6 Elements to Improve Endurance Running

Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance (2018) by Alex Hutchinson


Theory

A traditional view of endurance is that the body is a ‘machine’, limited by the muscles’ ability to use energy and oxygen.

However, more recently, researchers such as Tim Noakes and Samuele Marcora have asserted that human limits are defined by the brain’s functions. Conscious or not, our mind senses the dangers of exerting ourselves too much and so guides our body’s ‘pace’ (otherwise known as ‘anticipatory regulation’).

Our sense of effort and ability to overcome our instincts to stop once we feel pain are crucial elements if we are to perform at our best. Researchers point to the finishing ‘sprint’ during a marathon as proof that our bodies always have a reserve of energy.

Practice

Pain is unavoidable, a complex and situation-dependant sensation, but, if we seek pain in training (e.g. run harder, faster workouts) our pain tolerance will increase.

The more hours we spend physically training our bodies, the better we can alter our minds to push ourselves faster and further.

Muscles

Brain fatigue and muscle fatigue are inseparable, but lactic acid isn’t the feeling of acid dissolving our muscles. It’s a cautionary signal created in the brain by nerve endings triggered only in the presence of certain metabolites.

Caffeine is an effective performance enhancer because it disables brain receptors that detect muscle fatigue.

Oxygen

The advantage that East African runners have originates from being born at altitude and having active childhoods. This means they can better maintain their brain’s oxygen supply due to possessing a greater number of thicker blood vessels that connect to the brain.

Heat

For every 100 calories we consume, it’s estimated we will generate at least 75 calories of heat. This means that to fully adapt to bodily heat, we should exercise repeatedly in hot conditions.

We will sweat more heavily and our blood volume will increase, resulting in our heart rate staying lower during exercise.

Thirst

If thirsty we should drink when we have the chance, but we shouldn’t obsess about it when we don’t, because any losses of less than 4% are unlikely to impair our endurance performance.

Fuel

We should never be under-fuelled at the start of a race, otherwise this will be a limiting factor in our performance. The brain uses fuel, and so having larger stores of glycogen is optimal.

An example is it only helps to consume a sports drink in runs shorter than 90 minutes if our body is low on fuel to begin with.

Brain Training

Ultimately, as athletes we need to better monitor our body’s reactions to training loads. The more we can predict pain, the more likely we are to feel impartial to it, and push through that feeling to make better micro-decisions during a race.


Runner Alex Hutchinson

Hutchinson’s own views as a runner, after completing his first marathon in a time of 2:44:48, are useful to ensure we best implement the advice from the countless studies he compiled. He wishes he implemented more positive self-talk. Over many years, this will inevitably translate into greater self-belief.

More than anything else, running lots and holding greater faith in achieving personal goals will give us the best chance of athletic success.

New Advice from Neuroscience

Katwala draws on extensive research to summarise important techniques that improve sports performance. Although many studies refer to the hand-eye coordination of ball sports, the book contains relevant and interesting advice for runners.


Key Findings from Studies

Your vision must be trained as hard as your physique to fulfil your athletic potential. A major difference between amateur and elite athletes is the latter’s ability to track and act upon the slightest of movements.

Your vision is closely related to your mental strength and agility. Thus the stronger the mind, the less stress will drain your energy.

Distraction from any task at hand is better than thinking too much about it. However, visualisation in training can change your physical make-up; thinking of becoming stronger can actually make you stronger.

Sporting Advice

You must learn to transform inevitable nerves into fuel. You can do this by training under controlled self-induced pressure, such as placing an outcome on your performance (reward), adding other mental tasks during your exercise, or modifying your workouts regularly to feel more challenged. All these techniques will build your mental resilience and thus prepare you better for racing conditions.

Sport is a complex pursuit for people to master. To make sporting skills less susceptible to interference by external factors or your conscious mind you need to make actions so implicit that they become instinctual. According to Angela Lee Duckworth, by adopting a positive growth mindset and seeking different circumstances to test your abilities you will develop a strong passion for the sport. Deliberate practice sustained over a long period of time will mean you have a greater chance of success.

Running Advice

Runners give up long before they reach their metabolic and muscular limits. The reason is that they have exhausted their brain. Professor Samuele Marcora explains the ‘psychological model of endurance’, a theory that purports runners must train to reduce their perception of effort.

Tips to reduce the perception of effort include

  • not relying on your watch for every run
  • rinsing your mouth out with a carbohydrate-rich drink
  • smiling as you run and especially after work or a long day
  • controlling your breathing

Playing video games also builds mental stamina because of their repetitive nature, and improves memory and attention span.


This book supports the notion that being an expert in your sport can have its disadvantages. Sometimes having less information (or forgetting what you know) can actually aid performance by ensuring you are focusing on your natural rhythm.