If Malcolm Gladwell (author of Blink, Outliers, Tipping Point and several other best-selling pop-science books) says of someone else’s work: “This book is AMAZING” then there are two likely explanations. Either he is just being kind and supportive to a friend and compatriot, or he genuinely meant it. I firmly believe he meant it, it really is an excellently researched and brilliantly written book.
Personally, I can’t think of anything worse than doing a marathon. My body isn’t built for long distance running. I’ve done a couple of decathlons in my time and the last event of the weekend – the 1,500m – was among the most unpleasant experiences of my life. On the final straight I was desperately willing my legs to respond to the cheers of the supporters, but I felt like I was running in treacle; I could barely tell whether my strides were propelling me forwards or backwards. And that’s just a mile! Decent marathon runners manage to keep up that pace for the full 26 miles. Those decathlons are probably the closest I have come to pushing my body to its absolutes limits and that is the subject of Alex Hutchinson’s great new book published last year.
The full title of the book is Endure – Mind, Body and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance. As a seasoned sports journalist and excellent long distance runner, Alex is extremely well positioned to write THE authoritative account of the current state of international efforts of sports’ scientists, physiologists and neuroscientists to help elite athletes squeeze yet more out of their bodies. And he really does write beautifully. As someone who has written a few popular science, I found myself awe-struck on his ability to quickly, concisely and effortlessly convey quite complex scientific ideas; clearly conveying the basic principle without allowing the explanation to be cluttered by too much pedantic detail. It seems easy to write that way, but if you know the full science story behind the compelling narratives, you realise how deftly he has whittled it down to the bare essentials.
The scientist in me found the structure of the book very appealing, progressing as it does systematically through all the systems of the human body that could be letting an athlete down as their legs go to mush. The integrity of the muscle tissue, the supply of glucose and oxygen, the build up of lactate and, last but not least, the brain. These chapters are sandwiched between the compelling tale of the incredible efforts (not to mention expenditure of huge sums of money) that have gone into trying to get the world’s elite marathon runners through the fabled distance in a seemingly impossible time of 2 hours or less. And along the way we encounter free-divers, cyclists, triathletes, Antarctic explorers and platoons of military guinea pigs. But that’s not all. It has an additional attribute that may not have been foreseen by either its author or its previous reviewers.
I noticed that, on days where I had read a few pages from this book, merely reading about the many seemingly illusory limits of human performance was sufficient to boost my own endurance at the gym, playing 6-a-side football or running 10km cross-country around Richmond Park. Just by priming my mind with the knowledge that the main influence in limiting human athletic performance is the brain applying the brakes – well in advance of the real breaking point – seemed to be sufficient to reduce my perception of exertion. When I warm up in the gym, I usually start with 20 minutes on the cross-trainer, alternating between 60 seconds of slow strides with high resistance to warm up my arms and 60 seconds of fast strides (200+/min) at low resistance to warm up my legs. By the half way point I’m inevitably dripping with sweat and wishing for it to all be over. But on days where I’d been reading in ENDURE about the science of athletic performance, my perception of exertion was extremely low. I found myself wanting to push myself harder – with a 2 min sprint rather than 1 min – and even then it didn’t hurt. When playing football on ENDURE days I was sprinting up and down the length of the pitch so much that the people trying to mark me just gave up. And on the 10 km runs, for the first time in nearly a decade, rather than my usual constant refrain of “can we go slower” to get my running partner, whenever an adrenaline surge sent him upping the pace and pulling away from me, it was him putting in the request to ease the pace down a notch or two.
For many years I’ve been spreading the message during my brain talks that just knowing the basic neuroscience of memory, decision making, nutrition, hydration, sleep etc can really help to Sort Your Brain Out. So it’s extremely gratifying to come across a new string to my bow. I usually never re-read books, so now that I’ve finished ENDURE I might have to scribble down some of the key insights on post-it notes and stick them on the wall of my bathroom. That’s one of the strategies my brother-in-law uses to keep his own athleticism up at incredibly high levels. And given that he’s on the verge of competing in the Olympics next year, if it works for him, I’m sure it could help me achieve my own much more modest athletic goals: which is simply to keep by body fit enough to keep exercising, injury free, to avail myself of the mood boosting benefits of endorphins and endocannabinoids until my dying day.
In addition to these monthly brain blogs I regularly tweet about interesting neuroscience research to hit the lay press and, I know I’ve been promising this for ages, but I really am getting very close to launching my first YouTube channel: Virtual Vive Sanity. You’d be amazed how much work goes into filming, editing and launching a weekly 60-min episode of neuroscience-enhanced Virtual Reality game reviews. The reason for the delay is I’m reluctant to launch until I’ve got all the bugs and gremlins eliminated from my workflow in order that I can release a brand new episode every Tuesday for at least a year. Watch this space. It will definitely have been launched by the end of the summer…