Breakthrough: How We Can Increase Our Endurance and Push Through Our (Apparent) Limits
One evening, I was traveling down a YouTube rabbit hole (as one often does) when I encountered a documentary so gripping that I couldn’t look away.
The documentary—produced by National Geographic—showed the efforts of three world-class runners who were working with Nike to break a record thought to be impossible.
The sub-two-hour marathon.
I’m not going to give away the ending. If you’re interested in viewing the documentary on Nike’s Breaking2 project, you can watch it below.
The documentary is an incredible story that touches on themes like pushing your limits, overcoming obstacles, and having the audacity and boldness to make the seemingly impossible possible.
While there were many reporters monitoring the project from afar, there were only two journalists who were granted access to the entire Breaking2 project.
One of them was Alex Hutchinson.
For the latest episode of The Power Of Bold, I spoke with Alex Hutchinson, a National Magazine Award-winning journalist and writer for publications like Runner’s World, Outside Magazine, The New Yorker, The New York Times, and The Globe and Mail. Alex is also the author of an awesome new book titled Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance.
Alex is an extremely intelligent person and he has studied the science of endurance for many years. Even if you aren’t interested in long distance running, Alex has some unique insights on ways we can push our physical and mental limits not only in athletics, but in other facets of our lives.
My interview with Alex touched on topics like how his passion for running launched a period of self-discovery, how world-class runners will continue to push their limits, and how Alex was able to get Malcolm Gladwell to write the foreword for his book.
That said, here are five of the top insights that we can think about as we work on pushing our own limits.
Mind Your Head
Endure primarily discusses the science behind endurance. In the book, Alex brings up concepts like lactic acid, basal metabolic rate, stress-induced analgesia to explain what happens in our body when we are pushing our limits.
Having said that, the perception of how hard we’re pushing ourselves may not necessarily be an objective function of body chemistry.
Our minds play an important role in endurance.
Alex provides a quick vignette to explain this phenomenon.
As a high schooler, Alex was trying to run a 1500 meter race in under four minutes. While he kept falling short of his goal, Alex ran one race at 3:52—a shocking eight second beat of his goal.
The result was significant, but even more significant was Alex’s perception of the race. As he rounded the first lap, the timekeeper announced that Alex was running four seconds quicker than his expected time. Yet Alex felt the same as he would during his slower time.
This feeling intrigued Alex, who ultimately discovered that endurance isn’t purely about things like heart rate, lactate levels, or core temperature.
It’s about how your brain interprets those signals.
While this may be a semantic difference, it means that what’s going on in the brain impacts how you’re able to endure anything, whether that’s running a marathon, preparing for a pitch meeting, or pulling an all-nighter to finish an urgent project.
So don’t forget it: your mind is more powerful than you think.
The Power of Motivational Self-Talk
Alex is a self-described empiricist. He enjoys digging into numbers and looking through quantitative evidence.
So when he was at university and was told that motivational mantras and self-talk could improve his athletic career, he was skeptical—to say the least.
However, in the past few years, there have been some fascinating studies showing the tangible benefits of motivational self-talk. Alex cites one study of cyclists who were placed in a heat chamber and completed a time-to-exhaustion test to measure their endurance. The researchers discovered that those cyclists with motivational self-talk training were able to cycle for longer. Even more interesting is that those same cyclists were able to dig deeper into their physiological reserves to change the perception of how hard their body was working.
What does this all mean?
Motivational self-talk is not a panacea for all of your problems. It alone won’t make you an Olympian or a billionaire who graces the cover of Forbes.
But motivational self-talk does play a role in helping you pursue your goals. As Alex says:
“If you’re changing your level of self-belief, you’re gonna behave in ways that improve your chances of success.”
If you’re constantly saying “I can do this” and you genuinely believe it, you’re going to take action. You’re going to take a calculated risk that you may have been hesitant to take (for whatever reason).
By contrast, if you keep telling yourself “This sucks” or “I can’t do it,” you’re going to prioritize negative scenarios and think why something won’t work. This negative mindset will act as a saboteur when you face challenges when working toward your goal.
As Greg Harden (coach to University of Michigan legends like Tom Brady) told me: the number one thing preventing people from becoming the best that they can be is negative self-talk—how we speak to ourselves and how we communicate internally.
So when you’re facing your next difficult task, don’t automatically dismiss motivational self-talk.
It may provide the boost that you need.
The Power of Networks
This next point ties in closely with the above discussion of belief and motivational self-talk.
As part of the Breaking2 effort, Nike recruited three world-class distance runners to run a sub-two hour marathon. One of those runners was Elliot Kipchoge, the 2016 Olympic marathon gold medalist.
He has been described as “the greatest marathoner of the modern era.”
Alex described him as a Yoda-like figure who speaks in quotations of great wisdom.
Kipchoge is one of many uber-talented long-distance runners from Kenya. And in Endure, Alex discusses why long-distance runners from Kenya tend to have more success than long-distance runners from America.
One big factor is this idea of self-belief.
They tell themselves that “they can do it” and are able to change the perception of how hard their bodies are working.
But in addition, Kenyan runners rely on the inspiration provided by their network. If you’re a child in the highlands of Kenya, you likely have someone (or perhaps multiple people) in your extended family who is a world-class runner or has made some money racing overseas.
So essentially, everyone who becomes a runner is surrounded by successful runners.
The running community is that strong.
With this strong community, those would-be elite runners have reason to believe that, “I’m a Kenyan and I’m a runner, therefore, I’m going to be great because so many other Kenyan runners are great.”
It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. They come from an environment where it’s easy for them to believe that they’ll be great.
We all know that we are the average of the five people we spend the most time with. That said, this is a great reminder that our network can shape our perception of whether our goals are possible. If you see others in your network who have accomplished the things you want to accomplish, you are more likely to believe that you can do it.
Role models matter. Your network matters. It’s an old adage, but it’s worth repeating: make sure that you surround yourself with those who you admire and those who inspire you.
Expand Your Endurance by Building on Prior Successes
We all want to expand our limits, whether it’s running a faster half marathon, finding more Twitter followers, or gaining more responsibility at work.
This can be scary, however.
It requires us to venture into the unknown.
Yet if we’re seeking to expand our limits, one important way is to place ourselves in uncomfortable positions.
We need to experience discomfort.
Alex says that when you stretch your limits and put yourself in challenging situations, you get better at tolerating discomfort. You develop psychological coping strategies that make it more likely that you will stick with whatever task is in front of you.
True, this type of experience won’t eliminate all pain or resistance on the way to your goals. But it will build self-belief because you will be proving to yourself that you are more capable than what you imagined.
You will see how far you’ve come. And this will provide continued motivation to keep pushing your limits and to keep challenging yourself.
If you look at your past successes and use them to generate more self-belief, you’re going to behave in ways that improve your chances of success. In fact, you’re rationally believing what you’re capable of based on what you’ve already proven that you can do.
And by keeping your belief one step ahead of what you’ve already accomplished, you never settle. You keep expanding your limits.
By embracing vulnerability and pushing ourselves just one small step beyond our apparent limits, we strengthen our endurance. We see tangible evidence of our capabilities and we can use this evidence as a foundation for future successes.
So just put yourself out there. It may be the start of something big.
Endure isn’t a how-to book. Alex Hutchinson doesn’t promise any magic potions that will launch you toward your dreams.
That said, the book provides a telling reminder. The mind is much more powerful than you think. When we think about pushing our apparent limits, our brains can give us that extra spark when we most need it.
Whether it’s motivational self-talk, the network around you, or leveraging your prior successes, recognize that your mind can take you places that you thought were essentially impossible. It all comes down to self-belief and taking that first step—no matter how scary it may seem.
Once again, you can access Alex’s interview on The Power Of Bold by visiting our page on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, or Stitcher. If you’d like to read a transcript of the episode, please visit The Power Of Bold’s website.