Dou­ble Your Stamina

What if the ‘wall’ is all in your head? Dis­cover why en­gag­ing mind over mus­cle could be the key to go­ing higher, faster and fur­ther

Men's Health (Australia) - - Contents - BY ALEX HUTCHIN­SON

Prioritise mind over mus­cle to smash through the “wall”.

At first, I fig­ure it must be a gri­mace. Eliud Kip­choge, the reign­ing Olympic marathon cham­pion, has been run­ning for more than 90 min­utes at a pace no hu­man has ever sus­tained for this long, cir­cling a nearly de­serted For­mula One race­track in Monza, Italy. Ahead of him, a clus­ter of pace­mak­ers forms a hu­man shield to block the wind for him; cheer­ing along the side­lines are the sci­en­tists who, backed by Nike’s mil­lions, have spent the last few years try­ing to fig­ure out every pos­si­ble way to help Kip­choge be­come the first man to run a marathon in less than two hours. Now, with less than 30 min­utes to go, it’s up to Kip­choge alone – and as he flashes past for an­other lap, it’s clear that he’s ac­tu­ally smil­ing broadly.

Push­ing the lim­its of your en­durance is hard. In fact, if you dig deep enough, you’ll even­tu­ally bump into what feels like an im­move­able brick wall. That’s pretty much how 20th-cen­tury phys­i­ol­o­gists thought about hu­man lim­its: as a straight­for­ward con­se­quence of the strength of your heart and the ef­fi­ciency of your mus­cles. Ei­ther you can do it, or you can’t. But in re­cent years, sci­en­tists have been re­think­ing this view of en­durance. They’ve wired up ath­letes with elec­tric brain stim­u­la­tion, tricked them with sub­lim­i­nal mes­sages, and searched for tell­tale pat­terns in so­phis­ti­cated brain scan­ners. And they’ve con­cluded that lim­its that feel phys­i­cal and non-negotiable to us are, in the vast ma­jor­ity of cases, me­di­ated by the brain. We don’t stop be­cause our mus­cles are in­ca­pable of con­tin­u­ing; we stop be­cause dis­tress sig­nals from those tired mus­cles con­vince our brains that we should stop. A se­man­tic dif­fer­ence? Maybe, but one with im­por­tant con­se­quences.

In the build-up to Nike’s Break­ing2 marathon last year, pun­dits fo­cused on the tech­nol­ogy. Would Nike’s new Va­por­fly shoe, with its curved car­bon-fi­bre plate in the sole,


shave sec­onds from Kip­choge’s time? Would their spe­cially-for­mu­lated sports drink keep him fuelled, and their so­phis­ti­cated com­puter al­go­rithm get his train­ing pro­gram just right? But Kip­choge him­self, ex­ud­ing a Yoda-like seren­ity, in­sisted that the two-hour bar­rier was pri­mar­ily a men­tal one. “The dif­fer­ence only is think­ing,” he told re­porters: “You think it’s im­pos­si­ble, I think it’s pos­si­ble.”

At the track in Monza, I can’t help re­mem­ber­ing these words as he pushes on­ward, still smil­ing, and records a stun­ning fin­ish time of 2:00:25—not quite sub-two, but two and a half min­utes faster than the world record, and more than enough to con­vince scep­tics the bar­rier will fall sooner than ex­pected. And the view among the pun­dits is that it’s Kip­choge’s mind, rather than his mus­cles, that sets him apart. Here’s a look at what the lat­est sci­ence tells us about how to push through your own bar­ri­ers, Kip­chogestyle, at the gym, in the wa­ter or on the trails.


At the 2010 Win­ter Olympics in Van­cou­ver, Slove­nian cross-coun­try skier Pe­tra Ma­jdič slipped dur­ing her warm-up and fell three me­tres into a rock-strewn creek. The re­sult­ing pain made her shriek with every ex­hale – but af­ter an ul­tra­sound, an on-site doc­tor told her noth­ing was bro­ken. So she skied through four ex­cru­ci­at­ing rounds of the clas­sic sprint that day, and nabbed a bronze medal. Only then did she head to hos­pi­tal, where doc­tors found that she had ac­tu­ally bro­ken four ribs. The stab­bing pain she’d felt dur­ing the semis? That was one of the bro­ken ribs punc­tur­ing her lung.

Ath­letes are fa­mous for their abil­ity to push through pain – but it’s not be­cause they don’t feel it. Re­searchers have found that top ath­letes have roughly the same pain thresh­old as every­one else. Pinch them and they’ll squirm. But their pain tol­er­ance, which de­ter­mines how much of a pinch they’re will­ing to en­dure, is much higher. That’s a re­sult of the psy­cho­log­i­cal cop­ing mech­a­nisms they’ve de­vel­oped from deal­ing with dis­com­fort dur­ing years of hard work­outs. They learn to dis­tract them­selves in­stead of dwelling on pain. And, most cru­cially, they learn to re­frame pain as emo­tion­ally neu­tral in­for­ma­tion (“Just FYI, you can’t sus­tain this pace for much longer”) rather than a cause for panic (“Oh my god, your legs are go­ing to fall off!”).

Ac­cord­ing to re­search from Oxford Brookes Univer­sity, that’s one of the best rea­sons to in­cor­po­rate high-in­ten­sity in­ter­val train­ing into your rou­tine, like ten all-out one­minute sprints with a minute of rest. There are lots of equally good ways to im­prove your phys­i­cal fit­ness but only in­tense in­ter­vals, which force you to deal with dis­com­fort, boost your pain tol­er­ance. The more fa­mil­iar you get with the feel­ing of pain, the less it will bother you, says record-set­ting Amer­i­can ul­tra-run­ner Josh Cox: “You have to wel­come it – say, ‘Here you are, my friend.’”


Diane Van Deren’s record-set­ting tra­verse of the 1,600-kilo­me­tre Moun­tains-to-sea Trail in North Carolina, in 2012, in­volved run­ning from dawn to near-dawn for more than three weeks, sleep­ing just one to three hours a night, barely paus­ing long enough to let her sup­port crew duct-tape her blis­tered feet and cram food into her mouth. For­tu­nately, Van Deren had an ad­van­tage. Surgery to re­move part of her brain that was trig­ger­ing epilep­tic seizures had left her with poor mem­ory and dif­fi­culty keep­ing track of time. “I could be out run­ning for two weeks, but if some­one told me it was day one of a race,” she once joked, “I’d be like, ‘Great, let’s get started!’”

For Van Deren, ig­no­rance is bliss – be­cause if she doesn’t re­alise how far she has al­ready run, that knowl­edge can’t weigh her down. And it turns out that de­cep­tion has sim­i­larly pow­er­ful ef­fects in the lab. In one study, cy­clists in a heat cham­ber ped­alled faster>

when the ther­mome­ter on the wall was rigged to dis­play a falsely low tem­per­a­ture. In an­other study, cy­clists rac­ing against a vir­tual-re­al­ity ver­sion of their own pre­vi­ous best per­for­mance were able to keep pace even when the avatar was se­cretly sped up by two per cent. (They couldn’t keep up when it was sped up by five per cent, though. The power of de­cep­tion has its lim­its.)

Out­side the lab (and with­out brain surgery), it’s not easy to trick your­self. But there is one sur­pris­ingly pow­er­ful form of self-de­cep­tion that con­sis­tently works. If you take a mouth­ful of sports drink and swish it around in your mouth, you’ll ac­ti­vate oral sen­sors that tell your brain more fuel is on the way – even if you then spit the sports drink out. If you’re ex­er­cis­ing for a few hours or more, you’ll prob­a­bly find it gets harder to keep chug­ging down sports drinks. Use the rinse-and-spit tech­nique to pre­vent your brain from shut­ting your mus­cles down pre­ma­turely.


At the 1983 World’s Strong­est Man com­pe­ti­tion, in Christchurch, New Zealand, a fresh-faced Cana­dian pow­er­lifter named Tom Magee, later known as Mega­man dur­ing a brief World Wrestling Fed­er­a­tion ca­reer, dead­lifted 535 kilo­grams of lo­cal ched­dar cheese – still the heav­i­est dead­lift on record. The key, Magee says, was the “mind-en­docrine link,” which en­abled him to flood his body with adren­a­line. “These big lifts were done with ex­treme pas­sion and emo­tion,” he says. “I could lift far more that way, but it took a lot out of me.”

In other words, Magee’s feats re­quired peak men­tal as well as phys­i­cal ef­fort – a fact that many ath­letes ne­glect. Marathon­ers typ­i­cally cut their mileage in half in the week lead­ing up to an im­por­tant race, to make sure their bod­ies are suf­fi­ciently re­cov­ered for a supreme ef­fort. But ac­cu­mu­lated men­tal fa­tigue can be just as de­bil­i­tat­ing. In a 2009 British study, sim­ply sit­ting at a com­puter for 90 min­utes do­ing a cog­ni­tive test re­duced en­durance in a sub­se­quent cycling trial by 15 per cent. An­other study found that sup­press­ing strong emo­tions (the sub­jects had to keep a poker face while watch­ing a video of a wo­man eat­ing her own vomit) also sapped en­durance. So if you’ve got an im­por­tant work­out or a big match com­ing up, give your­self a “men­tal taper” to make sure you’re fresh. You should be read­ing a good book or watch­ing a movie the night be­fore, not do­ing your taxes.


When I ran my first marathon a few years ago, I spent al­most as much train­ing time sit­ting in front of a com­puter as I did logging kays out­side. I was try­ing out a new “brain en­durance train­ing” pro­gram, de­vel­oped by a re­searcher named Sa­muele Mar­cora. The idea was that by tax­ing my brain’s abil­ity to stay fo­cused, I’d grad­u­ally get bet­ter at sus­tain­ing the con­cen­tra­tion re­quired to hold my goal marathon pace for hours at a time. The re­sult? My quads seized up af­ter 35 kilo­me­tres, and I hob­bled to the fin­ish with­out get­ting a chance to really test my new­found men­tal re­serves.

Still, Mar­cora’s brain en­durance train­ing pro­to­col has been rack­ing up some im­pres­sive re­sults. In one study, sub­jects who did the com­puter tasks while ped­alling sta­tion­ary bikes for an hour im­proved their time to ex­haus­tion by 126 per cent af­ter 12 weeks. In com­par­i­son, those who did the phys­i­cal train­ing im­proved by just 42 per cent.

What these find­ings demon­strate is that you can up your men­tal en­durance to im­prove your phys­i­cal per­for­mance. Mar­cora’s ad­vice is to train when your brain is tired – the men­tal equiv­a­lent of wear­ing a weighted vest. Long day at work? Up all night with a sick child? Don’t can­cel your work­out; in­stead, ad­just your ex­pec­ta­tions and use the op­por­tu­nity to build your brain en­durance.


Af­ter Al­berto Salazar strug­gled to a dis­ap­point­ing sixth-place fin­ish in the US col­lege ath­let­ics cham­pi­onships in 1978,

he re­turned home and posted a sign on his bed­room wall: “You will never be bro­ken again.” It be­came his mantra – and Salazar be­came fa­mous for an un­yield­ing rac­ing style that made him the fastest marathoner in the world and oc­ca­sion­ally landed him in the med­i­cal tent af­ter his races.

Did the words in his head really spur him on? Ac­cord­ing to a grow­ing body of re­search, the an­swer is yes. The in­ter­nal mono­logue in your head in­flu­ences how your brain as­sesses the sig­nals com­ing in from your mus­cles, heart and lungs. If you tell your­self that it feels hard, you’ll quit sooner. In a 2016 study, cy­clists in a heat cham­ber boosted their time to ex­haus­tion from 8 to 11 min­utes af­ter two weeks of “mo­ti­va­tional self-talk,” learn­ing to re­place neg­a­tive thoughts like “I’m boil­ing” with pos­i­tive ones like “I’m ready for this”. Tellingly, they also pushed their core tem­per­a­ture half a de­gree higher. Chang­ing the words in their heads al­lowed them to ac­cess a hid­den re­serve of en­durance.

In a sense, that’s what Kip­choge was do­ing at Monza. By smil­ing, he was giv­ing him­self a form of phys­i­cal self-talk, re­as­sur­ing his brain that his body was fine. A study pub­lished last year found that when run­ners were told to smile, they ran more ef­fi­ciently and burned two per cent less en­ergy to sus­tain the same pace. But for Kip­choge, the sci­ence just con­firms what he al­ready knows. “I don’t run with my legs. I run with my heart and my mind. When you smile and you’re happy, you can trig­ger the mind to feel your legs.”

EN­DURE: Mind, Body, and the Cu­ri­ously Elas­tic Lim­its of Hu­man Per­for­mance (Harpercollins) is out now.


Pain and gain: Salazar col­lapses af­ter win­ning the Bos­ton Marathon.

Smil­ing as­sasin: Kip­choge breaks the men­tal tape.

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