LIVE on the Sport Physiotherapy Canada Facebook Page, I welcome Alex Hutchinson on the show to discuss sports journalism. Alex Hutchinson is National Magazine Award-winning journalist who writes about the science of endurance for Runner’s World and Outside, and frequently contributes to other publications such as the New York Times and the New Yorker. A former long-distance runner for the Canadian national team, he holds a master’s in journalism from Columbia and a Ph.D. in physics from Cambridge, and he did his post-doctoral research with the National Security Agency.
In this episode, we discuss:
-How to disseminate findings from complex research studies to a layman audience
-Attention grabbing headlines that commit to a point of view
–Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance
-What Alex is looking forward to from the Third World Congress of Sports Physical Therapy
-And so much more!
For more information on Alex:
I’m an author and journalist in Toronto. My primary focus these days is the science of endurance and fitness, which I cover for Outside (where I’m a contributing editor and write the Sweat Science column), The Globe and Mail (where I write the Jockology column), and Canadian Running magazine. I’ve also covered technology for Popular Mechanics (where I earned a National Magazine Award for my energy reporting) and adventure travel for the New York Times, and was a Runner’s World columnist from 2012 to 2017.
My latest book, published in February 2018, is an exploration of the science (and mysteries) of endurance. It’s called ENDURE: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance. Before that, I wrote a practical guide to the science of fitness, called Which Comes First, Cardio or Weights? Fitness Myths, Training Truths, and Other Surprising Discoveries from the Science of Exercise, which was published in 2011. I also wrote Big Ideas: 100 Modern Inventions That Have Transformed Our World, in 2009.
I actually started out as a physicist, with a Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge then a few years as a postdoctoral researcher with the U.S. National Security Agency, working on quantum computing and nanomechanics. During that time, I competed as a middle- and long-distance runner for the Canadian national team, mostly as a miler but also dabbling in cross-country and even a bit of mountain running. I still run most days, enjoy the rigors of hard training, and occasionally race. But I hate to think how I’d do on an undergraduate physics exam.
Read the full transcript below:
Karen Litzy: 00:00 Hey everybody. Welcome to the Third World Congress of sports physical therapy Facebook page. And I am your host, Karen Litzy. And we have been doing several of these interviews over the past couple of months in support of the Third World Congress of sports physical therapy. And today we have writer, journalist, author, athlete, Alex Hutchinson who is part of the Third World Congress. He’s going to be a part of an informal Q and A and also doing a talk with Greg Lehman, who’s already been on. So Alex, welcome to Facebook live.
Alex Hutchinson: 00:37 Thanks very much, Karen. It’s great to be here.
Karen Litzy: 00:39 All right, so for those people who maybe aren’t as familiar with you, can you tell us a little bit more about yourself?
Alex Hutchinson: 00:46 Yeah, I mean, I guess when people ask what I do, I say I’m a freelance journalist, but if you kind of drill down a little bit, my subspecialty is like, I’m a sports science journalist or even an endurance sports science journalist, which isn’t really a job, but it’s effectively what I do. So I write for, for outside magazine and a few other places. There’s Canadian running magazine and a newspaper in Canada called the globe and Mail, but mainly outside magazine about the science of Endurance sports, sports more generally, adventure, fitness, health, all those sorts of things. A fairly, fairly broad stuff that interests me, I try and look at the science angle of it. And so that means talking to a lot of athletes and sometimes I talk to coaches, but mostly I talk to researchers who are trying to use, you know, research studies, peer reviewed, you know, placebo-controlled, blinded studies to answer questions that a lot of us have when we exercise, you know, what workout should I do or how should I refuel or these sorts of things.
Karen Litzy: 01:48 Alright, so you’re taking, which I think is great. You’re taking the research and you’re able to disseminate that out into, if you will, the layman’s audience.
Alex Hutchinson: 01:57 Yeah, that’s the goal. Yeah. And, it’s interesting cause I come from a running background. I was a competitive runner. And I was a, a guy interested in science, but there wasn’t no, when I was competing in the sort of nineties and early two thousands, it to me at least, it seemed, it wasn’t very easy, I didn’t even know that there were, you know, thousands of researchers around the world trying to answer these sorts of questions. And I think for me it was in the middle two thousands I started seeing some columns in the New York Times from Gina Kolata. And then from Gretchen Reynolds. Gina Kolata had a column called personal best where she was like looking into the myth that lactic acid causes fatigue. And this was maybe around 2005 and I was like, Holy Mackerel.
Alex Hutchinson: 02:37 And she was interviewing scientists who are asking these questions. And I thought there are scientists who care about lactic acid so that kind of started me on the path of thinking that, realizing there’s a body of research out there that wasn’t reaching interested lay people like myself. So I started pursuing that. And I think today there’s a lot more. Like there were a lot of avenues through which exercise science reaches the lay people. I feel like I’m one of those channels, but it’s definitely, there’s a lot more options for people now, including directly from scientists themselves in places like Twitter.
Karen Litzy: 03:13 Exactly. And I think that’s where I, you know, in the late nineties, mid two thousands, social media certainly wasn’t as robust as it is now. And now you have scientists and researchers being encouraged to get onto these platforms and disseminate some of their information, whether it be through tweets or infographics, podcasts, Facebook lives, things like this. So I think the leap from relatively nothing, you know, meaning researchers kind of doing their research but not having perhaps the means to get it out to a wider audience outside of a journal that not every lay person who reads, you know, having such great avenues to disseminate this information. Do you feel like it’s made a difference in the general public?
Alex Hutchinson: 04:00 I think it has. It’s hard to really evaluate this stuff, but my sense is there’s a higher level of literacy or sort of awareness of issues, you know, things like how to fuel that’s maybe not just drawn from, I heard it from a guy at the gym or I heard it from my coach who heard it from his coach who is taught by, you know, some guy in 1830 that this is how it works. I mean, I would almost say that we’ve gone from a place of scarcity to a place of excess that now it’s not like you can’t find information. Now there’s these fire hoses of information just drenching you with 20 different theories. All of which seemed to be supported by scientists about how you should eat, how you should exercise, how you should move, and all these sorts of things.
Alex Hutchinson: 04:45 So I started writing about sports science, let’s say 15 years ago or a little less than that. And at that point it was like, let’s get the information out there. People don’t realize that there’s information now. It’s like there’s all this information, let’s curate the information. Let’s try and provide people with some judgements about what’s reliable and what’s not. Why we think that some sources of information are better than others. How each person can evaluate for themselves, whether this is trustworthy. You know, and this is obviously not an easy or there’s not like one answer to this study’s right and this study’s wrong, but, yeah, I feel like my role has shifted a little bit from get the information out there to, okay, maybe I can be a trustworthy source of curation where I’m giving people the information, not necessarily telling them what to think, but saying, here’s the evidence. Now you may choose to think this evidence isn’t convincing enough for you to switch to the, you know, the Aldana Diet or you may not, but here’s, here’s what the evidence says it exists.
Karen Litzy: 05:45 Yeah, and that’s a great lead into my next question is when we look at quote unquote fake news and we can categorize that as misinformation or disinformation. So misinformation being like you’re putting something out there and you think it’s good, but you just don’t know that the information is bad versus disinformation, which is, I guess we can categorize more as propaganda. So you know, the information’s not correct, but you’re pushing it out there anyway. So I think it’s important to me. Both of those are fake news, but it’s important to make that distinction. So as a journalist, how do you navigate this and how important is it for you to get that right?
Alex Hutchinson: 06:27 Yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, getting it right is important to me and I’m glad you made that distinction because I think that’s an important one because you know, fake news in the politicized sense is another way of saying propaganda. And I think that’s mostly not what we’re dealing with in the exercise or the health space. I mean there, there is actually, I mean, you know, let me take that back a little bit there. There are people who are just selling things to make money who are just, they don’t really care whether it’s true. They’re putting steroids into their stimulants, into their strength supplements because they just want people to feel a boost and they’re just flat out lying so those people are bad and they’re also not that hard to spot if truth be told, if you’re critical, what’s tougher is the, you know, what you call misinformation rather than disinformation, which is people honestly believe this.
Alex Hutchinson: 07:20 Like, I tried this diet, it works for me, and therefore everyone should be doing it. And I read this study that shows that people who do this diet, you know, increase their levels of some inflammatory marker and that proves, that confirms my belief. And therefore I’m going to become an evangelist for this. And I’m going to say that everyone who disagrees with me has been paid off by big industry and blah, blah, blah. And sometimes it’s not quite that. I mean, I’m caricaturing it, but people don’t have strong beliefs that don’t have as strong beliefs about, you know, controversies in particle physics cause we don’t have personal experience in particle physics when you’re talking about health and exercise and eating and things like that. We all have our, we have our experiences. And so we map that on top of whatever evidence we’re experiencing, and I include myself in this, you know, my experiences play into what science, scientific research finds plausible.
Alex Hutchinson: 08:12 So that creates a different dynamic. So to answer your actual question, how do I navigate this? Imperfectly like every other human, but my goal in what I write, what I try and do is if I’m writing about a study, this article from my perspective as the one in which I’m able to serve, take the key graph from that study, cut and paste it into my article and then describe what the study was. Here’s what they did, here’s what they found.
Alex Hutchinson: 08:46 I’ll take it a step further than that because my role is to interpret. I’ll say, here’s what I think this means, but I want to make sure I can give enough information to someone who doesn’t think that’s what it means is also can also see, well that’s what the evidence was. And it’s like, well no, I don’t agree that that should change my behavior or whatever, but I’m giving them, I want to give people enough information so they understand what the study did and what it found. And then the meaning, if I’ve given people enough information, they don’t have to rely on me telling them that this is what it means even though I am going to tell them what I think it means.
Karen Litzy: 09:16 If you were to give tips to let’s say the layman person, say it’s like my mom or you know, your friend who knows nothing about science, he doesn’t have a phd in physics, and we’ll get back to that with you in a second. But what tips can you give to the lay person on how to spot this misinformation, because the thing is when you look at a lot of articles, they’re always citing this study, that study, this study.
Alex Hutchinson: 09:47 Yeah. It used to be like, show me the peer reviewed evidence. But yeah, I’ve slowly realized, you know, and understood that there is a peer reviewed study for everything. And you know, 10 years ago I used to get, I’d see a study saying, you know, hey the, you know, the fruit of this plant, if you take it’s going to increase your endurance by 2%. It’s like, well if they have a placebo controlled, double blinded study published in a peer reviewed journal, it must be true. I’ll write about it. And then, you know, I never did hear about that extractive of such and such a plant. Again, like no one, it never turned out to be a thing. And I sort of finally understand, you know, started to understood the bigger systemic problems, which is that if you have, you know, thousands of Grad students across the country looking for a master’s thesis that can be done in six months or an experiment, they can be done in six months.
Alex Hutchinson: 10:33 They’re testing all sorts of things. And if it’s not interesting, they don’t publish it. And if it happens by chance to produce a positive result, then they publish it in a journal. So we get this sort of, there’s always public positive studies about everything. What I was saying, which is that just the mere presence of a study isn’t enough. So there is no simple template. But I would say there are some guidelines like follow the money. If someone’s trying to sell you something, it’s obvious, but it’s surprising what a good rule of thumb that is. And it’s why we see so much information about pills and technology.
Alex Hutchinson: 11:20 And so little information about, you know, another study showing that sleep is good for you, getting some exercise is good for you because it’s very hard to monetize that. And so there’s lessons. I don’t mean to sound like a patsy or like someone who’s, you know, pump promoting my own way of seeing things. But I think there are some sources that are more sort of authoritative than others. And frankly, the mainstream media still does a pretty good job relative to the average blog. Now there are some great blogs out there and you know, and I will say, I started out in this, I set up my own blog on wordpress and I blogged there for five years, just analyzing studies. And then runner’s world asked me to bring the blog onto their site and then it got moved outside.
Alex Hutchinson: 12:08 So it’s not that there aren’t good blogs and you can maybe get a sense of what people’s agendas are and what their backgrounds are. But, you know, if I knew that, I know in this highly politicized world, I know that this may be a controversial thing to say, but if I see something in New York Times, I’m more likely to believe it than if I see it on, you know, Joe’s whole health blog and I read the New York Times and I get frustrated frequently and I say that now they’re getting this wrong. And this is not a full picture of this. Nobody’s perfect. But I think that people with credentials and getting through some of those gatekeepers is one way of filtering out some of the absolute crap that you see out there.
Karen Litzy: 12:53 Perfect. Yeah, I think those are very easy tips that people can kind of follow. So sort of follow the money, see who’s commissioned said RCT, systematic review. And, oftentimes, especially on blogs, it can be a little tricky because some of them may write a blog and be like, oh, this is really good. But then when you look down, it’s like the blog is sponsored by so-and-so,
Alex Hutchinson: 13:18 And that’s the reputable people who are acknowledging who’s sponsoring them. Then there’s the people who are getting free gear, free product or money straight up, but they’re not, you know, like there’s levels of influence and the people who are disclosing that at least they’re disclosing it. But nonetheless, it’s, you know, one of the things that I think people often kind of misjudge is when, when someone says that follow, you know, follow the money and the financial influences, finances can influence someone. That doesn’t mean that the people who are passing on this message or corrupted or that it’s disinformation as you would say that they’re deliberately, yeah. I mean, lots of researchers who I really highly respect do excellent research funded by industry. And I think that there’s any important information that comes from that research, but I also think that the questions that get asked in industry funded research are different than the questions that you might ask if you just had you know, a free pot of money that wasn’t tied to any strings.
Alex Hutchinson: 14:16 If you want to, you know, not to pick on anybody, but if you want to know which proteins are best for building strength and if the dairy industry is going to fund a whole bunch of studies on dairy protein, then you’re going to have this excellent body of research that shows that dairy protein is good for building muscle. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong, it just means that we haven’t studied what, you know, vegetable proteins or other forms of meat. There’s been less emphasis on those proteins so you get a distorted view of what’s good or bad without anybody doing anything wrong. It’s just that money does influence the way we ask questions and the answers we get.
Karen Litzy: 14:53 Great. Thank you. Now I had just mentioned about having a phd in physics. That is obviously not me. How did you end up doing your phd in physics and how does this help you when it comes to writing your articles or writing these reviews of RCTs or systematic reviews?
Alex Hutchinson: 15:14 Well, I should first say that if anyone’s interested in becoming a science journalist, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend doing a phd in physics. It’s not the linear path or you know, the path of least resistance. I honestly didn’t know what I wanted to do when I grew up. Some advice I got, which I think was good advice to some extent was, you know, if you don’t know what you want to do, do something hard because at least you’ll prove to people that you can, you know, solve problems and there’ll be some transferability of that training. And I think that was true to some extent. And I, you know, so I did physics in Undergrad. I still didn’t know what the heck I wanted to do. And I had an opportunity to go do a phd in England, which seemed like a big adventure.
Alex Hutchinson: 15:50 So I went and did a phd there, PhDs there are actually a lot shorter than they are in North America. It’s just over three years for my phd. So it wasn’t, it wasn’t like this sort of, you know, spent my entire twenties on this. Physics was fun, but it just, I could see that the other people in my lab were more passionate about it than I was, that they were, they were just interested. They were passionate about it. And I thought, man, I want to, I want to find something that I’m passionate about. So I ended up in my late twenties saying, okay, well it’s been a slice, but I’m going to try something else. And, you know, fortunately I guessed right. And journalism turned out to be fun. Fun for me. I don’t write, you know, especially these days if I’m writing about exercise and it’s not like I need to know Newton’s laws or anything like that or you know, apply the principle of general relativity to exercise.
Alex Hutchinson: 16:35 So there’s not a lot of like direct pay off. But I would say that having a scientific training has helped me be willing to speak to scientists and not be intimidated by paper. You know, Journal articles that look very complex and you know, I have the confidence to know that, okay, I don’t have a clue what this journal article is saying, but I know if I slow down, if I read it a few times and if I call it the scientist and say, can you explain this to me? I’m not worried. Well, I mean, I don’t like looking stupid, but I’m over the idea is like, it’s okay. I can call up the scientist. I know enough about scientific papers to know that probably the guy in the office next door to whoever wrote this paper doesn’t understand this paper. You know, science is very specialized and so it’s okay to just say, explain to me, explain it to me again. Okay. This time, pretend I’m, you know, your 90 year old grandfather and explain it again. And so that allows me, or has helped me write about areas even when I’m not familiar with them and not be intimidated by numbers and graphs and things like that.
Karen Litzy: 17:36 All right. And I would also imagine that going through Phd training yourself, you understand how articles are written, you kind of can look at the design, and you can look at the methods and have a little bit more, I guess confidence in how this study was maybe put together. Versus no training at all.
Alex Hutchinson: 18:03 You’ve seen how the sausage is made and so you understand the compromise that get made. I will say that it was surprising to me how different the physics processes to the sort of the sports science world in terms of just the factors that are there that are relevant in physics. You’re never dealing with people. And with the sample recruitment and things like that. An Electron is an electron, you know, for the most part. You know, and this is an important to understand is physics aside by looking a lot of studies, I started to see the patterns and started to understand what the functions were, started to understand how to read a paper relatively quickly. How did you know it? For me to find stories, I ended up looking at a lot of journal articles and I can’t read every one of them in depth in order to find the ones I wanna write about.
Alex Hutchinson: 18:52 So I have to find ways of, you know, everyone knows you. Yeah, you can read the abstract, but you’re not going to get the full picture. You know, you start to learn just by experience, by doing it. That, okay, if I read the introduction, that’s where the first three paragraphs are where they’re going to give me the context. Because often a study seems very specific and you’re like, I don’t know what you’re talking about. And then they’ll give two paragraphs where they’re just like, since the 1950s, scientists have been wondering about x, Y, and zed. And then you can go to the conclusions and then, you know, depending on how deep you want to get, you understand where, which part of every paper is written with a specific format and you can figure out where to go with a little experience. And it doesn’t require a physics phd or it requires just getting, getting familiar with that particular, you know, subject area.
Karen Litzy: 19:35 Nice. And now, you know, we talked earlier about how, you know, information from researchers went from like a little drip to a fire hose and as far as getting information out to the general public, so because there is so much information available, how do you approach designing your article titles and headlines to ensure you grab attention for the reader. So I think that’s a great question directed at the researchers who are maybe thinking of doing a press release or things like that to help promote their article.
Alex Hutchinson: 20:10 Yeah. This is a really interesting question. This isn’t one where my thinking has shifted over the last, let’s say, decade. So I started out, you know, in print journalism, writing for newspapers and magazines. I still do that, but one of the things in from when you’re writing for a newspaper magazine is you don’t have control over your headlines. You write the article, the editor writes the headline. And so my experience in that world was always one of frustration being like, I wrote this very carefully nuanced, balanced article. And then the headline is, you know, do this and you’ll live till you’re a hundred or whatever. It’s like, no, that’s not what I was saying. It’s terrible. And so I got into this sort of reflects of habit you know, just apologizing for the headlines. Like, Oh, you know, when I talked to researchers, I’m so sorry about the headline.
Alex Hutchinson: 20:59 You know, I’m very sophisticated, but you know, that this silly editor wrote the headline and a couple of things help to sort of shift my views a little bit on that. One is the shift to online meant that newspapers and journalists now have a very, very clear idea of who clicks on what. So you understand what it is that gets people’s attention. And the second thing is that, you know, when I started my own blog, and then even now, when I blog, I don’t have full control of my headlines, but when I was on wordpress, I wrote my own headlines. And when I now as a blogger, I suggest headlines. And so I don’t have control, but I am given more input than I used to be on how this article should be conveyed.
Alex Hutchinson: 21:40 And one thing that’s really clear is that, what people say they want and what people will do is different. And so I remember looking at when the global mail is the Big News newspaper in Canada. I remember when it first started showing its top 10 most clicked articles. You know, in the transition to digital on its website. And of course, everyone says, I hate clickbait. I want to have sophisticated, nuanced conversations. And then the top 10 articles clicked would all be something to do with Brittany Spears or whatever. You know, this was 10 years ago. And it’s like, so people click on, people do respond to clickbait and click bait it’s bad. But you know, I sometimes I want like sometimes give talks to scientists about science communication and I’ll give some contrast between here’s the journal article, you know, here’s my headline and the journal article will be something that’s so careful that you’re not even, it definitely doesn’t tell you what the article’s going to say.
Alex Hutchinson: 22:36 You’re not even entirely sure what the subject is. You know, like an investigation of factors contributing to potentially mitigating the effects of certain exercise modalities. And you’re like, I don’t know. I don’t know what that’s about. No one clicks on it. And so it’s like that sort of, if a tree falls in the forest, if you write a perfectly balanced nuanced article and nobody reads it, have you actually contributed to science communication? And so one of the things that I found in with headlines that I’d complain about is I would complain about a headline that someone had written for my article and then, and I try to think why am I complaining about this? And it’s like, well it’s sort of coming out and saying what I was hinting at, I was hinting at, I didn’t want to come out and say, you know, overweight people should exercise more or whatever.
Alex Hutchinson: 23:22 Cause that’s horrible. No one would say that. But if you sort of read what the evidence that I was shaping my article to be, it’d be like, if you’re not getting results from your exercise, maybe you’re just not exercising hard enough. I was like, well maybe I need to own the messages. You know, if the headlines to me seems objectionable, maybe it’s my article is objectionable and I’ve tiptoed around it, but I need to think carefully. And if someone reads my article, you know, an intelligent person reads my article and says this in sum it up in seven words, this is what it is, then I need to maybe be comfortable with having that as the headline, even if it’s an oversimplification, because the headline is never going to convey everything, all the nuances. There’s always caveats, there’s always subtleties.
Alex Hutchinson: 24:04 You can’t convey those in seven words. That’s what the article is for. So I’ve become much more of a defender, not of clickbait, not of like leading people in with misleading things. But if ultimately the bottom line of your article is whether it’s a academic article or a press article is, you know, this kind of weight workout doesn’t work and you should be okay with a headline that says that. And yes, people will say, but you forgot this. And then you can say, well, no, that’s in the article, but I can’t convey all the caveats in the headline. So anyway, that’s my, that’s my sort of halfhearted defense of attention grabbing headlines in a way.
Karen Litzy: 24:37 Yeah. And if you don’t have the attention grabbing headline, like you said, then people aren’t going to want to dive into the article. So I was, you know, looking up some of the headlines from outsideonline.com and the first one that pops up is how heat therapy could boost your performance. And you read that and you’re like I would want to find out what that means.
Alex Hutchinson: 25:02 And they put some weasel words in there. It’s not like heat therapy will change your life. It’s how it could boost your performance. And so, and I’m there, it’s interesting, I’ve got conversations with my editor and they, you know, they don’t like question headlines. They don’t want to be as like, is this the next, you know, a miracle drugs? And then it turns out the answer is no. It’s like they feel that’s deceptive to the reader. They want declarative headlines that say something. It’s an interesting balance but outside has been, they’ve had some headlines which were a little, you know, there was one a while ago about trail maintenance and it was like the headline was trail runners are lazy parasites or something like that. And that was basically, that was what the article said. It was an opinion piece by a mountain biker. They got a ton of flack for that and they got a bunch of people who are very, very, you know, I’m never gonna read outside again. It’s like, dude, relax. But I understand, but I understand, you know, cause it is a balance there. They want to be noticed and I want my articles to be noticed, but I don’t want to do it in a deceptive way.
Karen Litzy: 26:07 Yeah. And I think that headline, how heat therapy could boost. It’s the could.
Alex Hutchinson: 26:12 Exactly the weasel word that it’s like, it’s, I’m not saying it will, but there’s certainly some evidence that I described in the article, but it’s possible this is something that people are paying or researching and that athletes are trying, so it’s, you know, check it out if you’re interested.
Karen Litzy: 26:25 Yeah, I mean, I think it’s hard to write those attention grabbing headlines because like you said, you can have the best article giving great information, but if it’s not enough in the headline for the average person to say, hmm, Nah, Nah, nevermind, or Ooh, I really want to read this now the, I think when you’re talking about an online publication, like you said, you now have a very good idea as to who is reading by going into the analytics of your website. So I think that must make it a little bit easier, particularly on things that they’re going to catch attention.
Alex Hutchinson: 26:59 And so since I’m working for outside, I don’t have access to their analytics though. I can ask them what my top articles were or whatever. And I actually am careful not to ask too much because I think there’s a risk of you start writing to the algorithm. I start with, you know, you’re like, oh, so if people like clicking on this, I’m going to write another article that has a very similar headlines. So, when I had my wordpress site, I had much more direct access to the analytics and it’s a bit of a path to, it forces you to start asking yourself, what am I writing for? Am I writing to try and get the most clicks possible or to do the best article possible? So I actually tell him when I talked to my editor, I’m like I don’t want too much information.
Alex Hutchinson: 27:43 I want to know. Sometimes I kind of want to get a sense of what people are reacting to and what aren’t. And I can see it on Twitter, which things get more response. But I don’t want that to be foremost in my mind because otherwise you end up writing you know, if not clickbait headlines, you write clickbait stories, you know, cause you do get the most attention. Yeah. So I try not to follow it too much and let someone else do that worrying for me.
Karen Litzy: 28:09 Yeah. So instead, I think that’s a great tip for anyone who is putting out content and who’s disseminating content, whether it be a blog or a podcast, that you want to kind of stay true to the story and not try and manipulate the story. Whether that be consciously or maybe sometimes subconsciously manipulating the story to fit who you think the person who’s going to be digesting that information wants.
Alex Hutchinson: 28:34 Yeah. And I know that happens to me subconsciously. You know, it’s unavoidable. You’re thinking, well, if I write it this way, I bet more people are going to be interested, it happens a little bit, but you want to be aware of it. And especially, I guess if you’re, let’s say you’re someone who’s, you know, starting a blog or starting some form of podcast or whatever it is, clicks aren’t the only relevant metric and you can get a lot of people to click on something, but if they’re left feeling that it wasn’t all that great, then you’re not gonna, you know, it’s better to have half as many people all read something and think that was really substantive and thoughtful and useful than to get a bunch of clicks. But no one had any particular desire to come back to your site.
Karen Litzy: 29:15 Like you don’t want to leave people feeling unfulfilled. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Not Good. Well great information for both the researchers and for clinicians who are maybe trying to get some of that research out there. So great tips. Now, we talked a little bit about this before we went on air, but in 2018 you’ve published your book, endure mind body and the curiously elastic limits of human performance. So talk a little bit about the book, if you will, and what inspired you to write it?
Alex Hutchinson: 29:50 Sure. The book is basically, it tries to answer the question, what defines our limits. Like when you push as hard as you can, whether you know you’re on the treadmill or out for a run or in, in other contexts, what defines that moment when you’re like, ah, I can’t maintain, I have to slow down. I have to stop. I have reached my absolute limit. And it’s a direct, you know, it’s easy to understand where the book came from. I was a runner and so every race I ran, I was like, why didn’t I run faster? Like I’m still alive. I crossed the finish line. I’ve got energy left. Why didn’t I, why surely I could have run a little bit faster. And so basically I, you know, I started out with an understanding of a basic understanding of exercise physiology.
Alex Hutchinson: 30:32 And, you know, 15 years ago I thought if I can learn more about VO2 Max and lactate threshold and all these sorts of things, I’ll understand the nature of limits and maybe what I could have done to push them back. And about 10 years ago, I started to realize that there was this whole bunch of research on the brain’s role in limits. And there’ve been a whole bunch of different theories and actually some very vigorous arguments about this idea. But this idea that when you reach your limits is not that your legs can’t go anymore. It’s that in a sense, your brain thinks you shouldn’t go anymore than that. Your limits are self-protective rather than reflecting that you’re actually out of gas, like a car runs out of gas. And so then I thought I was gonna write a book about how your brain limits you.
Alex Hutchinson: 31:12 And in the end, as you can probably guess, it ended up being a sort of combination of these sorts of things. Like there’s the brain, there’s the body, they interact in different ways, in different contexts. So I ended up exploring like, you know, we were talking about this before, what is it that limits you when you’re free diving? If you’re trying to hold your breath for as long as possible, is it that you run out of oxygen after a minute and then how come some people hold their breaths for 11 minutes? And how does that translate to mountain climbing or to running or to riding a bike or to being in a really hot environment or all these sorts of things. So that is what the book is about is, is where are your limits? And the final simple answer is, man, it’s complicated and you have to read the whole book.
Karen Litzy: 31:51 Yeah. And we were talking beforehand and I said, I listened to the book as I was, you know, commuting around New York City, which one it would got me really motivated and to want to learn more. And then it also, I’m like, man, I am lazy. There are so many different parts of the book from the breath holding, like we were talking about. And things that I was always interested me are altitude trainings and the how that makes a difference, whether you’re training up in the mountains or sea level or in those kind of altitude chambers. Which is wild stuff. And is that, I don’t know, is that why people break more records now versus where they were before? Is it a result of the training? Is it, and then, like you said, the brain is involved and so are you just by pushing the limits of yourself physically, but then does the brain adapt to that and say, okay, well we did this, so I’m pretty sure, and we lived, so can we do it again?
Alex Hutchinson: 33:08 And that’s actually a pretty good segway to the World Congress of sports therapy. Because the session that I’m talking about it that I’m talking with Greg Leyman is on pain. And, one of the things that I find a topic that I find really interesting is pain tolerance. Do we learn to tolerate more. And so, you know, one of the classic questions that people argue about on long runs is like who suffers more during a marathon, you know, a two and a half hour marathoner or a three and a half hour marathoner. It’s like, one school of thought is like, well, it’s a three and a half hour marathoner is out there pushing to the same degree as the two and a half hour marathoner, but is out there for longer for almost 50% longer so that that person is suffering longer.
Alex Hutchinson: 33:56 And the counter point, which sounds a little bit maybe elitist or something to say on average, the two and a half marathoner has learned two and half hour marathoner has learned to suffer more as his learning to push closer to his or her limits. Now that’s a total generalization because it’s not really about how fast you are. It’s about how well you’ve trained, how long you’ve trained. So there are four marathoners who are pushing absolutely as hard as any two and half hour marathoner. And there are some very lucky two and a half hour marathoners who aren’t pushing particularly hard because they were capable of doing it, you know, at two 20 marathon or something. But the general point that I would make and that I think that the reason that I think the research makes is that one of the things that happens when you train, so we all know that you go for that first run and it feels terrible, Eh, you feel like you’re gonna die when you keep training, all sorts of changes happen.
Alex Hutchinson: 34:52 Your heart gets stronger. You build new Capillaries, your muscles get stronger. Of course, that’s super important. It’s dominant. But I think another factor that’s on pretend times under appreciated is you learned to tolerate discomfort. You learn to suffer. You learn that feeling when your lungs are bursting and you’re panting and your legs are burning, that doesn’t mean you’re gonna die. It just means you can’t sustain that forever, but you can sustain it for a little bit longer. You can choose to keep holding your finger in that candle flame for a little longer. And there’s actually quite a bit of evidence showing that as training progresses, you learn not just in the context of whatever exercise you’re doing, but in the context of totally unrelated pain challenges like dipping your hand in an ice bucket or having a blood pressure cuff squeezed around your arm.
Alex Hutchinson: 35:35 You learn to tolerate more pain by going through the process of training. And I think it’s an interesting area of, I think it tells us something interesting about physical limits cause it tells us that part of the process of pushing back physical limits is pushing back mental limits. But it also tells us something about how we cope with pain and why. For example, why exercise training might be helpful for people dealing with chronic pain, for example, that it’s not just endorphins block the pain, it’s that you learn psychological coping strategies for reframing the pain and for dealing with it.
Karen Litzy: 36:10 Yeah. As a quick example, two and a half weeks ago, I tore my calf muscle the medial gastric tear, nothing crazy. It was a small tear and it happens to middle age people. Normally the ultimate insult or worse, at any rate, you know, very painful. I was on crutches for a week. I had to use a cane for a little while, but I was being so protective around it. And then I read, I got a great email from NOI group from David Butler and they were talking about kind of babying your injury and trying to take a step back and looking at it, looking at the bigger picture. And I thought to myself, well, this was the perfect time to actually get this email because I was like afraid to put my heel down. I was afraid to kind of go into Dorsiflexion and once I saw that, I was like, oh, for God’s sakes. And that moment I was able to kind of put the heel down to do a little stretching. And, so it wasn’t that all of a sudden my physicality changed so much, but it was, I felt from a brain perspective, from a mental perspective that I could push my limits more than I was without injuring.
Alex Hutchinson: 37:35 Absolutely. And it’s all a question of how we have the mistaken assumption that pain is some objective thing that there’s, you know, you have it damaged somewhere and that’s giving you a seven out of 10 pain. But it’s all about how you frame it and if you were interpreting that pain as a sign that you weren’t fully healed and therefore you’re going to delay your recovery, if you’re feeling that pain, then you’re going to shy away from it. And if you’re just interpreting it, if you read that email and it reframes it as this pain is a part of healing, it’s a part of the process of, and it’s like, oh well I can tolerate that. If it’s not doing damage, then I don’t mind the pain and all of a sudden it’s become something that’s a signal rather than a sort of terrible, it’s just information.
Karen Litzy: 38:15 Yeah. Information versus danger, danger, danger. I just reflected on that and thought, yeah, this is pain. It’s being protected at the moment. It doesn’t mean I’m going to go run a marathon given my injury but it certainly means I can put my heel down and start equalizing my gait pattern and things like that. And so it’s been a real learning experience to say the least. And the other thing I wanted to touch on was that idea of pain and suffering. And I know this can probably be out for debate, but that because you have pain, does it mean you’re suffering? So if you have a two hour 30 versus a three hour 30 or whatever, the person who runs it in six hours, right? Because you have pain, are you suffering through it or are you just moving through the pain without the suffering attached to it? And I don’t know the answer to that, but I think it opens up to an interesting, to a wider discussion on does pain equals suffering?
Alex Hutchinson: 39:20 Now we’re getting philosophical, but I think it’s an interesting one cause I mean I’ve heard a number of sports scientists make the argument that one of the sort of underappreciated keys for success in endurance sports is basically benign masochism that on some level you kind of enjoy pushing yourself into discomfort. And I think there’s some truth to that. And I think it’s an entirely open question. Like are people just born, some people just born liking to hurt or is it something in their upbringing? Moving outside of a competitive context and just talking about health, it’s like what a gift it is to enjoy going out and pushing your body in some way because that makes it easy to exercise. And so I think one, you know, this is changing topic a little bit, but one of the big challenges in the sort of health information space is that a large fraction of the people who write about it are people like me who come from a sports background that on some level enjoy, I go out and do interval workouts.
Alex Hutchinson: 40:16 Not because I’m worried about my insulin, but because I like it. I like pushing, finding out where my limits are on being on that red line. And so when I’m like, come on, just go out and do the workout, then others and some people find it very, very, very unpleasant to be near that line. And so I think we have to be respectful of differences in outlook. But I also think that’s what the evidence shows is you can learn to, you know, like fine line or whatever. You can learn to appreciate some of what seems bitter initially. And if you can then it totally changes then that pain is no longer suffering. Then it’s the pain of like eating an old cheese or whatever. It’s like oh that’s a rich flavor of pain I’m getting today in my workout as opposed to this sucks and I want to stop.
Karen Litzy: 41:06 Yeah. So again, I guess it goes back to is there danger, is there not danger? And if he can reach that point of feeling pain or discomfort or whatever within your workouts and then you make it through the workout and you’re like, I can’t believe I did that. And all of a sudden next time it’s easier. You pushed the bar. Yeah. You’ve pushed them further to the peak a little bit. So I think it’s fun when that happens.
Alex Hutchinson: 41:35 And I think it’s important what you said, a understanding the difference between pain as a danger signal. Cause I mean as an endurance athlete I may glorify the pushing through the pain. Well that’s stupid if you have Shin splints or you know, if you have Achilles tendon problems or whatever. Yeah. You have to understand that some pain really is a signal to stop or at least to understand where that pain is coming from and to do something to address it. There are different contexts in which it’s appropriate or inappropriate to push through pain.
Karen Litzy: 42:03 Yeah. And I would assume for everyone watching or listening, if you go to the Third World Congress of sports physical therapy, there will be discussion on those topics. Given the list of people there, there will be discussions on those topics. There are panels on those topics.
Alex Hutchinson: 42:22 Yeah, I was gonna say, like Greg and I are talking about pain, but looking at the list of speakers, there’s a bunch of people who have expertise in this understanding of the different forms of pain, trying to find that line, understanding the brain’s role in creating what feels like physical pain. So I think there’s gonna be a ton of great discussion on that.
Karen Litzy: 42:39 Yeah. All right, so we’re going to start wrapping things up. So if you could recommend one must read book or article aside from your own which would it be?
Alex Hutchinson: 42:50 I’ll go with my present bias, which is so, you know, casting my mind all the way back over the past like two months or whatever. The book that I’ve been most interested in lately is a book called range. I think the subtitle is why generalists triumphant a specialist world by David Epstein. So David Epstein, his previous book was like six years ago, he wrote the sports gene, which I consider basically the best sports spine science book that I’ve read. And so it was kind of what I modeled my book endure on, but his most recent book just came out a couple months ago at the end of May. And it’s a broader look at this whole role of expertise and practice, a sort of counterpoint to the idea that you need 10,000 hours of practice if you want to be any good at anything.
Alex Hutchinson: 43:33 So as soon as you’re out of the crib, you should be practicing your jump shot or whatever it is. And instead, marshaling the arguments that actually having breadth of experience, is good for a variety of reasons, including that you have a better chance of finding a good match for your talents. So for someone like me had, I just had too much quote unquote grit and decided that I needed to stick with physics cause that’s what I started with. And I’m not a quitter. I’d be a physicist and I might be an okay physicist, but I’m positive that I wouldn’t be as happy as I am now having been willing to sort of switch career tracks. And so it has a lot of sort of relevance for personal development, for parenting and for understanding expertise also in a sports realm as well. So range by David epstein is my pick on that front.
Karen Litzy: 44:22 Great. And we already spoke about what you’re going to be talking about at the Sports congress, but are there any things that you’re particularly looking forward to?
Alex Hutchinson: 44:29 Yeah, there’s a whole bunch of speakers, but I guess the one that caught my eye that I would definitely not sleep through is, I saw that Keith Barr is speaking on a panel and that over the last three, four years, maybe, maybe more than that, I’ve just been really blown away by the work that he’s been doing on understanding the differences between what it takes to train for, you know, your strength, your muscles or your heart versus what it takes to train tendons and ligaments. And so I’m really looking forward to seeing what the latest updates are from his lab and from his results.
Karen Litzy: 45:04 Yeah. He gave the opening talk at Sports Congress, not 2019 but 2018. And he was just so good. I mean, I was just trying to live tweet and take some notes. I’m really looking forward to that as well. I feel great. Yeah, absolutely. All right, so is there anything that we missed? Anything that you want the viewers or listeners to know? Oh wait, where can they get your book from?
Alex Hutchinson: 45:35 Fine booksellers everywhere. I mean include Amazon but it’s definitely put it in a plug for your local independent bookstore. It should be, it should be available anywhere. And if you can find my latest stuff on Twitter @sweatscience, all one word and there might be a link to the book that there, but yeah, really, if you Google Hutchinson and endure for any bookseller, they should be able to get a copy of it.
Karen Litzy: 45:59 Perfect. And anything we missed? Anything that we want to hit on that maybe we didn’t get to? I feel like we got a good amount.
Alex Hutchinson: 46:06 I think we covered some good basis. I guess the only thing is, you know, for anyone listening, I hope I’ll see you in Vancouver and cause I think there’s all of these things are ongoing discussions and there’s lots more to learn. So I’m looking forward to the conference
Karen Litzy: 46:20 As am I. Everyone. Thanks so much for tuning in. Thanks so much for listening again, the third world congress of sports physical therapy will take place in Vancouver, Canada, British Columbia, October 4th through the fifth of 2019 and so we hope to see you all there.
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