David YonGuest columnistDavid Yon(Photo: David Yon)
There is a bewitching effect that comes from chasing an unreachable march, both on a personal basis and a worldwide stage. Especially, when those achievements previously were thought to represent the outer reach of human achievement. Running examples include the 4-minute mile and the sub 2-hour marathon.
Most active runners (and other athletes) spend at least some time trying to test their limits. And of course, racing is one way to do so.
Perhaps the 4-minute mile becomes the 6-minute mile and the sub 2-hour marathon becomes sub 3-hour marathon.
While the weeks of quarantine keep ticking by choking the life out of the racing season, the memories of what it is like to race are growing dim. It is a great time to turn to a book.
Quite some time ago, Gary Griffin loaned me a book titled "Endure," written by Alex Hutchinson.While I loved and highly recommend this book, be aware it contains a lot of detailed statistical analyses looking for the limits of human endurance in many activities.
Of course, that analytical approach is also what makes the book a fascinating read. Its subtitle says it all Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance.
Hutchinson, a writer for Runners World, Outside Magazine, The New Yorker and the New York Times, and other periodicals, takes readers on a journey around the globe to get the latest and best science research looking to answer the questions of what sets the limits of human endurance, assuming limits exist.
He was a two-time finalist in the Canadian 1500 meters Olympic Trials. That background is helpful, no doubt, but he also delves into the endurance worlds of cycling, deep diving, mountaineering, expeditions and much more.
The book begins with Hutchinson watching the first attempt to host a sub-two-hour marathon. He breaks away for the rest of the book and returns to the race for the final 1.5 laps.He moves on to talk about Roger Banisters sub 4-minute mile. He takes us to almost every continent to look at the latest in research. There are also mountain climbers and ultrarunners, cyclists and many more who do truly give it their all, literally.
The search is to understand how real perceived limitations are on the human body . Why do those limits get pushed back. The thread through the book is the tension between three ideas: (1) The body as a machine; (2) The (subconscious) central governor; and (3) The conscious quitter.
The body as a machine is perhaps the oldest way of looking at endurance.Muscles fatigue and the runner stops or gets cramps.The physical characteristics of body plus how much pain the mind can stand set the limits. A marathoners limit could be determined by their aerobic capacity (VO2max), running economy (efficiency), and lactate threshold.
The second idea is the belief there is a central governor buried somewhere deep in the brain and it constantly monitors the bodys ability to perform without blowing up. It then gives the commands to go, slow down or stop.This is all done at an unconscious level.
Finally, the conscious quitter idea is like the central governor theory except the decision making by the brain is more often on the conscious level. It also differs in that it operates more on a perceived effort basis.
One researcher described endurance as the struggle to continue against a mounting desire to stop. The brain, or some part of it, shouts out commands based primarily on the perceived effort of the runner, shutting everything down when it believes danger is too great.
The warnings from thirst versus dehydration surprised me and clearly suggested I have been wrong to skip the last water table in a race. The author spends a lot of time trying to dispel inaccurate information about hydration. After noting the human body is 50-70 percent water, Hutchinson states that a 150-pound person generally carries around 40 liters of water. Clearly dehydration can kill but it may not mean much in a marathon.
A century ago, Hutchinson writes, the prevailing advice was to avoid drinking during a race at all cost. And the thinking was that water could lead to an upset stomach and could not pass through the intestines and be helpful until after the race was completed.
The advent of Gatorade and other supplements changed this, and the instruction became drink early and often. Dont wait until you are thirsty. Hyponatremia (when the body holds onto too much water), and the death of a runner at the 2002 Boston Marathon led to those instructions being changed.
When Haile Gebrselassie ran his world record marathon in 2007 in a time of 2:04:26, he lost 10% of his body weight. In lab tests he was sweating 3.6 liters of water in an hour, one of the highest amounts ever recorded.His gastric emptying rate (how fast water emptied out of his stomach) was only 1.3 liters per hour.
So rather than obsess with his total dehydration, Gebrselassie, simply focused on drinking what his body could handle and avoid thirst. Many other elite marathoners follow that same pattern.
Hutchinson made one more important observation. Thirst, rather than dehydration, was the key indicator for the need for water. Those famous words drink before you are thirsty may not be accurate for a marathon.
Apparently, thirst measures the concentration of plasma osmolality of the blood (sodium and electrolytes). Gebrselassie can be dehydrated, but as long as he is not thirsty he will be fine. A set of studies supported the key for performance is not whether someone is dehydrated, but whether they are thirsty.
The human body remains a remarkable performer and there is a lot to learn before we find its limits. When you think you have exhausted all your resources, push hard one more time there might be more left than you know.
David Yon is addicted to running. In his spare time, he is an attorney with the Radey Law Firm.
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Is that really everything you have to give? | Yon - Tallahassee Democrat
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