There is no limit

by Joel Katz

Radiolab on PBS did a show on the limits of endurance. The program featured Race Across America as an example of the power and stamina in the human mind and body. The conclusion from the show is that few of us learn what our capabilities are because our bodies won’t let us find out.

The supposition is made that we have a governor in our mind that sends out fatigue and pain signals when we exert ourselves. This is a protective mechanism. The trouble arises because the governor is very conservative. It sends out pain signals for us to stop even though we still have a lot of reserves to spend. One way to get around the governor and tap the hidden reserves is to fool the governor into believing you are adding energy.

A group of cyclists were placed on spin bikes and pushed to exhaustion. Their power output was monitored. Half the group was given an energy drink. The other half was given an identical drink that did not contain any energy enhancing ingredients. The subjects were told to ride for two minutes and take some drink without swallowing and then spit it out. They were to repeat this cycle until the end of the test.

The cyclists that got the energy drink fared better even though they didn’t ingest any of the drink. The conclusion was that the governor detected the sugar on the tongue and was fooled into thinking the body was replenishing reserves. That made it willing to release reserves.

Radiolab followed a cyclist in the Race Across America. This is a twelve day three thousand mile race from Oceanside, California to Annapolis, Maryland. The winner does it in six days. Riders get one or two hours of sleep a night. Some of the riders get so tired they duct tape a cord to from their neck to their helmet in order to hold their head up.

At a thousand miles into the race the rider, Patrick Oshey, picked up speed. His support team realized that he was hallucinating. Patrick was seeing terrorists and zombies chasing him. His team played into this by screaming that the terrorists were gaining on him. The burst of speed was maintained. Under threat the body released precious energy reserves.

The take away from the show is we have plenty left when we think we are cooked. We just have to figure out a way to get to our reserves.

(For more information go to the Radiolab web site and listen to “Limits,” season 7episode3. Watch Race across America on Amazon.)

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