Endurance sports place a particular demand on the bodies and minds of participants. In fact, there’s a specific phrase that describes the process. “Testing the limits of endurance.”
What are limits? The answer is simple. Limits are the point at which our bodies cannot perform at the high rate we are asking. There are also mental limits, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
Our bodies depend on all sorts of contributing factors during a performance in endurance events. Every single step, pedal stroke or swimming motion requires energy. Our energy supplies are dependent on storage and fuel that our bodies burn as we engage in distance training and races.
Remarkably, this is not a static process. We can train our bodies to burn fuel more efficiently. We can also encourage our bodies to process fuel even in the heat of competition. That’s why we eat, drink and chow down during longer events that burn off the fuel we store in our bodies.
All this requires a lot of thought. So the brain is involved in all this sustained performance. We daily test the limits of our endurance and our minds recognize these supposed limits. The trick in all endurance sports is thus to train the mind not to accept limits, but to push beyond discomfort caused by symptoms of burnt-off fuel. That would be fatigue, pain or exhaustion.
This is the difficult part. Even the most talented athletes must learn to embrace and work through the pain. In a strange little twist of fate, our goals are often set just beyond the threshold of pain we train out bodies and minds to sustain.
At some point, there is a limit. We can will ourselves to remarkable things, but there are still chemical processes deep within our bodies that slow the train or bring it to a stop. Those old coal-burning train engines are an apt symbol for how the body works. Workers shoveled coal into the furnace of the engine and the train puffed smoke as it churned down the train. That’s a direct “cause and effect” method of propelling an engine.
But if the body runs out of coal at some point, or the engine runs too hot to be sustained, everything slows or grinds to a halt.
That’s where the brain also comes into play. When we test our limits, there is a negotiation that goes on within the mind. Calculations occur. The rehearsals we do in training teach us how the edge of our limits must feel. Then we do a sort of algorithm that gets us to the finish line.
On Saturday, I rode 48 miles in gathering heat with a pair of friends. We didn’t hammer the whole way, but the ride averaged 18.1 mph and I was tired at the end.
On Sunday, I joined the Experience Triathlon group ride my fiance Sue was leading. Only she did not get to lead. A fast pair of cyclists took off from the start and the early pace was quick, climbing the mile-long rise onto Campton Hills at a fast tempo. And then the next climb was quick as well, over one of the tallest points in Kane County.
Then we fell onto the artery of a road that leads out to Maple Park. The lead group tore off at 25 mph. There was a second group at 23 mph, all crouched down on their aero bars and hammering away. Finally a group of us club for a while and then fell off to 20-22 mph.
My legs were tired from the previous day’s ride. I’d reached my limits in some respects. So I pedaled in alone to the Casey’s station 13 miles to the west of St. Charles.
The group waited but was basically ready to leave by the time I took a few bites of my Mixed Berry Blaster PowerBar and sipped my NUUN. So we jumped back on our bikes and headed east again.
The wind was from the south mainly, with just enough touch of easterly direction to press the need for an angled draft. So using my road-riding skills, I tucked to the side of the group determined to stick for the ten mile launch on Beith Road back toward town. And we zipped along. All the triathletes were down in aero. I alternated between my hoods and the drops, and found a rhythm. And I stuck.
But when we got back onto the hills going east, the effects of that hammer snuck up on me. So I dropped off again and let them roll. Probably without the 48-miler the day before I’d have stuck. And as it was, I averaged 18.4 for the day, much of it on my own on the way out, while my fiance’s group did 19.2.
I’d tested the limits of my endurance. It’s what we do. And it’s important to do it consistently. In cycling, running and swimming, workouts must be designed both qualitatively and quantitatively to test the limits of our endurance. And stretch them.
Yet there are effective limits to this training too. Injury is typically the direct product of too much stress on a specific part of the body. So is illness such as colds brought on by chronic fatigue. The overtrained, overtested athlete will reach a point of collapse. Then rest is required, and the rebuilding process must occur from scratch.
Because the goals are simple. On race day, you want to be able to call on the body and have it respond. To competition. To conditions. To motivation. To success.
That’s why we test the limits of our endurance. So that some days, we can exceed them. And that’s pure joy.