Book Review: Endurance: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance. By Alexander Hutchinson (William Murrow; $27.99)
Tim Noakes, MD, author of the behemoth Lore of Running (and soon to be published Lore of Nutrition), has been the principal thought leader on how the circuitry of the brain is wired to our muscles. A simplified metaphor is a fuse box. If we go so hard or fast (or both) for so long that the brain worries that damage is imminent, then it starts shutting things down in a subtle and kind of sneaky way.
For example, Noakes will tell you, marathoners may feel like they hit the wall, but are they really glycogen depleted? No, the science shows that we still have glycogen in the tank. How does that square with the quads-turning-to-wet-cement feeling that bonking ruefully serves up?
Noakes folded his work on the subject into the central governor theory. In talks and interviews, he says you can see the central governor at work at the front of a competitive endurance race. An athlete is pushing themselves hard but, perhaps after a heartbreaking pass, allows a negative thought to slip into their sphere of positive thought. Maybe the athlete allows their head to drop at this point in a subtle expression of defeat. The negative thought, along with the vanquished body language, is noted. The central governor pounces. Feelings of fatigue gush and start tying up muscles, and the athlete can’t even imagine holding the pace he or she was just knocking out. They slow.
As Alexander Hutchinson explores in his new book, Endurance: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, there are flip sides when it comes to the brain’s relationship to going long, hard, and fast. For him, an interest in the mental aspects of middle-distance running—distances like the 1500 meters and the mile, which produce the highest concentrations of blood and muscle lactate concentrations ever recorded in humans and all the discomfort that comes with it—was converted into a passion in one particular 1500-meter race back in the mid-1990s. He went out faster than he’d planned. Things got confusing, to the point where his brain really wasn’t sure what was going on: “As the race proceeded, I stopped paying attention to the split times. They were so far ahead of the 4:00 schedule I’d memorized that they no longer conveyed any useful information. I simply ran, hoping to reach the finish before the gravitational pull of reality reasserted its grip on my legs. I crossed the line in 3 minutes, 52.7 seconds, a personal best by a full nine seconds. In that one race, I’d improved more than my cumulative improvement since my first season of running, five years earlier.”
What the hell was that all about? Hutchinson’s obsession took root. The result is a fine work of journalism on a subject that is being pushed forward by new science and understanding of the myriad complexities of the brain.
In Endurance, which goes on sale on February 6, Hutchinson explores how our nervous and musculoskeletal systems are wired together when it comes to stressors like pain, heat, hunger, and thirst. He also digs into response inhibition, the connections between desire, maximal effort and muscle recruitment, and what possibilities might open up if you zap your brain with a nine-volt battery.
And there’s plenty more. This book is a must-read for those of us fascinated by understanding what their physical limits are and how best to go about bending them.
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