The limits of the human endurance performance: is it all in your head?

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There are limits to the human endurance. But what role does our brain play in it? As Alex Hutchinson, a Canadian scientist and journalist for renowned American magazines, will tell us in this interview: a big one!

Alex Hutchinson is himself an experienced runner and regularly publishes articles in the well-known endurance magazine Outside (after several years of writing for Runner’s World), where he covers a wide range of topics in the field of endurance sports. In his book Endure, he looks into the limits of human endurance performance and investigates influencing factors. According to Hutchinson, the role which our brain has in this is underestimated, while it is actually able to influence our performance considerably. We wanted to know how…

You write in your book that the limiting factor on our performance is not physical or mechanical, but pyschological. Do you mean by that that mental barriers prevent us from unravelling our full potential?

That’s a fair summary of what I wrote in Endure, but it’s maybe worth clarifying what I mean. To say that the limits are psychological doesn’t mean there are no physical or mechanical constraints and you can just “decide” to do whatever you want! It’s more subtle than that.

Imagine you’re running a 10K race. Is there any point during the race where, if someone pointed a gun at your head, you wouldn’t be able to accelerate? Maybe very close to the finish, but otherwise you’re always pacing yourself. If so, what is the physical or mechanical “limit” that’s holding you back during the first 9.9K? If often feels like you can’t go faster, but that’s because you know from experience that you shouldn’t go too fast early in a 10K or you’ll pay the price. So when you put it that way, I think pretty much everyone would agree that the limits to endurance are in some sense psychological. Who among us can really claim that their race execution was so perfect that they were right at the limit of their sustainable pace for every metre of the race?

Whether our body’s “full potential” really is a lot greater than we know is another tough question, but we’ll get into that below!

What exactly is the process in our brains tricking us into thinking we can’t go faster and how did you find out about this?

Nobody really knows the final answers at this point, but in the 1990s a scientist named Tim Noakes proposed that our brains act as what he called a “central governor” that prevents us from pushing to our true physical limits, presumably to protect us from serious damage. Since then there has been lots of scientific debate over how and why this might happen, and whether it’s really true.

The current theory that I find most convincing is that we’re guided by our subjective perception of effort. All the physiological signals we hear about—core temperature, lactate levels, heart rate, and so on—contribute to our general sense of how much effort it takes to continue. When that effort level gets too high relative to what we think we can sustain to the finish, we slow down. This is why on a hot day, we slow down very early in the race, long before we’re actually overheating: we’re responding not to the actual temperature, but to the perception of effort that is affected by the temperature.

How can we try and counteract this and learn where our actual limits are?

I think the question of “actual limits” will always remain hypothetical. There’s no such thing as the perfect race. So it’s more a question of learning to fight against our brain’s desire to slow down, so that we can get a little bit closer to a goal that we’ll never reach.

To some extent, I think just knowing the role of the brain in setting our apparent limits can help. In the middle of a race, if you feel that you’re slowing down, you might blame this on elevated lactate levels or something. If that’s what you think, then there’s nothing you can do but accept the slowdown, because it’s an unavoidable physical truth. But if you believe that you’re slowing down because the elevated lactate levels are making the race feel harder, then maybe this helps encourage you to keep fighting.

More generally, I think the type of positive mindset exhibited by runners like Eliud Kipchoge can make a difference, helping to alter your perception of effort. There’s been some fascinating research demonstrating this over the last few years.

So, are you saying that we can somehow “battle” the lactic acid?

You can’t use your mind to change your lactate levels. But perhaps you can change how you respond to those lactate levels. The thing to remember is that during a race or workout, we’re almost never running at a true “10 out of 10” effort. It would be physically impossible to run like that all time. Instead, we’re always trying to sustain a lower effort that gradually increases so we only hit 10 at the end of the race.

Maybe you’re at 8 halfway through the race, and then rising lactate levels make it feel more like 8.5. But maybe that subjective assessment of 8.5 is partly because you haven’t done a lot of anaerobic training this season, so it’s an unfamiliar sensation and you’re overreacting to how it feels. If you’re able to mentally reframe that feeling of lactate in the legs, perhaps your subjective assessment of effort goes back down to 8.3, and you’re able to sustain a slightly quicker pace to the finish.

Of course, no one actually calculates these numbers midrace! I’m just trying to illustrate what sort of calculations you’re constantly making, without even being aware of it, when you race.

How big an effect do you think it has on the performance of people if they get rid of those mental limits? For example, how much faster do you think the marathon World record could be in the future?

To be honest, I suspect the potential improvements are biggest for recreational athletes, and smallest for elite world-class athletes. One of the traits that enables an athlete to reach the top is the ability to push through discomfort. That said, I do think that even the best athletes can sometimes reach another level. When Eliud Kipchoge ran his 2:01:39 world record last year, I think that performance was partly enabled by the confidence he got from running 2:00:25 under artificial conditions at the Breaking2 race the year before. It changed his perception of what was possible, freeing him up to be aggressive in the second half of the world-record race.

Although professional sports people have experience in trying to get as close to their limit as possible, they still have to learn and relearn every season. There’s some great data showing pain tolerance increases in elite swimmers over the course of a season, maxing out as they approach their goal race. It takes constant practice to suffer well.

Does it work only for endurance sports or also for others?

As a rule of thumb, I’d say the longer the event, the greater the role of the mind. But there are some great experiments showing that mental factors do a play a role even in short bursts of activity. There was one famous study from the 1960s where researchers snuck up behind their subjects and fired a starter’s pistol in their ear right before they did a maximal lift. The fear boosted their strength by 7 or 8 percent!

We hope that some of the thinks Alex mentioned here will also help you to improve your performance in the future!

 “The difference only is thinking. You think it’s impossible. I think it’s possible.” – Eliud Kipchoge before he ran his World record in Berlin

 

Photo: Florence Tsui

Alex Hutchinson is a science journalist who specialises in writing about endurance sports for Outside Magazine and other publications, and he is the author of the New York Times bestseller Endure. In his own running career, Alex ran for the Canadian national team as middle-distance and cross-country runner. His best times were 3:42 (1500m), 8:00 (3000m), and 13:52 (5000m). These days, Alex still runs most days and competes occasionally in road and cross-country races.

 

 

 

 

Edited by: Marion Aebi

Interview with marathon champion Eliud Kipchoge

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Interview and pictures: Jürg Wirz – this blog entry was provided to us by the Swiss magazine FIT for LIFE.

He ran the marathon faster than anybody else before him – and he believes he can become even faster. FIT for LIFE visited the 34-year-old Kenyan at the training camp in Kaptagat in preparation for the London Marathon.

Eliud Kipchoge, at the latest since your fantastic world record last September in Berlin in 2:01:39 hours you are the biggest marathon runner of all times, unbeaten in the last ten marathons, including the Olympic victory in Rio and 2:00:25 at the Breaking2 attempt in Monza. What has changed in your life since then?

It’s gotten a little difficult. Every new achievement, every record comes with a new responsibility. Many people want something from me: sponsors, media people, but also the fans. I try to meet their wishes as well as possible, but I can’t make myself available for every single one of the sponsor appearances, interviews, autograph requests or selfies. I have to be selective. I hope my fans understand that. In the end they are also only happy if I show a good performance.

Does this increased attention also bring more pressure?

No, I’m not feeling any more pressure than before. I am the same as before Berlin. I am still primarily a runner. I only make other commitments if the training doesn’t suffer from it. During the week I am at the camp in Kaptagat where it is only about focusing on the training and nothing else.

If you think back to the race in Berlin: was this the perfect competition, the optimal result? Your coach Patrick Sang said that you had reached the top of your form at exactly the right time this time.

I can’t and won’t comment on what Patrick says. He is the teacher, I am the student. He dictates the training and I implement it. We never discuss the training, I trust him one hundred percent. He is the best coach I can wish for – and he has been for almost 20 years. But he is also a friend and my life coach. Was it the perfect race? On that day with these conditions: yes.

In Berlin you were already ahead after 25 kilometers without a pacemaker, you ran the second half in 60:33 minutes, 33 seconds faster than the first and you became faster and faster on the last kilometers; would you even have had more reserves?

Let’s not speculate, please. As I said, on that day it was the optimum. But I never said I didn’t believe I could run any faster. However, it depends on so many factors: I have to be in top form again at the decisive moment, the weather has to fit.

Your motivation is still unabated then?

I am convinced that I can continue running at this level for at least two more years, but I have no guarantee. I need to stay healthy and get through training without injuries. There is no lack of motivation; I am still very hungry. I want to go down in history as the best marathon runner, and for future generations I want to be a role model as a runner as well as a person.

You keep stressing this: it is the love of running and challenge that drives you, and the fact that you want to leave a legacy behind. But you have already achieved everything. What are the remaining goals?

I love running, it’s that simple. The Olympic Games next year in Tokyo are still a big goal for me – and yes, I might be able to improve the world record even further. Every day is a challenge, you’re always faced with a new one. And when I have achieved something, I look forward to the next goal. That’s the way to go. That’s my way of thinking, my character, that’s how I work.

On April 28, you will run the London Marathon, which you have already won three times. Was it easy to choose London again, or was there another option up for discussion?

This is the work of the management and the coach. They look at the different possibilities and tell me which one they think is best. After Berlin they thought London was a good choice and I agreed. I am happy to be able to run again in London. Especially since it comes to a meeting with Mo Farah. He is one of the greatest runners of all time. What he has achieved on the track is incredible, and now he is also a top-drawer marathon runner. It will be a real challenge, but that’s what I love. And for the fans it will be great to watch the race.

How has the preparation been going so far? Any changes, maybe new training impulses?

Everything has been going according to plan. And no, no changes. Again, we stuck to the training program that has worked for the last few years. For track training or driving games there may be small adjustments from time to time, but nothing of great importance. Before I start with the three-month training program, I just go jogging for a month and go to the gym three times a week, where I do strength training and aerobics for two hours.

What about nutrition, any supplements?

I still eat normally like any other Kenyan and do not take any supplements. The only exception is sports drinks.

And what about performance tests or other scientific training aids?

I often run with a heart rate monitor because I want to know how my heart behaves under the various strains. But I never analyze it with any specialists, it’s just for me. Before the Breaking2 project, the Nike people measured my oxygen volume and other things – I had to run on a treadmill for the first time in my life – but that was actually more for them than for me. It didn’t affect my training.

Since the Breaking2 project, your shoe, the Nike Zoom Vaporfly Elite, has been a constant source of discussion and speculation, not least because Nike himself claims that the shoe would save four percent of energy. What do you think?

All I can say is that the shoe that I have assisted developing is the best marathon shoe I have ever had. In London, I’m going to run with the Vaporfly 4% Flyknit, the same model as in Berlin. Last year in London the stock material came from a 3D printer. But to be honest, to me, the whole shoe discussion is pretty boring. The biggest advantage is not during running, but in the recovery. It relieves the muscles and allows you to train at a high level more often. Progress does not come from the shoe, but from the head. If the shoe was so much better than others, why am I the only one running the marathon under 2:02 hours?

 

Change of subject. What does a training day look like in the camp in Kaptagat?

I get up at a quarter to six and prepare for the morning training, which usually starts at 06.10 or 06.20, unless we are going to Eldoret for trainings or for a long run outside Kaptagat. When I come back, I take a shower and then have breakfast with my colleagues. Afterwards I rest a bit, either on the campground or I lie down again. Then it’s time for lunch. After lunch I often have a massage. Before the second training begins at 16 o’clock, we rest again. Then once more a shower and waiting for dinner. At 21 o’clock I am in bed. This is what my day looks like. On Tuesday we have track training, on Thursday the long run, which can go up to 40 kilometers, and on Saturday a driving game. On Saturday afternoon we go home and spend the weekend with the family. On Monday morning we go back to the camp.

Let’s talk about the young Swiss Julien Wanders. European record over 10 kilometers and in the half marathon and now even the first official world record holder over five kilometers on the road. Are you following his performance?

Yes, of course. He’s a member of the Nike NN team and has the same manager. I’ve never met him since he’s been one of the pacesetters at the Breaking2 attempt in Monza, but I’ve been following his performance very closely. Running the half marathon in 59:13 is really fantastic, especially for a European. I admire him and I’m happy for him. After the London Marathon I would like to sit down and have a chat with him. For me, Julien Wanders is proof that East Africans have no genetic advantages. If a European decides to concentrate entirely on sport and live in the heights, he can just as well reach the top. It’s just a question of talent, training and the head. Wanders is already a role model for other Europeans. I am sure that many will follow his example.

What is your opinion on the doping problem in Kenya? Are many runners not informed enough about what is allowed and what is not, or why are cases increasing?

I am convinced that most athletes know about the issues around doping. There has been a lot of education in recent years, especially from the Kenyan federation. I think in most cases it’s about someone wanting to make money faster. Which is very regrettable, because of course it also casts a shadow over all clean athletes. Maybe it also has something to do with the African mentality. Unfortunately, cheating is in the DNA of many people.

Do you think that a country like Kenya will continue to produce world-class athletes in the future? In Kenya, too, technical progress can be seen everywhere and living conditions are improving. A life full of hardship as a runner may soon no longer be in demand or necessary in order to achieve something.

I don’t spend much time thinking about this. Progress comes and cannot be withheld. And with it also technological development. It’s true that many children today take a bus to school or are taken there by their parents in a car. I think that in Kenya and other countries there is a need for sports academies where talented young people can go to school, train and prepare for competitions. Where they can train and are mentally formed. Too much is left to chance at the moment. But there will always be young people everywhere who want to achieve something in sports.

A few keywords at the end:

Breaking2?

I ran 2:00:25 under special conditions and I have the official world record. With the experience from the first time the chance would be bigger now to run under two hours. But I never chase two rabbits, only one at a time. Right now, I’m concentrating on London, nothing else.

City marathons?

I think they are fine the way they’re organized for us elite runners right now. There are people who are involved in the organization and administration of the marathons; it’s their job to think about it. My job is to run as fast as possible.

Your children?

I try to raise them like other parents do, even though their father may be a little better known than others. I think that I – and my wife – have succeeded quite well so far. Our children don’t get every single thing they want. They should know that nothing should be taken for granted, and they are to try out different kinds of sports.

Religion?

Religion plays a very important role in my life. It keeps me from doing things that could keep me from my goals. On Sundays I go to church with my family and I pray regularly, even in the mornings before a race.

THE REASONS FOR ELIUD KIPCHOGE’S SUCCESSES

Childhood:

Eliud Kipchoge grew up in a village called Kapsisisywa in Nandi County as the youngest of five children. His father died early. The mother, a teacher, showed the children the right way into life.

Coach:

Eliud was lucky Patrick Sang lived nearby. Sang, once one of the best obstacle runners in the world (and a member of LC Zurich), has been his coach and mentor for 18 years. Sang holds the highest IAAF trainer diploma.

Track running career:

Before switching to marathon at the end of 2012, he was one of the best track runners of his generation. At the age of 18 he beat Hicham El Guerrouj and Kenenisa Bekele over 5000 meters at the World Championships in Paris; for nine years he ran the course for less than 13 minutes.

Body concept:

For 16 years at the highest level, Eliud Kipchoge had very few injuries as he has been taking good care of his body: Strength training in the gym and aerobics at the beginning of a preparation, then hill runs for strength and always incorporating stretching and massages.

Problem solving:

He is also able to master challenges during a race: the high temperatures at last year’s London Marathon, the rain in Berlin in 2017 or 2015 also in Berlin when he won despite the insoles having slipped out of his shoes.

Peace of mind:

His calm and serene nature proves to be ideal in extremely emotional high-performance sports. Those who remain calm can think more clearly, concentrate better and prepare for the challenges of a race.

Humbleness:

Despite his success, Eliud Kipchoge has remained very modest. In the camp he participates like everyone else in the cleaning work and he lives in a simple single-family house; his children should not grow up differently than others.

Planning:

The right planning is key to success. As soon as the next marathon has been determined together with the management, he sits together with the coach and gets informed about the rough plans, starting from the day of the race.

Eagerness to learn:

He’s a curious man by nature. He reads many motivation and business books. He is never satisfied with what he has achieved. As an athlete and also as a person, he always wants to learn new things, become even better and always looks to the future.

Training partners:

He has excellent training partners at his side, including Geoffrey Kamworor (multiple Half Marathon and Cross-Country World Champion), Stephen Kiprotich (Olympic Marathon Champion 2012 and World Champion 2013) and Abel Kirui (double Marathon World Champion).

Training:

As far as training is concerned, he trusts his coach Patrick Sang one hundred percent, whom he calls his coach for both training and life. Training programs are not subject to argument: Sang is the teacher, Kipchoge the student.

Self-confidence:

Over the years, especially since the 2:00:25 hours of the 2017 Breaking2 trial in Monza, he has built up an unshakeable self-confidence. He knows, no matter what happens in the race, he’s ready. He has been undefeated for ten races.