being would drop dead if they ran that fast.  Since that time, the science studying human athleticism and the possibilities thereof has grown exponentially.  From the study of human anatomy, to the exploration of performance-enhancing drugs and the constant improvement of equipment have come countless record-breaking performances. 

            Alex Hutchinson breaks down his exploration of human endurance into several sections.  The first part covers the way we have come to understand the human body as a machine.  It also explores how our brains interact with the body to govern our physical exertion.  It seems that it is not the body signaling defeat to the brain, but the brain telling the body that defeat is imminent.  It is so complex.  Not only is achieving good scientific results difficult with athletes, but the inability to replicate competition conditions makes it difficult to apply the lab findings in the real world.  The main thrust of the section is that, in order to improve and to become great, the ability to suffer is paramount.

            The second and longer section of this book explores the current limits of human endurance, with chapters exploring each aspect.  The first chapter delves into Pain as it applies to human performance.  Do we stop because of pain?  Does our brain tell the body to ignore the pain?  When does pain itself form a limit to our endurance?  Hutchinson describes a specific Bicycling record, the Hour, which consists of a single cyclist racing around a track for exactly an hour, with the record going to whoever travelled the longest distance.  It is an hour of pure pain, pure suffering.  The cyclists that have attempted this have described the excruciating pain that hits them the moment they end the race.  It is as if the brain managed to pump endorphins into the body long enough to complete the task, instantly crashing at the end, and forcing every pain receptor in the body to scream in agony.  Brutal.  The same type of exhaustion occurs in ultra-marathons, super-long swims, and mountain climbing.   One of the considerations of mountain climbers is to know when the pain is bad enough that they must turn around, for there is a point of no return.  Death awaits those who push on. 

            In that same manner Alex Hutchinson digs into the limits of our Muscle, our Oxygen intake and use, the body’s Heat and the way we regulate it, Thirst and its influence on exertion, and the ways our body uses Fuel of all types to extend our endurance.  I learned quite a lot from these chapters, including how the human mouth contains some sort of organic carbohydrate sensor, informing us that food energy is on the way to the stomach.  The studies showed that athletes imbibing carbohydrate-rich drinks did markedly better than those with just water did.  However, athletes that simply swished a sports drink in their mouth and spit it out did just as well as those who imbibed the product.  This and other results lead the author to the third section of this book, exploring the role of the Brain in human endurance.

            This was the most interesting part.  We have all heard stories of people achieving near-impossible physical feats, simply because they willed themselves to do so. This section of the book seeks to understand the role our will, our Mind, plays in athletic achievement.  Countless studies show that, whether through a placebo effect or pure willpower, the athlete’s mind can be trained to improve performance.  Whether the training is repetitive, mind-numbing tasks, aimed at strengthening the individual’s ability to endure crushingly boring situations like a 27-mile race, or electrical stimulation of the brain in order to somehow extend the body’s limits; it seems that sports scientists are trying anything and everything. 

Hutchinson’s final chapter, focused on Belief, describes the way that our ideas about our bodies and our abilities influence the outcome.  For example, runners that told they were doing better than expected, actually showed a bump in ability, whether they were really doing better or not.  Those that trained their mind and body to accept pain, to accept severe discomfort, to expect suffering, were better able to cope with it when the time came.  When it comes to determining the very limits of our physical ability, our minds are the ultimate athletic tool.  This is why we watch sports competitions.  If the athlete that trained the best, with the most expensive equipment, always won then sports would be boring.  However, very often the athlete whose willpower pushes past the pain, doubt, and boredom is the one who succeeds.  Runners from Kenya and Ethiopia train in the most rudimentary way possible, yet they hold most of the long-distance running records.  Their belief in themselves and their running skills is what drives them to victory.  It also drives the many underdogs that make sports such a thrill to watch.  My admiration for these athletes has only grown after reading this book.  

(This book can be purchased here: https://www.harpercollins.com/products/endure-alex-hutchinson?variant=32127167561762 )

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