“Endure” — Notes and a Review of Alex Hutchinson’s Latest Book on the Athletic Bookworms
OK, let’s talk about March’s Athletic Bookworm pick, “Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance” by Alex Hutchinson.
About the book: “The capacity to endure is the key trait that underlies great performance in virtually every field—from a 100-meter sprint to a 100-mile ultramarathon, from summiting Everest to acing final exams or completing any difficult project. But what if we all can go farther, push harder, and achieve more than we think we’re capable of?”
Before I dive into a few of my favorite moments, I highly encourage you to hop over to our podcast (or just click PLAY on the video version below) and listen to How to ENDURE with Alex Hutchinson!
OK, so this book. As someone who really needs more of a mental edge but also prefers some real-life stories and advice that’s not just worksheets, I loved this book. A few of my favorite moments:
“The brain’s role in endurance is, perhaps, the single most controversial topic in sports science. It’s not that anyone thinks the brain doesn’t matter. Everyone, right back to A. V. Hill and other pioneers of the “body as machine” view, has always understood that the race is not always to the swift —particularly if the swift make bad tactical decisions, pace themselves poorly, or simply are unwilling to suffer. In that view, the body sets the limits, and the brain dictates how close you get to those boundaries.”
He spends a lot of time talking about the idea of the central governor, the part of our brain that holds us back or helps us set records, and whether or not it’s a real thing. I can safely say that the example of sprinting at the end of massive endurance events is 110% true for me. I remember walking the last half of the marathon in my first Ironman, pausing to hit every porta-potty to dry heave. It wasn’t pretty. My legs were so cramped that I could barely bend them, my stomach was in agony, I was sunburned and completely shattered. And then, the wall of noise from the main drag in the final 1/10th of a mile into the finish line hit me. And suddenly, boom, I was back running. (And yes, I needed a lot of IV fluid after that, but still. My brain let me run when I didn’t think I could take another step walking.)
So, as he proves again and again in the book, our bodies DO have limits, but our brains aren’t fantastic at interpreting where they are. (Or maybe it’s that our brains are excellent at determining where they are for any given moment and situation.)
In a book about the mind’s ability to endure, a chapter on fuel seems kind of strange. But this book doesn’t just focus on the brain, it focuses on the body as well. And, as Hutchinson says, fuel is hugely contested and a hot topic right now. Most pressingly, the idea of a high fat/low carb diet for endurance is huge.
On the topic of high carb diets, Hutchinson concludes, “If there’s alternative diet plan that’s better for endurance performance, no one has told the best endurance athletes in the world.”
When asked about going high fat, low carb as an athlete, his advice was simple: “Don’t.”
So many racers we know are considering this type of diet, but honestly, most of those people don’t even have a more normal whole-food well-rounded diet approach nailed yet, so to start getting into macro ratios and trying to fast/start burning fat during endurance exercise is honestly kind of pointless and also dangerous in a lot of cases. Really, most people would benefit from simply adding more veggies and clean sources of protein to their diets while taking out some of the refined sugars—but not eliminating carbs altogether.
The FUEL and THIRST chapters are worth the price of the book alone, for how much practical info is in there, and how much work Hutchinson does dispelling myths and pointing out the outdated/flawed research around hydration and fueling for your workout and race. Moral of the story? Just because a few endurance racers are going high fat doesn’t mean you should. (Remember what your mom told you about your friends jumping off a bridge? Yeah, that.)
Intrigued? Get it here: Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance by Alex Hutchinson.
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