Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance

Endure by Alex Hutchinson

From running a two-hour marathon to summiting Mount Everest, we’re fascinated by the extremes of human endurance, constantly testing both our physical and psychological limits.

How high or far or fast can humans go? And what about individual potential: what defines a person’s limits?

For years, physiology determined the answer: heart size, lung capacity, and muscle strength. But over the past decade, a wave of dramatic findings in the cutting-edge science of endurance has completely overturned our understanding of human limitation. Endure widely disseminates these findings for the first time: It’s the brain that dictates how far we can go—which means we can always push ourselves further.

Hutchinson presents an overview of science’s search for understanding human fatigue, from crude experiments with electricity and frogs’ legs to sophisticated brain imaging technology. Going beyond the traditional mechanical view of human limits (like a car with a brick on its gas pedal, we go until the tank runs out of gas), he instead argues that a key element in endurance is how the brain responds to distress signals—whether heat, or cold, or muscles screaming with lactic acid—and reveals that we can train to improve brain response.

An elite distance runner himself, Hutchinson takes us to the forefront of the new sports psychology—brain electrode jolts, computer-based training, subliminal messaging—and presents startling new discoveries enhancing the performance of athletes today and shows how anyone can utilize these tactics to bolster their own performance—and get the most out of their bodies.

Author: Alex Hutchinson

Amazon | Goodreads

Rating: 4/5

“These days, the terror has mostly, though not entirely, faded. When I line up for a race, I remind myself that my fiercest opponent will be my own brain’s well-meaning protective circuitry. It’s a lesson I first learned in my breakthrough 1,500-meter race in Sherbrooke more than two decades ago, but its implications continue to surprise me. I’m eager to learn more, in the coming years, about which signals the brain responds to, how those signals are processed, and—yes—whether they can be altered. But it’s enough, for now, to know that when 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.”

I read Endure as part of The Next Big Idea Club with Malcolm Gladwell, Adam Grant, Daniel Pink, and Susan Cain. It was very, very interesting, and one of those books that I may not have otherwise picked up but am glad I did. Alex Hutchinson presents a thorough view of the different theories and research about human endurance (is it physical or mental?), weaving stories about real athletes into each chapter to keep you engaged and intrigued.

These stories and anecdotes really made the book for me. For example, the chapter on heat used the story of Max Gilpin, a high school football player whose death from heat stroke attracted national attention. The chapter on belief used Reid Coolsaet, a marathon runner who threw his careful planning to the wind and decided to try to keep up with the leaders right out of the gate. We were introduced to Reid at the beginning of the chapter and didn’t get to learn his outcome until the end. Stories like this, weaved in so masterfully, helped it read more like a novel.

I also learned a ton of interesting things. I run casually—5 and 10k races, nothing too crazy and certainly nothing close to the 2-hour marathoners mentioned throughout—so I did have a bit of personal experience to help me relate to what he was describing. As I read, I’d routinely set the book down, turn to my husband, and say “Did you know…?!”

If you’re looking for a good nonfiction book to broaden your view of the world and learn something new that you might otherwise never have known, this is a great choice.

2 thoughts on “Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance

  1. Sounds like an interesting book. I found myself thinking about the desire itself to excel, to endure more extremes, to find the new and better. In what ways is it cultural or innate? I’ve read Gawande’s Checklist Manifesto, which you reviewed last time and which also has the theme of improving performance, but in Gawande’s case, people may die otherwise. In Endure, the purpose seems more competitive, and more the search for a kind of intoxication.
    Brock

    Like

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