The Limits of Human Endurance: A Review of Endure by Alex Hutchinson

Endure by Alex Hutchinson, a book about human endurance

How do the world’s top athletes and most daring adventurers push their bodies to the absolute limit over hours or days of relentless movement? And what lessons can the rest of us take from these astonishing feats of endurance? Those are the questions that motivate Alex Hutchinson’s Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance. In this book, Hutchinson, a former Canadian national team distance runner and current award-winning science journalist, offers an in-depth scientific look at the many components of human endurance.

Athlete and Scientist

It’s hard to imagine a more-qualified author for a book on this subject. As a former athlete, Hutchinson offers a clear-eyed analysis of the triumphs and shortcomings of his running career. And his presentation of a dizzying array of studies on athletic physiology and psychology makes it clear that he understands science as well as he does endurance sports.

The information presented in Endure is well-organized and easy to digest. Hutchinson begins by laying out the debate over whether humans consciously give in when their physical effort exceeds a certain threshold (even if they are physically capable of continuing) or whether the physiological components of extreme effort cause the brain to signal the body to stop. He then continues to highlight both sides of this debate with chapters on all the possible limiters of human endurance: Pain, Muscle, Oxygen, etc. In the end, he discusses new approaches to overcome the brain’s desire to stop.

Research and Real Life

In many ways, the book reads like a thorough and concise review of the scientific literature on human endurance. But Hutchinson is also adept at explaining complex scientific concepts in simple terms, and he frequently illustrates the research with a variety of examples from running and cycling competitions and Antarctic or mountaineering expeditions. As a result, Endure is never dry. There’s plenty of science for those who want to unpack the latest research and more than enough human interest stories to captivate the lay reader.

In particular, Hutchinson excels at debunking scientific misconceptions and teasing out deeper conclusions from scientific data. For example, contrary to the popular belief that staying fully hydrated is essential for peak athletic performance, the research actually shows that quenching one’s thirst is what really matters. As long as you can avoid feeling thirsty, you can likely maintain a consistent effort over long periods of time. (Of course, there is a point when not having enough water in your body does matter, but it’s rare that most of us will reach it.) This example highlights the underlying physiology-psychology tension at work throughout the book.

Missing Breaking2

My biggest complaint was the scant attention paid to Nike’s Breaking2 project, an effort to place the world’s best runners in the ideal conditions to complete a marathon distance in under two hours. Hutchinson begins and ends the book with some of his first-hand coverage of the Breaking2 marathon, and intersperses more details throughout the book. However, this fascinating illustration of many of the physiological and psychological components of endurance accounts for less than ten percent of Endure.

Consequently, these sections feel like an afterthought. Hutchinson describes the race and shares brief backgrounds on the runners, but never goes into the same depth on their training and nutrition that he applies to the research presented in the rest of the book. Perhaps this is a result of Nike’s secrecy surrounding the project, but I wish Hutchinson had either expanded these sections in detail and scope or cut them altogether.

But that is a minor concern when considering the book as a whole. Endure is not the story of the Breaking2 project, but an approachable scientific summary of the physiological and psychological limits on human endurance. And in that respect, Endure is a success.

Rating: 4/5 stars

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