Since I can remember, the human body has always fascinated me. I can remember struggling my way through first year anatomy & physiology wondering why it was so impossibly hard (probably why I had to go back and do it again years later), but coming away utterly fascinated. The things the body could do, it’s potential capabilities, and my love of sport are what slowly pushed me towards the field of strength & conditioning. And that love is what made me order Alex Hutchinson’s book “Endure” the moment I first learned it existed.
“Endure” is a book that chronicles story of Nike’s Breaking2 project (an attempt to break the 2 hour mark in a marathon) but through a broad view of the limits of human performance by interspersing short chapters on the project with a deep dive into many studies of human performance that seek to understand the limits the body has and how we can get through them. Having already seen the documentary on YouTube (check it out here, it’s endlessly fascinating), it was still nice to read the perspective Hutchinson had as a journalist covering the project. While the interest in the project will bring you here, the vast array research presented will be what grabs your attention.
Interestingly, Hutchinson admits that when he started the book it was going to be all about Tim Noakes and the “Central Governor Theory”, which postulates that the brain plays a large role in determining physiological limit. This was a vastly different approach than the exercise physiologists, who considered the body a machine and that physiology was the sole factor preventing humans from reaching further heights. However, as he found other research he started to realize that it may not be so simple. Interesting studies (as well as his own experiences) show how “tricking” the brain can remove some perceived limiters irrespective of physiological changes; that is to say, individuals did more without a physiological change.
On a personal level, the middle third of the book was most enjoyable from a curiosity standpoint. Devoting a chapter to a different perceived limiter – muscle, pain, oxygen, heat, thirst and fuel (nutrition), pages are full of Hutchinson’s research into the depths of all those domains. A variety of stories, from Everest climbs, to elite marathoners losing 10% of their body weight through a race defying physiological theories of dehydration, ultra marathoners on nutrition, a look into free diving and more examine the multitude of people who have attempted to push the body to further.
Hutchinson finishes the book by looking further into research of individuals like Samuel Marcora, who theorizes and promotes concept in a similar but different vein than Tim Noakes how “training the brain” can be just as beneficial as training physiology. These chapters range from discussing “brain endurance” tasks to “zapping” the brain with special headphones.
Reading this book only further increased my interest in the limits of human potential. I have amazing respect for individuals who push themselves to those limits. As Eliud Kipchoge, one of the three runners in the Breaking2 project says at the conclusion of the record breaking attempt where he fell just short,, “the world is now closer to two hours” (I paraphrased that line; read the book or watch the documentary to find how close they came!). Harkening back to Roger Bannister first breaking the four minute mile, it takes one man with belief to promote achievement, so others may follow. With this project, humanity is ever so closer to breaking perceived limitations.