Endurance: Why mind and body matters

Nov 10, 2018

When it comes to endurance, do you think it's all in your head? Maybe with a little more mental power the body can achieve anything. Although your brain plays a crucial roll, the relationship between mind and body is what matters most when it comes to endurance, according to our next guest, an author, journalist and runner.

Alex Hutchinson is the author of the book “Endure: Mind, Body and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance.” He started out as a middle/long-distance runner for the Canadian national team and now continues to write for "Outside" magazine.

Though endurance is traditionally thought of as something runners worry about, endurance can apply to almost anything, Hutchinson said, giving it a very broad definition.

“It’s the struggle to continue against the mounting desire to stop," Hutchinson said.

Hutchinson said that theories of endurance have changed over time, moving away from the "human machine" view that saw endurance as a simple physical equation. Putting it simply, the body is a car. When it runs out of gas, that's it. No more moving forward.

“The truth is that that approach to endurance never really tells you who’s going to win a race or how far you can push yourself,” he said.

In the past decade, there has been more of a focus on what role the brain plays in endurance. Current research suggests that the brain plays a large part in how far a person is willing to push themselves.

“What matters, really, is how hard it feels,” Hutchinson said. “You stop when it gets too hard for you to tolerate.”

"You stop when it gets too hard for you to tolerate."

Hutchinson wrote in his book that it's not a tidy choice between physical and mental endurance as far as which matters more. Like the nature vs. nurture debate, both are important and influence a person’s threshold.

“You can’t win the Olympics with a tough mind and a body that’s not ready,” Hutchinson said. “Conversely, you can’t win the Olympics with the greatest body if you’re not willing to push yourself and have that mental fortitude, too.”

Instead of looking at it as one over the other, he said it is better to take an individualized approach. For avid marathon runners, having a strong and well-trained body is often more important to achieve first, but for most people who engage in regular or semi-regular exercise, the mind matters most.

Endurance often involves pacing -- making sure not to overexert oneself early on in a training/exercise session so enough energy is left to make it the whole time or distance.

"Gradually, you can learn to push those limits back if you're aware that you're not bumping into an iron-clad physical limit."

Hutchinson said pacing is important, but there is a hardwired pattern that is generally better to follow, especially when running: speed up in the beginning, settle to a steady pace in the middle and accelerate the most toward the end. The human brain likes this pattern because once the end is in sight, the energy that a person has been saving is safe to expend.

The most important thing to remember when it comes to endurance, Hutchinson said, is that the feeling of physical limit people feel is often not a stop light, but a caution sign that can be ignored. 

“Gradually, you can learn to push those limits back if you’re aware that you’re not bumping into an iron-clad physical limit,” Hutchinson said. “You can get better at pushing a little farther each time, using that mental endurance that you may have in other aspects of your life to push a little harder and a little farther in the physical realm.”