Feet feats and fleet minds: lessons from Alex Hutchinson’s new book Endure

henry copeland
Mar 16, 2018 · 4 min read

Alex Hutchinson’s excellent new book Endure poses an age-old question. What matters more for athletic achievement — mind or body?

It takes a dozen fascinating chapters to get fully there, but Hutchinson’s ultimate answer is simple: yes.

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Looking at some of the physical factors that constrain human achievement — energy, temperature, water, oxygen, pain — Hutchinson determines that there are, obviously, absolute limits to what a body can achieve or endure. We all die eventually with too much or too little of these elements. It seems obvious that, at Hutchinson sums up, “human limits are, in the end, a simple matter of chemistry and math.”

But Hutchinson also shows that most of us never come close to those limits. Even elite athletes hit limits imposed by the mind long before brushing up against physical limits. The most extreme proof of this truth is that athletes almost never (with the exception of ur-marathoner Pheidippides) die crossing the finish line and thus truly prove s/he’s “give it her/his all.”

Here are just a few of the fascinating facts Hutchinson finds along the edges of the mind/body mobius strip:

  • One study showed that a particular style of hard training increases pain tolerance by as much as 41%.
  • Another study showed that hypnosis increased results on a strength test by an average 26.5%.
  • A group of cyclists trained to use motivational self-talk (“you’re doing well, you can handle this!”) on an overheated stationary bike ride kept at it nearly 40% longer than a group just doing what came naturally (“this is terrible, I want to quit!”)
  • Various cyclists were given pills that they were told contained varying doses of caffein. “The cyclists rode 1.3% faster when they thought they had received a moderate dose, 3.1% faster after a high dose and 1.4% slower when they thought they got the placebo. In reality, all the pills were placebos.”
  • Lowering your face, particularly your nose, into cold water (or even thinking of lowering your face) can lower your heart rate.
  • “A wide variety of supplements and training methods have been shown to produce a 1–3 percent boost in performance, from caffeine to beet juice to altitude training.” Surprisingly, though, combining all these aids together produces no cummulative benefit, just the same 1–3% improvement. They are all, in effect, placebos.
  • Elite runners in all distance races longer than 800 meters slow down progressively through the first three quarters of a competition, then run their fastest pace for the final quarter.
  • Despite feeling they’ve given their all, athletes who are deceived about a competition’s real distance (either intentionally or inadvertently) can continue to run faster and further than they normally would. This suggests they could have started expending more energy earlier— effectively lowering their time on the intended distance. (Again, Pheidippides is an obvious exception to this rule.)

One thing is clear, Descartes notwithstanding — training the body is good for the mind, and vice versa. Workouts are exercises in agony and agency. As Hutchinson puts it, “every stride you take during a race is a microdecision: will you speed up, slow down, or maintain your current pace?”

Just as an army’s marching synchronizes courage and cooperation, a choir’s singing synchronizes heart beats, and a couple’s flirting synchronizes intentions, physical training synchronizes an individual’s body and mind, soul and sole, will and way.

Hutchinson’s book itself completes a giant lap, beginning and ending in the same place — Nike’s attempt to help runners like Eliud Kipchoge break the 2 hour mark for the marathon. The book’s anecdotes and arguments are perfectly paced to pull the reader through from beginning to end, finishing in an exhilerating flat out sprint. (I’ll spoil the story for nonrunners who can’t remember whether or not Kipchoge or a fellow racer breaks that 2 hour mark — with a sprint at the finish line, humanity wins.)

The book Endure is filled with chronicles of finely calibrated efforts, scrupulous rationing of resources, patient adherence to training plans, and timing of successive laps down to the microsecond. The book and the athletes it celebrates seem to be, if anything, paying tribute to Max Weber’s Protestant Work Ethic, in which virtuous prudence and planning are rewarded with eternal recognition.

Except that’s not how the race actually ends. Precision, science and planning notwithstanding, Hutchinson concludes that records may best be set by people courageous enough to discard their plans and just go for it. As Hutchinson sums up:

If you execute a perfectly paced race, that means you effecively decided within the first few strides how fast you would complete the full distance. There is no opportunity to surprise yourself with an unexpectedly good day: you’ve put a celing on your potential achievement from the momentu the staturting gun fires. As a result, this approach may produce better results on average, but it is less likely to produce dramatic outliers: jaw-dropingly fast (or slow) times.

Something to think about next time you go out for a jog.

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