Adventurers and athletes have always pushed the limits, but how do we adapt and what does it mean?

Sport and adventure in the extremes requires an optimised psychology

Abhishek Gaurav — Pexels

“I can’t do another 15/16 hours.” I think having a little cry probably helped. I got back out of the van more focused, determined and positive.” – Nicky Spinks

Adventurers and athletes have always pushed the limits, but how do we adapt and what does it mean?

Species adaptation and the extremes

In the long, evolutionary history of homo sapiens, we have faced and even embraced many difficult environments.

According to research by evolutionary biologists, physiologists, geneticists, and anthropologists, endurance running has been key to the development of our early human ancestors.

  • 2 million years ago, Home Erectus, was living in Africa with a number of physical adaptations evolved for the purposes of running
  • 200 thousand years ago, we arrive, Homo Sapiens

To meet the high metabolic cost of a large, complex brain, we ran our prey to exhaustion, and collapse, in the height of the African sun.

Endurance, and in particular running, may have facilitated both our survival and our evolution.

Nowadays, our capacity for extreme endurance tends to be found in long-distance racing. Many thousands of ultra-marathoners compete, around the world, in events of 50 or 100 miles, and much, much further.

Marathon des Sables — Rad Season

Our success is the ability to adapt

Our success as a species is most likely beyond survival, and more about outperforming others in challenging conditions.

To excel under stress, we must change physically and mentally.

Coping and surviving extreme stressors relies upon a number of physiological adaptations, some that evolve through natural selection over many generations, and others, more short term, taking place over the course of an individual’s lifetime.

Our very best endurance performance is likely to be underpinned by:

An optimum balance of both psychological and physiological factors, built upon species-specific evolutionary adaptations but shaped by prolonged individual-specific endurance stressors

In other words, our body and brain have been adapted for endurance both as a result of the evolution of our species and, more immediately, in response to aerobic training as an individual.

Individual adaptation to extremes

When we look at the individual, rather than the species, there are two key types of adaptation:

  • Acclimatisation — becoming accustomed over days or weeks to a new challenging environment whilst maintain performance, for example, at altitude, deeper, faster breathing and increased rate at which the blood is pumped to muscles by the heart.
  • Habituation, innate responses that reduce with repeated exposure, for example, getting used to heat or noise.

In response to hot environments, to maintain appropriate body temperatures, we respond physically, including sweating, and increased blood flow, whilst modified behaviour may involve seeking shade and the removal of clothing.

Studies into cold water swimmers and divers have found multiple adaptations, such as delayed shivering, increased cold tolerance, and reduced heat loss from the limbs. The exact nature of many of the biological changes remains unclear, but the evidence does suggest mental processes play a key role.

Mountain environments cause problems due to reduced levels of oxygen, known as hypoxia. High altitude natives, such as Tibetans, exhibit a number of physiological and morphological, or structural, differences when compared with lowlanders, including increased lung capacity, the amount of oxygen in the blood, and the rate at which oxygen can be taken up. A lowlander visiting altitudes above 4000m will experience a reduced physical performance, responding in part by hyperventilation and vasoconstriction, the constriction of blood vessels resulting in increased blood pressure.

Pre-exposing an individual to physical stress, along with appropriate support, can improve an individuals performance, through adaptation.

“Difficulties are just things to overcome.” ― Ernest Shackleton

Adaptation in Sport

We are all aware of the importance of mental toughness in sport in coping with stressors and driving optimum physical performance.

Research suggests that mental toughness can change in response to physical stress from training.

Research into triathletes displayed increased mental toughness after 6 months of challenging aerobic training. Being exposed to intermittent stressors could be positive, and lead to an increase in physical and mental toughness.

Appropriate training that increases the pressure on the individual whilst balancing both performance and functioning could be the key.

Stressing the body and the mind may be a good thing — and lead to both physical and psychological changes.

Training needs to consider both challenge and environment. Both can be manipulated through increasing the demand of the stressors including, type (e.g. competitive or non-competitive), property (e.g. degree of novelty), or other dimensions (e.g. frequency, duration, etc).

15 months of endurance training for a first-time ultra-marathoner saw dramatic increases in aerobic fitness (to be expected) but also in Mental ToughnessScores, and key personality traits.

After the incredibly difficult training, this new runner felt more in control, more committed, and found life’s challenges as an opportunity for success. Now aerobically fit, the individual felt more agreeable, was more extravert, and was driven increasingly be internal goals.

Having transformed into an ultra-marathoner the individual felt:

  • Increased feelings of opportunity to demonstrate abilities, or prove oneself
  • Enhanced commitment to keeping promises
  • A greater feeling of being more influential and shaping the situation, including behaviour and performance
  • Increased self-belief at being able to deliver on tasks despite setbacks
  • An improved ability to assert and deal with challenge or ridicule

How can this benefit the athlete?

Our physiology and our psychology can adapt to repeated exposure to difficult environments and stressors.

To increase our mental toughness, optimise our psychological profile, and set ourselves up for sporting success in endurance, we need to:

  • Identify challenges that aerobically, and also environmentally push us to our endurance limits. These may include, for example, harsh weather, larger numbers of competitors, and tougher ascent/descent, difficult conditions underfoot etc
  • Train.. race… repeat. Both train, and race in race conditions (or worse) and adapt your body and your mind to the challenging and the unexpected

Mental toughnesscan be heightened, and even personality may adapt, as a result of a prolonged programme of endurance training. This can provide the individual with a number of factors that improve the likelihood of success in an ultra-marathon, extreme environment, or other endurance sports.


See also, within medium: mental toughnessendurance limitsevolutionary enduranceaerobic limits