Book Review: Endure by Alex Hutchinson

I really enjoy reading sports science books that are about the relationship between the mind and body and their effects on human endurance. I’ve read a very similar book called How Bad Do you Want It in 2019. You can read my book review here. Both of these books are great. While How Bad Do You Want It is a little more practical, Endure is a little more academic and scientific. So together, they complement each other very well. You should definitely read both books. 

Endure begins by sharing the most prominent theories on human endurance of the last century. At first, physiologists believed that the determining factors of endurance and exhaustion were all physical. Since scientists viewed humans as machines, they thought they could predict endurance outcomes simply off of physiological traits such as VO2 max and muscle fuel (food). This view led people to think that physical limits were what always led to slowing down and stopping in races. 

Then, as Hutchinson writes, people started to wonder about the brain’s role in human performance. New theories emerged, such as the "Central Governor" theory and the Psychobiological Model of Endurance. Both of these theories claimed that while physical limits do exist, it’s the brain the determines how close we actually get to our limits. The central governor theory says that the human mind unconsciously protects us from reaching our limits so we don’t damage our health. The Psychobiological Model of Endurance agrees with this, but adds that we can consciously override our brain’s protective mechanisms and choose to endure for longer. 

I explain more about The Psychobiological Model of Endurance in my book review on How Bad Do You Want It, so I don’t want to repeat myself too much. In short, our endurance is ultimately influenced by our sense of effort and motivation. If something feels easy, we’ll keep going. And once something starts to feel too hard (sense of effort is too high) we’ll start to slow down or give up. Anything that lowers our sense of effort can improve our endurance. Also, the more motivated we are, the more effort we can tolerate, which improves our endurance. 

The great thing about this books is that it tests these theories against six forms of physical limits:

  1. Pain
  2. Muscle fatigue
  3. Oxygen depletion
  4. Heat
  5. Thirst/dehydration
  6. Fuel depletion

All six of these things can either push you to your limit, or increase your sense of effort and cause you to give up before reaching your true limit. As an athlete, there’s only so much pain, muscle fatigue, oxygen depletion, heat, dehydration, and fuel depletion you can take. However, in most cases, athletes rarely ever reach these limits. Instead, athletes will give up before reaching these limits due to an increasing sense of effort. Each of these bodily needs, once tested, sends feedback to the brain that add to your sense of effort. For example, the hotter it is, or the thirstier you are, the harder your exercise will feel. This is why it’s important for athletes to manage their pain, muscle fatigue, oxygen, temperature, hydration/thirst, and fuel/hunger to control their overall sense of effort, which is what ultimately determines their endurance. 

Next, Hutchinson turns to the question of how can we train our brains to feel less effort and tolerate more effort. The main answer is to train our bodies. As we train our bodies and get fitter, we put less physiological strain on our bodies as we exercise. This decreases our sense of effort, which allows us to hold the same pace for longer than before. However, Hutchinson also writes about training the brain in more specific ways, such as playing “braining training games” on a computer to increase our tolerance for mental fatigue. 

Lastly, Hutchinson finishes the book by talking about the importance of self-belief and how it can help us reach closer to our true limits. Sometimes our lack of belief discourages us from testing our limits. If we think we’re not capable of maintaining a certain pace, we’ll slow down because we're afraid of "hitting the wall." So in order to improve our endurance, we need to take a leap of faith and go all out without the fear of hitting the wall. This self-belief mainly comes from our training and preparation, but it also comes from choosing an attitude of complete confidence in yourself. 

My only critique of this book is that the author didn’t write that much about the psychological motivation and coping skills needed to manage and tolerate the perception of effort. He chose instead to focus mainly on the hard science, which is fine. All of this scientific knowledge gives me new ways to write about mental toughness and performance in the future, so I’m happy with this book. 

While this book focuses on endurance sports such as running and cycling, it is still applicable to all sports. Endurance and mental toughness are vital components of every sport, so every athlete can benefit from reading this book.