Elevating Endurance

“Do not pray for an easy life, pray for the strength to endure a difficult one.”

— Bruce Lee

Popular definitions may suggest that “resilience” is the ability to ‘get by’ in psychologically challenging circumstances whereas “endurance” infers a more physical aspect, with a more rigid mindset where we’re continually pushing our body (and mind) through hardship without giving up. Arguably, I would say that they are both sides of the same coin.

But, as with resilience (see The A-Z of Human Performance, Chapter 18, Responsibility, Resilience and the Rough Stuff), I believe that endurance is often about maintaining flexible thinking, balancing available personal resources, and being adaptable to what’s happening around us. Being able to identify and manage available personal resources effectively will almost certainly define how well we endure and whether we will just survive or thrive. Below is a list of some basic resources. Some of them are perhaps stating the obvious but are certainly worth further consideration if we wish to elevate our levels of endurance. 

Human Resources – what we need:

1. Air

Clearly, without air we die but the art of breathing effectively is something that we, as humans, aren’t always very good at. Learning to breathe well can help us overcome many obstacles, such as increased stress levels and poor sleep. For instance, if feeling stressed or angry, breathing out stimulates the relaxation response and helps us calm down.

2. Food and Water

It may sound obvious, but staying hydrated and maintaining a balanced diet will aid endurance. Foods containing tryptophan, such as milk, oats and certain nuts are good for sleep. Hydrating with a glass of water when you wake up helps rehydrate the body and brain (see The A-Z of Human Performance, Chapter 19, Slips, Setbacks and Sucking it Up) and aids physical and psychological recovery. 

3. Shelter

In extreme conditions, having some form of physical shelter is really important. Finding somewhere or something to ‘protect’ us from the elements is vital for enduring (a home, a car, a coat or a tarpaulin under a tree).

4. Attitude

A positive and proactive attitude is key to human endurance (see The A-Z of Human Performance, Chapter 1, Attitude at Altitude). Beware of blind optimism: ‘It’ll be alright in the end’ or ‘It’s meant to be’ don’t always work out the way you hoped they would!

5. Social Connection

Humans need other people. Having people we can trust and feel safe with helps us all get through tough times. Social connection (i.e. touch, sex, social identity etc) is widely considered to be the No.1 factor in
human resilience and is covered throughout this book. Those that
can get along, will almost certainly endure longer. 

6. Safety (Psychological and / or Physical)

As well as having physical shelter, we also need somewhere that offers us psychological safety. This can be with another trusted person, or group, or a place where you can be true and honest to yourself without threat of retribution. Finding a safe place is essential for sustained endurance and can be through practising mindfulness on the side of a mountain or sitting in the car on the way to or from work. 

7. Purpose

Having a meaningful purpose is central to effective endurance (see The A-Z of Human Performance, Chapter 9, Ikigai).

8. General Health and Wellbeing

Maintenance of health and wellbeing is key to living a full life. Obviously, we can’t always predict the future and we are all susceptible to illness and ailments. But if we invest time and effort into looking after ourselves physically, mentally and emotionally through exercise, correct posture, regular breaks, active recovery; talking to trusted others, decompression, etc, we give ourselves the best chance of effective endurance. 

This list is not exhaustive but it should give you a good starting point. 

If your resources are sufficient and accessible and your positive attitude engaged and flexible, then there is a good chance that you will be able to successfully endure most things, recover after the ordeal and hopefully learn something along the way too. Learning to push ourselves is something most of us experience from an early age so there is already an expectation that you are likely to face challenges in life. At the very least, we all know that we will have to, dig in, from time to time when things get tough. Life is hopefully a long game and our ability to persevere through suffering is what takes us to new places. 

So, to give yourself the best chance of effective endurance, wherever and whenever it’s needed, anticipate it (if you can) and prepare for it.
Some people, me included, find it really useful to break this process down into phases:

Before (Preparation)

What do we need to do to best prepare ourselves for what we’re about to undertake or face? This can be a short-term or long-term goal, but it means that we are consciously giving ‘it’ some thought, which in turn, builds our confidence.

During (Performance)

How do I maintain personal awareness of myself and others (team, family etc.) and manage available resources effectively? What are my dynamic coping strategies; short term and long term for managing self-regulation of increased stress levels, or anxiety etc.? When do I actively engage with putting effort in and when do I rest (foot on the accelerator/foot on the brake). Where is my safe place, just in case?

After (Recovery)

What lessons have I learned? What do I now need to do to recover and get ready for the next challenge? Rest and recuperation are really important for elevated endurance but can be done effectively along the way and in small chunks rather than longer periods of relaxation after the event. This is active recovery and can include strategies such as napping in the day (see The A-Z of Human Performance, Chapter 26, Zzzs) or taking a two-minute breather (diaphramatic breathing) in the fresh air. 

Luckily, most people do have the capacity to endure far more than they think. After all, humans are generally resilient. It’s just that some of our resources are kept in reserve. We often only get access to them subconsciously when we most need them. But the resources are there. Learning to know how far we can push ourselves and learning how to self-regulate and manage resources is vital for functional endurance. It can be liberating to know what being at our limit feels like mentally, emotionally and physically. It also allows us to work out, through personally developed strategies, how we consciously access the reserves we have in order to effectively self-regulate and endure. 

The military can provide a really good example of readying people for endurance. Teams responsible for training recruits know that the tests they’re going to face are sometimes going to be very tough. So they ensure that recruits learn what personal and practical resources are required for potential tasks to be faced. They front-load essential resources such as sufficient water and food (including extra emergency rations), spare clothing and a shelter for sleeping under. Material basics for getting by when things are tough. Even if recruits don’t actually end up using them, their personal endurance-potential has been increased simply because they feel prepared and thus more confident in their ability to perform under pressure. Ready for the challenge. Again, it’s a choice. But it’s taught during training so that active service personnel are better mission-prepared to endure, both physically and mentally. Clearly the practice described here is not only limited to military service and the tenets can be applied to many other scenarios. 

A number of years ago I ran The Marathon des Sables, reportedly the toughest footrace on Earth. I am no great runner, but it was on my bucket list, so when I was invited by a friend, I readily accepted. On the fourth day of the race, and halfway up a rather large sand dune, I recall a conversation between my friend and a young Canadian (I was too tired to talk at the time). The Canadian was an accomplished ultra-runner but he was clearly struggling in the intensely hot and sandy conditions. 

As we plodded on upwards, he kept looking at his huge watch, which I took for a GPS (amongst other things). As we navigated the dunes, I noted that, each time he looked at the watch, he seemed more and more anxious. The watch was actually a heart rate monitor, which was perhaps subconsciously telling him that if he didn’t stop immediately, his heart would likely explode and he would die! We tried to reassure him that he needed to listen to his body rather than focus on his watch (which was clearly increasing his stress levels). As we continued, we explained that remaining aware of why we were there and what was happening within ourselves, would enable us to maintain personal, flexible strategies for copying. These would allow us to walk when we felt tired of running, run when we felt good or rest (even for a short period) if we were feeling overwhelmed or knackered. This ability to remain adaptable and have the confidence to trust our bodies (even to stop) and take one small step at a time when needed, meant that we could endure happier for longer. When we worry, our body releases cortisol. In turn, this can affect confidence and ultimately undo performance, sliding into a negative belief cycle. When you don’t feel in control, this can be a difficult cycle to break. Sadly, the young ultra-runner withdrew the next day, blaming his poor blistered feet.  

Coaching Question

Strategise: What personal strategies do you have in place in order to face the days challenges (i.e. to deal with challenging conversations or elevated stress levels?


Breathe: Have strategies that help you manage increased stress levels or overwhelm. Breathing strategies such as two minutes of deep, diaphragmatic breathing can help.

This article is based on the Amazon No.1 Hot New Release in HR, The A–Z of Human Performance. For more coaching questions and habituators on this topic and 25 more chapters from Jonna Sercombe, Emma Wiggs, and Steve Eaton, pick up a copy in paperback or eBook.