AL Andrew Leigh
AH Alex Hutchinson
AH And, yes, this is the nature of sport, right, for everyone who makes it, there are a lot of other athletes who are putting in the hours and the chips don’t fall quite in the right place. And so having that goal to pursue was actually something that gave a huge amount of meaning to my life.
AL My name’s Andrew Leigh and welcome to The Good Life, a politics-free podcast about living a happy, healthy and ethical life. In this podcast we seek out wise men and women who have lessons to teach us about living life to the full, with humour, pleasure, meaning and love.
We’ll chat with musicians and athletes, CEOs and carers about making the most of this one precious life. If you like this podcast, please take a moment to tell your friends or rate us on Apple Podcasts. Now, sit back and enjoy the conversation.
Alex Hutchinson is one of the world’s best writers about the science of exercise. A former middle and long-distance runner for the Canadian national team, he’s no stranger to the rigours of hard exercise. But he’s also a pretty accomplished scientist, with a PhD from Cambridge University and a background working for the National Security Agency on quantum computing in nanomechanics.
In recent years Alex has worked for publications, from New York Time to Runner’s World, writing columns that have titles like Jockology or Sweat Science. His books include which comes first, cardio or weights, fitness myths, training truths and other surprising discoveries from the science of exercise, and most recently his new book Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance. Alex, welcome to The Good Life podcast.
AH Thanks so much, Andrew, it’s awesome to have a chance to chat.
AL You’ve spent a chunk of time in Australia as well, I should have said in the introduction. What took you down under?
AH My wife studied medicine at Sydney Uni, so we spent four years in Sydney and then we spent about four months in Canberra before moving back to Canada. So, that was 2009 to 2013 we were there. So, we still have very, very good friends there.
AL And one of the great things I found about reading Endure was it had so much about my home town there. I always think that the pleasures of running in the Canberra bush with the kangaroos is something that only I will really know about. So, seeing a sprinkling of that and the Australian Institute of Sport Research as a proud Australian, Endure is great fun in that respect.
AH Well, it is funny. I should jump in and say, and I hope I’m not going to ruffle any feathers here, everyone warned us when we moved to Canberra, that we would miss being on the coast and that Canberra just couldn’t measure up to the great metropolises like Sydney, but we truly loved Canberra. The size and the proximity to green space and the kangaroos, it was the most… Even though it was just four months, it was the most quintessential Australian experience we had, going out every morning and running with literally 100 kangaroos in Ainsley Park.
AL It is fantastic, isn’t it? And I also learnt that I was doing altitude training, which I’d never known before. You made the comment in Endure that at 1,900 metres Canberra actually is having an impact on the difficulty of exercising and I think you blamed one of your half marathon performances in Canberra upon the altitude.
AH Yes. I should jump in and say I think it’s about 400/500 metres and so 1,900 feet.
AL Sorry, 1,900 feet, yes.
AH So, it’s actually very modest altitude. Most people would pooh-pooh the notion that you’d have any problems there and when I was trying to explain why did I run so much slower than I expected in a half marathon in Canberra, because I have a pretty good sense… I’m an experienced runner. I have a pretty good sense of my fitness and I was chatting to a scientist at the Australian Institute of Sport and they said, oh, yes, when they set up the labs here in the 90s, they were struggling with a similar mystery.
They couldn’t figure out why all the athletes were recording slightly lower VO2 maxes in Canberra than they did elsewhere. And so they actually ran a couple of studies which they ended up publishing showing that, yes, indeed, it’s subtle but you do have a little bit of an effect, even at the altitude of Canberra.
AL So, did you start off running from a young age? What first got you into running?
AH I was one of those kids who ran around a lot just in the course of playing outside all the time and, of course, I’m in my 40s, so 30 plus years ago I think everyone did to some extent. We all played around outside. But it was always something I enjoyed and once I got into elementary school, maybe when I was, I don’t know, eight or nine years old, there was an already an opportunity to join the school cross-country team and I did that.
So, it’s always been something that was there and when I was a teenager, about 15, I started taking it more seriously and joined a local athletics club and things like that. So, yes, it’s been something that’s been part of my life, just organically it chose me, that I always enjoyed running.
AL And then you got involved in the national team while you were in your college years. Is that right?
AH Yes. I certainly would have liked to be involved in the national team before that but that’s when I… It was actually just after I graduated from my undergraduate degree. That summer I squeaked onto my first national team as a track and field runner, as a 1,500 metre runner on the track. So, that was a real highlight and a real career goal for me.
AL What do you like about the 1,500 or what did you like about the 1,500 at that stage?
AH I’m, of course, biased but I think it’s the king of events. First of all, it doesn’t take… I love marathons but it’s an easily digestible form and it’s got speed and endurance. The 1,500 is the halfway point between sprinting and endurance running where to run a good 1,500 you have to have both those attributes and then the races end up being real chess matches because you’ve got people who are trying to watch each other and figure out who’s going to use their speed first, who’s got the better endurance and so often the races are very, very unpredictable.
They’ll go slowly, then there’ll be a fast move, then it’ll slow down and so there’s the real cognitive element as well as just the physical element. You have to be a master tactician which I, in fact, was not but you have to be a master tactician to do well in the 1,500 metres.
AL You’re very modest, though. There was a period in your career where your goal was to make the Olympics. Was it the 2004 Olympics you were aiming towards?
AH Yes. 2000 would have been a good time but I was injured in 1998 and 1999 and I’d made the Canadian Olympic trials. I’d been a finalist in 1996. That was just when I was breaking through. I was injured in 2000 and then 2004 was probably my best shot and I got a stress fracture in my lower back about three months before the Olympic trials. So, I was never really that close but I was in the conversation but never put it together at the right time.
And this is the nature of sport. For everyone who makes it, there are a lot of other athletes who are putting in the hours and the chips don’t fall quite in the right place. So, having that goal to pursue was actually something that I think gave a huge amount of meaning to my life and that I… So, I don’t look back and say, I can’t believe I wasted all that time and didn’t make the Olympics. I look back and say, man, that was an amazing opportunity, to be thinking about and dreaming about those sorts of things.
AL How much of a better writer do you think it makes you about sport? I remember the Australian art critic, Robert Hughes, who wrote American Visions, saying that all art critics should try and do a bit of art, so they realise how damn hard it is, and even if you’re not great at it, you will be a far better art critic for having been an artist.
AH Yes. I think this is an interesting conversation and I would say you don’t necessarily have to have been an athlete to be a good writer about sport. You can have the same conversation about coaching, for example, are the best coaches former athletes, and that doesn’t always turn out to be the case.
So, there are different roads to that sort of understanding but I know for me it’s… I didn’t initially set out to be a journalist writing about sport and what happened to me is early in my journalistic career I was working for a newspaper as a general assignment reporter, so writing about all sorts of things and I had an opportunity to write a profile about a Kenyan marathoner who was coming to defend his title at the Ottawa Marathon, which is the city where I was working.
And I got to spend a few days with him and I wrote this piece that turned out to be by far the best thing I had written as a journalist, and everyone said to me, wow, you bring so much more depth and context and understanding and confidence and voice to this piece and it’s clearly because you know this topic and you love this topic.
And that stuck with me, that writing about running or about endurance or about sport or even about science in another sphere, writing about things that I know and care about, it’s not just a self-indulgence, it’s also a way of tapping into a lifetime of experience and context. And so I think as I contemplate writing about other things, it’s hard to bring that same level, not just of knowledge but of passion and background to a topic if you just sort of…
If I wake up tomorrow and decide I want to write about ballet, it’s not just my lack of ballet experience that would be a problem, it’s also that I just wouldn’t bring the same level of passion and knowledge.
AL Yes. And one of the things you do, I think, brilliantly is to merge the science with that passion for sport. So, let’s go through some of the questions that many people have about exercise. People do die exercising. Is it dangerous to exercise?
AH People do die exercising but I would say orders of magnitude, more people die from not exercising. Nothing is zero risk and it’s one of those things where… In the acute… If you think about, let’s say you run a marathon and you’re going to get your heart beating pretty hard and in the same way that here in Canada we always have cases of people… Whenever there’s a big snowfall, there’ll be a few people who get a heart attack shovelling the snow the next day.
Stressing your heart makes it more likely that if there’s something that’s ready to go wrong with your heart, that’s when it’s going to go wrong. But the best way to reduce your risk overall… So, you can say, well, if I don’t want to die, I’m going to choose to not run that marathon and I’m going to choose not to shovel that snow.
And that may lower your risk for today but it’s gradually adding to your risk for subsequent days and months and years and overall you’re better to be getting out there and shovelling snow every day or getting out there and exercising every day because then the act of shovelling snow or running a marathon is no longer quite such a stress on your heart and, in fact, you end up with a dramatically lower risk overall.
So, to answer the question in the bigger picture, there are risks associated with exercise but for the most part those risks are tiny and there are definitely risks associated with not exercising. So, you can’t consider the question in a vacuum.
You have to understand that every action has risks and actually exercising, in most contexts for most people, is the best way to minimise their risk of bad health outcomes.
AL And I think you say that for every million hours of aerobic exercise there are on average two deaths, which suggests that exercise is pretty safe in the scheme of things.
AH Absolutely. The big takeaway message… The important message is not exercise is safe. Then people say, well, what about that guy who died? You say, okay, look, things happen. But what about that guy who died while he was playing chess? That happens too.
AL And what about if you are sick, if you’ve got a cold? Should you go to the gym or do your regular run or take a day off?
AH Yes, this is a longstanding point of controversy because, of course, lots of people who exercise are more or less addicted to their daily workout. So, they don’t want to hear anything that suggests they should take the day off. There’s a rule of thumb which has been tested in some interesting studies, basically called the above or below the neck check and depending on where your symptoms are.
If you’ve just got a little head cold and you’ve got the sniffles, you can go out and exercise and there’s unlikely to be any negative effects. But if you’ve got symptoms, if you’re coughing or if you’re feeling feverish and things like that, then there’s probably an advantage in terms of hastening your recovery of not pushing yourself too hard.
But it’s one of those things where it’s a delicate balance because some mild stress, like physical stress, can help ramp up your immune system and heavy stress can help suppress it. So, often, if you’re not feeling too bad, going out for a walk or something is good. Going out and running your hardest workout is bad. So, there’s no ironclad rules but in general my approach and what I suggest to people is don’t stress about missing a couple days’ workouts. Get out, get some fresh air but don’t try and push yourself because you’re just going to risk having a longer setback.
AL But then on days when you’re feeling good, one of the messages seems to be that you ought to train hard and push to failure. This interesting literature on high intensity resistance training really seems to have changed the way in which many people think about their exercise regime.
AH So, I think one thing that’s important is to understand that pushing to failure, in whatever context, is a super powerful way of boosting your fitness and a time-efficient way of getting a good workout. It’s not necessarily what you want to do every day, and if you look at what the best athletes do, they tend to follow a 80:20 rule that’s evolved through practice, which is about 80% of their workouts are at a relatively low intensity. If you’re talking about running, it’s conversational pace and not too stressful, building up some volume.
And about 20% of their workouts are really, really hard. So, that might translate into two or three times a week, tops, they’re going out there and pushing themselves to their limits. And that seems to be a more effective way of doing it than just going out there and hitting seven out of ten every day. So, you want to polarise it. Some of your workouts are nine out of ten and some of them are five out of ten and quite pleasant. So, mentally that’s a little easier to tolerate. But physically it also seems to do more for your body.
And that applies to cardio training, it also applies to resistance training. There’s some interesting evidence that people get all wound up about exactly how much weight they should be lifting and how many reps and how many sets, and what the literature suggests these days is that it doesn’t really matter, as long as you lift to the point where you could maybe at most do one more rep. You’re within a rep of failure.
And if you lift at that point, your muscles get the signal that they need to get stronger, whether you’re doing 12 reps with a relatively light weight or five reps with a heavier weight or 20 reps. As long as you reach the point where you can’t go any further or can’t go much further, you’re going to get a good muscle-building boost.
AL I was going to ask you, you still train pretty hard, right? You’re not at the level of making Olympic trials but my sense, from certainly what I’ve read and what I’ve heard about you is that you’re somebody who enjoys an intense workout.
AH Yes, it’s interesting. In the grand scheme of things, yes, I actually train very hard. Relative to what I used to do ten years ago, it’s less. But what I’ve found is that… So, I do a lot less mileage. I might 50 km a week these days compared to 120 but I still do at least two hard sessions a week. I’ll do a tempo run and an interval session, sometimes two interval sessions. And for me that’s partly because I think that’s a really…
I have a two-year old and a four-year old at home right now and my wife has a pretty demanding career. So, I have a lot of time looking after kids and so finding time to go out for 90 minutes is pretty challenging for me these days, just temporarily, and so I like the time efficiency of going out there and hammering a hard workout. But I also like the feeling.
As much as I like a conversational long run with friends, I also really love the feeling of going to the well and doing a hard interval workout and finishing just feeling punch drunk, and then for the rest of the day I have a positive feeling and a feeling that I’ve already done something pretty hard today and nothing else I do today will be as hard as what I did this morning out on the trails with my friends.
AL Right. As the saying goes, if you eat a live frog every morning, then nothing else will ever be the worst thing that happens to you on the day. Training in a group or training individually, what does the science tell us on this?
AH I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way there either. There’s definitely some very interesting science to say that you can get some physical benefits from the presence of other people. There was just an absolutely fascinating study done a number of years ago with the Oxford rowing team where they tested their pain tolerance before and after workouts and it’s well-known that doing a workout does enhance your pain tolerance through the production of brain chemicals like endorphins.
But they had the rowers do an identical workout twice and once they did it on a rowing machine all alone in a room and once they did on a rowing machine lined up next to their teammates who were also on rowing machines. Same workout but just with the presence of their teammates and their pain tolerance increased far more when they had their teammates with them.
So, certainly for performance but also just for feeling good, there’s advantages to working out with other people. And there are psychological and social reasons too that it’s great to work out with other people. But I don’t think that means that working out on your own isn’t also… It also has wonderful benefits. And so I try and mix them.
I do a lot of my runs by myself but I make a real effort a couple of times a week to get together, particularly for my hard workouts where I want to be pushing myself and be pushed by others. I’ll go out of my way and commute a bit if I have to to meet up with friends to get some company, get some social time and get some of that brain chemical boost from having training partners.
AL Yes. And I thought it was a lovely line from the surprise winner of the Boston Marathon, Yuki Kawauchi, who was asked why. He’s running at the moment something like 20 marathons a year and his response was, well, I train on my own, so my only real chance of getting to see other people is by doing the races.
AH Although he didn’t see very many people out in Boston because he was too far ahead, but I guess he got to chat to some people before and after.
AL And the fact that the weather was such that you couldn’t see two feet in front of your face but, yes. Barefoot running?
AH It’s a good thing this isn’t 2012 or we might have to have a fistfight about barefoot running because that seemed to be what everyone was doing at the time. I think tempers have cooled a little bit. The whole surge of interest in barefoot and minimalist running was, I think, a pretty useful corrective to a shoe industry that had gone too far to the approach of thinking we should build these highly-engineered, heavy, clunky super shoes which weren’t necessarily doing what they were supposed to for anybody. And as it turned out, going barefoot was also not the cure-all that people hoped.
This is a bigger question or a bigger topic but a lot of the reasons why people get injured is that they get impatient. They’ve recently started running and they want to go from zero kilometres a week to running a half marathon in six months. Or experienced runners are pushing their limits a little bit to try and get a PV and most training errors are the real key factor.
So, you can say that theoretically our ancestors 20,000 years ago were born to run barefoot but the fact is… And you can say that everyone can learn to run barefoot but if you’ve been running in shoes all your life, or walking in shoes, you need to take this very, very careful and gradual approach to transitioning to barefoot. And the fact is people don’t do that in the same… If people were that patient, that they could follow that advice, they wouldn’t have been getting injured in the first place because they could have adapted to other running shoes too.
So, the practical reality has been that barefoot isn’t a cure-all but I think it has had… For some people it’s been wonderful and that’s great but the other thing is it’s had a definite effect on the whole running shoe industry. There are a whole bunch more options not necessarily all the way to barefoot but at varying sizes and varying types and saying maybe some people like a heel drop that’s a little lower, some people like a lighter shoe.
And the truth is, in any given week I probably run in three different shoes of different sizes and types. I’m a big believer in variety so that I’m not forcing my feet to do the same thing every day. But some of those shoes are definitely lighter… Two of those three pairs of shoes are lighter than the shoes I would have been running in ten years ago, and I think that’s been good for me and it’s been good for a lot of people to have more options and not necessarily just to gravitate immediately to super restrictive big shoes.
AL I know Dick Telford’s Running book talks about the better performance of people who run in a variety of different kinds of shoes but I always wondered to what extent that was causation, to what extent it was correlation. When I think about the people who run in a variety of different shoes, they’re people who were doing speed sessions more often, for example. So, it would be interesting to see what the science is around varying your shoes from day to day.
AH You’re absolutely right. Who’s going to spend hundreds of dollars on multiple pairs of running shoes? It’s the people who are already pretty serious about it. There was a study out of Luxembourg, I guess it was, maybe a year or two ago that was a prospective study where they looked at people’s shoe habits and then their injury risk and the people who were varying shoes more had fewer injuries.
But, as you say, I think these effects are pretty subtle and for me it’s also a question of horses for courses. Some longer runs I like to have a little more cushioning. If I’m doing speed work, I like to have a lighter shoe and so it makes sense to me in that sense to have different shoes on the go.
AL And, lastly, on your first book, which comes first, cardio or weights?
AH There’s a long back story here, which is that I originally wanted to call that book… My first book, I wanted to call it Sweat Science, which was the name of my column, and my publisher suggested changing it to Which Comes First, Cardio or Weights, because it was an example of one of the questions that I tackled in the book, whether you should do your cardio or your weights first during a workout.
And there is some evidence that I wrote about then that your body has a molecular switch that either you’re adapting to increase your endurance or you’re adapting to build your muscles and your strength and you can’t necessarily do both simultaneously, at least not optimally, and you can’t switch instantly between the two. So, whatever workout you start with is going to set the tone for what your body is trying to adapt to.
And so the conclusion I came to then was that whichever one is more important to you, that’s the one you should do first. If you’re trying to get bigger, you should do that first. And I think that’s still a pretty good conclusion. But this area of research has actually been really active since that book came out and the picture has gotten a lot muddier. It’s very inconvenient when science does that, when you think you have a nice simple picture and then they do more research into the topic and they’re like, just wait a second, it’s actually there’s other factors.
And so the one thing that I would add that has come out in the years since then is what they found is these molecular switches that determine whether you’re adapting optimally to a given workout, they seem to be very sensitive to caloric status.
One of the real reasons that if you go running for an hour and then go to the weight room, that you won’t get as much bang for your buck in the weight room, it's not just because of the magic metabolic switch, it’s also because you’re in a state of caloric depletion and your body is focussed more on conserving energy rather than adapting to your workout.
So, the one practical piece of advice is if you’re doing both types of workouts on the same day, that’s the time when it’s actually pretty important, say, when you’re finished one part of your workout, to take in some calories, to have a banana or a tuna sandwich, whatever the case may be, to make sure you’re fuelling for that workout.
If you’re trying to lose weight, then maybe this is not such a big focus but if you’re trying to build muscle and build aerobic fitness and you’re training quite hard, then the timing of when you take in some calories for a double workout like that may help influence whether you’re able to get bang for your buck in both parts of your workout.
AL Yes. So, the new book’s called Endure. A significantly shorter title than your 19-word title for the first book, Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance. What prompted it?
AH Endure is kind of the passion project. Which Comes First, Cardio or Weights was a very practical training book and I was interested in that but it was also driven a little bit by the fact that I thought that was what people would want to… Everyone wants practical advice, right? We all want to know what we should do.
But what really drove me into the area of the science of fitness and the science of endurance wasn’t so much thinking that I would find a miracle way of getting faster or anything, it was more curiosity. I was really curious about how the body works. For anyone who’s run or anyone who’s been in any situation where they’re pushed to their limits, and I think most of us can think of situations in our lives, whether it’s in sports or in other aspects of life, where we’ve reached the point where you just feel like you can’t go any further or you can’t go any faster or you can’t continue any longer.
Those limits often feel very physical but in the course of my own running and in the course of starting to read up on the research in this area, I came away with the idea or the impression that limits that feel physical are often not, that they’re illusions. We get the sense we’ve hit our limits but sometimes circumstances show us that we actually had more in the tank than we thought. That was this question I started out with probably about a decade ago, is to try and understand what are our limits and how do we know when we’ve really reached our limits.
AL And you’d had an experience in the 1,500 that suggested that these limits might be a little more elastic than you’d imagined, right?
AH Yes. When I psychoanalysed myself as I got down to writing this book and thought why am I so interested in this, because I had to try and convince myself that this was something others would be interested and I thought, well, why am I so interested in it, and what I ended up concluding is that it all went back to a race I had when I was about 20 years old.
Because my dream had been to break four minutes for the 1,500 and I had run 4.02 or so when I was 16 and so I thought it was just a matter of time. But for about four years I really hit a plateau where by the time I was 20 my best was only 4.01. So, I had spent four years running within a second or two of the same time. So, I really had the sense that for me this was a physical limit, that I was approaching as fast as my body was capable of running, and I’d given it my best shot and if I got a good day and a good tailwind, I would run 3.59 but that was about as much as I could hope for.
And what happened is in a pretty meaningless early season race when I was 20, I went out there and did my thing and got out to a good start and after the first lap the timekeeper called out a split that was just ridiculously fast, the point where half of my brain was saying, oh, my God, Alex, you have totally messed this up, you are going to suffer and pay for this, you’ve gone out way too fast. And the other half of my brain was thinking, oh, wait, hey, you feel pretty good, this is surprising.
And that same thing happened on the second lap. He called out a time and I thought, oh, way too fast but I feel good. So, at that point I put my head down, and this was in an indoor race, so there were seven and a half laps. I just put my head down and started running, saying to myself, don’t waste this moment, Alex, this could be your day. And I ended up running 3.52, which was a nine second personal best after four years of stagnation.
And what happened afterwards, the postscript is, I had checked in with my teammates who had timed the race for me and was debriefing with them and when they gave me the splits, it turned out that my splits had actually been totally reasonable and the timekeeper had been off by about three seconds.
Whether he started his watch late or whether he was having a translation problem, because this was in a French part of Canada, I don’t know what was going on, but he tricked me into having absolutely the best race of my life.
And then the postscript was that once that once that switch was flipped, it never flipped back. I never had trouble breaking four minutes again and, in fact, in my next race I ran 3.49 and in my race after that I ran 3.44. So, all of a sudden I was 17 seconds faster than I’d been stuck at for four years.
So, from that point on I could never really take seriously the idea that when I cross the line that, oh, that was it, that’s all my body was capable of, because I’d had this really graphic demonstration of the fact that sometimes what had felt like my limit actually could be changed with the snap of your fingers by some sort of circumstance that only affected my brain and not my body.
AL And it’s striking to me you have so much evidence in your book about how easy we are to fool, this notion that if you tell runners they look relaxed, then they end up running more efficiently. If you tell athletes, use phrases like feeling good and push through the pain, then they perform more quickly, this seems almost trivially simple.
AH Yes, this is something I really struggled with. And one of the things I mention in the book is that a lot of the conclusions I come to, for instance, about the importance of your internal monologue, these are things that sports psychologists have been saying for a long time and, in fact, when I was in university 20 years ago, this is what the sport psychologists were telling us but we dismissed it.
I’m a very sceptical empirical guy. I want to see evidence. Before I put my faith in something, I want to know that it works. So, in a sense this whole process of writing the book was a journey of convincing myself of some things that I would… Five years ago I never, with a straight face, would have told someone that the words you tell yourself in your head make a difference.
But now I’ve been to the labs, I’ve talked to the scientists and I’ve seen people testing these ideas, having cyclists come and do time trial tests and then having half of them be instructed in how to change their internal monologue so that instead of saying this hurst too much, I can’t do it, they’re saying to themselves, come on, you can do it.
And seeing that, yes, that allows them to perform better in the endurance tests, it allows them to push harder, it allows them to push to a point where their core temperatures were a little higher, so they’re actually physiology pushing harder but their sense of effort stays the same, so they’ve managed to change the relationship between effort and physical output.
So, yes, to circle back to your question, I find this stuff so simple that I never would have believed it if I hadn’t gone through the process of following the scientific research and getting some understanding of how scientists think this actually works, that it’s not just woo-woo, it’s all in your head, that there’s some science that comes back to the importance of perception of effort, that how hard an effort feels really is the most important thing rather than what your lactate levels are or what your heart rate is.
AL You profile a lot of extraordinary athletes in Endure. Do you have a favourite one?
AH Yes, there are a few. I would say the one that… So, I’m a runner, so I have a soft spot for some of the running stories in there. There’s an ultramarathoner named Diane Van Deren who was not a runner at all until she had brain surgery when she was 37.
She had pretty serious epilepsy, had a part of the brain removed where the seizures were originating, and there is some collateral damage and so she had an impaired ability to keep track of time and distance and she virtually overnight became this champion ultramarathoner, just ridiculous feats, running three-week races running 22 hours a day, setting records into her 50s, and the secret seemed to be that she could.
It’s this epitome of mindfulness. She could only run in the moment. She couldn’t be burdened by how far she had come, how far she still had to go, all these sorts of things. To her it was always just a question of what can my body do right now? And as a result she was able to push herself into tremendous pain but she was able to perform amazing feats because she wasn’t constantly burdened by the pain of the running she’s already done or the fear of what she still had to do.
AL You talk about some mornings in which her feet were so sore that she couldn’t put weight on them, so she had to begin the day crawling before the endorphins kicked in and she was finally able to get to her feet. I think that that level of commitment is just crazy.
AH It is wild and I think that’s an important detail because sometimes… People have written a number of articles about Diane Van Deren and sometimes the impression that you’re left with is that, oh, she had damage to her brain, so she can’t feel pain, so running is just easy to her and it doesn’t hurt. It’s important to point out, no, she is in absolute agony, she can’t even walk, she’s crawling until her feet are numb enough from the endorphins that she can get up and start running.
But she’s able to do that because she’s not thinking I have to go 22 hours today. She’s thinking, I have to take the next step and then the step after that and then the step after that.
AL Do top athletes in general feel pain less than the rest of us?
AH That’s a really fascinating topic. What the research tends to show, and there’s quite a bit of it now, is that good athletes feel pain the same as everybody else. If you were to, say, line up a bunch of people and start giving them electric shocks in ascending strength, getting stronger and stronger, the athletes and the non-athletes, it would likely be right around the same point where they would say, okay, yes, that hurts now.
But if you keep turning up the shocks, the athletes would be willing to endure the pain for far longer and to far higher levels. So, they have the same pain sensitivity as everyone else, they feel pain the same, but they have a greater pain tolerance. They’re willing to endure it. There’s still ongoing research on this but the dominant theory on this is that this is really a psychological difference, that athletes learn to cope with discomfort. They’ve learnt coping skills through their repeated exposure in training.
For example, they learn to distract themselves and they learn to reframe the pain in a way that removes its emotional content so that instead of thinking, oh, my God, this hurts, I’m going to die, I want to rip my arm off, they think, I feel pain, it means that I can’t continue at this pace indefinitely but it’s just information, it helps me to pace myself. So, they’re treating discomfort as information.
And what’s really fascinating is that then this translates into their ability to tolerate discomfort in other facets of life, so they have greater pain tolerance, again, for electric shocks or heat or cold or pressure and things like that. To me that’s a really powerful illustration of if you go out and train every day and make yourself a little bit uncomfortable, you’re not just training your body, you’re training your mind to be able to handle uncomfortable situations in any aspect of your life.
AL And you talk too in the book about the importance of teaching athletes to do more than they think they can, in a way in the way in which you learned, you could run a 1,500 far quicker than four minutes. You talk about this particularly cruel trick of the extra unexpected repetition. Tell us about that one.
AH This is something that has legendary status in running circles. A lot of people have endured it in one form or another. The form that I first heard about it was from a guy named Amby Burfoot who’s a journalistic mentor of mine. He was an editor at Runner’s World and a former Boston Marathon champion in 1968.
And at one point he wrote something saying, the absolute single best running workout you could do, the most powerful workout that would increase your performance the most was to do five times a mile as hard as you can and then, when you finish the fifth mile rep and you’re lying on the ground gasping, feeling like you’re about to die, your coach comes over to you and says, okay, do one more and you say, that’s impossible, you told me to do them as hard as I can, I did, and the coach says, I know, just do one more anyway at the same pace.
And you get up and you go and do it and you discover that, surprise, surprise, you can do it. And Amby’s point was from this you learn the most important lesson in running, which is that you can do more than you’re capable of. I heard this from Amby and then what was interesting to me is hearing the echoes of it in other places.
I went to South Africa to talk to Tim Noakes, the famous exercise physiologist, and I asked him when did you start thinking about the role of the brain, and he started out as a rower rather than a runner, and he said, in the early 1970s when he was rowing for the South African Universities team, that’s what their coach did to them once. They did, I think it was 500 metre reps and when they were finished this really hard workout, the coach said, go back and do four more, and they did four more at the same pace and it was the same lesson.
So, we’re not all lucky enough to have coaches who can play these tricks on us, and even if we are, you can’t do that every week. You don’t fall for it every time. At a certain point you get suspicious. It’s a sort of once a year or once a career lesson but there are other ways, I think, that you can… Like I had that very lucky moment with the mistimed timer but the underlying thing is creating that belief or creating that understanding that, as you said, you can do more than you think you can and sometimes a little trick is the best way to teach yourself that lesson.
AL And you talk in the book too about these barriers, climbing Everest without oxygen, which was once thought impossible, the four-minute mile which Landy and Bannister questioned whether it could be broken. And the one you’ve been closest to is the attempt to break two hours for the marathon, to run at a pace of 21 kilometres an hour for two hours. You were there when Eliud Kipchoge recently, last year, came within 25 seconds of that goal. When do you think we will see a two-hour marathon in controlled conditions and in a race?
AH I had to make a prediction back in 2014. I did a big ten-page feature for Runner’s World on the physiology of what it would take to run a two-hour marathon and I concluded that piece by saying that I thought it would happen in 2075 and then, sure enough, a couple of years later runs 2.25. Once burned, twice shy. I don’t want to make myself look silly again but I think Kipchoge’s performance changed the timeline. Under controlled conditions it’s closer than we thought.
The real question mark is how special is Eliud Kipchoge. We know he’s really, really, really, really special but is he a once in a generation talent? Is what he did something that only he can do and we’re going to have to wait another 20 years for someone like him, especially as he gets a little older and the number of opportunities he has available dwindles.
But what I would say is I think under controlled conditions… I mean, it’s clear that if things had gone slightly differently, it could be done tomorrow with the right runner and the right circumstances. 25 seconds is nothing. So, it could happen any time if you control enough conditions. In the conditions that are world record eligible, whether or not it’s a genuine race or whether it’s a set-up but at least that are eligible for the world record, I think we’re probably still a couple of decades away. But I think the X Factor is once someone is running 2.01 or something in record legal conditions, you’re going to see tremendous interest and tremendous pots of money showing up to set up races that are like the Nike Breaking2 race but are record legal.
Once they do that, I think we could get dragged under relatively quickly. There’ll just be such momentum. So, my final answer is two to three decades from now but I’m fully prepared to be proven wrong tomorrow.
AL It’s interesting to me to see how many runs there have been in the last couple of years that are within 20 seconds of Dennis Kimetto’s 2:02:57 world record. There’s an astonishing number of 2.03 marathons, suggesting that they’re all clustering around that point, it is actually quite a way before they knock that final three minutes off.
AH The glass half full way of looking at that is that it’s not just one person who’s in that ballpark and that there may be some young guns who are capable of running 2.03 in Berlin this year, which means that if they get a little quicker and if you put them in perfect conditions… Because Berlin, it has two dozen turns that are right angle or steeper, something in that vicinity.
So, there are things you can do to make it faster without making it cheating. And so if there’s enough people running 2.03, then you’ve got to think there’s someone who will just hit one out of the park before too long and run 2.02 or maybe even better.
AL Yes. Alex, let me ask you a few final questions. What advice would you give to your teenage self?
AH Stay in school, Alex.
AL You did, you stayed in school for a long time, with a PhD. How much longer do you want to stay in school?
AH Maybe the advice would be the opposite to that. Alex, get out of school, go experience real life. No, in the context of the things we’ve been talking about, the number one thing I would tell myself, if I had a time machine, is to take seriously the role of the mind. In a very specific way I would say, try motivational self-talk. This is a thing, it’s not just a concept.
You identify what you say to yourself in the context of stressful situations, you come up with alternatives, you practice them until they’re second nature. As much as my teenage self would turn up and nose and say, come on, are you joking, I would insist and say, listen, young man, there’s good science here and this is something that’s worth trying.
AL What’s something you used to believe but no longer do?
AH That’s an interesting question. There’s a lot of things I used to believe athletically, like if I didn’t stretch twice a day my legs would fall off and I would be unable to run. Ten years ago, when I stopped my super competitive track life, I said to myself, you know what, I’m going to do the things I enjoy and I’m not going to do things I don’t enjoy and I’m going to see if I actually do fall apart.
And so I stopped stretching about ten years ago and I’m unable to tell the difference, except that I’m even further from being able to touch my toes now. So, there’s a lot of things that I’d never questioned, ten years of stretching twice a day, that I now no longer am convinced that it’s necessary for most people.
AL My physio tells me it’s the best form of injury prevention but you don’t think the science backs that up?
AH It’s tricky because it’s hard to study these things. It’s like giving 10,000 people identical eye glasses and then whether their vision improves on average. Well, it may not but that doesn’t mean that the people who got the right eye glasses for their problem don’t see better. And so I think stretching is similar. I think we were all told that we should all be doing a genetic stretching programme and so we were all doing all the same stretches in the same way, regardless of what our actual needs were.
I don’t think there’s really much evidence that that helps. I do think it’s pretty clear that everyone has specific areas of tightness and imbalance and weakness and addressing those with some stretching and strengthening can be really, really important. So, if you’ve got a physio suggesting focus on these four stretches, there’s a really good chance that that’s going to be doing something useful for you.
Hey, look, I spent many years writing for running magazines but if you’re opening up Runner’s World and saying here’s the seven stretches every runner should do, well, you may not be every runner in that context and there’s certainly not a lot of evidence that backs up that approach.
AL Right. So, just keep dropping one off until something gets injured and then put it back on.
AH Admittedly, yes, it does sound like a closing the barn door after the horse bolted.
AL But everything’s got cost and benefits. When are you most happy?
AH I love running but I love after running. Honestly, when I’ve set up new places to live, for me the number one thing is a couch in the living room. There’s something magical about reading on a couch on a sunny afternoon. I think they’re called lounges in Australia. Reading on a lounge on a Sunday afternoon, that can’t be replaced by easy chairs or beds. So, as much as I love running, I just love reading a good book lying on my back maybe with a snack next to me. That’s happiness.
AL What’s the most important thing you do in your life to stay mentally and physically healthy?
AH I hate to be boring but in terms of staying mentally and physically healthy, it’s running, for sure. Physically because that’s my main form of exercise, although I do do other things like rock climbing. But mentally it is too because I work at home, I work pretty long hours because it’s always tempting, when you’re working at home, to check the emails one more time.
Running is one time in my life and in my day where I can absolutely guarantee that I’m offline, that I’m not tempted to… The worst thing is when I’m making dinner with my kids and I feel that phone in my pocket and think, well, I’ll just check and see if any emails have come in. I know I shouldn’t but I do. And so running is a real enforced mental break from everything else that’s going on in my life. So, I value it for that as much as for the physical part of it.
AL Do you have any guilty pleasures?
AH No one’s going to listen to this, right? I can speak honestly.
AL No, just you and me.
AH Guilty pleasures? There’s a whole spectrum of guilty pleasures but one of the things I love to do is reread the children’s books that I loved as a kid and I still… I happen to be living in now… My wife and I live in the house that I grew up in and so the books that I read as a kid are literally in the basement bedroom. And so whenever I get home from a trip, I’ll read from cover to cover one of my childhood favourites. But if that’s not guilty enough, I have a pretty big sweet tooth too. Nutella doesn’t last long in this house.
AL So, what’s one of the childhood books you’re rereading at the moment? Do we think Hardy Boys, Famous Five kind of thing?
AH That kind of thing but there’s a Canadian author named Gordon Korman who… It’s hard to introduce him in a sentence or two but he wrote his first book when he was in Grade 7, so when he was about 13 years old, and it’s brilliant. It’s still brilliant. And then he’s gone on to continue writing kids’ books. He’s still active today but he was absolutely my role model and the books of his that I have read 50 times easily, because they’re just so funny and they capture what it’s like to be a 12-year old or a 14-year old so accurately.
Last night I got home quite late, so I slept in the basement to avoid waking up my wife. So, before going to bed I read Calvin and Hobbes cartoons. I have some books of cartoons. Calvin and Hobbes is full of wisdom and it’s as fresh today as it was 30 years ago when I got the book.
AL Absolutely. And, finally, Alex, which person or which experience has most shaped your view of living an ethical life?
AH That’s interesting. For that I would have to say my parents have really… They set a standard that I consistently failed to live up to but they’ve provided me with a model of how to live that I think has really stuck with me and that I hope to live up to. My dad taught ethics at the University of Toronto. He was a professor of ethics. And my mom spent her career working for non-governmental organisations focussing on ethical investment or socially responsible investment starting in the early 1980s when it really wasn’t a thing, when if you suggested to a company… If you tried to make a shareholder proposal that maybe this company should divest from South Africa, they would all but have security just drag you from the room.
And so I’m really proud of the work that she did, that both she and my dad did, in the 80s and 90s, stuff that I didn’t really necessarily understand very well as a kid but as I grow up it’s really come home to me to realise that since this was a dinner table conversation when I was a kid, these were the things we were discussing, that it’s really shaped my sense of the importance of fairness and the importance of considering other people’s viewpoints.
AL Well, Alex Hutchinson, runner, scientist and writer, thanks so much for taking the time to share your wisdom on The Good Life podcast today.
AH Thanks so much, Andrew, and congratulations on Boston and good luck on the next one.
AL Thanks so much. Thanks for listening to this week’s episode of The Good Life. We love getting feedback, so please leave us a rating or a comment on Apple Podcasts, formerly known as iTunes. Next week I’ll be back with another inspiring guest to discuss living a happier, healthier and more ethical life.