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

“Any meaningful form of exercise that's going to do substantial amounts of good is going to involve dealing with discomfort in one form or another.” —Alex Hutchinson

Read Time 42 minutes

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.



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.


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


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}

Would you like access to extensive show notes and references for this podcast (and more)?

Check out this post to see an example of what the substantial show notes look like. Become a member today to get access.

Become a Member

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.

Disclaimer: This blog is for general informational purposes only and does not constitute the practice of medicine, nursing or other professional health care services, including the giving of medical advice, and no doctor/patient relationship is formed. The use of information on this blog or materials linked from this blog is at the user's own risk. The content of this blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Users should not disregard, or delay in obtaining, medical advice for any medical condition they may have, and should seek the assistance of their health care professionals for any such conditions.
  1. I had the exact same “aha” moment in a 2-mile race that Peter reported for his 1500-meter race. Never heard of anyone else having it until now, and still don’t understand it. BTW, I started out as an 800-meter runner and agree it is the hardest of all races.

  2. Peter, your guest Alex Hutchinson and the podcast were brilliant. He is engaging, modest, intelligent, and has not been afraid to commit himself in his life passions. (And he’s Canadian!)

    I thought I knew a lot about exercise physiology, training, and running, but I learned so much more in this podcast, and was stimulated by the many new questions that were raised. I was afraid to miss even a word, I was listening so intently; but I’ll probably listen to it through again!

    BTW, the detailed show notes state that Alex took his PhD at Columbia, whereas the life-story podcast narration indicates that it was actually at Cambridge, UK. And yeah, Emil Zatopek’s brutal training volume was indeed legendary! His 400m repeats were part of this epic mythology; I understand he did not just do 400m x 60 but actually 400m x 100 on at least one occasion (I have used this knowledge to goad myself back into submission during moments of self-pity during training!) His record of 3 gold medals (5k, 10k, Marathon), really 3 significantly different race types, at a single Olympics is remarkable.

  3. Great episode and much (running) ground covered ! Would like to have heard your guest’s exceptionally educated and experienced opinion on the question of running shoes ; and specifically with respect to your podcast on the “Evolution of the foot, running injuries and minimalist shoes”with Irene Davis (which rather blew me away, that the past half century of running shoe design has been an offense to our evolutionary design). As you concluded on the strong longevity note of mobility and injury prevention, it would seem that proper shoe and gait training be included this tool box. Perhaps for the next AMA ? Again, much gratitude for your unmatched podcasts and guests.

Facebook icon Twitter icon Instagram icon Pinterest icon Google+ icon YouTube icon LinkedIn icon Contact icon