Interview with Alex Hutchinson – Author of “Endure”

One of my favorite books of 2018, was Alex Hutchinson's "Endure: Mind, Body and Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance." Alex holds a Ph.D. in Physics from Cambridge and was a pretty quick runner in his day, with a PR of 3:42 in the 1500m and two appearances at the 1500m final at the Canadian Olympic Trials. He was gracious to answer some running questions from the Colorado Coyotes. You can follow Alex on Twitter and his articles on Oustide Online.

First, I’m curious if you follow youth running at all? We’re currently seeing Katelyn Tuohy running some fantastic times and before that Mary Cain was the next up and coming American prodigy. What are your thoughts on youths who excel at an early age and if that results in success as an adult?

I live in Canada, so I’m more tuned in to the performances here, but I also get caught up in the excitement around people like Cain and Tuohy. That said, I think it’s important to think carefully about how we define “success.” Youth sport is fun and valuable for its own sake, and can help establish lifelong patterns of healthy activity. It’s a lot less clear that winning races as a pre-teen or early teen will translate into winning races as an adult—but to me, that’s not really the main point of youth sport.

We work with runners from the ages of 6-14, one area that fascinates me the most is just how competitive a young child is at an early age. We obviously see the spectrum, and I’m always left wondering if it’s genetics, parenting, environment or just a combination. Whenever I think it’s one or the other, I run into a contradiction, be it a parent who is a competitive athlete and their kids aren’t or a sibling, where one is competitive, and the other one isn’t at all. What are your thoughts and how much do you think we can move the needle on competitiveness?

Ask me again in a decade! My kids are 5 and 2 right now, and my wife and I were both very serious competitive athletes well into adulthood. Running is how we met and continues to play a big role in our lives, so we’re very curious about how that will play out in our kids. When our five-year-old daughter wants to race up and down the street (and can’t stand losing), how much of that is that she got our genes, versus her learning from our behaviors or trying to intuit what we value? I don’t know the answer—though it’s also worth noting that both my wife and I have siblings who weren’t as interested in competitive sports.

Ultimately, as with most questions like this, I figure the answer must be a mix of both. But I definitely think a lot about how (and if) we can help instill a healthy sense of competitiveness in my kids. Some good advice I heard from Jesse Itzler on this was: praise the effort. I think that’s a pretty good rule to keep in mind, because what matters most to me isn’t whether my kids win or lose, but that they learn to try their best.

On that same note, to become a good runner, you must be comfortable with suffering and in some ways, enjoy pain. How do elite runners differ from the rest of us when it comes to suffering and how can we learn to embrace suffering?

I think the most important thing to remember is that we all get better at handing pain with repeated exposure. It’s a skill like any other skill, and it gets better with practice. And the other thing to remember is that it never becomes easy. Pushing yourself in a race will always hurt—you just run faster. That was I something I always had to relearn at the beginning of each season: after months of training, I’d always be shocked at how much the first race of the year hurt. But after a few races, you get back in the groove.

You’re often talking about strengthening your ankles to run faster and prevent fatigue. First, what are your thoughts on footwear for youth runners, should they be running in more minimalist footwear from an early age to build stronger feet? Lastly, we do almost all of our cross country workouts on the grass and uneven terrain, I’m hoping that too is beneficial for young runners?

This is a tricky one. I’m not sure there’s a single answer that applies to everyone. I run in fairly “traditional” cushioned running shoes, because that’s what I’m used to, but I’ve tried to keep my kids in lighter, more flexible shoes for the most part. We’ll see how that goes if and when they start running—the ultimate rule is to find what works for each kid. I do agree that grass and (moderately) uneven terrain is a great way to strengthen feet and ankles, and also to avoid injuries from repetitive motion.

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen you touch on youth sports specialization. The good thing is young runners are less likely to specialize compared to other sports, but I also know middle schoolers who compete year-round in running, is this a method of success long term?

I’m not an expert on talent development, but my impression is that the research tends to show that athletes who reach elite levels as adults are less likely to have specialized before the age of about 16. We also need to think more broadly about what’s good for the kids rather than our particular sport. Sampling lots of different sports makes it more likely that a kid will end up in the sport he or she is best suited to and enjoys most. That’s a far better recipe for long-term success than doing some extra off-season training as a 12-year-old. Personally I played on the basketball team all through high school and also played a year each of baseball and tennis in addition to running. I think that served me well both as an athlete and as a person.

I found your chapter on “Heat” especially fascinating. In Colorado, high school runners typically have their first cross country meet in August, after school, where the sun can be blasting upon them and temperatures hovering around 90 degrees. If they’ve been training at all over the summer, they’ve been running in the morning when temperatures are cooler. What’s your advice on how to handle those hot early season cross country races? Is it a mistake for high school runners to not train in conditions which they are likely to race in, early in the season?

Wow, that’s hot racing weather! The good news is that, after the summer, most of us are fairly well acclimated to hot weather, even if we haven’t been racing in it. The risks are bigger on the first warm days after a long, cold winter. But racing in 90-degree is going to be severely challenging no matter how well prepared you are. Doing some training sessions in those conditions will probably help, but you also have to accept that you’ll be slower than you’d otherwise be. And you have to decide how important these early-season meets are: do you want to compromise their training by doing it in super-hot weather in order to perform better in August meets, or are there bigger goals later in the season that you want to focus on?

You’ve looked at the “metabolic window of opportunity” with regards to training. What advice do you have for young runners in terms of fueling after practice or post race?

The most important advice is to eat a healthy diet throughout the day, not just before and after practice. That means lots of fruits and vegetables, a decent amount of protein, and ideally not too much processed and fast foods. They don’t need to be downing Gatorade or protein bars after workouts. That said, if they’re doing a workout and then don’t have a meal planned for a few hours, it is important to ensure they have some food with them—heck, a tuna sandwich will do—refuel.

What are your thoughts on vitamins and supplements with regards to athletes? I honestly feel like I can’t decipher the data anymore and the various reports. Would you recommend multi-vitamins, fish oil, etc. for high school/collegiate runners and if so, which ones?

Personally, I take vitamin D during the winter, and that’s it. You could make a case for fish oil, but I’m not convinced it’s helpful. I don’t think multivitamins are useful—unless you’re not eating a good diet with lots of fruit and vegetables, in which case a multivitamin isn’t going to fix all your problems.

When it comes to runners lifting weights are there any specific lifts that you feel provide the most significant ROI? Also, most cross country programs have runners lifting immediately after practice, however, is this the best time for a young runner to lift?

To be totally honest, this is an area where I don’t have a solid answer. I think some general full-body strengthening is a good idea, but I’m not sure which specific exercises are most important, or if there are big differences between weights programs. Lifting after practice is reasonable, though it’s not the only possible approach. It’s definitely better than lifting immediately before practice, which would compromise your training. I think the most important factor to consider with workout scheduling is logistics: what’s most convenient for the kids? Making them get up an hour early to lift before school might make sense physiologically, but totally backfire because it’s robbing them of sleep.

Lastly, what advice do you have for parents and coaches of young runners to help them succeed in high school and beyond?

Enjoy the present moment rather than focusing on whether you’re going to earn a scholarship or go to the Olympics. Enjoy the process rather than judging the success or failure of your year by how you place in an important race. Enjoy working with your coach and teammates and sharing the highs and lows of competition, because the team element of running is the part that’s hardest to sustain as an adult. And work hard, because running is probably the area of your life with the closest correlation between what you put in and what you get out!

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