What elite athletes do to push themselves beyond the 'limits' of human performance - and how to incorporate that into your own training
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- The limits that stop us from running a half-marathon faster or from setting a record time in a sprint are mental as well as physical.
- In his new book "Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance," Alex Hutchinson probes the interplay between the mind and body in endurance.
- Since the mind plays such a key role, it's probably possible to train the mind and change our own "physical" capabilities.
- But you still have to put in the work and run (or bike or swim) the miles.
When it comes to tests of endurance, strength, and speed, there are physical limits. But most of us could be capable of far more than we think.
Elite athletes - gold-medal-winning Olympians like US cross country skier Jessica Diggins and marathoner Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya - are far better at pushing themselves beyond the limits of what we think is possible.
To a certain degree, those limits are physical. Muscles that aren't conditioned for a certain task may tear under enough stress; there's a point at which a swimmer's body needs more oxygen when underwater. But the mind also plays a key role in setting boundaries of what we can accomplish.
It's that interplay between brain and body that Alex Hutchinson probes in his new book "Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance."
Hutchinson writes that training the body also trains the mind to prepare for greater feats of endurance. But some scientists who specialize in athletic performance are trying to see if strategies that focus on training the brain could be enough to change what we're physically capable of.
AP Photo/Luca Bruno
Learning to withstand pain
Hutchinson's book examines the ideas of South African physician and sports scientist Tim Noakes, who points out that we almost never come close to our physical limits - and that perhaps there's good reason for us to stop before that extreme point.
Noakes points to a second-place Olympic marathoner. "Do you notice he's not dead?" he asks Hutchinson in the book. "It means he could have run faster."
Most of us don't want to go that far. But our brains force most of us to say "enough" before we come close to pushing our true limits. The best way to get better at withstanding that pain is to keep pushing physically, which is why training is so important.
"The process of training expands the capabilities of the muscles and heart, sure, but it also recalibrates the brain's horizons," Hutchinson writes. Alongside working out, he points to data and anecdotes from elite athletes that indicate learning to embrace physical pain also improves performance.
In studies, athletes have done this by clenching their fists repeatedly while their arms were held in a blood pressure cuff. Anecdotally, one triathlete describes trying to fully accept the pain that comes with a deep tissue massage session.
We don't know for sure that someone can improve their half-marathon time just by getting to the point that they can physically withstand more pain. But there are good reasons to think that might be the case.
In the midst of practice or competition, that can mean accepting that a lot of the pain that's part of an endurance effort (not the sharp pain of an injury) is something to be welcomed, not dreaded.
Believing improvement is possible
Getting better - and faster - isn't just about pain. It's also about believing improvement is possible.
For many runners, some of the most important breakthrough performances have come when they ended up feeling better at a race than expected. In Hutchinson's case, that included a race where he thinks he was told he was running faster than he thought he could yet still felt okay, which gave him enough energy to keep pushing the pace and set a personal record.
Both belief and emotions can affect performance in significant ways. Runners burn less energy when they're told they feel relaxed. People can sustain a performance longer while smiling (or while imagining "doing an evil deed," according to Hutchinson). Heat affects people less if they're told the temperature is lower than it is.
There are also less proven methods that researchers are looking at as well, according to Hutchinson. Some scientists hope that by forcing athletes to get better at sustaining boring tasks, their minds will be better equipped to handle the rigors of a grueling endurance test. Others think that mindfulness practice could help an athlete be ready for the unpleasant sensations and emotional surges they'll have to cope with in competition. Some trainers are even experimenting with electronic brain stimulation in hopes of finding a way to zap the brain into the right zone for peak performance.
Hutchinson's investigation into the mind's role in pushing performance limits makes it clear is that there's no good reason to ever assume you can't do slightly better.
"[W]hen the moment of truth comes, science has confirmed what athletes have always believed: that there's more in there - if you're willing to believe it," he writes.
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