Monday, May 17, 2021
Mitochondrial Health Optimal Health

#151 – Alex Hutchinson, Ph.D.: Translating the science of endurance and extreme human performance


Alex Hutchinson is a sports science journalist, author of the book Endure—which explores the science of endurance and the real limits of human performance—and former competitive runner for the Canadian national team. In this episode, Alex tells the story of his “aha moment” during a meaningless track meet that catapulted his running career and seeded his interest in the power of the mind. He then explains the science behind VO2 max, the difference between maximum aerobic capacity and efficiency, and extracts insights from examples of extreme human performance, such as the recent attempts to break the 2-hour mark in the marathon. Finally, he brings it back to what this all means for the everyday person: optimal exercise volume for maintaining health, how to avoid acute and chronic injuries, how to diversify your exercise portfolio, HIIT protocols, and much more.

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We discuss:

  • Alex’s background and passion for running (3:00);
  • The power of the mind: Alex’s “aha moment” that catapulted his running career (9:00);
  • Pursuing a Ph.D. in physics while prioritizing his running career, and doing the hardest thing possible (19:00);
  • Career transition to journalism, tips for improving your writing, and insights from the best writers (26:00);
  • Breaking down VO2 max: Definition, history, why it plateaus, and whether it really matters (38:15);
  • The case study of Oskar Svensson: Why a higher VO2 Max isn’t always better, and the difference between maximum aerobic capacity and efficiency (49:15);
  • The sub 2-hour marathon: The amazing feat by Kipchoge, and what will it take to “officially” run a 2-hour marathon (1:01:00);
  • Comparing the greatest mile runners from the 1950s to today (1:14:45);
  • How the brain influences the limits of endurance (1:20:15);
  • Relationship between exercise volume and health: Minimum dose, optimal dose, and whether too much exercise can shorten lifespan (1:23:45);
  • Age-associated decline in aerobic capacity and muscle mass, and the quick decline with extreme inactivity (1:40:45);
  • Strength or muscle mass—which is more important? (1:47:00);
  • Avoiding acute and chronic injuries from exercise (1:48:45);
  • High intensity interval training: Evolution of the Tabata protocol, pros and cons of HIIT training, and how it fits into a healthy exercise program (1:54:15);
  • The importance of understanding why you are engaging in exercise (2:03:00);
  • How we can encourage better science journalism and reduce the number of  sensationalized headlines (2:05:45); and
  • More.

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Alex’s background and passion for running [3:00]

Background

Running passion and early career

  • Running was the “most important thing in my life until I was 28”
  • After 28, continued training seriously into his early 30s
  • Still runs six days a week — “always been the guy who liked to run around and I ran elementary school cross country”
  • Joined a track club when he was 15 at the University of Toronto Track Club and was hooked
  • High school was at a school called the University of Toronto Schools
  • Undergrad was at McGill, a great academic school in Canada, but they don’t have athletic scholarships
  • Alex was a top tier runner in high school but was ill and didn’t run his senior year so he did not end up getting a scholarship

Time at McGill

  • At McGill, he was a 1,500 meter runner when he showed up and with the assumption that I would be moving up to 5,000 meter
  • Alex says he didn’t have a lot of sprint speed
  • And the 800 meter run is “the most painful race there was”
  • In the context of workouts specifically at McGill, they were more sprint-oriented workouts: hard two-minute effort and a longer rest
  • Alex found that challenging — “The intuition would be you want to ask your coach for more recovery, but it was the opposite for me.”
  • A two minute all out effort is the single way to get the highest possible lactate levels and that’s synonymous with extreme suffering
  • In some ways, Alex would rather run a marathon than an 800 meter race

“There’s an assumption that longer equals harder, and man, no, there’s a whole different world of pain that you can get into if you’re willing to push yourself hard in those two minute efforts to 10 minute efforts.” —Alex Hutchinson

 

The power of the mind: Alex’s “aha moment” that catapulted his running career [9:00]

Turning point in his running career

This started my movement away from just, ‘we can calculate everything from physiology, that endurance is a little more complicated than the equations that you might start with.’

His “aha moment”

  • Alex was about to compete at a “totally meaningless meet”
  • It was his third year at McGill University 
  • At that point, for almost 3.5 years, he’d been running between 4:01 and 4:03 for the 1,500 meters
  • A career goal for Alex was to break 4 minutes
  • At this meaningless meet, there was no competition, he going to win the race no matter what
  • At the last minute, he just decided he was going to “go hard and just see what I can do”
  • In this indoor track, your splits get called out every 200 metersAnd indoor track is 200 meters long so you get splits every about 30 seconds
  • The timekeeper called out 27 seconds for the first 200 meters (about five seconds faster than four minute pace)
  • 27 seconds is extremely fast and it’s a terrible way to start a 1,500 meters race if you are trying to run sub four minutes
  • “I had conflicting emotions of like, ‘Oh God, you idiot’ with ‘Oh, I actually feel surprisingly relaxed’”
  • But there’s some magic that happens in a race, and you can sometimes dismiss those discrepancies 
  • He was way ahead of the pace after the third lap

At that point in the race, two things were happening:

  • 1- He realized he was having a really good day
  • 2 – Realized that the splits were no longer meaningful because you memorize the splits for the races you think you’re going to run

Next, he made the best decision of his life: 

  • He stopped listening to the splits and decided to “put his head down and go for it”
  • He finished with a time of 3:52, — nine seconds faster than his personal best at the time
  • For context, a one second personal best would have been a huge victory — “Nobody PBs by nine seconds after they’ve been training hard for four years, five years
  • Alex says it was “absolutely mind boggling”

Post race analysis

  • One of his teammates had been privately keeping Alex’s splits and told him that he actually did NOT go out at 27 seconds, in fact he was closer to 30 seconds (and same thing was lap 2)
  • In other words, the timekeeper calling out his splits was actually wrong at the time
  • Alex was basically “fooled” into thinking he was having an amazing day, and then did

What happened next?

{end of show notes preview}

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Alex Hutchinson, Ph.D

Alex is a sports science journalist, author of the book ENDURE: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, and former competitive runner for the Canadian national team. He currently writes the Sweat Science column for Outside Online. Prior to his journalism career, Alex acquired a Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge. He spent a few years as a postdoctoral researcher with the U.S. National Security Agency working on quantum computing and nanomechanics while simultaneously competing as a middle- and long-distance runner for the Canadian national team.



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