Welcome to a fast-moving and interesting conversation with Alex Hutchinson, author of the book Endure.
Alex is a popular columnist for Outside Magazine, covering topics related to sweat science, and is an expert on the scientific aspects of peak performance and human limitations, especially relating to endurance. He recounts his extraordinary story at the start of the show, sharing the amazing breakthroughs he’s made in his career as a middle distance runner in college, and you won’t believe some of the memorable insights he presents, many of which I’m still thinking about today.
In this episode, we get into all kinds of topics like the popular Central Governor Theory, promoted by Dr. Timothy Noakes, who proposed that the brain is the true limiter of peak performance, not fatigue, talk about the ultimate limits of human performance, and much more!
The brain is the true limiter of peak performance, not fatigue. [00:46]
Alex has an amazing story of how he became a 4-minute distance runner. [03:59]
His progress was at an unheard-of pace. [15:56]
It is hard for endurance athletes to buy into the idea that our mindset is holding us back. [20:06]
What is the ideal competitive disposition? The cocky “I can win” and the “I don’t belong here” are at both ends of the spectrum. [24:38]
Alex thinks genetics had very little to do with his ability as a runner. [35:45]
Is there such a thing as fear of success in these athletes? What you say to yourself makes a big impact. [40:55]
It is difficult to distinguish between the discomfort or pain of effort and the discomfort of an injury. [48:14]
Do the coaches need to do something different when an athlete gets injured? [51:58]
No one is going to break records by large amounts. [58:43]
Alex is moderately optimistic on doping. [01:02:34]
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I’m author and athlete, Brad Kearns. Welcome to the B.rad podcast, where we explore ways to pursue peak performance with passion throughout life. Visit brad kearns.com for great resources on healthy eating, exercise, and lifestyle. And here we go with the show.
,Hey, listeners, welcome to a very interesting and fast moving conversation with Alex Hutchinson, the bestselling author of the wonderful book, Endure. He’s a very popular columnist in Outside magazine covering topics related to sweat science. That’s right. He is the expert on the scientific aspects of peak performance and the human limitations, especially relating to endurance. And I spend a fair amount of time at the start of the show having him recount his most extraordinary story of amazing improvement breakthroughs in his own running career as a middle distance runner, uh, in college. Uh, you’re not gonna believe some of these insights that are gonna pull out, and they’ll be really memorable. I can’t stop thinking about his story. When I first heard about it, I had to have him on the show. And we get into all kinds of aspects, including the popular Central Governor Theory promoted by Dr. Timothy Noakes,
which proposes that the brain is the true limiter of peak performance, not the fatigue that’s happening in our muscles, in our extremities. And we also transition into talking about, uh, the ultimate limits of human performance, especially as it relates to the current world records and all the technological breakthroughs, as well as the training breakthroughs where we’re headed in the future. And I’ll tee him up a little further with an excerpt from his book description about Endure, where Hutchinson reveals that a wave of paradigm altering research over the past decade suggests that the seemingly physical barriers you encounter are mediated as much by your brain, as much by your body. It’s not all in your head. For each of the physical limits that Hutchinson explores pain, muscle, oxygen, heat, thirst, and fuel, he carefully disentangles the delicate interplay of mind and muscle by telling the riveting stories of men and women who’ve approached and sometimes surpassed their own ultimate limits.
And there’s great stories about the explorers that went to the South Pole, Amundsen, a hundred plus years ago, and then recent efforts to kind of duplicate these amazing feats that you, uh, hear about in the history books. And I also like how he blends that mind and body insights where it’s not all in your, your head, but a lot of it is. And if you, for example, adopt a more empowering, positive attitude about the journey that you’re on, the exercise that you’re doing, the workout that you’re trying to finish, instead of feeling negative about it and wishing it for it to be over, you can say, boy, isn’t the fresh air and this beautiful scenery wonderful. What a great way to spend my day. And thereby you reduce your perceived exertion and you prolong your endurance. It’s pretty awesome. So let’s hear from Alex Hutchinson.Alex Hutchinson, I’m so glad to connect with you and we have all kinds of important stuff to talk about. Um, hopefully listeners are familiar with your wonderful book, endure and read your columns in Outside Magazine and Runners World. That’s the main place we’re seeing these regular features,
These days Outside is the main place. Yeah. Runners World for a while, but any, but yeah. Anyway, Outside and, and thank you for having me on, Brad. I’m looking forward to the conversation.
So this concept of human endurance and all the aspects and attributes about that that you covered so nicely in your book, I think we have some important things to talk about, but I can’t think of a better way to set the stage than to ask you to recap your amazing journey in distance running where you became quite a serious runner, but the breakthroughs are to the level that I’ve never heard about of any other human ever. And it turns out you’re the guy studying this. So I think you’re gonna have to, you’re gonna have to wind us up, man. And take us back to your high school and college days in Canada pursuing your, your dream of becoming a middle distance runner.
Yeah, I mean, I started out in high school and like a lot of people do, and running initially middle distance, like 1500 meters. And the big dream at that point was the, the, call it the metric four minute mile. Uh, I, I wanted to run four minutes for 1500 meters, which is, uh, about, call it 17 seconds shorter than a mile. So it’s, I was not trying to be Roger Banister, my own version of Roger Banister, and I ran. 4 :02 in my, my second year of high school running, and I could plot out the trajectory, right? I could see that I was gonna roll well under four minutes the next year and, you know, make the Olympics the year after that and set the world, you know, I had, I had it all plotted out, but I, I had a plateau, uh, pretty quickly.
I ran between four flat and 4:02 for what turned out to be four straight years, which took me to my junior year of college. And so, you know, when I talk about human limits and discovering where the, the odor, uh, bounds of your potential are, that’s, that really goes back to that feeling that I had in high school and college where it’s like, okay, I know I’ve, I’ve been trained pretty hard for four years now. I’ve been doing the mileage, I’ve been hitting the weight room, I’ve been doing this speed work. I’ve been lying away at night reading books about running, and I keep running about four minutes for 1500, just over four minutes. So I was, I was very confident that I could get under four minutes, that I could run that 03:59. But I definitely had the sense that that was about what my body was capable of, that there wasn’t a whole lot more in the tank.
And so the turning point for me was a race in my junior year of college. Not a, not an important race, not a significant race, but just another race where I was gonna go out and try and get that 3:59:09 And, uh, it was an indoor race, so 200 meter track, the gun went off and I took off and the lead trying to run my, my pace. And I went through the first 200 meters in, you know, the timekeepers there at the start line, calling out splits. And I went through the first 227 seconds, which for running one who’s, uh, done underneath track running, knows that’s pretty fast. And it’s a hell of a lot faster than you wanna be running if you’re trying to run four minutes for 1500, which is 32second pace. And, and I had this, I still can remember the sort of moment of like, whoa, that’s way too fast.
And yet, whoa, I, I feel pretty good. I actually feel under control. So, you know, I was just trying to stay calm, stay cool, came through the second lap in 57 seconds, which again, is way too fast. Um, but I felt just really, really under control and good, same thing happened third lap. And so I had this, I, I can, I can also remember this is a race that took place in 1996. I’m, I’m an old guy now. Um, but I can still remember that mid-race kind of decision of or the realization that something special was happening and that I needed to kind of stop listening to splits, stop, think, overthinking things and just run, because I was having a very, very special day. Um, and it, it turned out to be a special day. I ran 3:52.04 which was a, a nine second, or, you know, almost nine second personal best.
And what happened afterwards was the, the, I mean, so that was cool in and of itself, like nine seconds is is a lot. But what happened afterwards is I was chatting to a teammate who had taken my splits for me so that I, you know, as being a typical distance runner, I was ready to record the splits in my log and analyze them and pluck them inus 1, 2, 3, and all that stuff. And, uh, and I, you know, I, can you believe I ran the first lap in 27? No, you didn’t. Whatcha talking about you ran the first lap in like 30 or 31. And anyway, to cut to the, sorry I’m making this a long story, but to cut to the chase, the timekeeper had probably missed the start or something like that, and was giving me the wrong split. And so when he was telling me I had gone out in 27, he, he, he was creating this impression in my mind that I was running really fast with less effort than normal <laugh>.
Whereas in reality, I, I was, I was running pretty fast with pretty, you know, moderate effort, but he, he kind of tricked me into thinking I was having the best day of my life. And as a result, I kind of unshackled myself from my prior expectations. And I just ran and all of a sudden I had a nine second personal vest. And then, you know, the postscript is that in the race? After that, I ran 3:49, and after that I ran 3:44. And it was like a kind of tap had been turned on. And, you know, know, honestly, I wish I could recapture that <laugh> that sort of sequence of events. You know, if I, if I could have bottled that, I would’ve gotten a lot faster, but I didn’t, you know, I, I eventually hit another plateau and it’s not as, knowing that there are such things as mental barriers doesn’t mean it’s easy to, to turn them off. But it definitely, that, that one race in 1996, I think is what set me on a path that ended up with the book I published in 2018, Endure. Because I’ve, I’ve been fascinated ever since. But trying to understand what, what defines our limits and, and knowing that what def that it’s not just a formula, you know, it’s not a VO two max test. It’s not that there’s, there’s a lot more in there that defines what we’re capable of.
In other words, you’re still trying to figure it out. Twenty plus years later, we, we still don’t know what happened to this guy. Um,
Yeah, I would say I’m, I’m even in some ways I’m even more confused than I was then. I, I, you know, <laugh>, the, the less, you know, the more you think, you know, and so the, the, the deeper I’ve gotten to it, the more I realize that there’s a lot still to learn for
Sure. That’s the sign of a good scientist when you keep heading toward more realization that you realize how little you know. So congratulations there. Unfortunately, <laugh>. Yeah. Instead of here, here’s Alex who knows everything about endurance and performance limitations. Let’s hear from him. No, no, he’s,
He’s, it would be nice.
So I wanna set the context there. When you’re a around a four minute, 1500 meter runner, that is a, I’d say very good high school level, probably national caliber Canada, or, you know, in, in America you’d be one of the top guys in the state and you’d be looking at a college career and then, you know, hopefully they were hoping you would improve. But if you’re running four minutes in college, you’re a pretty good and very highly trained runner. So it’s not someone who’s jumping into their, um, their, their second race and getting a nine second PR. So there was absolutely no, um, there was no dream of anyone at your already pretty fast level popping out a nine second PR. And I’ve heard you’re <laugh>. Yeah, it’s, it just does unheard of.
So, I mean, yeah, it’s a sort of expand on that context. When I started running, I think I ran my, you know, like everyone else I ran, you know, untrained stuff in, in early high school. And then I, I had showed some promise. I joined a track club in Canada. Track clubs are, are fairly common outside of high school. And I ran, I think I ran like 4:44, 4:45 from my first race. And then I got some training in, and I ran 4:28, and this is all within one season. And then I went to the city finals and I ran four 19, and then I went to the regionals and I ran 4:07, and then I went to the provincial finals, which is our equivalent state finals. And I ran 4:13 in 4:08 in the, in the finals. So there was this sort of 20 seconds over the course of, uh, um, you know, a month, let’s say.
That’s not mysterious. That’s, that’s training, that’s learning how to race. That’s, that’s, that’s very, very common. But as you say, once you’ve, once you’ve been training for a while, the fruits become much harder to grasp. And I always say, you know, whenever I’m talking to people and whenever someone comes up to me and say, oh yeah, I had an OK race, it was a, it was a best time, but only by a second. I’m never, never take a a best time for granted. Cuz they get a lot, the, the, the farther you get in the sport, the harder they’re to get. And so by the time I was running four men, you know, 4:02, 1500, I’ve been training with a track club for a few years. I’ve been, you know, running six or seven days a week doing interval workouts with a very good coach who knew what he was doing.
So I, I wasn’t just sort of bumbling, bumbling along and discovering the, the, uh, the the sort of secrets of life. And in fact, you know, so I told this story in my book, right? And so pe people have heard it. And my, my old high school coach, when he read it, he’s like, trying to remember those days, like, surely there were some signs in your, in your training that you were ready for a big breakthrough. And I was like, well, you know, you can always find, you know, if you look carefully enough, you can say, oh, maybe that will work out, suggest something. But look, I’ll give you my training log. I’ll take out my training. Like, you tell me if you think I was ready to get 17 seconds faster over the course of a few weeks. So I gave him my old training logs and he, he took them home, actually.
He still has them, he’s give them back to me. But anyway, he took them home and uh, he, you know, we chatted a couple weeks later and I said, so well, you know, what’s the deal? And he said, yeah, you know, the, there was no, like, so before I had my breakthrough, it was clear I was ready to run under four minutes. So I was run, I was working out better than a four minute guy, but I was not working out like a 3:44 guy, which I ended up. So it’s like I went from slightly underperforming to dramatically
But it wasn’t, the change wasn’t that I started working out better. I’d been working out at that level for a year or two without, without any, there was no obvious sign in the, in the training that something had changed.
Right. So you were, you were stuck running slower than you quote unquote should based on your impressive training log.
Yeah, no, I, not a ton. I would say like the trainings that I should have probably run, you know, under maybe 3:55, 3:58, 3:57, something like under four minutes. I was, I was never like a hero trainer or anything. And you know, that’s a, um, that’s another topic, obviously, right? I, i i, i, I don’t think that’s necessarily a good thing to be a hero trainer. Like, I think it’s a good, it’s a good thing to sort of keep you powder dry. But, um, yeah, there was, I would, I think people thought I should be ready to break four, but breaking four and running 3:52 or two different things,
Interesting. I didn’t know about your early progression from novice and then down to a provincial finalist. So, uh, that’s very interesting because you had this pattern wired into your brain of a guy who just kept knocking, you know, slashing the clock, even though it was, as you described expected when someone starts putting on, uh, the shoes and running around a track and practicing, you expect that. But you did have that reference point somewhere in the recesses of your consciousness that it’s already happened. So here it goes again with the nine second PR and then you didn’t rest there.
I think that’s a really interesting point, and I think it’s probably connected. Why to the fact that, first of all, I kept training at a, at a very serious level with running as one of the most important thing in my life to, in my lives, in my life, into my thirties. And I’m 46 now, and I’m still training every day. I think it reminds me of those, you know, they did those conditioning experiments with like rats or whatever, or I, I’m maybe not <inaudible>, like the psychology experiments lo you know, half a century ago, where they find the best way to get a rat to keep pressing a lever is not that five presses gives you a nugget of food. It’s that an unpredictable, every once in a while you hit the jackpot. Mm-hmm. This is the way casino slot machines are designed too.
It’s like the unpredictable. So I had this hardwired into me that you just keep training. Sometimes it seems like nothing is happening, and every once in a while, bam, you, you hit a hot streak and you, so I kept waiting and waiting and waiting to go, you know, to get another more hot streaks and to go on another tear. Because I’ve had this happen a few times where it’s like you, you’re you’re in a plateau. You’re in a plateau. Then once you finally break through, you know, when it rains it pours. And so yeah, maybe I like rat the cage. They’re expecting, it’s a big little award nugget at some point.
Tristan Harris calls it intermittent variable rewards. And that’s why slot machines are so addicting. And I guess perhaps running, especially in your case, not for most runners, cuz they don’t have these incredible breakthroughs. They’re not too common. But, uh, that’s interesting. You know, I kept you in the game and I guess we should, yeah. Uh, we should talk about your time progression there. So you were a pretty good college runner and then you shattered the barriers with that, um, 3:52, but then to take it in, in a matter of weeks, now all of a sudden your national class and you’re lining up with the Canadian heroes and Olympians. So, um, that part, how do, how do you how do you justify, uh, going from what you, you finally hit your potential and maybe even better than your predicted potential and now you’re in the stratosphere somehow.
That was a really interesting experience. ,
And did you get totally full yourself swagger around campus with the gold chain Now all of a sudden? How did that go in your, in your psychology?
The old thing that I’m wearing right now? Yeah, <laugh>. Um, no, it, it’s interesting cause you know, again, to go back to the context of as a 4:01 guy, I had big dreams. We all have big dreams. I, I went to bed every night dreaming big dreams. Mm-hmm. But those big dreams were like, someday I’ll run 3:53 or 3:54 or 3:55. And so all of a sudden I ran 3:44 and that, that race was, I mean there’s a whole story to that race too, because that’s another big gap to go from 3:49 to 3:44. I was in the fast heat of a meet where I should have been. Everyone else was in the, it was a meet held at my university and I remember showing up a few hours before the race and looking at the heat sheets posted on the wall and seeing that I was in the faster heat.
And there were a couple guys standing there reading the heat sheets and they were singing, what the hell is Hutchinson doing in this fast heat? What the hell? I run faster. We should be, you know, like the people were angry about that cuz my coach was the meet director and was, had put me in the fast heat ahead of a bunch of guys who were faster than me. And so when I stepped to the line that day, you know, this is a different element of psychology. It was like my, my, I was like, I have to finish second last, I have to finish second last so that I j so I’m not the one who should have been the last heat. And so I ran in dead last in that race for 1200 meters. And then with 300 meters to go in the race, I did a little internal check and was like, Hey, I’ve still got fuel to burn. And I passed about eight people in the last 300 meters. And, and it was a, you know, a huge race, like almost probably more surprising than the 3:52. And in a lot of ways it’s harder. It’s, it’s harder to explain. But you know, as you know, 3 44 is a different world than 3:52, uh, more so than 3:52 to 4:01 mm. And so that actually
Exponentially more so, of course, cause now you’re bumping up against Olympic caliber playing. Yeah.
Well, so this was, and this was in the mid nineties, which let’s, let me, another important piece of context is people were slower in the mid nineties. So, so, um, these days, 3 44 would not, you know, wouldn’t get you, a ticket to any big meets. But at the time in Canada, which is a smaller country, it had qualified me for the Olympic trials a few weeks later. And so I found myself suddenly, you know, two months ago I was a 4:01 guy. Now I’m stepping to the start line against the Canadian record holder. I’m l and there’s a, you know, I guess I mentioned this in the book, there’s a YouTube video of the 1996 Canadian Olympic trials. And I’m on the start line next to my absolute hero, Graham Hood, who’s made the Olympic finals already. Uh, you know, he’s an Olympic finalist defending Olympic finalist.
I am just absolutely petrified. And, and the way that worked out is I ran like a hunk of crap in the, in the Olympic finals. I made the, I made after the semis, I made it to the final, but I ran like junk. I was just, I didn’t yet believe that I belonged. Mm. And and I came back 12 months later. It took me that long to be like, no, I’ve run these times in the low three forties I belong here. And the next time I, uh, the next year I came forth in at the national championships. And that, and, and I wasn’t necessarily all that much fitter, but I ran with confidence instead of running scared out of my mind and thinking that I didn’t belong with those people.
I guess it’s hard for a lot of endurance athletes, myself included to buy into this idea that our mindset is holding us back because I know what that last lap feels like, or that last mile three miles of the marathon or whatever your reference point is where you say, no, there’s no way I could have gone any farther and this is how well I’m trained and so forth. But this opens up, I think a whole bunch of avenues for discussion the Central Governor Theory that’s been popularized by Dr. Tim Noakes and that you covered nicely in your book. Um, it’s really fascinating to me, um, that the brain is, uh, is suggested that it’s the ultimate arbiter of performance limitation rather than that your muscles actually got tired and your lower back cramped and this and that. So I’d love to just get going on that discussion. And also, um, let’s say it is true and we all have reference points where we had these amazing breakthroughs and we made it to the top of the mountain even though we were tired and it was pouring rain. But then how do you balance that insight with day-to-day regulation of your energy so you don’t get overtrained and burnt out?
And and I’ll be back in 15 minutes Alex, cause I just teed you up big time.
Yeah, I was just gonna say, there’s a lot to unpack there. I think the first thing I wanna say is that I is to agree with what you said about it being difficult to certainly for, for me and I think for a lot of other, uh, people to, to really, really truly believe that yeah, the thoughts in your head are gonna affect your performance because nothing feels as objectively real and true as the feeling of muscular fatigue or, or, you know, at the end of a race, you don’t feel like, oh, I could have chosen to gone faster. Like, especially once you, once you’ve trained for a certain amount of time and you, you’re highly motivated and you’re starting a race thinking, you know, I would, I would stab myself with a needle to, you know, or with a, I should say safety pin so it doesn’t sound like I’m myself.
I would stab myself with a safety pin <laugh> if, if, if that would be, would make me run faster. I don’t like, I’m willing to accept all pain and then in the end of the race, you’re going as hard as you can and you just couldn’t go any faster. So then someone comes up to you and said, boy, maybe if you thought he thinking, you know, positive thoughts, you would’ve gone faster. You’re like, what are you talking about? So I, I really struggled with that and I am a very empirical sort of show me the evidence like if you think this helps show me a double blinded peer reviewed study that that demonstrates it. And so I had to balance or I had to hold in, in opposition that approach to the world, which I think again, I think is pretty common among intern athletes that’s tend not to generalize, but they tend to be a fairly analytical species.
I had to bounce that with my own experiences that we’ve just been talking about of like, oh, all of a sudden I got a lot faster. How did that happen? And so then when I came across Tim Noakes’research about the Central Governor model, this idea that your limits are dictated by your brain trying to prevent you from reaching the edge of your physical capacities rather than that you actually reach your physical capacities. It made sense to me cuz I, you know, I couldn’t find any other way of reconciling this, the, the, the feeling of what it’s like a end of a race. The feeling that you’ve really hit your limits with the reality that my obviously, you know, when I ran four flat or 4:01, I thought I was going as hard as I could when I ran 3:52.
I also thought it did, actually didn’t feel that different. I wasn’t more tired at the end. So how do you explain those, those differences? And I think it’s even through the writing endear, which delves into this stuff a lot. I went, I gave a talk, uh, not long after the book came out and someone stuck up their hand at the end saying, you know, I read the last chapter and it sounded to me like you actually still don’t believe it. Like the, the end of the book is like saying something about, I can’t remember the line, but it’s something like, there’s more, you know, when you’re pushing as hard as you can, there’s more in there if you can, if you can convince yourself to believe it or something in it’s, I thought about it and it was one of those moments where you had this, I had the sense that, oh, this, someone else on the exterior of my brain was able to perceive what I was thinking better than I was. And I realized that, yeah, you’re right. Even in writing the book, I was still, I still am skeptical. I’m, I still have trouble accepting the idea that our thoughts have such a, an important role to play. So it’s, it’s something I struggled the rest of this day, to be honest.
Yeah, I would say, um, being that you’ve spent your career and you had that analytical bent as you describe, and I can totally relate to that. And I remember back when I was racing on the professional triathlon, so I mixing with some of the best athletes and some of them were completely raw and intuitive and non-scientific-minded. And it seemed <laugh>, especially to me, analyzing the situation that that could be considered an ideal competitive mindset where you’re just out there and you’re, you know, you’re tapping into these raw instincts and if you get your ass kicked, you, um, say F that I can’t wait till the next race. And instead of breaking down your nutritional macronutrients and the three week buildup to see if, you know, there’s some area that you can identify, I wonder if you’ve mixed with, you know, athletes with a vastly different mindset and approach than you and, and see any compare and contrast to what represents kind of the ideal competitive disposition?
A hundred percent. Oh, Lots of things say, one is I don’t think there’s an ideal competitive disposition. There’s, there’s many roads to rule, right? But there are different, there are, there’s some very different ones. And I will say once I got into being a science journalist, then where my, my sort of main job was let’s look at studies, testing all the theories that athletes have about what makes them faster. And let’s look at the evidence and let’s debunk all these mistaken beliefs. I pretty quickly came to the conclusion, I’m glad I’m not seriously competitive anymore. Cause this is the worst thing you can possibly do is undermine all your beliefs in the things that make you faster. Hmm. Because I have had experiences like the one you described, and in fact I had a coach, um, in the early two thousands. I trained with, uh, a group run by a Matt Centrowitz senior, the former American 5,000 meter record holder, the father of the 2016 Olympic 1500 meter champion.
And he, he just had a completely different approach than I did. He was an extremely intuitive athlete. He’s a very talented intuitive coach rather. And as an athlete, he’d been an intuitive athlete. Iran, he qualified for the Olympics as a college student in the seventies. And he wasn’t interested in, you know, let’s do this kind of interval at this percentage of VO two max in order to optimize this physiological system. He was very much just kind of feeling it. And I remember he would, he would, uh, lemme tell a couple stories. Cause <laugh> one was, he’d tell me to go out and do a far lake. And I’d say, well, how long should the far <laugh> say, I dunno, what, what, whatever, you know, make sure it’s a good l good effort. You need to get, you know, get some mileage in. Say, okay, well how, how long should the hard surges be?
And how long should the recovery’s be? He’d say, well, go hard until you feel like you’ve pushed hard enough. Then take a break till you recovered, then go hard again. And my, you know, my head would be on the verge of exploding. I’d be like, no, no. I need to know how many minutes I’m going hard. How can I know how hard to go until I know how many minutes I’m supposed to go and until how, how the rest is. But he, he, he was trying to teach me something that I wasn’t quite ready to learn at the time to feel where my limits are and then to step back from them and to feel them again. Yeah. And, and, and the, the other story, just on that note from that, you know, he had a couple while I was there, he had a couple runners qualify for the NCAA championships, a couple milers.
And so before they left, he was, he pulled them over during practice one day to give them some tactical advice. And I was, since I was a competitive miler, a similar level, I sort of, I was in that group sort of listening to his advice to them before gonna, the NCAA championships, which, and 1500 meter races are famously tactical. Usually it’s not just the gun goes and everyone runs as fast as they can, especially in the qualifying rounds. There’s a lot of like, it’ll go slow, it’ll go fast. There’ll be a move, there’ll be a counter move. Everyone’s watching everyone else in a big pack, and then there’ll be a, a big move that you can’t miss and then a countermove. And so knowing when to go, and so Coach Centrowitz was trying to explain to these guys, here’s what you need to do.
And it wasn’t like you go, you run at this pace until 600 to go 600, you go into Gear four and then at 300 to go, you gotta go into Gear five. He was like, you know, when you walk into a bar, <laugh>, you can sense there’s gonna be a fight soon. You can just sense in the, and I was thinking like, no, hell no. I’m never a fight in my life, <laugh>. I don’t, I dunno anything. But he’s like, yeah, you go in bar, you can sense, you know, someone is gonna, someone’s gonna start something soon. There’s just that electricity in the air and you gotta feel it. Don’t, don’t go too soon, but wait. And you just gotta wait until the moment just before you know the first punch is gonna be thrown. Bam, you throw your punch. And I was like, I love that advice.
I don’t know how to follow it, but the, the, the, uh, the, the two guys, Sean Dian and Sean O’Brien, who were great milers for America. They, they learned to trust Coach Centrowitz to just sort of, and they sort of got in tune with them. And they were, they were great runners as a result. And they, but they learned this intuitive approach that, that escaped me. And so I think it’s not to say there was nothing that could have been been optimized or changed about the program there, but there was an important lesson I, in retrospect, I look back and even at the time I had this sense, there’s a language here, there’s a lesson here that, that, that is hard for me to learn and that I would be better if I could learn it. And that’s, and that’s to do with sort of being able to feel where your limits are and, and rather than letting them be externally imposed by some idea of how fast you should be able to run.
Yeah. And also that, that fear you described when you got up to the big leagues really quickly without that proper psychological preparation. And so of course you feel like you don’t deserve to be standing next to Graham Hood and shaking his hand, good luck, man, I’ll see you the finish line. Um, and I think most people can relate to that. And I’m, I’m thinking of my time that I shared with Lance Armstrong when he was a triathlete. And then, uh, later during his tour de France’s career, I wrote a book about him and had some time to interview him and things. And he sort of projected the opposite where even when he was a kid, and if you know his story, he came in, started racing against the top pros in the world in triathlon when he was 15, 16 years old.
And, you know, I’d meet with this, this guy at the races, and he was absolutely fearless and he had no reverence for even the greatest athletes who were my heroes, that I had worked hard to finally get up to be able to compete with them. And it was such an honor to compete with these great guys. He was like, oh, those guys are wussies. I’m gonna take it out hard on the bike and make everyone suffer <laugh>. And he’d, he’d verbalize these things as a punk kid. And he came off poorly in many ways with the media at first because he was so brash and cocky. But to me it was such a, a rich experience to, to look at this guy who was not just blowhard. He deeply, you know, thought and believed that and embodied that persona. And it seemed like, and I talk about this in, in the book I wrote about him that, you know, I asked him, do you feel those, those nervousness and that pressure when you’re leading this team, and in fact the entire organization is counting on you winning the tour?
And he goes, no. And I go, why not <laugh>? You mean you’re the man, you have the most pressure of anybody. And he goes, oh, no, no, the guys who have the real pressure are the ones fighting for their jobs to be the do mystique and they gotta hand me the water bottle or they get fired. He says, I’m the guy who prepares properly. And so when I go to the tour, I’m not afraid to win and I’m not afraid to lose either. And I thought like, what else can you say that’s better competitive temperament than just being absolutely fearless of all outcomes? And you certainly embodied that because you were fearless to make a nine second PR. Maybe the timer helped the poor French translation or whatever they did. Uh, but you know, somehow you, you broke through to that realm at least temporarily and, and got to float in the atmosphere.
Yeah. And you know, you could think of these things, our traits are not fixed in concrete. So we can, we can exist on different ends of that spectrum. But if, if Lance is on one extreme spectrum of confidence, and let’s say when I got to my first Olympic trials, I was on the other spectrum of thinking I don’t belong there. I would say that most people, like you could say, at that Olympic trials, I felt I didn’t really belong there. I I kind of flew, I was not competitive, I was not as ready to race with those guys. But in a lot of cases, and I think this is sort of a life insight, it even when we are, we do belong the, the most of us, it’s more common to err on the side of, you know, the imposter syndrome of of mm-hmm. <affirmative> feeling like you don’t belong even when you
Do. Right. What are you doing? The bestseller list, Alex, come on. These are, you know, <laugh>, John Grisham <laugh>. Yeah.
And in every context, you know, this is, this is a, a very common thing and I, you know. It has repercussions. I think like in part it can make you work harder. It can fuel you to, to, to make sure you prove you do belong. But I, it, it, I think it can be a real drain on your energy if you’re constantly worried that, that actually people are gonna discover that you’re, you don’t belong there, that you’re not, you don’t belong on that start line. You’re not as good as your competitors wearing race in reality often. You, you, you’re, and you do,
So you talked yourself into that. It took you a year and then you got back to the nationals and, and placed highly. But then you described hitting that plateau, which seems to be expected because your plateau is national caliber runner who’s training extremely hard and right on the razor edge of success or failure by, by definition trying, trying to hit that highest point. Do you think there’s now a genetic component or some other missing link, uh, that allowed you to, you had tremendous genetic talent to be able to run up to 3:44, and then why didn’t you break El Guerrouj’s record since you had all that exercise physiology background?
Yeah, so, so I ended up running 3:42. Just, I have to set the record straight on that next year. Let’s,
That’s a legit sub four minute mile offer. You American listeners,
Uh, if you, if you go to the official world athletics conversion tables, my, my, my 1500 PR works out to a four flat 0.01 mile, and I’ll, oh, come <laugh>, I’ll, I’ll take that to my grave. I’ll swear to my grave that personally my endurance profile is, is stronger than my speed. So I would’ve run 3:59
0.9. Well, now we have the springy spike. So you’re a 3:57 mile, or by today’s I’d
Be like a three 20 mile. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Um, yeah, no, the, so let me start with the excuses. Um, I, I ran 3:42, in 97 when I was 21. I got injured the next year, and I missed the next three, three years. Well, I missed the next two track seasons completely. And I just was starting to come back running like 20 miles a week that third year. And when I came back, I never quite got, I, I never quite got my snap back. I didn’t, I ran 3:43 a few years later, and I ran a 3:52 5k. So as a slight, I was basically at a lower, I never got back to the level I was at in 97, uh, as a 21 year old. Um, so I can, I can blame a little bit that I had this knee problem that kept me up for a couple years.
But, so I think even that, the fitness I was at in 97, had I gotten into a fast race, um, maybe there was a 3 39 there or something like that, but there was no 3 35 and there was definitely no 3 32 and there was a hundred percent, no, 3:29 or 3:25. Like there’s, you know, I, I’m a level whatever, 14, and I’m, you know, we’re talking about level 60. I’m a long way from those. And so genetics, yeah, a lot of it was genetics. Um, but I guess what I would, if, if I, if you, if you, if I sort of push myself to think about this, I would say that genetics had very little to do with where I ended up on the spectrum. Like, let’s say genetics is gonna say, Alex was never gonna run 3:32. I don’t think my genetics precluded me from running, let’s say 3:35 or something, which is still a long, long way from what I actually ran.
And there’s, so then why didn’t I run faster? Well, I was an extremely nervous racer. I was too cautious. I went up. I never, I, I, all of my races as a, once I got to that level, started out slow and finished fast. I never, I, you know, I ran my 3:42 on 40 miles a week, which is really quite low for, uh, for that level of running. It’s not that I was stupid, I understood that 80 miles a week would be better. But I had a lot of trouble getting up that high without injured. Like, in fact, I was trying to raise my mileage when I got injured and, and without for a few years. And, and I don’t think genetics is what explains why I got injured. I don’t think it was impossible. If you gave me 10 lives to live in some of those lives, I would’ve figured out how to raise my mileage without getting hurt.
I would’ve found a different pair of shoes or a different place to run or a different, you know, so I think I, I, I’m a hundred percent a believer in genetics. Like there, there’s just no doubt. Like you can, you know, I went to my daughter’s elementary school CrossCountry a few days ago, and you can see they’re, they’re, they’re six years old and there’s differences in how people run. And those, they’re not perfect predictors, but they, they do track with, you know, who has the potential to be really fast someday and who doesn’t. So genetics is real, but in my case, I would say genetics wasn’t the ultimate factor that dictated where I, where I stopped. And for most of us, that I think that’s, that’s the case. We, the we don’t get, I, I am I think there are very few people walking on this planet who can say, yeah, that time I ran my best time. That’s as fast as my genes would permit me to run.
Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Right? It’s very difficult to reach your genetic potential, which is 99.9% faster than your PR because all things perfect. Yeah. And, and geez, 21, I mean, um, you know, you had another decade, especially these days where people prolong their careers for progression improvement.
I didn’t try it. I did try. So I missed a few key years. I tried really hard from, you know, 25 to 28, and I, you know, when I was 28, I got it. I was probably in the shape of my life, I would say, and I got a sacl chest fracture in my sacrum three months before that, year’s Olympic trials. And that was kinda the end of my track day. I said, I’ve had enough. I couldn’t, I couldn’t stay healthy. But so I, I, it’s, it’s not that, it’s not that I gave up, I tried and I just, I couldn’t run as fast I did. And, and again, that’s another thing I think that fuels my interest in trying to understand the limits of endurance, because when I was 26, I was doing workouts that I could never have dreamed of when I was 21, but I wasn’t racing as fast, and so was I a little bit over trained to go back to, you know, a point you, you, you raised, uh, before I started rambling several questions ago, um, like maybe I was pushing too hard in, in the workouts or, or, or maybe there was something different in my, you know, my confidence was different or whatever the case may be.
Like, uh, but I, you could, I sometimes think about, you know, workout to race conversion. Everyone has a different, you know, if one person does five by a mile at such and such a time, you know, they’re gonna race at a certain level, but someone else doing that workout might race at a completely different, different level. And what determines those, those conversions? How do you, how do you know, uh, how the relationship between what you can do in training and then that sort of magic alchemy of racing where you can always, or hopefully always get a little more out of your body than you can during workouts?
Right? And there’s examples of those, what do you call ’em, training superhero, where they’re not even close to their competitive potential and apparently due to excess energy expenditure in workouts and those over-training patterns or that overly competitive, you know, lack of regulating your competitive intensity.
Yeah. And it’s hard to know what, like, how much of that is they’re, they’re tired, right? Like they’re, they’re not recovered from the workouts. And how much of that is like something that’s more subtle, that they’re, they’re digging into a, uh, some sort of, it’s not the energy stores, but some sort of mental stores that you don’t have, you know, you can’t go to the sixth gear twice a week and then expect to, to really be able to harness it in a race too, if you’re, if you’re, so, I, I, you know, I don’t have the answers here, but I think that the questions point us in some interesting directions as to how, how do you figure out what that balance is of pushing hard enough, but not too hard.
Kevin Young, when he broke the world record, 1992, 400 meter hurdles, which held for a long time until recently, he was working with my friend Dr. Greenberg. And one of the, one of the psycho-emotional things he was, uh, trying to clear was fear of success. Because a lot of athletes, when they’re training so hard, and they’re, they’re living, living and breathing their sport and their competitive goals, uh, there is an unknown, or I guess unacknowledged fear of what happens when I do reach all my dreams. Then what? And you get that let down, which is often talked about the post Ironman blues they call it or what have you. Um, so maybe, maybe deep down people are afraid to, um, you know, they, they put their, their goal time on the sticky note and obsess about it, but are afraid to actually, uh, transcend.
That’s, yeah. It’s one of those things that sounds so funny, but I think there’s truth, idea of fear of success, but something I’ve always thought is that, um, one of the, one of the ways that running has prepared me for life is the, the realization that achieving your goals or meeting your dreams, that’s not, that’s not, that doesn’t, you know, you don’t just sort of magically shimmer up into paradise when you, like, so when 3:52, I exceeded all of my dreams, and it was great, and I loved it, but a week later I was, you know, life was back to normal. And it’s like, okay, what’s next? What can, what can I, as soon as soon as you, you get there, you’re wondering what’s next? And that’s, that’s a kind of, um, it’s good and bad, right? Like, it, it keeps you going, but you, you know, I think we all, many of us, let’s say, need to work on enjoying the, you know, the victories when they come, as opposed to always thinking about the next thing.
But I know when I think about career or even relationships and all these things, I’ve, I think running has prepared me well for the idea that even if everything I’m dreaming of comes true, life will go on the next day. And I’ll have to think of other dreams because you, you can’t just, you, you can’t just sort of float on that cloud indefinitely. And so whether you, whether you reach your running goals or your, your athletic goals, or whether you don’t, I mean, I’m descending in the cliches here, but ultimately you, it’s, you know, it is the, the journey, not the destination, because I was lucky enough to meet some of my running goals mm-hmm. <affirmative>, it was great, but it does, you can’t live on that for the rest of your life.
And I suppose if you are able to appreciate the journey, athe essence of what you’re doing, um, according to some of this research that you, that you cite in the book, um, it’s possible to smile your way, um, self-talk your way into a reduction in perceived exertion. Uh, in other words, I’m, I love these workouts so much irrespective of my goals and my, my competitive, uh, you know, measurements, um, that they’re gonna be more enjoyable and less, less strenuous.
Yeah, absolutely. back to what were talking about earlier about, um, as an analytical person learning to, uh, being willing to accept that there is, uh, a role for the brain. The self-talk literature is the one that for me, helped to, to sort of turn the corner for me that it can, you can do randomized trials of having people work on saying different things to themselves in the middle of some, you know, an endurance, uh, time trial or whatever. And lo and behold, they have a, they have an effect on performance. What you’re telling yourself, it alters your perceived efforts. So if you’re sitting there telling yourself, this is really hard, this is really hard, this is so bad, I hate it, then it’s not surprising that if, if some, if, you know, your perception of how hard you’re working gets higher, and if you’ve got a big grimace on your face to show how hard you’re working, that you feel like you’re working harder, and as a result you slow down.
And whereas if you’re telling yourself, this is where I wanna be. I, I’m, there’s no place in the world that I’d rather be, I chose to be here. That’s, yeah, it’s uncomfortable, but that’s, that’s what I’ve chosen, and it’s okay, I can deal with it. Then you’re like, oh, yeah, this is only, this is six outta 10, it’s taller, but I can keep going. And you, and you do. And so those studies that have actually shown in effect, they, they help, uh, convince the, the analytical part of my mind that yeah, this isn’t just a whole bunch of sort of touchy-feely feel good stuff. This is, this is science.
I guess it could even count if you’re thinking silly things like, I just want to come second to last. I don’t wanna be last, or I’m not gonna lose to this jerk. He’s wearing sneakers and I have the springy $250 shoes. It’ll like propel you forward, even if it’s sort of a, a negative or a, simplistic, uh, notion like that.
And I think that, you know, there, it’s definitely worth acknowledging that, that everyone’s wired differently, right? Like some people, some people, and anytime I discuss the sort of the idea of positive self-talk and you know, smiling and stuff, I’ll run into someone who’s like, personally, I run my best times when I’m mad, you know, when I’m off and angry at somebody. And, you know, that’s, that’s, I I I’m not saying that’s not true, that everyone’s different and, and even like response to pressure. So for me, I was someone who got pretty wound up before races. Mm-hmm. And so for me saying, all I need to do is come second last, so I’m not the who come, came last, that was probably a good approach for me. You know, at least in the context of a field of runners, all of whom were fast and that, you know, that staying with would be good because it took the pressure off.
I wasn’t worried about covering the moods of the, the guys who were in for second and third for other people, or let’s say for a stronger runner, that would’ve been a terrible strategy for someone who’s trying to win the race. If you’re just saying, all I need to do is come second, last, then you’re gonna underperform. So there’s a sort of infinite variety of ways that your own personal psychology can interact with the specific situation where you’re racing. But the sort of the common denominator is you have to find ways of, um, you know, of not necessarily encouraging yourself, but of, of creating space for yourself to, to push without being scared of the consequences of good things don’t go as well as you don’t.
So, uh, back to this idea of, okay, we’re, we’re, we’re gonna embrace our power and our mindsets are the arbiter of fatigue in the body. We can, um, self-talk our way and smile our way to reduce perceived exertion. And then, here’s Alex with another injury to the, to the sacrum ending his running career and all the setbacks I’ve had where I can reflect back and go, oh, geez. Um, I love high jumping so much in the old man division that I busted up my, uh, my heel and now I need to have a, a minor procedure and I’m not gonna be jumping for a while. And it was clearly because I was out there unleashing my competitive intensity to the extreme that my body couldn’t take it. And so the Central Governor does fine when I’m at my 15th jump in practice, and I know I have five more in me because I’m, I’m so enthused about it. Uh, but then where do you put the Governor on in, in general, everyday life so that you’re not, um, you know, uh, leaving your best, uh, results in the, in the training ground?
Yeah, I mean, you know, if I had the perfect answer to that, I’d be a millionaire, obviously. And lots of people are trying to sell us on the, their products that will monitor training and recovery. I think one thing I would say is I would distinguish between the discomfort or pain of effort and the discomfort of an injury. And it’s not, it’s not always easy to tell those two things apart. I mean, if, if, as a runner, if, if every time you felt an ache or a pain or a, an eagle, you’re like, well, I’m gonna be smart and I’m gonna take a couple days off until this eight clears up. Yeah, you would run 10 miles a year, right? Like, it’s, you, you, you have to be willing to push through discomfort, sometimes even acute physical discomfort. But I think it’s a little d i I think it’s the Central Governor.
We can talk about it in the context of, um, pushing through the desire to stop, but acute pain localized to one particular part of your body that we have to not rely on the Central Governor to protect us from that. We have to use our, our conscious cognitive resources to say, alright, how many days have I had this discomfort? Is it getting better or worse? Is it increasing during exercise or is it sort of numbing during exercise? Is it worse when I get up in the morning? And, you know, and even if, you know, even if you’re paying attention to all these things, it doesn’t necessarily mean that, you know, whether you can push through things. But, I think we have to take active ownership of the kind of mechanics of keeping our bodies working. And again, it depends, you know, if you’re training for a race, a local race, then you just wanna do the best you can.
Versus if you’re trying to make the Olympics, you might make different choices on the cost benefit, the risk/reward ratio of taking a day off versus pushing through something. These days, I try to be, I, you know, I, I still run, I still compete, but it’s not, you know, central to my, um, life. And so if something starts to hurt, then I, I’m more inclined to just back off. But at the same time, as we’re talking today, like I’ve made, I’m gonna be running some the provincial, maybe National Masters CrossCountry Championships this year for fun. I have the heel, my heel’s been bugging me for the last couple days. I suspect it’s probably plantar fascitis or something like that. But I have a big workout this afternoon, my weekly workout with my friends. I go down and we do, you know, we do a good cross country workout, and I’m gonna go to the workout and there’s, there is a voice in my head that’s saying, Alex, you, you know, if you let planter Fascitis become like established, it’s gonna be a pain in the neck or a pain in the heel for a long time, don’t, don’t play around with this.
But at the same time, I’m like, there’s less than a month. There’s three weeks until the, the cross-country championships. So this is, this is the key workout. This is the, the, the prime time. So these are hard, hard tradeoffs to make. But I guess the key thing is I’m not just relying on my body or my brain to, to automatically know that this is the, the when I need to shut down or, and I’m not pushing through any, I’m, I’m not, like, I’m not pushing through a sort of defense mechanism. I’m just, I’m cooley and calmly weighing the pros and cons and maybe acknowledging that I’m not as rational as I think that I’m, I’m being <laugh> pulled along by my desires in the,
He’s looking from the 30,000 foot view. Okay. There goes that guy with his stiff heel running another workout with his buddies.
This is, uh, yeah, the don’t do what I’m doing, do what I, I know what I should be doing. I’m just choosing not to do it. So maybe that’s a different form of, uh, of not Central Governor, the reverse cent, the central idiot or whatever
Central breaker. Yeah. Uh, it amazingly seems like even at the highest elite level of sport, um, we’re not doing a great job at keeping the athletes healthy. And it could be part and parcel to trying to shave those tenths off the existing records and get the gold medal. Uh, but I’m also curious if we’re missing, you know, a giant, big picture insight where, you know, these multimillion dollar NBA basketball players or football players are rushed back onto the court, uh, because in the name of being professionals and they, they don’t wanna miss too many games. And, um, same with the Olympic athletes. And we had the great 800 meter runners from America that were picking up medals and looking like they were, you know, marching toward the world record. And then they, they can’t even get on the track to try the trials to make the next team due to injuries and, and other setbacks. And, um, I don’t know, what do you think? Is it, is it gonna be par for the course or is there, if you dreamed up and you were the made the, uh, the coach of the, uh, Olympic team, would you do something different?
Yeah, I’m a little bit pessimistic. So I’ve, I’ve had this conversation recently in the context of the new breed of thick ultra cushion running shoes. And someone was asking me like, oh, well, do you think if people are training in these people train in these, you know, cushier shoes will it reduce injuries? Will it allow? And, my response was, okay, maybe, maybe not. You can, you can argue it in both ways, whether it’s protective of injury, you can argue that maybe it’s gonna change your biomechanics in a way that’s gonna make you more susceptible to injury. Or maybe the cushion reduced cushioning is gonna make you less susceptible injury. But the bigger picture view is that, let’s say hypothetically that running in big cushion shoes allows you, it reduces stress on your body, then runners are gonna train more and they’re gonna train.
There’s a concept called risk homeostasis, which is the idea that we sort of have a, everyone’s different, but you, each person has a sort of level of risk they’re willing to tolerate. And if you make, you know that the classic study on this is anti-lock brakes, which was done in, I think somewhere in Germany on taxi cabs. They installed anti-lock brakes to see if it would reduce accidents. And it didn’t. It just had the, the, the cab drivers drive faster. So they, they could, they were able to go faster and they ended up operating at the same level of risk. Now risk, that’s not to say like this argument gets extended to bike helmets to say that, oh, well, therefore bike helmets don’t work cause people will just bike faster. And I’m like, no, I don’t believe that we have perfect risk to homeostasis.
You can do things that make you safer that you don’t fully compensate for by, even if there is a little bit of, maybe you, you bike a little faster with the bike helmet, but I still believe bike helmets, although the evidence is murier than you’d think, I still believe they, they, they, they have likely benefits to protection. But getting back to this, the injury question, I think once the stakes are sufficiently high as they are in professional sport, the athletes at the top level are not interested in self-actualization or like, I wonder how good I can be with, well, not taking any risks mm-hmm. <affirmative>, if they wanna do whatever it takes to win, and if a shoe, so they’re making decisions that, that maybe give them a 30% chance of getting injured any given year, if a shoe lowers that they’ll just start training harder till the backup to 30%.
Not in a perfect way. And that’s not, not to say that people can’t make better decisions. But I think, yeah, I mean, fundamentally with sport, we’re at a level now of full professionalization where the only limit on how hard people train or how much time they spend are how much many resources they pour under their training is the point of diminishing returns. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, and that point of diminishing returns is probabilistic. So if, let’s say you say you decide I’m gonna stop at this level of training because then I can be pretty confident I’m gonna make to the start line in one piece. Well, you’ve got 10 competitors who are all gonna train at a higher level, and eight of them might get injured because they’re idiots. They”re doing a risky thing, but two of them, just by the luck of the draw, are gonna make it through. And so if you wanna get, or three of them, let’s say, if you wanna make it on the podium, ultimately you have to train at that, that self-destructive level of training because there’s enough people doing it that some of them are gonna survive. And so it becomes a probabilistic through, and this is a very pessimistic view of the world.
Oh, you’re, you’re describing the NCAA distance, uh, programs at all the schools where there’s, uh, yeah. 20 kids and seven of them make it through cross-country injury free, and four of em excel to their potential. And then, um, it, it’s like survival of the fittest in the worst way. And it’s playing out everywhere. I mean, it’s not, it’s not even a, it’s not even a bad comment. It’s an accurate description of how we operate.
Yeah. I mean, I, I think any honest coach would admit that, yeah, that’s pretty much how it works, <laugh>, because unfortunately you can see that it’s irrational for an individual runner to train that way. But like it or not, it’s, if you have a program and the goal of the program is to win, that’s a rational way to run the program. That’s, I mean, yes, we, I mean, we all love the stories of the carefully developed runners who nurtured and protected, and a lot of coaches are honestly trying to do that for sure. But, ultimately, if you wanna, I mean, if, if you have the raw material and you can train ’em hard enough, then you don’t need everyone to survive. If you wanna just four, five.
All right, we’ll go, let’s go try to find some honest coaches to admit they’re, they’re grinding these guys through a, a meat market. So we talked about genetics a little bit, and now we’ve talked about how, um, you know, the elite athletes have been pushing the limits for a long time. And I’m wondering if you see, that we’ve are bumping up against the ceiling with some of the world records such as El Guerrouj holding this record now for 24, 25 years. He was a unique genetic talent. He trained harder than probably any human ever and lived that monastic lifestyle, which is no longer existent. I think today’s elite athletes are pumping up their social media in between workouts rather than laying in a dorm and reading passage from scripture or something. Same with Usain Bolt being six five and having those excellent mechanics and all that. So, um, I wonder what your reflection is on that. I guess I’m talking about track and field, uh, mostly cuz it’s so easy to quantify.
Yeah, I think we can extend from track to all other activities, but track is one where you can see that you can plot the charts and you can see, I mean, the idea that we’re in an era of diminishing returns is, I think pretty, pretty hard to, to argue against. We’ve been in an era of diminishing returns for a long time.
And what do you mean by that?
Like, no one’s gonna break the record by large amounts.
It’s not like if you look at the curve in the thirties, forties, fifties, sixties, seventies, it’s like people were taking chunks off world records left right in the center, and then it does, we’re at this point it’s kinda level, you, you
Except the hurdles, uh, 400 hurdles. Well,
They, well, and that, that’s not the only, now it’s leveled because before the 2008 Olympics, people were writing nine article. I mean, this article gets written, people, scientists write studies every five years or so showing that progress is leveling off. And we’re very close to ultimate limits. And then it’s just like, well, except that Usain Bolt changed, you know, broke the world record by cumulative total of, I can’t remember, 1.5% or something like that, something enormous. So, and you can retroactively say, oh, well Bolt was a freaking nature. I was like, that’s, that’s who sets world records, this freaks of nature. And yes, he had tall legs, but we had a very mature world record. It’s not like tall people didn’t exist until 2007, right? Like we had lots of tall people trying to sprint. Nobody set the world. All of a sudden Bolt took it to a different level and others followed.
And then we can look at marathon running, it’s like, or all distance running. The shoes came in in 2017 ish. There’s been a huge change in a whole world records that basically every distance, um, you can, you can say, well that doesn’t count as progress. Cuz that’s, you know, that’s technology. So yeah. Well there was technology. I mean, I, I agree with that for sure. Yeah. But there was also technological change when all weather tracks came in and, you know, uh, fiber class pole vaults, like the, the history of progress in world records has always been intertwined with changes in the context and in the technology. So, you could say, well, what happened in the, you know, well there were a lot of world records in the eighties. Uh, it’s like, yeah, well there were a lot of drugs in the eighties mm-hmm. <affirmative>,
Uh, there were a lot of world records, you know, in the Eastern block and not just the Eastern block for sure. In the nineties there were a lot of world records. Well, there was no EPO test in the nineties and there was EPO. So it’s like we’re approaching limits except that every time we’ve, you know, we’ve never actually hit the limits cuz there’s always something. And so I guess what I would say is there’s this sort of hypothetical pure idea of pure progress. It’s like humans have gotten faster only by wanting it more or training smarter or doing something different. And, and I think, I don’t think we’ve necessarily maxed that out. Like I think especially for complicated to train, like endurance events are maybe there’s more variables you can twist in terms of figuring out a way that, oh, maybe the Norwegians have figured out that doing four threshold workouts a week really is a better way.
And, and you’re gonna get some, some progress. But, so there’s, there’s some wiggle room there. But I, I think what we’re in, in the real world, what we’re gonna see is that world records continue to get broken. There will often be an explanation for why they got broken, whether it’s a change in rules, a change in technology, a change in nutrition, uh, you know, now you can get your carbs in a hydrogel that allows you to take more or whatever. So if you wanna say those don’t count as progress, then yeah, progress is gonna be a little more rare. But I think I, I never would’ve predicted that shoes would allow runners to get a couple percent faster. Like it literally never crossed my mind until it happened. And so that makes me open to the idea that something else that’s somehow within the rules but has never crossed my mind might, uh, open up new performance. This does in, in one adventure or another,
I guess within the rules right beneath the rules when we’re talking about the state of the Union in doping. Do you have any insights on that these days? I was fascinated to read Tyler Hamilton’s book about microdosing EPO every night with a little pinch and then testing clean in the morning. It’s like, okay, well, we see people climbing a as faster, faster than Lance Armstrong up Al Duez and the measured climbs. And, and so, um, to me that’s, um, kind of an indication. We had some good genetic talent and hard training there with, um, the previous era. And if they’re matching that now, I would, I would have to project, I don’t know, what do you think? Same with, same with track and field question.
Yeah. I mean,
I mean, we’re almost beating Flo Joe’s records and some of the other people who were pretty well confirmed to be in competing in the doping era, if nothing else.
Yeah. And, and in Flo Joe’s case with a five meter a second tailwind when she’s right. But
Anyway, 0.0. Okay.
Oh, oh, whoa, my mistake. Yes. Yeah. <laugh>,
I call Elaine Thompson the fastest female of all time because, um, that you gotta throw things out. I mean, someone needs to have the guts to do that. Come on, Sebastian Coe. If you’re listening
Exactly that. Yeah. That a whole nother rabbit hole. Yeah. It’s open. Look, it’s, it’s always gonna be there. Um, in the same sense that it doesn’t matter what rules you make against stealing, there’s still shoplifting and just cause people shoplift, it doesn’t mean we should say it. Just, you know, not that you made this argument, but just, just cause people still shot doesn’t make you say, well we tried getting rid of stealing, we should just make it legal. Cause it’s part of, you know, no, we, it’s, it’s a never ending fight. People will try and cheat. We can just stop. How are we doing in this fight against heating? I think the biological passport has narrowed the, the, the bandwidth available to dopers. You know, you, you can’t just be on the industrial strength diesel now, or at least it’s much harder to do that.
Um, so I’m moderately optimistic in that sense. <laugh>, the fact that runners now are runners and cyclists are sort of performing as well, or pretty close to as well as some, you know, admitted doped up previous generations. I dunno, I can, you know, maybe it’s just they’re going to bed earlier mm-hmm. <affirmative> and they’re, they’re, you know, using their foam roller more religiously or whatever the case may be. Like, it’s hard to know. And, and just in order, just in order to preserve sanity and to preserve instance sport, I have to give people the benefit of the doubt and let you know there’s, unless there’s a certain amount of smoke that starts to, you know, smoke beyond, I think the performance, performance on its own is, is a tricky way of, of, there is some interesting research with using performance trajectories to identify people who should undergo more, more targeted testing. And, and I think that’s, that’s great.
But, Charlie Francis drew those graphs and he was widely, widely ridiculed. Remember the, the spikes in the graph when he was showing the progression of world records, claiming that everybody was doping. They’re like, what does this guy know? You know? Well, he knew everything. It
Turns out he knew everything. Yeah. I, you know, so, uh, you know, I, I guess to, to sum up that open thing, I, I think it’s always gonna be part of it. Hopefully the, the balance has shifted a little bit compared to where it was in the eighties and nineties, where I think things were pretty, and I guess actually in the two thousands two, but yeah, you, you have to, I mean, you have to keep your head not very too deeply in this hand. Even if you wanna be optimistic, you have to acknowledge that e every ev every performance is subject to the possibility that it was, that was cheating. And that’s, that’s,
Yeah. I like, um, I like to make the assumption that the playing field is level. And so if we have eight lanes in the finals of an explosive event, like the a hundred meters and there’s doping suspicions cuz someone breaks a record, I’d like to think that all eight participants have equal access to whatever advantages are <laugh> they’re getting. I mean, looking at, uh, you know, the NFL Miami’s playing Cleveland and these guys are big and fast and strong, so I’d like to assume that, uh, whatever they’re doing in the weight room and with their needles is, is equal. It’s gotta, it’s pretty, pretty reasonable assumption to make.
I’ll take a slightly more, uh, maybe, um,
Nationalistic point of view. Canadians are clean.
Yeah, well that’s, that’s for sure. But I’ll take a slightly more delusional approach, let’s say, which is that I like, I like to imagine that there’s some athletes who are choosing to compete clean and that little by little will keep chipping away, even if it’s retroactively at the ones who are found to have cheated and, and, and that, uh, virtue will be rewarded. I think that’s not a assumption that can probably bear intense scrutiny in the real world, but I sleep better hoping that, that some of that, that it’s not just that everyone’s doping equally, but some people are doing it right and Mm. Um, and you know, you, yeah, I, it’s hard to just do a sniff test and figure out who’s doing that other than Yeah, you get nationalistic lost. I know the Canadians are doing it, right, because I’ve met that person’s cousin’s, aunt’s, roommate’s friend 60 years ago. But, um, yeah, I hope, I hope some people are, I I know some people are doing it right. I know some people are doing it right and, and competing at the highest levels.
Oh, for sure. And I had Shelby Holihan on the show, and it was such a heartbreaking story to, you know, I’m deeply convinced that, uh, all her character shows is that she’s, you know, into the highest ideals of sport and appears to be, um, a tragic victim of the system that’s trying to go out there. And perhaps we’ve gone overboard when you talk about that balance of power in the eighties, the, the, um, the, the dopers own, the, the world sports scene, and now perhaps the anti-doping agencies are, um, you know, causing some, some tragic fallout from doing the best they can to test at higher, higher levels of scrutiny that might not, you know, line up well with reality.
Yeah. And, you know, honestly, I don’t have a, a perfect solution to that because you can’t have you, you can’t have zero tolerance without having innocent victims and there’s no such thing as, you know, a complete lack of false positives. And so I don’t know how you identify those, and I don’t know how you deal with it. It’s one of those problems that it’s like, even if I was, you know, unilaterally appointed the absolute king of, you know, anti-doping of world athletics or something like that, I dunno that I have a great solution to that. I dunno how you, uh, come up with rule. Cause we’ve come up with rules that can be applied impartially to try and solve those. I do think, yeah, accountability is important and, um, world anti-doping agencies should definitely have, uh, a an obligation to accountability and to, uh, explain the procedures. But it’s, um, you no test is perfect. That’s, and that’s, that’s, it’s tricky.
I do like your shoplifting analogy. I think that’s the first time I’ve had a shoplifting associated with doping. But it’s great. You gotta keep fighting the battle and put on more cameras and follow them out to the parking lot, whatever you got, you know, you can’t just lie down.
Oh yeah. Just assume that, oh, well we tried getting rid of shoplifting and I guess we should make, make say it’s okay. No, no. It sucks that people still do it, but we gotta keep fighting it.
Alex Hutchinson, great stuff. Thanks so much for joining me. Listeners are gonna have to grab that book. Endure. It’s a wonderful read. Wonderful. Listen. And where else, uh, can we connect with you or got any exciting projects you wanna talk about or?
Well, thanks so much for this conversation, Brad. I’m sorry, many of my answers were extremely rambling, but, uh, you asked interesting questions.
That’s how we roll, man. It was great.
Yeah. Yeah. So probably the easiest place to find me is on Twitter. My handle is SweatScience, all one word. Um, uh, yeah, I mean, I, anytime I write an article in a place like get signed, I’ll, I’ll, I post it there. So that’s the sort of one, one stop shop.I’m working on another book, but by God it’s going slowly, so it’ll be a while before it gets out. Um,
Believe in yourself, man. You can do it. You belong
There. That’s right. I’m at the 4 0 1 stage. Hopefully I’ll get to the
Three 50. I
Love it before too long.
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