The Limit to Endurance

The word endurance will automatically invoke thoughts of our physical ability to withstand extended bout of workout such as running an ultramarathon.

However, endurance is actually beyond just a physiology component, it is also a state of mind. This is where we want to understand the importance of mental fitness. Conquering an ultra-race is not just about physical abilities, it is also very much depending on how our minds handle it.

Mind over Matter

For over a century in the history of exercise physiology, endurance performance was always thought to be limited by muscle fatigue caused by energy depletion or inadequate oxygen delivery and lactic acid build-up in the muscles.

Then Professor Tim Noakes, a South African scientist, came up with a theory and proving with his research studies that endurance performance is actually limited by a subconscious intelligent system in the brain that governs how hard your muscles are allowed to work in order to protect them. This thus implies that we are never truly able use the full capacity of our body.

This theory was initially controversial. Then subsequent research studies begin to confirm this revolutionary idea. Today many exercise physiologists are convinced that the organ that limits the endurance performance is the brain, and not the cardiovascular system and fatigued loco-motor muscles.

So what can we do about this? How can endurance athletes train differently with this knowledge?

It seems that apart from training to increase the capacity of our bodies to cope with the stress of endurance exercise, we can also work on increasing our mental fitness. The answer seems to suggest that our ultimate endurance performance will be determined by just ‘how bad’ we want it.

Perception of Effort  

Running an ultramarathon is a pinnacle of endurance sports. And by definition, you will have to endure, a lot. Anyone that wants to do this crazy s*** will have to endure (and suffer), not only during the actual race, but for the months and months of trainings. You will also have to endure the monastic lifestyle of getting up early to run and endure all manner of aches, pains and even injuries (if you are not careful).

However, it is interesting to consider what is actually going on when we are enduring during the race. The experts in the field point out that what endurance athletes endure above all, is not the actual effort. But rather, the perception of effort.

The way for an endurance athlete to improve is by tackling the change in the perception of effort. Think of it this way, the training process will increase your physical capacity. The fitter you become, the easier it is for you to run, swim or bike at a given speed. Your increased physical capacity will actually change your perception of effort.

The perceived effort is actually your body’s resistance to your mind’s will. The fitter you are, the less resistance the body puts up. You will start to perceive less effort. This is how your performance improves. 

 All about Coping

If you ask anyone (except for the elites, maybe) who has conquered a decent trail-ultra, they will agree that endurance sports involve a lot of stress, strain and even agony. It is all about you being able to cope with these discomfort and even suffering. A race such as a 100km trail ultra will need a lot of coping. The job of your muscles is to perform. Your mind’s job, on the other hand, is to cope.

Your mental fitness is actually the coping ability in endurance sports. In order to excel, you will need to become really good at coping with discomfort and stress experienced in an ultra-race endeavour.

My interest in this topic is to understand and consider whether mental fitness is the ultimate limit to our endurance performance. Beyond what our physical body can handle, can we tap into our mental fitness to cope with the suffering and endure the rest of the way?

Building Mental Fitness

Mental fitness is about our coping capacity in endurance sports. What can we do with this supposition? For one, our training will entail discovering and practising our coping skills to conquer these challenges most effectively.

What are the methods of coping?

  1. Experiencing them Head-on

The best way to become very good at coping with discomforts and stresses of endurance sports is to experience them head-on. You can try visualising the hard and grueling sessions but these exercises would not be enough stimulus for your mind to handle the demands of a tough race.

In order to develop the mental fitness, you will need exposures to the actual challenges so that your mind can actually experience them and be ready to withstand the toughest of moments. This is no different than the development of physical fitness. You would not expect your body to be strong without first subjecting them to repetitive resistance workouts.

If you think it through, coping is actually a response to discomfort, stress and to some extent, pain. There is no better way for your mind to identify and learn how to respond positively than to actually experiencing these challenges during training. Your goal is to discover, practise and improve your coping skills so that you can conquer these challenges effectively.  

Therefore, we want to train purposefully in unpleasant conditions. In my earlier post on Building Mental Toughness, I wrote about some ways we can cultivate mental toughness by purposefully incorporating ‘misery’ into our trainings. You can refer to the 10 ideas listed at the end of the post.

  1. Bracing for the Worst

For the amateurs, running a trail ultra-distance will definitely suck at some point. If you have participated or tried one before, you will probably understand the grueling effort and remember how miserable you felt during the run.

What you experienced and how you felt during the race can actually be broken into 2 dimensions. The first is how you felt, which is about what your body is going through. It is physiological. The second is how you felt about what you are feeling. This second dimension is more of psychological.

For the second dimension of what you felt, you can either adopt a positive or negative attitude on the discomfort and stress your body is going through during the race. If you have a positive attitude, you will take the discomfort in stride and likely push harder to overcome the hurdles more effectively. You already know and expected the challenges ahead and have decided to brave and overcome it the best you can.

On the other hand, if you are experiencing a level of discomfort which is worst that you expect, you may develop a negative or bad attitude during the race. This negative attitude can affect your outlook and even hinder your performance during the race.  

Research on the psychology of pain has compared the effects of two contrasting anticipatory attitudes—acceptance and suppression. If you adopt the acceptance attitude, you have the natural tendency to expect the repetition of a familiar pain stimulus with acceptance. You know that it is going to hurt, but no worse than before.

However, if you try to cope with the same situation through suppression, you will develop a form of denial – like silently hope that it will not hurt as much as it did the last time. Psychologists have generally found that, compared to suppression, acceptance reduces the unpleasantness of the pain without reducing the pain itself. For this reason, acceptance is a more effective coping skill.

In common language, this attitude of acceptance toward an unpleasant ordeal such as one experienced from a tough race is called ‘bracing yourself’. We can use this coping skill to reduce the unpleasantness of an impending trial. It is like how we choose to expect the worst of an upcoming experience in hopes of getting a more favourable contrasting outcome.

When we expect the worst, the reality may seem easier to tolerate. The more discomfort we can tolerate, the faster and longer we can go. This favourable contrast can actually help our performance.  

You will never know how much your next race is going to hurt. So the next time you are getting ready to run your ultra-race, tell yourself that it may be the hardest one yet. You are not being negative, you are just embracing yourself.

  1. Adopt a Tunnel Vision

Tunnel vision is usually associated with the failure to seeing the big picture, which is not a good thing. But in the case of an ultra-distance endeavour, adopting a tunnel vision can just be one of your secret weapon.

This is where we can all learn from the U.S.’s Navy SEAL and their secret of exceptional endurance. How we can keep going when we feel like we are ready to give up.

The initial Navy SEAL training is a 24-week of insane physical feats and extreme discomfort, with a finale apparently aptly named Hell Week. Some 75 percent of candidates drop out, which means that those who do manage to make it through are truly the toughest of the tough.

What sets them apart from those of us who would never stand a chance?

Sean Kernan, a freelance writer whose dad was a Navy SEAL, shared the lessons he learned from his father, including one simple tip that anyone can use to increase their endurance. You can read the full article from the link below.

Kernan shared how notorious and ridiculous the Hell Week can be and why it breaks even a lot of talented people.  Those who make it are those ‘who only look a few minutes in front of them’ to help them go through the week. They don’t get distracted by the ‘big picture’ thinking of the whole week to endure, which inevitably leads them to questioning how they are going to survive it. They are only focused on each individual exercise, getting through it one thing at a time.

This is how sometimes having just a tunnel vision is a good thing.

Kernan writes:

You can apply this to many aspects of your life. If you are studying for a massive test, take it one page at a time. Working on a huge presentation, one slide at a time. Lower your vision and piecemeal those big hurdles. It reduces the perceived mental weight of the tasks.

So for some of us who plan to run insane distances, perhaps we can benefit from lowering our gaze and just focus on the next step right in front, one step at a time.

Realizing your Endurance Limit

In an ultramarathon, we become who we are by facing the challenge and coping with it. The path between you and the best ultra-version of yourself can be an unexplored territory. You will have to discover what motivates you ‘to go all out’ and your formula for maximum mental fitness in support of your physical effort.   

You have to approach your sports as an ongoing struggle to get closer and closer to your ultimate physical limit. You have to embark on a journey of transformation in which you become more and more the endurance athlete, and tackle the obstacles that hinder your progress.

The good news is we have the opportunity to work and develop the mental fitness that is needed to perform harder on race day. Talent may set your ultimate physical endurance limit, but it is your mental fitness that will determine how close you will be able to get to the limit.

Also, talent does not dictate your capacity to acquire that mental fitness. That is why working and striving towards your maximum mental fitness is important. This is the only way for you to achieve the full realization of your endurance limit.