, Volume 101, Issue 5, pp 408-417
Date: 18 Aug 2006

The limits of endurance exercise

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Abstract

A skeletal design which favours running and walking, including the greatest ratio of leg length to body weight of any mammal; the ability to sweat and so to exercise vigorously in the heat; and greater endurance than all land mammals other than the Alaskan Husky, indicates that humans evolved as endurance animals. The development of tools to accurately measure time and distance in the nineteenth century inspired some humans to define the limits of this special capacity. Beginning with Six-Day Professional Pedestrian Races in London and New York in the 1880s, followed a decade later by Six-Day Professional Cycling Races – the immediate precursor of the first six-day Tour de France Cycliste race in 1903, which itself inspired the 1928 and 1929 4,960 km “Bunion Derbies” between Los Angeles and New York across the breadth of the United States of America – established those unique sporting events that continue to challenge the modern limits of human endurance.

But an analysis of the total energy expenditure achieved by athletes competing in those events establishes that none approaches those reached by another group – the explorers of the heroic age of polar exploration in the early twentieth century. Thus the greatest recorded human endurance performances occurred during the Antarctic sledding expeditions led by Robert Scott in 1911/12 and Ernest Shackleton in 1914/16.By man-hauling sleds for 10 hours daily for approximately 159 and 160 consecutive days respectively, members of those expeditions would have expended close to a total of 1,000,000 kcal. By comparison completing a Six-Day Pedestrian event (55,000 kcal) or the Tour de France (168,000 kcal), or cycling (180,000 kcal) or running (340,000 kcal) across America, requires a considerably smaller total energy expenditure.

Thus the limits of human endurance were set at the start of the twentieth century and have not recently been approached. Given good health and an adequate food supply to prevent starvation and scurvy, these limits are set by the mind, not by the body. For it is the mind that determines who chooses to start and who best stays the distance.

Based on a paper presented as the pre-dinner speech at the Cardiology at the Limits Conference, Cape Town, April 1, 2006