As soon as I opened Endure the green-eyed monster snuck out. This is absolutely the book I wish I’d written. If you are an endurance athlete, curious about how to go faster or longer Hutchinson has collated all the research that you should be relying upon. What he does so nicely is package it up in a way that makes it compelling to read, leaves the academics behind and pulls out the points that will pique your interest. The book is really well referenced but in an unobtrusive way. It is detailed enough to know you are getting the latest well researched evidence but well written enough you don’t feel like you are wading through ketchup to find the nuggets.
He explains the debates between the biologists, physiologists and psychologists as to how our bodies work when we are attempting endurance sport and then focuses on the individual limiters to improved performance; pain, muscle, oxygen, heat, thirst and fuel. He neatly finishes though by looking at the elements which are attempting to bypass those limiters; training the brain, zapping the brain (something I recently tried with the Halo system) and mental skills.
If you are a runner, or interested in running extremes, Hutchinson was also involved in the Nike Breaking two project so includes some insights from that project within this book which give a real insight into not just how research says things happen, but how this research actually translated when applied into practice. It reminds us the research usually takes place in sanitised labs. Real life races are so much more complicated. Even in controlled environments like the Nike 2 project interference is everywhere and it is only when we learn to manage those interferences which uniquely destabilise us will we be able to endure more; whether that is more speed, or more distance.
There are lots of books which cover the physiology of performance, and more coming out all the time focusing on the psychology of performance. Hutchinson neatly merges the two giving a much more (I believe) realistic picture of what happens in our bodies where the mind and body work (in the main) together rather than as separate systems as older-fashioned books have suggested.
I was lucky enough to interview Hutchinson for a piece I wrote recently on Brain Training for Cycling Weekly and could only use a little piece of the interview in my article. So here is the full interview so you can see what really stuck out to Hutchinson in the 12 years he studied this area.
Interview with Alex Hutchinson, author of Endure: Mind Body and the Curiously Elastic limits of Human Performance.
Was there any specific study you came across during your research for the book which really changed your mind about the role of the brain in modulating performance?
There has been a bunch over the years which have been significant to me. In chronological order one of the ones which really stood out to me was in 2009 Samuele Marcora’s study on mental fatigue and physical performance. He had people do a Stoop task, basically a computer based cognitive task for 90 minutes and the control group just watched a documentary and then they did a cycling time to exhaustion test. Right from the start the people who had done something mentally fatiguing had a higher perception of effort, it stayed higher and they reached exhaustion earlier so that was pretty interesting and people have been talking about the brain forever, but that was a good example of something which effected only the brain, it wasn’t physically tiring and yet it had a very immediate. In 2013 there was a study from Brazil on Transcranial Direct-Current Stimulation which had an immediate impact on perception of effort and also on performance and that was to me another watershed demonstration of that you can manipulate the brain in a way that should have no effect on other parts of the body and that can change your endurance. And the third that made me confident that the brain was really was not just a placebo effect was another Samuele Marcora study where he did subliminal images, unconscious visual cues and I know that is a field where people have doubts about the replicability of studies, but he found subliminal images of smiling faces increased endurance by 12% compared to frowning faces and the cyclists weren’t aware of the intervention. They didn’t know there were faces were being flashed again so in theory really it was placebo proofed.
Was there a mental training technique or a piece of technology that wowed you when researching?
Brain stimulation really wowed me, but I have a lot of misgivings about its use. From a safety perspective it feels a little odd particularly if it becomes widespread you have young people using it with still developing brains. And maybe using it day after day. So, I have misgiving from what is the purpose and mean of sport, what is the point of pressing a button to get faster. I think it is cool and I understand the argument of Halo to tap into the strength in your body but personally I would rather see sport develop in a direction that doesn’t involve zapping your brain.
From the other perspective after spending a decade covering and writing and researching science of endurance if I had a time machine to go back and give my 20-year-old self advice to maximise my running career what I would probably tell myself is take techniques like motivational self-talk seriously. Don’t laugh them off. We had a sport psychologist for my university team and we just through it was a joke and again people have used motivational self talk for decades but the studies by people like Marcora and others have done in the last few years helped to convince sceptics like me that this is real and not just a placebo effect. The one that really stood out for me was Stephen Chung’s study in heat chambers where he found that motivational self-talk not just improved endurance but allowed the cyclists to push their core temperature half a degree higher because it really is allowing them to dig deeper into their physiological reserve. That is my number one take away and I think it is a widely applicable one for athletes but also to keep in mind in life in general.
The results in studies are impressive and I can remember from my competitive days that my internal monologue was not positive in a lot of cases and that probably had an impact on my performance.
If, now you have done all the research for the book, you could design a study to clarify your thoughts on what limits us, what would you test?
I haven’t thought about that but I guess in the book I lay out the different theories; the general governor, Marcora’s psychobiological model, and the more traditional physiological models and a lot of that is probably skewed towards Marcora’s work because he is such a good experimentalist. A lot of people have theories and good ideas and he is a master at testing those ideas and I think that’s a really powerful role and if I had some research money to spend I would want to try to replicate rigorously some of Marcora’s results. Independently. Like the subliminal one. The self-talk one, the brain endurance training one because I think these results are a lot more revolutionary than he maybe get credit for they are potentially game changing experiment but I have a lot of trouble saying you should do this about any of them with the problems of replication in studies like this are challenging so all these studies have to be considered tentative until they start being replicated, in studies of more than 8 people and last a long time and are done by people who don’t have a stake in the confirmation of the theory. No matter how good a human you are and how good a scientist you are that it is very hard to design an experiment where the results are totally immune from your hopes and your expectations. Particularly in psychology.
Are there three things would you advise a cyclist to do from a mental perspective to improve their performance now you have done all this research?
Self talk is top of the list. It is important to learn to consider pain and to reframe what discomfort and pain. To be able to consider pain non-judgmentally, non-emotionally. To consider pain as information. There was a study from Oxford Brookes last year which compared two training programmes one of which was moderate pace and longer and one of which was high intensity intervals and they were designed to create the same physiological changes and the same improvement in VO2 max lactate threshold and the people who did the high intensity training they had a greater increase in pain tolerance and also a greater increase in top speed performance. From a cycling perspective often the emphasis is on long rides and maybe some hills now and then but including some real sprints even if your races are several hours long there is a role for including some acute discomfort in your training to learn to cope with it. Yes, you will also increase your power but even if racing at a steady pace you should be including some discomfort in training through high intensity work.
Could any of the techniques you covered in the book; mental resilience training, Halo, VR headsets etc be considered doping?
I guess my take is cheating is breaking the rules because it is impossible to, even with the WADA code is 2 of 3 with it enhances the performance of the athletes, damages the health of the athlete or dilutes the spirit of the sport and the spirit of the sport is difficult to articulate as everyone has different feelings about it so it is really hard to make arguments based on natural law that one thing is wrong; that baking soda is right and caffeine is right but pseudo-ephedrine is a wrong. But ultimately my take is that we have to understand that there is no line that is obvious of what is right and wrong and there is always going to be a grey area and what we have to do is agree on a set of rules accepting that the rules will be semi-arbitrary and then adhere to those rules so we are all playing on the same playing field – knowing that this is allowed and this isn’t. And if you adhere to those rules it maybe a little unsavoury if you are going right up to the edge of the rules whether it is Team Sky or Alberto Salazar seem to do but the rules are the rules are the rules and if you are not breaking the rules then that is fine. The bigger question is what should the rules be? For me, looking at things like brain stimulation I would like to live in a sporting world where brain stimulation isn’t a part of that. Where I don’t feel that if I want to be competitive with my peers that I need to be doing things like that because they are going to be doing things like that but I don’t think it is the only way.
What technique or technology did you find most valuable to access hidden reserves, that can pull little bit extra out of somebody?
Self-talk and brain stimulation are the two things that seemed most powerful to me. With Marcora’s brain endurance training, I have heard rumours that there is an unnamed pro cycling team that have been trying that approach but it is only rumours. That is something that has produced some great results in studies and a PhD student at Birmingham has just replicated the results so this is something that again could be a powerful technique but having tried the Brain Endurance Training my take is that it is so hard and boring there is nothing elicit about getting gains that way. Anyone that does that they have worked for the gains, it isn’t a short cut or anything. If you are a top cyclist it is your body that is unable to take any more than the five hours of training you put it through but you still have another hour in the day so you can push your brain if you want but I don’t envy the people who are taking that route.