As we await the start of the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, where we will observe athletes push the outer limits of human performance and endurance in their respective areas of athletic expertise, what is the science of the human mind and body that makes this possible?
I recently sat down to read the newly updated paperback edition of Alex Hutchinson’s Endure: Mind body, and the curiously elastic limits of human performance. And when a book is written by a National Magazine Award winner with a PhD in physics you get the very best of storytelling with accurate and intricate explanations of basic science. Alex, also being a parent and living through the pandemic, has written about how enduring COVID-19 is for many of us like running a marathon with no finish line in sight. And this is something we see as the Tokyo Olympics continues to deal with the ongoing challenges of the pandemic.
Amby Burfoot, Boston Marathon champion and author of Run forever, writes of the book: “We’re all intrigued by amazing feats of human endurance, from Everest to marathon world records to global Ironman competitions. How do they do it? Alex Hutchinson’s Endure explores the topic from every conceivable angle, bringing to light the latest science and debunking pseudoscience. It dives deep into the most fascinating aspects of muscle function, sports nutrition, brain control, and much more, while remaining always entertaining and useful.”
Why did you write this book? What did you learn from the process?
Alex: This was definitely a book that grew out my own life experiences. I’ve been a competitive runner since high school, and competed internationally for a while after college. Every race is an opportunity to test where your limits are, and you soon realize that those limits aren’t as predictable as you’d think. What seems impossible one week might seem easy the next week. So I really wanted to understand the nature of these limits that I’d been negotiating with all my life.
The other big part of my life was my training as a scientist: I did a PhD and a few years of post-doctoral research in physics, which has nothing to do with running but everything to do with a certain mindset in how you tackle problems and try to understand the world. So my approach to understanding physical limits wasn’t to go around asking great coaches and athletes what they thought, but to ask scientists. You might argue (and I might agree, to be honest) that the athletes know more about these limits than the scientists, but it’s a different kind of knowledge, and I was interested in the latter perspective.
As for what I learned… it’s a long list! The big thing is that you can’t understand physical limits without considering the mind. What I thought was going to be a book about physiology turned out to be a lot more about psychology—though maybe a secondary insight is that drawing a bright line between physiology and psychology is a fool’s errand!
Your book largely explores the peaks of human performance through stories of distance runners combined with scientific studies examining each component of performance. How did you choose to structure the narrative the way you did?
After a few years of research, I had an enormous stack of research papers—like, hundreds of them—and I realized that even the most ardent sports science nut wasn’t going to have much fun reading through a 200-page narrative review. At that point, I realized that I needed to illustrate the points I wanted to make with stories. So it was very much a case of first learning about the science I wanted to write about, organizing it into themes, and then going out and digging up relevant stories to bring the ideas to life.
In the end, my book is like a lot of other popular science books these days, following a stories-and-studies format that’s probably most closely associated with Malcolm Gladwell. That format is pretty easy to criticize or caricature, because it’s easy to mash together stories and studies in a way that bends the science to whatever your agenda is. But if you’re doing it honestly, it’s also a really powerful way of getting people excited about digging into some fairly complex ideas. In the end, as a science communicator, my goal is to make those ideas accessible to people who don’t necessarily start with a background or even an interest in science.
What did you learn about the curiously elastic limits of human performance and how might your book and its insights be applied to areas outside of sports?
To be honest, this is where I tried to consciously steer clear of the usual pop sci format, where every insight leads to an actionable message that will improve your life and supercharge your career. Not that I wasn’t tempted, of course! But it became clear to me pretty early on that our understanding of these “curiously elastic limits” was still very preliminary, so I worried that turning it into a how-to book would box me into making the research sound more settled than it is.
That said, I do think there are some really powerful and useful ideas in there about how our minds perceive difficult tasks, and in some cases convince us that we can’t do things before we’ve really given it our best shot. Probably the most widely applicable idea I explored was the role of your internal monologue in influencing your perception of how difficult a task is. But in terms of how to actually apply those ideas in day-to-day life, I would guide the interested reader to recent books by Ethan Kross (Chatter) and Noel Brick and Scott Douglas (The Genius of Athletes)!