I lift 4-5 days a week. I swim 2-3 days a week. I “train” all the time and I try to push myself to the limit so that I can keep improving… But as I get older, I think a lot about what those “limits” actually are and where they come from. Do the limits on how fast I can swim a 100-meter butterfly come from conditioning and oxygen limitations as I age? Do they come from having more or less muscle? Are these limits caused by me giving in to being tired? Or not being able to handle the pain? Or am I not giving maximal effort?
If you’ve ever given yourself a training goal with exercise, whether it’s to bench 300 pounds or run a sub 6-minute mile or swim 1,000 yards or even improve your time in a Peloton class, you’ve likely wondered about all of the same things. Are you not improving because you’re not capable? Not in the right mindset? Or are you improving because you believe you’re capable and you’ve convinced yourself of that fact? Or who knows what else?
Author Alex Hutchinson knows what else, or at least did his best to find out in his extensively researched, super useful book, Endure. With chapters on pain, muscle, oxygen, heat, thirst, fuel, training the brain, zapping the brain and more, Hutchinson covers every aspect of what it takes (and doesn’t take) to get the best out of yourself.
I reached out to Hutchinson and we had a great e-mail exchange for this week’s Three Answers. Since I had some specific questions, I decided to include the whole Q&A below. Thank you, Alex, for participating.
You end a section on this question: “Can you get faster by training yourself to better tolerate or block out pain?”
In your opinion, is delaying that “I want to quit” feeling in a race possible for the non-professional/non-elite athlete?
Yes, absolutely. In fact, it happens all the time, but we don’t always notice it. Take someone who signs up for a couch-to-5K program. They might have trouble running for more than a minute at a time when they start; a few months later, they’re running half an hour non-stop. Obviously a big part of that is their body getting physically fitter—but I guarantee that they’ve also learned to keep pushing through a level of discomfort that would have stopped them a few months earlier. Repeated exposure is the best teacher there is.
If you’re already training regularly, the potential gains are much smaller, but they’re not zero. In the book, I explore various boundary-pushing techniques like electric brain stimulation, but the single most effective way of learning to handle discomfort better is to experience it on a regular basis—and that applies to everyone from beginners to pros.
There was a fascinating anecdote in the ‘Muscle’ chapter about a man named Tom Boyle who reportedly lifted a Chevy Camaro to help someone after an accident. And it did seem plausible with the caveats you mentioned. Ronnie Coleman, the 8x Mr. Olympia, used to chant “light weight” over and over before he’d attempt maximum lifts and reps, trying to trick his brain into thinking the weight wasn’t as heavy. The section on hypnosis increasing strength maybe speaks to this a bit too…
Was there one “mind over matter” strategy that you felt was more plausible/useful when it came to increasing strength?
After the book came out, I had a chat with former WWF wrestler Tom Magee, who told me that one of the real secrets to lifting cars (as he did in his strongman routines) was finding one with an asymmetrical weight distribution. But he also told me that he had cultivated the “mind-endocrine link,” which supposedly allowed him to release adrenalin into his system on demand. Everyone has different ways of talking about this stuff, but the bottom line is that big lifts are never just a result of having big muscles. There’s a mental and emotional component that’s crucial.
In terms of how you harness that, I think it’s pretty individual. But one general principle to keep in mind is to stay focused on the rep you’re in. The moment you allow yourself to consider that there’s still more reps to come, your brain is automatically holding back some reserve.
You quoted researcher Samuele Marcora’s definition for endurance/effort as, “the struggle to continue against a mounting desire to stop.” This definition will resonate with anyone who trains. It’s simple and perfect.
What was the most important training takeaway from researching this book that you employ in your own workouts?
The big one for me was the importance of self-talk. I’ve always been skeptical (to put it mildly) of the “whatever you believe, you can achieve” school of motivation, so this was a tough sell for me. But there’s enough new research on the topic that I ended up being convinced that the voice in your head matters, and (with time and effort) you can change its default message. The bottom line is that the moment when you quit in any workout is always a conscious choice, and that choice is affected by whether you’re telling yourself to give up or keep pushing.
What was the single most surprising piece of research you found in your journey while writing this book? Was there one fact or feat that just blew you away when you uncovered it?
For me it was the section on freediving, which I dug into for my chapter on whether oxygen is a true limiting factor. I had absolutely no idea that a human could hold his breath for 11 minutes and 35 seconds, with no tricks like pre-breathing pure oxygen or anything like that. I interviewed the American breath-holding record-holder (at 8 minutes and 35 seconds), Brandon Hendrickson, and what stuck with me—or haunted me, to be honest—was that there are no secrets that make it easy. It really is a pure contest of learning to handle discomfort. Amazing stuff, but I’m definitely not rushing to sign up for a breath-holding competition!
Needless to say, I thought this book was beyond awesome. I absolutely recommend it to everyone reading this. It’s endlessly fascinating with tons of useful information. BUY IT HERE.
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Jon Finkel is the award-winning author of Hoops Heist, The Life of Dad, Jocks In Chief, The Athlete, Heart Over Height, “Mean” Joe Greene and more. His books have been endorsed by everyone from Mark Cuban and Tony Dungy to Spike Lee, Kevin Durant and Chef Robert Irvine. He has written for GQ, Men’s Health, Yahoo! Sports, The New York Times and has appeared on CBS: This Morning, Good Morning Texas, and hundreds of radio shows, podcasts and streams.