This is a fascinating question and similar to one of my other favourite questions in sport – are you born to be good, or can you train yourself to be elite? But for now, let’s focus on the question of human physical performance limitations. I recently read a book by a reporter named Alex Hutchinson, titled “Endure: Mind, Body and The Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance”1. The book was a really good read, and discussed the research and current thoughts around what determines our ability to push ourselves to our limit – why can some push harder and longer than others? The book features the author’s pursuit of determining what role the brain and mind play in determining our physical limits. Alex also featured in a podcast1 where he was interviewed about his book, and this is also well worth a listen for anyone interested in this topic. My article here is totally based on the book and podcast, so what you read here is my summaries and thoughts based on Alex’s extensive research, his book and the podcast. It’s a bit of a long blog, but I hope you enjoy the theories as much as I did!

In the early to mid 1990’s, Alex was a reasonable middle distance runner who just could not break the 4 minute barrier for 1500m races. For four years he tried and failed, getting consistently close with times of 4.01 and 4.02 but never under that magical mark. However… in one meaningless race in 1996, Alex was racing when the time keeper for unknown reasons was calling out incorrect splits (times per lap), tricking Alex into thinking he was having “the day of his life”. Even though the splits were incorrect, Alex was able to run a massive 9 second PB of 3 minutes 52 seconds – a performance that could not be explained by physiological improvements such as VOZ max, lactic acid thresholds, and other factors that runners hold so dear when talking about fitness levels. He was simply tricked into thinking he was running quicker than he actually was, and he did! And even more interesting – he never failed to break the 4 minute barrier from that race on!

There have been a few schools of thought regarding the brain and performance over the years, and one of the leading discussions revolved around the “Central Governor” concept developed by one of the most prominent Exercise Scientists of the time – Tim Noakes. Noakes believed that the brain was our Central Governor and it was our brain and not physical or practical factors that influenced our performance. He proposed that this explains why we cannot push ourselves to death in endurance events: there is an in built safety system in the brain, outside our conscious control, that prevents us from expending our very last drop of energy. An example to help explain this is the 1996 Olympic Games where during the marathon, the final margin was a mere 3 seconds between first and second place. Noakes explains that if ever a guy had the motivation to push himself to the absolute limit, it was the guy who entered the Olympic stadium for the final lap in second place. Yet just after crossing the finish line, here he was running another lap with his country’s flag in his hand – hardly the action of a person that had pushed themselves to their absolute limit! Noakes states that even when motivation is at its absolute maximum, you still cannot push to your end limits.

This theory may explain how you can find that extra burst of energy just near the finish line of an event, when previously you thought you had nothing left – the brain will not let you push to your maximum until it knows exactly where the finish line is, and that you will not die, and therefore releases that bit of energy you couldn’t find earlier in the event!

This Central Governor theory was challenged by an Italian researcher Sameule Marcora, who believed that the brain did not hold you back in the way mentioned above, but that you make a conscious decision yourself to quit, based on your own “perception of effort”. Marcora proposes that the decision to stop is based on a balance between how hard you think you are going, versus how hard you are prepared to go. Marcora states that there is some scientific evidence to support the perception of effort theory and a few examples given include:

• when you complete a maximal effort with exercise, you almost immediately feel better upon completion of that effort. The brain’s perception of effort has dropped, and you go from feeling utterly exhausted to feeling not too bad, which wouldn’t happen if you had truly expended your last drop of energy!
• In one particular experiment, cyclists were being paid (motivated) to cycle to a level of exhaustion. Once they had stopped, exhausted, the cyclists were immediately asked to pedal for 5 seconds longer at a higher pace than they had previously managed, which all were able to do. The explanation here being that the mind of the cyclists had decided it cannot continue on for an indefinite period of time, so to quit was the choice. But then, given a definitive time period, the mind allows an immediate “post exhaustion” higher burst of activity.
• And finally, in another experiment, this time on a treadmill, runners were asked to smile during their running activity, and running economy (energy efficiency) was 2% better in these happy runners! Perhaps grimacing and clenching and scowling feeds into the brain, increasing the perception of effort, whereas being able to maintain a smile or more relaxed state of mind lowers the brain’s perception of effort!

Along these lines, there is some evidence that motivational self talk (like smiling) influences the signals feeding into your brain, and that self belief makes a difference that is measureable. Hutchinson talks about “negative thought stopping” and says that the mental side is intricately linked to what your physical limits are. In his words, “if training is the cake, belief is the icing”!

To support the importance of the perception of effort theory, Hutchinson highlights the interesting case of ultramarathon runner Diane Van Deren, who only took up running to help stave off epileptic seizures. Diane eventually had a lobectomy (part of her brain removed) to address her epilepsy, resulting in her having the inability to keep track of time or distance. Diane could still feel the pain of other runners, but could only run “in the moment”, having no idea of how far or long she had run for, or what distance was left in her race. Unlike the rest of us, she was unable to measure out a balance between her effort and her goals – being unable to know just how far she had come and how far left to go, she could only make a decision “can I keep running right now”? Amazingly, Diane became an elite ultra distance runner, winning her first 100 mile race in her 40’s, and proceeding to win the infamous Yukon Arctic Ultra, a 430-mile footrace pulling a 50-pound sled through temperatures below 50 degrees for eight days, and then setting a record for the 1,000-mile Mountains to Sea Trail, where she traversed the state of North Carolina in just over 22 days. In this case, it seems Diane’s “Central Governor” is faulty, so it cannot balance and preserve energy for the finish line, so she is able to push closer to her limits than the rest of us.

Technology: we live in a world of smart phones and watches, GPS technology, and instant feedback for external parameters. In Hutchinson’s own case, it was incorrect split times that made him perform better than he ever had – if he had been attentive to correct split times, he may never have broken the 4 minute barrier. Whilst knowing your pace and distance can certainly be beneficial, perhaps more time needs to be spent working out how you actually feel! “Don’t sweat the times” is Hutchinson’s advice in this case. Using technology can help you be accountable for a workout, but try fine tuning your perception of effort, and just make sure you are tired by the end of a session.

In the Breaking 2 challenge (Nike’s very structured and highly controlled attempt for Eliud Kipchoge to break the magical 2 hour marathon barrier), despite so many controlled variables to assist Kipchoge (he ended up running 2 hours 25 seconds), Hutchinson states that “science had nothing new to teach Kipchoge, he was the master of self belief”. In preparing for the Breaking 2 challenge, Kipchoge had run a sub 60 minute half marathon, and when asked how he would change his training to ensure he could repeat this time over double the distance, Kipchoge replied with: “I won’t change my training, my mind will be different”.

In summary, Hutchinson’s book and podcast come back to the power of the mind being perhaps the most important variable enabling us to push as close to our physical limit as possible. There are a few salient points he finishes with:
• for recreational runners, he states that more consistent physical training is better than mental exercises for increasing mental strength. The ability to tolerate pain (and make the decision to keep running) increases as you do more workouts that are more difficult.
• Specific workouts challenge you both mentally and physically. What are the workouts you dread the most? Maybe these are the workouts that need more frequency in your training. Needing to maintain a certain pace for an unknown distance (until a coach calls a stop) is one possible hard training session to help develop the power of your mind and stretch your ability to get closer to your limits. “The best mental training is physical training – organise some training that is mentally uncomfortable for you”.

And Hutchinson’s final take home message: “show up and just keep showing up. People over-estimate what they can achieve in the short term, and under-estimate what they can achieve in the long term. If you keep showing up, you will be amazed at what you can achieve over a long period of time”!

Anthony Lance
SSPC Physiotherapist

*1 Paperback book – Endure: Mind, Body and The Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance; Alex Hutchinson
*2 Podcast – The Physical Performance Show, Episode 123: Alex Hutchinson