Basic Research in Cardiology

, Volume 101, Issue 5, pp 408–417 | Cite as

The limits of endurance exercise

  • T. D. NoakesEmail author


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.

Key words

words humans energy expenditure polar exploration cycling running psychology mind 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    Berry H (1990) From LA to New York, from New York to L.AH, Berry, ChorleyGoogle Scholar
  2. 2.
    Bramble DM, Lieberman DE (2004) Endurance running and the evolution of Homo. Nature 432:345–352PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 3.
    Cherry-Garrard A (1989) The worst journey in the world. Carroll and Graf, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  4. 4.
    Foster C, Foster D (2005) Speaking with earth and sky. David Phillips Publishers, Cape TownGoogle Scholar
  5. 5.
    Gonzalez-Alonso J, Teller C, Andersen SL et al. (1999) Influence of body temperature on the development of fatigue during prolonged exercise in the heat. J Appl Physiol 86:1032–1039PubMedGoogle Scholar
  6. 6.
    Gordon B, Baker JC (1929) Observations on the apparent adaptability of the body to infections, unusual hardships, changing environment and prolonged strenuous exertion. Am J Med Sci 178:1–8Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Heacox K (1999) Shackleton: The Antarctic Challenge. National Geographic, Washington, DCGoogle Scholar
  8. 8.
    Heinrich B (2001) Racing the antelope. Harper Collins Publishers Inc., New YorkGoogle Scholar
  9. 9.
    Hill AV (1925) The physiological basis of athletic records. Lancet 2:481–486CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. 10.
    Huntford R (1981) The last place on earth. Pan Books Ltd, LondonGoogle Scholar
  11. 11.
    Jeukendrup AE (2002) High Performance Cycling. In: Jeukendrup AE (ed) Human Kinetics Publishers, ChampaignGoogle Scholar
  12. 12.
    Kenney WL, DeGroot DW, Holowatz LA (2004) Extremes of human heat tolerance: Life at the precipice of thermoregulatory failure. Journal of Thermal Biology 29:479–485CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. 13.
    Knechtle B, Enggist A, Jehle T (2005) Energy turnover at the Race Across AMerica (RAAM) – a case report. Int.J Sports Med 26:499–503PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. 14.
    Messner R (1979) Everest: Expedition to the Ultimate. Kaye and Ward, LondonGoogle Scholar
  15. 15.
    Nevill AM, Whyte G (2005) Are there limits to running world records? Med Sci Sports Exerc 37:1785–1788PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. 16.
    Noakes TD (2003) Lore of running. Human Kinetics Publishers, Champaign, ILGoogle Scholar
  17. 17.
    Noakes TD (2004) Tainted glory–doping and athletic performance. N Engl J Med 351:847–849PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. 18.
    Noakes TD, St Clair Gibson A (2004) Logical limitations to the “catastrophe” models of fatigue during exercise in humans. Br J Sports Med 38:648–649PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. 19.
    Rontoyannis GP, Skoulis T, Pavlou KN (1989) Energy balance in ultramarathon running. Am J Clin Nutr 49:976–979PubMedGoogle Scholar
  20. 20.
    Saris WH, Erp-Baart MA, Brouns F et al. (1989) Study on food intake and energy expenditure during extreme sustained exercise: the Tour de France. Int J Sports Med 10 (Suppl 1):S26–S31PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. 21.
    Shackleton E (1999) South: journals of his last expedition to Antarctica. Konecky and Knoecky, Old Saybrook, CTGoogle Scholar
  22. 22.
    Shackleton E (1999) The heart of the Antarctic. Carroll and Graf Publishers Inc., New York, NYGoogle Scholar
  23. 23.
    Solomon S (2001) The coldest march. Yale University Press, New HavenGoogle Scholar
  24. 24.
    St Clair Gibson A, Noakes TD (2004) Evidence for complex system integration and dynamic neural regulation of skeletal muscle recruitment during exercise in humans. Br J Sports Med 38:797–806PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. 25.
    Stroud M (1986) Scott: 75 years on. Br Med J (Clin Res Ed) 293:1652–1653CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. 26.
    Stroud M (1998) The nutritional demands of very prolonged exercise in man. Proc Nutr Soc 57:55–61PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. 27.
    Stroud MA (1987) Nutrition and energy balance on the ‘Footsteps of Scott’ expedition 1984–86. Hum Nutr Appl Nutr 41:426–433PubMedGoogle Scholar
  28. 28.
    Stroud MA, Coward WA, Sawyer MB (1993) Measurements of energy expenditure using isotope-labelled water (2H2(18)O) during an Arctic expedition. Eur J Appl Physiol Occup. Physiol 67:375–379PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. 29.
    Stroud MA, Jackson AA, Waterlow JC (1996) Protein turnover rates of two human subjects during an unassisted crossing of Antarctica. Br J Nutr 76:165–174PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. 30.
    Stroud MA, Ritz P, Coward WA et al. (1997) Energy expenditure using isotope- labelled water (2H218O), exercise performance, skeletal muscle enzyme activities and plasma biochemical parameters in humans during 95 days of endurance exercise with inadequate energy intake. Eur J Appl Physiol Occup Physiol 76:243–252PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. 31.
    Tucker R, Marle T, Lambert EV et al. (2006) The rate of heat storage mediates an anticipatory reduction in exercise intensity during cycling at a fixed rating of perceived exertion. J Physiol (Epub ahead of print)Google Scholar
  32. 32.
    Tucker R, Rauch L, Harley YX et al. (2004) Impaired exercise performance in the heat is associated with an anticipatory reduction in skeletal muscle recruitment. Pflugers Arch 448:422–430PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. 33.
    Woodland L (2003) The crooked path to victory.Cycle Publishing, San FranciscoGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Steinkopff Verlag 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Human BiologySports Science Institute of South AfricaNewlands, 7925South Africa

Personalised recommendations