Stopping is for wimps!

Most of us back off during endurance activities when we feel we can't do anymore, not when we truly can't do more, according to this article by Jon Doran at in the U.K. The article has endurance athletes, rugby players, and a Joe Simpson reference, so I couldn't resist.

Stopping is for wimps!
New research shows you can push harder than you think.

Just because your muscles feel exhausted, doesn't mean they are according to new research from exercise physiologists at Bangor University, who say that 'perception of effort, not muscle fatigue, limits endurance performance'.

Up until relatively recently, it was thought that exhaustion occurs when when the active muscles are unable to produce the force or power required by prolonged exercise. In other words, they feel like they're physically unable to continue and you stop.

But according to research by Dr Sam Marcora using rugby player as guinea pigs, endurance athletes generally give up feeling that they're exhausted before they reach their 'absolute physiological limit'. Or in simple terms, it may feel as if your legs simply can't carry on,  but in reality, they can, you just don't know it.

In fact, says Marcora, immediately after exhaustion, the leg muscles are capable of producing three times the power output required by high-intensity cycling exercise.

Something to think about on your next challenging hike, climb, or run.

Read the full article.


968 reviewer rep
3,470 forum posts
April 15, 2010 at 3:33 p.m. (EDT)

I'll have to sit down and think about that Alicia.

I will admit though that I seem to have a more intense burn in than some people, even those who I am on par with in terms of physical conditioning, not sure why, diet maybe?

It does make me feel like I really need to stop for a couple minutes, but I've learned taking a break then just prolongs the problem. If I just continue on I'm fine in a few minutes and don't seem to have any more problems other than regular fatigue at the end of the day.

The article is interesting, as we all know it's a mental game for sure.

200 reviewer rep
4,072 forum posts
April 15, 2010 at 4:18 p.m. (EDT)

I have noticed in my active life that when I was in my twenties I could do more than I could do in my thirties and have lost the physical ability to do things with each passing decade. I know know full well the meaning of the say, The Mind is willing, but the flesh is weak. I turned 54 this past January. I always thought that of I continued a active lifestyle all my life, that I would never fall by the wayside and not be able to do the outdoor things I like doing. But age does seem to catch up to us.

I have met many octotarians, both men and women who in their 80s are still able to do things that I could do in my 20s,30s and 40s. One old friend didnt start hiking and backpacking till he was 70 and when he died a year ago at about 89, he could do a Rim to Rim two or three times a week at the Grand Canyon. When he was turning 86 in 2006 he did 106 R2Rs that year from January 1st to Christmas.

Another guy I used to know could run up the Yosemite Falls trail in Yosemite and back to the valley in under three hours when he was 82. And yet another was a woman I met in 1983 who at the age of 96 was on a week long hike with her 82 year old husband and their remarkedly over 80 year old friends in the Clear Creek area of the Grand Canyon30 miles from the closest trail head on the rims.. At the time I remember saying that my grandmother was also 96 but an invalid in a nursing home who could barely take care of herself. The woman I was talking to said, oh yes, most of her friends were like that, but she and her husband had worked hard all their lives on a ranch and when they retired they continued to stay active

Dont get me wrong I still do hike and bike a lot, just not quite as much as I did 30 years ago.

Perry Clark
71 reviewer rep
440 forum posts
April 15, 2010 at 6:12 p.m. (EDT)

None of this is truly "news" in the sense of being new. Exhaustion is a relative state of affairs in both mental and physical terms. It's long been known that we often mentally concede to exhaustion before we reach a point at which we literally can do no more (of whatever it is we're doing). With regards to physical measurement, on the other hand, it's clear that if one measures exhaustion by when one reaches a point when a specific piece of work (say, lifting a 225-lb barbell in a bench press) cannot be done again without a rest period, then exhaustion can be measured with some accuracy--when a defensive tackle at the NFL combine "maxes out" at 32 repetitions of the above, there's a fair degree of certitude that number 33 isn't going to happen. For most practical purposes, that's quite good enough.

One important bit mentioned in the article, but not discussed, is the notion that sensation of exhaustion is protective. It seems that an appropriate sense of exhaustion reduces the risk of direct injury to the involved body part(s) as well as more general injury, secondary to decreased coordination, etc. when in the exhausted state. This is not unimportant. Many, many accidents and injuries occur when people are, for whatever reason, exhausted, or feel themselves so. This can be ameliorated, though not entirely eliminated, with training, and is a big part of why the physical training of special forces units and the like is so horribly strenuous. It being on a continuum, even Joe Weekend can benefit from training in such a way as to occasionally "push through" exhaustion to some degree, without necessarily seeking to be able to endure the pain of exertion and exhaustion that, say, a Navy Seal might have to overcome.

Such types of improvement come with consistent endurance training, to some degree, simply because most people regularly participating in such are seeking to extend their capabilities, and by periodically seeking to do so, they stretch the envelope of exhaustion, etc., and find that over time they improve their capabilities both in general and in terms of tolerance of the pain of performance to exhaustion.

0 reviewer rep
1,075 forum posts
April 16, 2010 at 11:04 a.m. (EDT)

The article may well be true, but unless you are out to prove a point to yourself or someone else, I don't see the benefit of going until you physically cannot go further. In many ways I am in better shape now than I was in my 20's however my body doesn't recover quite as easily as it did 20+ years ago. Also I've noticed lately that icing down my knees after a longer bike ride feels really good. I have noticed when I feel spent on my bike that if I gear down for a few miles and just ride really slowly for a bit eventually my body gets back in the groove and I can keep going. My wife says the same thing about running. Getting excercise and staying in shape is one thing, running until you drop is quite another.

72 reviewer rep
311 forum posts
April 17, 2010 at 9:33 p.m. (EDT)

In my twentys 50 to 60lb mountaineering packs were the norm.Now at 59 i refuse to carry that much.My knees just can not do it anymore,surgery has helped but knees only last so long.The good news is i still get out a lot and do well but with lighter gear and less load.Still enjoy lite climbing,skiing and backpacking from weekends to week long trips.No i dont recover from a very hard day as well as i once did but i just go at my own pace and still enjoy it as much as i did when young.I just cant see giving up on something i enjoy so much.ymmv

73 reviewer rep
301 forum posts
April 17, 2010 at 10:15 p.m. (EDT)

I'm with Perry. There is nothing really new here. Endurance runners have long talked about the "wall" and hitting it. During my years running distance races and training, it was accepted that there was a point where you "knew" you were exhausted and where the training actually ended (the latter usually came after the former).

Once you have learned to think around the mental wall, you can do a lot of things. It isn't easy or pleasant. However, when you can recognize your own exhaustion as a mental state, not a physical one, you can apply that to many things beyond running.

Plus, some of the sweetest running "highs" come after you have blown through the wall... :D

It does strike me that a good portion of individuals haven't done that kind of training, nor will they ever. I have friends who are much like my three-year-old son. They need a break when they think they need them... not when they are really tired. And, their "thought" thresholds are much lower because of inactivity, inexperience, and unwillingness to continue. They may talk about hitting the "wall" but they have never come close and are using it as a mental excuse.

0 reviewer rep
4 forum posts
April 23, 2010 at 10:57 a.m. (EDT)

RadioLab just did an amazing show on human limits, including looking at both the Race across America and talking to Julie Moss about her famous (infamous?) finish in the 1982 Ironman Triathlon. It's well worth a listen and you can grab the mp3 via iTunes or listen to it on their website:

They also address some of the science involved in perceptions of hitting limits vs. what the body is capable of. I just started running again after nearly a decade and managed to listen to the podcast during a whopping 20 minute slooooooow run (I'm recovering from a herniated disc). It nearly felt silly to listen to Julie Moss describe the last 400 meters of an Ironman while trying to run as slow as possible....

Bill S
2,329 reviewer rep
5,251 forum posts
April 23, 2010 at 12:24 p.m. (EDT)

I read a book a few months back by Mike Farris, The Altitude Experience: Successful Trekking and Climbing above 8,000 Feet (2008, Falcon Guides), that I picked up at the OR Show. I saw it recently in REI.

It is a thorough discussion of everything from the physiology to the psychology (and sociology) of pushing your limits and preparing for high altitude travel. The discussions are largely in layman's terms, though there is a lot of stuff that requires remembering your undergrad chemistry, physics, and biology to thoroughly understand it. There is also an extensive bibliography if you want to delve in further detail (396 cited entries listed on 17 pages!). Also, lots of excellent diagrams and tables. And for those with young children (listen up, Alicia), there is specific discussion of how children deal with altitude in particular, but stresses in general (the Everest at 13 parents need to read this book!).

In line with this thread, there is an extensive discussion of the physical limits vs mind limits. One important point made over and over in the book is that, despite many absolute, definitive, authoritative statements, the whole question of limits in general and the range of variation from one person to another, as well as any given individual from day to day is poorly understood. Correlations that have been found turn out in most cases to be very weak.

One section particularly interesting to me is the acclimatization section - I generally acclimatize pretty rapidly, and have never had serious AMS (one criterion is headaches - if you do not have a headache, you don't have AMS, in my case the headaches I have had at altitude are directly traceable to other things, like sore shoulder muscles from too heavy a pack for mylevel of training). He discusses things like hypoxic tents as a way to acclimatize before heading up the hill, training at altitude by athletes for competition at lower altitudes vs for trekkers (completely different situations, though people still try to equate the two).

A lot of the comments in this thread are dealt with there. Not surprisingly, most of what's out there on the web turns out to be old wives tales and just plain bunk. I recommend the book highly, along with the late Charlie Houston's Climbing Higher and Peter Hackett's books on dealing with altitude.

22 reviewer rep
76 forum posts
April 23, 2010 at 3:54 p.m. (EDT)

Think I will look into that book Bill S as I like backpacking the Colorado 14ers. I went from 6,600 to 14,100 and back down within 12 hours so I don't think I have a problem with acclimation (through that spread of elevation at least) but I would still like to read up on what is really happening there.

Thanks for the recommendation, I will look for it next time I am at REI!

968 reviewer rep
3,470 forum posts
April 23, 2010 at 11:45 p.m. (EDT)

Well as someone who lives in the Southeast, I guess I don't have to worry about exceeding 6,000 ft.

However as someone who enjoys learning, and as someone who one day hopes to climb some 12's & 14's I appreciate the book recommendation.

One thing I have learned is how important it is to be prepared for the weather, even at the lower summits. I have watched as other people have bailed just due to some wind and rain. Could have been me of course, if it weren't for being able to learn from more experienced folks.

501 reviewer rep
2,993 forum posts
April 26, 2010 at 8:56 a.m. (EDT)

Thanks for the book recommendation, Bill. I've added it to my Amazon shopping cart.

This post has been locked and is not accepting new comments