Alex Hutchinson: How Much Can We Endure? Exploring the Brain, Performance Limiters and How To Push Harder and Farther

January 24, 2018


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On this episode, we welcome back sports journalist Alex Hutchinson, who’s written a fascinating new book titled Endure: Mind, Body and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance. Pre-order your copy here (ships out out in February). Endure is a must-read for all endurance athletes! In addition to authoring books, Alex is Outside Magazine’s Sweat Science columnist and a long-time elite runner. He was on Endurance Planet back in 2015, listen here. On today’s show we dive into concepts presented in Endure.

Topics covered:

  • The division in the science world on defining limiters of human performance: Those who take the the human machine view (basic pays) vs. it’s all in your head view (the brain).
  • Alex spent years researching for this book and also has a lot of personal interest tied up into the book, as he tried to better understand his own running performances.
  • Alex’s story of ultimately nailing a sub-4 mile and how it very likely happened because he was being misled on his split times.
  • What seems to matter arguably more than anything is how the brain interprets what is going on and how the brain can limit or enhance our performance.
  • Central governor (CG).
  • Alex’s time with Tim Noakes observing him and learning more about CG from the source.
  • The most convincing argument in favor of CG: We slow down in a race, yet have the ability to speed up at the end? Why is this and why does it matter for CG? Alex explains the science of how we pace ourselves in a predictable way.
  • Pain vs. effort – in order to understand your limits, you have to understand the difference between the two!
  • When you’re racing a marathon for example, there’s a difference between pain vs. effort slowing you down.
  • The importance of effort, the borg scale and RPE
  • Other areas  of research regarding the brain and performance
  • The work of Samuele Marcoca on mental fatigue and brain training to boost performance. (Did it work for Alex?)
  • The idea that training in a mentally fatigued state can be beneficial – considering so many of us have to train after a long day of work when we’re feeling flat.
  • Transcranial direct current stumulation (tDCS) and the experiments done in this area.
  • The recent Red Bull “brain zapping” experiments.
  • A “neuropriming” device called the Halo. What does this thing do, does it work, and is it worth the $750 price tag?
  • Brain doping – are we entering a scary new world where athletes can manipulate their brains to boost performance?
  • The research is fascinating, but what about the real-world application to boosting brain power? Will it work? Does it go too far? Does it tarnish sport?
  • What it comes down to…
  • “You can do all this shit, but it comes down to two guys on a bike trying to beat each other.” – Jesse Thomas, quoted in Alex’s book.
  • The extreme value of the placebo effect – it works, as does believing in yourself, to enhance performance.
  • The same cycling and caffeine study Tawnee mentioned in ATC 248 talking about CG is mentioned in Alex’s book in regards to the placebo effect and belief.
  • What are the take-home messages in Alex’s book. What did he learn from researching and writing this book? What is our biggest limiter – or is it a combo of factors?

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