Endure: An Interview with Alex Hutchinson
If you wonder why and how endurance athletes push their mind and body beyond their limit, read Alex Hutchinson's new book Endure: Mind, Body and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance. Published by William Morrow, the 306 page book is an impressive exploration of endurance sports and athletes, and the science behind human endurance and performance. I highly recommend Endure. To read my review of Endure, click here.
I follow up my review of Endure with a short email interview. I ask Hutchinson about his motivation for the book, the gender and age of endurance athletes, the role of the brain, what he would like readers to take away from Endure, and his future writing plans.
What was the motivation for Endure and how long did it take you to write?
I was a distance runner starting in high school, and ended up competing for the Canadian national team for about a decade. At a certain point, I had to make a decision about when to leave my Olympic dreams behind and move on. To do that, you have to ask yourself: have I reached my limits? Is this as fast as I can run? I think that question—trying to understand what my ultimate limits were, and whether I had reached them—stuck with me and sparked my interest in digging deeper.
I start telling interviewees that I was working on a book about the limits of endurance about nine years ago. I’ve been doing other things along the way, writing magazine and newspaper articles, but this has been my major project for much of that time.
In the various endurance studies you write about in Endure, were the study subjects male or a good mix of female and male athletes?
There are hundreds of studies mentioned in the book, so there’s a diversity of answers. Most of the older studies used only male subjects, but modern studies tend to be balanced between men and women. For many journals and granting agencies these days, if you’re not including both men and women, you have to explain why.
It seems that the majority of ultrarunning athletes are 40 and over. (I ran my first 50 miler when I was 46). Do age and gender matter in endurance sports? Are older endurance athletes able to push beyond their limit more so than younger athletes? I ask this because I, as an ordinary ultrarunner, get to the finish line quicker than much younger runners who are mostly male.
Age is a double-edged sword for endurance athletes. From a purely physical perspective, we start to lose strength and endurance starting our in 30s. But to truly maximize your endurance performance takes many years of training, so the peak performance years tend to be later in endurance sports than in speed or power sports. And especially for athletes who take up a sport as adults, their peak years may come much later, in their 40s or beyond.
Of course, mental strength is another trait that’s arguably more important in endurance contests than strength contests—and there’s no reason for that to decline just because you’re getting older.
Photo courtesy of Alex Hutchinson
Runners anecdotally share with each other what they think about when they run. While in your book you write about the significant role of the brain in not limiting human endurance, are there brain studies that measure what runners, and other endurance athletes, think about as they push their bodies beyond their limit?
There have been many attempts to understand the role of runners’ thoughts over the years, but it’s a very tricky thing to study. In the 1970s, the prevailing view was that good runners “associate” (that is, they think about the task of running), while less serious runners “dissociate” (they let their minds wander). That dichotomy no longer seems as clear, based on more recent research. There are times when it’s good to let your mind wander rather than dwelling on discomfort; but there are also times when it’s useful to monitor your pace, how your legs and breathing are feeling, and so on. It seems to be a very individual thing that requires a lot of self-experimentation to figure out what works.
What do you want readers, athletes and non-athletes alike, to take away from Endure?
The biggest message I’d like readers to take away is that limits that we perceive as physical and absolute often turn out to be mediated by the brain—which means that they’re negotiable. That doesn’t mean endurance is “all in your head,” but it does mean that you almost always have some reserves available, if you’re willing to dig deep enough.
Writing a book, like grueling endurance events, requires a lot of endurance. What new book in the distant future do you have up your sleeve?
My feelings right now are much like my feelings after running my first marathon: Never again! I suspect I’ll eventually make plans for another book, but right now I’m really not sure what it would be about. I’ll probably spend some time doing magazine writing as a way of exploring different topics, to see if I find something that I want to leap into and spend several years working on.