Is physical endurance all in the mind?

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1. Pushing the boundaries

For centuries plucky men and women have pushed themselves to the very edge of human endurance in some of the world's toughest sporting events and most inhospitable places.

As early man began to hunt over long distances, our long-limbed, furless bodies, combined with the ability to sweat and keep cool, evolved through endurance. But our bodies are not without their limitations.

In the past, scholars assumed that muscle fatigue caused our bodies to grind to a halt after intense exertion. But a growing number of scientists now believe that our brains hold the key, and that endurance really could be mind over matter.

2. The power of the mind

Professor Tim Noakes' polarising central governor theory suggests that it's our brains rather than muscles that dictate how far we can push our bodies. During intense activity our brains subconsciously set the pace to prevent us from over exertion.

Richards Parks, former Wales rugby union international is the first person to climb the highest mountain on each of the world's seven continents and stand on all three poles within seven months. Here he takes a closer look at the world of endurance.

Scientists such as Professor Sam Marcora, however, believe that it’s a conscious mechanism, relying on an individual's rate of perceived exertion, which explains why athletes can push themselves to exhaustion, rest and then do it again. Studies have shown that athletes using both cognitive and physical training have a huge rate of improvement – as much as 120%, compared to 40% from those who only worked on their physical training.

3. How far can we push the human body?

As a species we're able to motivate ourselves mentally, and through intensive training, push our bodies to achieve incredible feats of endurance.

Deepest dive

Diving at depth causes our heart rate to lower by 25%, sends blood rushing to our core and puts the mind in a meditative state.

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Deepest dive


Free-diving is one of the most dangerous sports on earth with divers descending to incredible depths on just one breath. In 2007 Herbert Nitsch reached 700ft.

Longest run

Our bodies are built for endurance rather than speed but as lactic acid builds up in our muscles, we eventually have to stop.

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Longest run

350 miles

Ultra-runner Dean Karnazes ran 50 marathons in 50 consecutive days and non-stop for three days. His physiology actively clears lactic acid from his muscles.

Highest climb

Altitude has always been a challenge to climbers. Acclimatisation is vital but above 24,000ft most climbers still prefer to use oxygen tanks.

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Highest climb


In 2004 Italian alpinist Karl Unterkircher scaled the two highest peaks on Earth – Mount Everest and K2 – without the aid of oxygen tanks.

Highest fall

Air hostess Vesna Vulovic survived a fall of 33,300ft without a parachute following an explosion on a plane.

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Highest fall

24 miles

In 2012 Felix Baumgartner jumped to Earth from a balloon in the stratosphere, 24 miles up, breaking the sound barrier as he reached speeds of 843mph.

4. Controlling your chimp

The 'mind mechanic' behind some of Britain's best sporting achievements, Dr Steve Peters, believes our brain can be seen as three independent areas capable of working together.

Our 'human' side is logical, our 'chimp' is emotional – vital to survival but responsible for anxiety, nervousness and impulsive decisions.

Lastly there's our 'computer', responsible for programmed thoughts and learned behaviour. For athletes at the top of their game, learning to control their inner chimp is vital.

Luckily, like the rest of the body, the brain can be trained especially in the run up to a big event or challenge when the stakes are high.

Cyclist Sir Chris Hoy was a big advocate of Peters' techniques and went on to win six Olympic gold medals.

Feeding the brain

Our brains are hungry for oxygen but incredibly inefficient, soaking up 25% of our bodies’ oxygen supply.

Professor Damien Bailey believes that the most successful endurance performers are those who conserve the largest amount of oxygen in their brains during exercise.

Training with less oxygen causes the brain to release tiny molecules known as free radicals.

These act like molecular on-off switches, triggering the complex machinery required to get oxygen into our brains and keep it there.

It's no coincidence therefore that some of the world’s best long-distance runners come from high altitude countries naturally lower in oxygen – such as Kenya and Ethiopia – enabling them to compete better at lower altitudes.

5. Cognitive training

Compared to regular people, elite athletes have very different brains. Changes in the synaptic connections in areas of the brain such as the hippocampus – associated with learning and retaining new information – are strengthened.

Exercise releases a chemical called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) which increases connections long-term and helps to forge new memories, learn new skills and find new ways of solving problems.

Research has shown that elite athletes have better memory retention, peripheral vision and reaction speeds that enable them to do things instinctively.

Advancements in neuroscience and technology utilising touch screens has revolutionised the way athletes can now train. Skills previously honed in the field are being improved in futuristic sport laboratories where brain training is enhancing athletic performance.

Training above the neck is now regarded as being equally important as physical training, allowing athletes to add mental repetitions to their regimes without any physical fatigue.

Cognitive tests can also highlight areas of weakness, which for an endurance athlete outside of a training laboratory could include things such as anxiety, fatigue, stress, metabolism and climate.

6. Mental toughness

So is endurance really all in the mind? In this clip Richard Parks reveals the truth behind endurance.

Richard Parks discusses the benefits of resilience training with Matt Furber, GSK human performance lab senior scientist.

Brain training has only just scratched the surface as far as what’s possible but it’s already regarded as being an essential addition to any athlete wishing to have an edge over their opponent. To be the best, your mind must be as tough as your body.