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

by Tom O'Grady

In the world of sports and endurance, the quest to push beyond perceived limits has always fascinated athletes and researchers alike. Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance by Alex Hutchinson is a thought-provoking and insightful exploration of the factors that determine human endurance. This book has been one that I have been looking forward to reading for some time because of its ability to blend story telling with the science of endurance. With a focus on both the physical and psychological aspects of performance, Hutchinson's book offers valuable insights for athletes, including (maybe particularly) runners, who are constantly striving to push their limits and reach new heights.

Unveiling the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance:

Hutchinson dives right into the age-old question of why athletes hit a physiological barrier that prevents them from going further, faster, or for longer periods. Drawing from extensive research, the author sheds light on the complex interplay between the mind and body in achieving peak performance in each chapter of the book. Each chapter represents a story about some aspect of human endurance and how the individual is faced with challenges both physical and mental. Hutchinson includes discussions on concepts such as VO2 max, lactate threshold, but then challenges the conventional wisdom surrounding how these govern the limits of human endurance. Hutchinson pulls in Tim Noakes’ concept of the central governor to help shed further light on the role of the human mind in establishing the limits of performance.

The Mental Game of Endurance:

One of the key aspects that sets "Endure" apart is Hutchinson's exploration of the role of the mind in endurance. Through captivating anecdotes and scientific studies, he demonstrates how psychological factors, such as perception of effort, pain tolerance, and motivation, play a significant role in pushing the boundaries of human performance. Runners, who often find themselves grappling with the mental hurdles of long-distance races, will find this aspect particularly intriguing. Elements of the role that the mental game plays in endurance are woven into each story that Hutchinson explores. This includes discussion on our physical limits in the marathon and Nike’s staging of an attempt to break 2 hours in the marathon. Unfortunately, the book was published in 2018 prior to Eliud Kipchoge’s famous INEOS 1:59 Challenge that saw a 1:59:40 time for 26.2 miles and the effects of this non-sanctioned event on lowering the recognized world record for the marathon to 2:01:09.

The Power of the Brain:

Hutchinson dives deep into the fascinating world of the brain, unveiling its remarkable ability to influence physical performance. He explores how the brain can act as a governor, regulating our efforts to ensure we do not push ourselves beyond what it perceives as safe limits. Hutchinson also explores the results when we can push past these self-imposed safety limits and reach much closer to our true physiological limits. By understanding how the brain responds to fatigue and discomfort, runners can learn to push closer to these self-imposed limits and tap into more of their unrealized potential.

The Science of Pain and Discomfort:

Endurance athletes are no strangers to pain and discomfort, and Hutchinson examines the mechanisms behind these sensations. He uncovers the complexity of pain perception, showcasing how the brain's interpretation of signals from the body can be influenced by various factors, including beliefs, emotions, and the context with which we find ourselves in. For instance, several studies have indicated that our physical performance after engaging in strenuous mental activity is much lower than when we are well rested and mentally prepared (motivated) to push ourselves physically. This aspect of the book provides valuable insights for runners seeking to develop a greater tolerance for discomfort and to overcome the mental barriers associated with it. It also provides runners with insight into balancing outside stressors when preparing for a peak performance.

Breaking Records and Defying Expectations:

Through captivating stories of record-breaking athletes and extraordinary feats of endurance, Hutchinson illustrates the remarkable capacity of the human body to adapt and excel. As noted above, he explores the concept of "central governor theory" and challenges the notion of fixed physiological limits, providing hope and inspiration for runners who aspire to find ways to push beyond their own perceived boundaries. By sharing stories of individuals who have shattered records and achieved seemingly impossible feats of endurance, Hutchinson provides both lessons and potential forewarnings to runners who hope to reconsider their own personal perceived limitations.

Practical Applications for Runners:

"Endure" is not only well grounded in the scientific underpinnings of endurance but also offers practical advice and strategies for athletes. Hutchinson’s writing allows the reader to take away some actionable tips on training methods, nutrition, and mental techniques that can help athletes optimize their performance and enhance their endurance capacity. From discussing the benefits of interval training to exploring the impact of external cues on performance, the author equips runners with tools to help unlock their true potential.

Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance by Alex Hutchinson is a truly great read. It provides a captivating and enlightening exploration of human endurance through its inclusion of real feats of endurance and the science behind those feats. Hutchinson dissects the interplay between the mind and body, challenges long-held beliefs about endurance, and offers new perspectives on the limits of human performance. Anyone with an interest in athletics and science will find this book to be a great read, but runners should consider this book invaluable as it provides insight into the psychological and physiological aspects of endurance. By understanding the power of the mind, breaking the barriers of pain, and drawing inspiration from remarkable achievements, runners will find both great stories and potentially actionable insight into how they can take their performance to new heights. Hutchinson's work in exploring human endurance helps us consider our boundaries, what we thought was possible, and provides a beacon of hope for what we may be able to accomplish.


Tom O’Grady is an elite runner, coach,
writer, and college professor with a joint appointment at NYSDOH/UAlbany School of Public Health. In addition to writing diverse articles for the Pace Setter and other running journals, he is the Pace Setter’s official book reviewer.

Click on his picture for his extensive archive.



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