The science of pushing your limits

Education | Brighten Youth Edu Centre 3 Aug 2021

As we continue enjoying the Olympics, this week we take the opportunity to think about what students could learn from top athletes.

How might a person go about continually pushing their intellectual limits? Is there anything we could learn from those who are physical outliers? What do we understand about the interplay between mental and physical endurance?

Any athlete will acknowledge the importance of rest. Research from Duke University published in 2019 indicated that while sustained effort is important, there is a point at which it becomes unwise to push yourself.

Participants in this study all completed the 2015 Race Across the USA. Researchers found that their energy expenditure plateaued after 20 days of continual effort. Beyond this, the body begins to attack itself. It is not known if these individuals could have given more with rest and repeated effort, but no results were discernible after 20 days of continual effort.

Most of us know that burned-out feeling. In such circumstances, it is wise to listen to the body.

In his 2018 book, Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, Alex Hutchinson explores the interplay between mind and body during endurance.

He argues that, given that the mind plays such a key role, it is possible to train the mind in order to change our physical capabilities.

Evidence of mind "training" is all around us. Nobody is born a neurosurgeon, few people can get by for a protracted period on less than six hours sleep, the knowledge required to pass the GMAT isn't inherent and language capability may be inbuilt but the languages themselves aren't.

Many of the scientists Hutchinson interviewed argued that the mind can be trained to know it can improve and to disregard discomfort.

Hutchinson looked at the work of scientists who specialize in athletic performance, many of whom are trying to see if strategies that focus on training the brain could be enough to change physical capabilities.

In terms of education, would it be possible to make our brains more focused for longer periods?

Hutchinson also includes the work of sports scientist Tim Noakes - who at one point comments when looking at a second-place Olympic athlete: "Do you notice he's not dead? It means he could have run faster."

While Noakes' point is clear, this is perhaps not the healthiest mental attitude for Hong Kong students, who are routinely driven harder than many other places in the world.

Hutchinson concludes with arguments about mindfulness.

Improvement is possible when you believe it's possible - "when the moment of truth comes, science has confirmed what athletes have always believed: that there's more in there - if you're willing to believe it."

Despite the debates about the limits of mental and physical change, the constant theme remains that change is possible, both on the track and in the classroom.

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