How Olympians Surpass the 'Limits' of Human Performance
This week, cross-country skiers will speed up on the final 50-meter stretch; bobsledders will set the best start-times on the final run; speed skaters will sprint for the finish, all on the verge of total energy collapse.
But relegating this athletic achievement to “having extra gas in the tank” or just plain “clutch" overlooks what’s really going on. What exactly does a person's body and mind do under such inordinate physical stress on the world’s largest stage in sports?
That’s the question Alex Hutchinson, a physicist and author, set out to answer in his fascinating (and motivating) new book, Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance. Across the sporting world, from extreme breath-holding to football to ultramarathons, Hutchinson sheds light on how humans accomplish our most absurd athletic achievements. Below, Hutchinson talks through some of the myths at the outermost limits of human performance, explains what’s really going on in those final moments at the games, and shares how we mere mortals can break through.
The brain, not the body, is the master of endurance
We often think of the body as this machine that falters when a certain threshold of activity becomes too demanding: you hold your breath underwater or you ride a stationary bike in a hot room and your body sends signals to stop. But the will to endure complicates the paradigm in a far more involved way than we may have thought. As Hutchinson notes, studies show that the brain is what’s really calling the shots, because it’s the brain that receives information from the muscles and dictates the body’s limits. We all have “anticipatory regulations”—legs burning, for example—that we perceive as coming from the body when in fact they’re rooted in the brain, which makes our limits negotiable, according to Hutchinson. “Your brain is really what’s ultimately making the call on physical limits.”
At the end of the race, it’s not about fatigue
Olympic athletes have spent years changing their internal monologues around physical signals of pain. When confronted with their bodies screaming at them to stop, they tap into a deeper well of physiological effort. Think of it this way: cross-country skiers race 50-kilometer over a few hours with their fastest pace coming at the end. “It’s in the brain, that hidden reserve,” said Hutchinson. Athletes have highly-developed psychological coping skills to reframe pain and essentially distract themselves. “It takes some serious psychological skill to learn to control your inner monologue, it’s not something you can pick up on the fly. You have to become aware of thoughts and voices in your head, identify the negative ones, and practice substituting them.”
In addition to self-talk increasing endurance, the power of suggestion also plays a role in what’s referred to in the book frequently as exhaustion. Hutchinson details a study on subliminal images among cyclists, where researchers flashed images of smiling or frowning faces for an unnoticeable 16 milliseconds at a time while athletes rode the bike. If they were smiling, performance was improved by about 12 percent.
Even at these Olympics, tech is tricking the brain into peak endurance
Outside of performance-enhancing drugs, athletes and corporations will do anything for the .01-second advantage. At the winter games, the latest method is transcranial direct current stimulation, also known as brain stimulation headphones. A Silicon Valley company called Halo Neuroscience created the highly-contested product. It runs a weak current through the brain to alter the brain’s perception of how strenuous a given physical activity actually is and thus increases power and endurance. Two brothers on the U.S. Nordic Combined team, Bryan and Taylor Fletcher, are using the product. Studies have found that the headphones increase time to exhaustion. Hutchinson says sporting officials will soon have to reckon with the extent to which its a fair performance enhancer.
For the rest of us, remember, get uncomfortable
Forget the notion that athletes are born with genetics that grant them a high pain tolerance. They commit to a training regimen that's centered on discomfort (read: pain) over a long period of time and force-feed a positive inner dialogue. “Athletes feel pain like everyone else, they’re just willing to endure it for longer,” said Hutchinson. To increase your own ability to endure, Hutchinson says, “there’s something useful in being uncomfortable on a regular basis. Finding ways for the uncomfortable to become comfortable, that’s what propels you in those last 50 meters."
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.