Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Endure: Mind, Body and the Limits of Human Performance with Alex Hutchinson

In his book Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, Alex Hutchinson skillfully interweaves scientific research, accounts from athletes and training techniques to shed light on the limits of human athletic performance. Hutchinson is also an engaging speaker, as he proved in his conversation with the writer and broadcaster Mark Sutcliffe. Sutcliffe, himself a marathon runner, guided a discussion which began by asking Hutchinson what caused him to focus on the topic of endurance. The conversation then touched on the roles that the mind and body play in determining the limits of performance, the power of belief, and the implications new research may have for athletics as well as other areas of human performance.

Hutchinson shared with the full house gathered at Christ Church Cathedral that this book took nearly ten years to complete. He was motivated to find out all he could on the topic of the limits of human performance after achieving a personal best time in a 1500-meter race. This race was significant because he had received inaccurate timekeeper results during the race which made him believe he was running a personal best time. With increased confidence, Hutchinson achieved a personal best time which had previously seemed unattainable to him. Hutchinson was fascinated by the fact that what had felt like a physical limit was not real because there had been an untapped reserve that he hadn't realized was accessible.

Having a curious mind, this race formed an important part of Hutchinson’s journey to understand the science of why the limits of performance are so elastic. After much research in the field, Hutchinson concluded that once we reach a certain level through training and conditioning, the brain and our beliefs play an increasingly important role in peak performance. Put another way, when we explore our upwards limits of performance, mental discipline can matter as much or more than physical fitness in breaking performance barriers. Studies have found that the brain protects us from overexertion. However, our internal monologue, or motivational self-talk, can enable us to achieve new levels of performance by convincing us that greater achievements are possible. This positive mindset can allow us to withstand pain or discomfort longer than expected.

These findings are fascinating and can be extrapolated to many other human activities. Mental discipline, optimism, and belief can all be harnessed to help us to achieve more in any area in which there is a need to enhance human performance. Hutchinson ended the session by mentioning some of the scientific research that is yet to be done including work relating to the benefits that training with team mates may have on our physiology as compared to training alone.

Hutchinson’s conversation with Sutcliffe was a perspective-altering discussion, and the audience was quite receptive to the ideas presented as evidenced by the many questions that followed during to Q&A session. It was a pleasure to attend, and Hutchinson’s extensive research background, his natural curiosity about his environment, and his engaging manner will serve him well in his future literary and athletic endeavors.