The Science of Endurance and Superhuman Feats
The ability to endure is the essential trait in every extreme athletic endeavor. Hundred-mile races, Himalayan Mountain expeditions, and cross-continental treks all require humans to push harder and achieve more than we ever thought possible. How important is the delicate interplay between mind and body in the struggle to keep pushing despite an agonizing will to stop? What is the distinction between physical and psychological endurance? Peak-performing explorers, mountaineers, ultra-runners, and sports psychologists share insights into how humans push beyond perceived physical limits to accomplish something extraordinary.
Professional endurance athlete Colin O’Brady is the first to admit that his journey is an unlikely one. After suffering burns over most of his body, doctors were convinced that he wouldn’t walk again. But he had other plans, so he retaught himself to walk, became a professional triathlete, set mountain climbing records, and was the first person to cross Antarctica unaided. After that last accomplishment, which most extreme athletes thought was physically impossible, he (understandably) got asked if he was a “superhuman.” His response? We all have these feats inside of us; it’s up to us to choose our Everest and start climbing:
Hilaree Nelson was practically born on skis, but when she was approached to join a ski mountaineering expedition she had no idea what she was getting herself into. Her first expedition was miserable, yet it ignited something inside of her that she didn’t know was there. Fast forward 20 years, and she’s now one of the most accomplished ski mountaineers in history.
One for the record books
What Nelson discovered in herself, she says, is an unending desire to test her limits. She was already physically very strong, so the limits she found herself surpassing were all mental. And that, according to Nelson, is the ability she possesses that makes her seem superhuman. There are people who can lift heavier weights than her and run longer distances, but she can endure.
Big IdeaEndurance is something you can fulfill with physicality, but to endure—to have a 20 year career over 40 expeditions—that is the mental capacity to continue through these hardships, through failure, and to come back from failure.Hilaree Nelson
Professional runner Megan Roche says that a 10K race is a different kind of pain than a 50K race, but competitive running hurts no matter the distance. So how do professional athletes deal with their own bodies telling them to stop? Roche and Colin O’Brady describe how they work with, not against, their minds:
Endurance athletes have always been physically dominant, says sports psychologist Michael Gervais, but at the same time there’s been a stigma around mental health in sports. Physical strength is usually prioritized at the expense of mental strength, and that’s both prohibited athletes from reaching their full potential and caused many non-athletes to not even find out what they’re capable of:
This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity:
Michael Gervais: Confidence is a trainabe a skill. Being able to focus deeply across any condition is a trainable skill. Optimism is a trainable skill. [Athletes] are raising their hands and saying, ‘you too can do the same.’ So where is the intersection? Hand in glove; the body and the mind work together. The mind is like the software, and the brain is like the hardware that runs it. If one breaks, potential is compromised. So we need both.