January 18, 2022

Alex Hutchinson — Author of “Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance,” 2X Canadian Olympic Runner, Cambridge Ph.D.

Dana Safa

1Huddle Podcast Episode #71

On this Bring It In podcast episode, 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder Sam Caucci sat down with Alex Hutchinson, 2X Canadian Olympic Runner, award-winning journalist, and author of the book Endure, which explores the science and mysteries of endurance.

On this episode of Bring It In season three, Alex sat down with Sam and discussed failure being a choice, the importance of positive leadership, and the effects mental fatigue can have on your employees.


Audio available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Podcasts. 

TOP 3 HIGHLIGHTS

Below are some of the insights Hutchinson shared during our chat, edited for length and clarity. You can find more Bring It In podcast episodes here.

  • “Reaching your limits is a decision.”
  • “It’s our perception of things that dictates our response to it, rather than the things themselves.”
  • “The belief that you can do better is that key prerequisite to doing better.”

FULL TRANSCRIPTION

Sam: Alex, I guess to start off, can you tell us a little bit about yourself? 

Alex: Yeah, I guess I would describe myself these days as a science journalist or maybe even a science of sports journalist. It’s become my niche over the last decade or so. My background is I was a competitive middle-distance runner for the Canadian National Team, and I also was a scientist. I started out in physics, did a Ph.D. and worked as a researcher for about a decade, and then shifted into journalism, merging those two areas of interests, sports, particularly endurance sports, and science. And yeah, I write about research into human performance, and also health and fitness and more generally, but we’re really interested in the evidence-based like not what we think we know, but what we actually know, and with what level of certainty. 

Sam: I love your book Endure, which I have right in front of me, all marked up, has got me thinking a lot when I get on the Peloton these days, the pain I feel, I just, I process it a little bit differently. I hear you like the words in your book, encouraging me.

Alex: That’s excellent to hear. And yeah, hopefully, that at the moment when you’re about to give up, you hear a passage saying, you know, yeah, it hurts. It is just your brain deciding you’re getting up. It’s not that your legs are going to fall off. And that doesn’t make it easy. But for me, at least that’s the key insight from that book. It’s just that failure is a decision. Not failure, but reaching your limits is a decision. It’s an epiphenomenon in your brain. And very few of us die because we pushed you out on the Peloton.

Sam: I got it. There’s one quote that says, ‘endurance is the struggle to continue against a mounting desire to stop.’ When you went through the process of writing the book, what were the takeaways you hoped that readers would glean from the experience? 

Alex: Yeah, I mean, it really started out as, in a sense, an attempt to understand my own tracker. Why wasn’t that faster, what was it that in those races where I was good, but not quite good enough that that taught me? And it really evolved away from this sort of, oh, it’s all about my lungs or my heart or my muscles, and ended up being a book almost entirely about the way the brain interprets signals from the lungs, the heart, the muscles, but also your coach, your peers, how you’re feeling about things.

So the real takeaway for me was that that was an epiphany for me, and I think for a lot of other people, hopefully it will turn out to be the same. It’s our perception of things that dictates our response to it, rather than the things themselves. And ultimately we ended up sounding like regurgitating Buddhist philosophy, which in a sense says some of the same things, but yeah, that’s the real takeaway for me.

And I think it also, as time has gone on, I’ve realized that it’s not just about how you run a race, but how you approach challenges in other parts of your life, too, whether it’s your career, your personal life, the struggle to continue against a mounting desire to stop is a very general thing that we all experience.

Sam: Could it be said that, I guess what separated, in your research, what separated top-tier athletes from the rest? I would assume it’s not just maybe some level of skill or natural-born talent. I mean, what in your research maybe were surprising?

Alex: Yeah, one of the sort of questions I wrestled with is, you know, okay, it’s not all in your head, but it’s not all in your body either, but what’s the balance, right? Like what separates it? And I think it depends, so the way I think about it is if I took a hundred random people from the street, and had to place bets on them for running a marathon, and I was allowed to gather whatever information I could, I would take them to a lab and I would test their physiology. I would test their ability to process oxygen to their muscles because at that level, with a group of heterogeneous people, it’s the physical stuff that really matters. It doesn’t matter how tough, mentally tough I am.

I’m not going to beat the Olympic marathoner or the Olympic marathon champion because we’re different species, almost. But once you take a group of people from a similar context, let’s say you take all the people who have already qualified for the Olympic marathon or whatever the case may be. Then the physical characteristics are much more similar. And so then this is where these factors, like how much are you willing to endure? How much are you willing to push? How much are you willing to suffer? They become much more important. So it’s never all one or all the other, it’s just like nature vs nurture in biology, right? It’s not that people are born to their fates and no one can change anything, but it’s also not correct to say that anybody can become the world chess champion if they just practice. People have different aptitudes and different skills. And some people have natural aptitude for certain tasks and others for other tasks. So, yeah, I’m rambling a little bit, but the point is you have to consider the physical reality, but also how you respond to that reality and what you’re able to do with your opportunities.

Sam: What are the implications for coaches or managers in the workplace who are trying to, you know, workers are running a really long race every day, if you kind of maybe think about it that way as well. That’s tough, but are there any implications for coaches, or advice for coaches, that you think maybe it comes out of the book?

Alex: I mean, I think in a way, the great coaches or the great managers have already intuited the things that I’m going to say, right? Like some people, and in the same way that great athletes already know anything a sports scientist can tell them they’ve already intuited. So I think the big key thing is that one of the most important things you can do for people you’re leading or managing or coaching is create in them a sense of positive self-belief, that they’re capable of achieving the goals you’ve set out for them. And this is an argument in favor of positive leadership as opposed to negative leadership because there’s some really fascinating research which I do discuss in the book about how physical limits can be changed by the words you say to people, the facial expressions of people around them, when you’re feeling more positive about things, you’re more willing to keep pushing because you believe it’s possible and it’s worthwhile and you have self-efficacy, meaning that you believe you’re capable of doing this thing, therefore you’re more willing to work hard to do it. So it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

So I think, in the sports context you can talk about how in running workouts you can do where the coach deceives the runners about how fast they’re running, and they end up realizing, oh man, I’m capable of more than I thought it was. You can’t translate that directly in the workplace, you can’t lie to your employees about what they’re doing and say, Hey, you produced seven more memos than you thought you did, but I think the general principles are similar that you want to try and find ways of supporting the belief that people are on track to achieve their goals, within the bounds. If they’re not, you have to tell them that too, but you want to make them confident that they’re capable of doing it if they do the right things. 

Sam: Yeah. I mean, it’s so simple, but it’s kind of so important right now.

Alex: And I think that’s a really important point, the simplicity of it. And so one of the big things for me was that I spent like 10 years working on this book and I saw hundreds of researchers and I came out with these radical conclusions and I’m like, oh, wait. In the mid-nineties, when I was a college athlete, we had a sports psychologist working with our track team who was telling us all this stuff already.

And you know, stuff about negative thought stopping and about positive belief and self-talk motivation. And at the time, we just laughed at this sports psychologist. We were all 20 years old, we thought we knew everything. We didn’t care about what she had to say. And I went back and was like, but she was telling us everything that I’m now like writing in my book and saying, look at this radical new breakthrough.

It’s a really key distinction between, the messages are simple, but the messages themselves don’t do anything unless you buy-in. And so for me, part of this book was a journey of looking at the empirical evidence saying, oh wait, no, not every self-help message is useful, but some of them are right on the money.

And so I had to, in a sense, believe the messages that I was reading about belief before they became useful. So I think it is simple and that’s actually one of the hardest things about it because you say some of this stuff that everyone’s like, yeah, yeah, yeah. Okay. I know that it can’t be that easy.

And so I think it’s worth thinking really carefully and looking at the evidence about things that you can talk about in the context of things like growth mindsets and things like that, and understanding that the belief that you can do better is that key prerequisite to doing better.

Sam: Yeah. Carol Dweck was definitely ringing in the back of my mind at different times. 

Alex: Absolutely. And you know, it’s sort of similar to similar messages in a completely different context, but the point is the same, that if you don’t believe you can get better at something that doesn’t mean it’s true, but it does mean it’s going to seem like it’s true because you’re not going to put in the effort to get better.

Sam: Yeah. What was your favorite chapter? 

Alex: So a lot of this stuff was, I’ve been writing about the science of endurance for a long time, so I already knew a lot about the physiology I wrote, but there were some areas that were totally mind-blowing to me. The one that sticks out was I wrote a chapter on to what extent is oxygen truly limiting for athletes?

Like when you’re out of breath, does this actually mean you’re about to die or is it just a warning signal? And I read about the high altitude mountaineers, but I also read about free divers, and that freediving led me into the world of breath-holding, extreme breath-holding. And that’s that just blew my mind that, just for the record, the world record for holding your breath without any tricks, like magicians will pre-breathe oxygen, pure oxygen, and stuff so that they can hold the breath longer, but just ordinary dude, hold your breath, 11 minutes and 40 seconds.

And as soon as I read that, I’m like, okay, I’m going to see how long I can hold my breath. And you’re like, you get to, for me, a minute, minute and a half, and it’s so unpleasant, it’s just inconceivable that someone could do it for 10 times longer.

And then I had actually, after I wrote the book, had a chance to interview the North American record holder for breath-holding which he had just set, a guy named Brandon Hendrickson from Olathe, Kansas, I think. And I was asking him about it and it’s like, what changes? It’s not that his lungs get bigger or anything. What changes is his understanding that when it feels like crap, that’s just a feeling. And so you have to then just ignore that feeling. So it’s extremely unpleasant, I think he held his ground and held his breath for like eight minutes and 35 seconds, something like that. It was really, really, really unpleasant for the last four minutes. But he learned that, Hey, it’s a warning signal. I can ignore it.

Sam: It’s like the thing you said earlier that limits are a decision. 

Alex: They are a choice. One of the researchers whose work I really described a lot in the book, he has this sort of psychobiological theory of endurance, and one of the sort of the fundamental tenets for him is that the moment of failure is just as a conscious choice, it’s a decision. You decide that you’re no longer capable of doing it anymore. It’s probably the right decision in 99.99% of the cases, but don’t kid yourself that it’s not a decision. You’re choosing to slow down, to clock out, whatever the case may be in the context. 

Sam: Sure. Thinking about some of our audience being workforce leaders and folks that wake up every day, thinking about how we get the most out of our people that show up to work, I just see so many parallels between in a running a race and sprinting through a work day or a long work life, like that’s happening for so many workers globally today. Are there any, and as I raise that to you, are there any parallels that you see between the research and, maybe, powerful advice for HR leaders out there today who are trying to do that?

Alex: Absolutely. I do think there are parallels. Maybe the most important one is actually kind of the opposite of the message of the book. The book is all about push, push, push. How do you suffer more? But there’s an important caveat to that. You can’t just keep pushing indefinitely if you want to have achievements in the long run. So I guess for people who are leading workforces right now, the last message I would want them to take away is that if you give a fiery enough speech and get people to buy in, you can have people work until they literally drop dead out of exhaustion. That is not helpful, it’s not good for the workers, but it’s also not good for productivity overall. 

So there’s a section of the book that I think is really fascinating on mental fatigue, and the protocol they use is actually pretty relevant. They use 90 minutes of focused attention at a computer screen. So on your screen, there are letters flashing on the screen, you’re clicking buttons, depending on which letters show up. And what they find is after spending 90 minutes doing that, your physical performance is harmed by 15%, which is the equivalent of the effect of you doing like a hundred drops jumps.

So something that totally smashes your muscles, and you know that your muscles are messed up, but you get as much of a performance decrement if you do this 90 minutes of close work on a computer, but you don’t realize and that’s the dangerous thing. You’re mentally fatigued.

And they also do simulations of this. It’s not just physical performance here, your cognitive performance, your decision-making, your reaction time. All of these things are harmed by mental fatigue. But it’s kind of like carbon monoxide. You don’t realize that your performance is being poisoned.

And so I think once you understand that it’s the brain that determines the limits of your endurance, then you realize that actually you really need to respect the brain. The brain can help you push harder sometimes, but you also need, if you want to be performing at your best, if you want to be getting the most of your workers, you need to make sure that they’re not doing seven hours of extremely hard work, and then at that point, you’re expecting them to make a good decision or not miss a crucial detail. Because at that point, their performances are down the tubes. 

So anyway, I think that there are a lot of ways of analogizing it, but I think understanding the limits that are imposed by the fact that it’s your brain is also really important.

Sam: Yeah. And it’s almost like mental fatigue, and I think about the varying levels of mental fatigue associated with different workers within maybe a signal brand. If you’re working on the front line, you probably have a lot more, you’re probably coming, you’re clocking in in the morning with a lot more. You’re like coming out of a workout already, all day long, versus a worker who may be in a corner office whose journey to work that day maybe was not as stressful, like varying as a manager, trying to lead folks that have, not everybody’s starting the race with the same full tank, so to speak.

Alex: Yeah, absolutely. And the specific demands of different roles, and in different contexts, you have to have some sort of appreciation of what’s reasonable to expect from someone and not just for their sake, but for your sake, if you want them to be performing at their best, what are some allowances that you might be able to make to say, Hey, I realized that you were mentally fatigued or you’re physically fatigued, or you’re just emotionally or motivationally fatigued or whatever the case may be.

Sam: So what’s the next book?

Alex: We’re sort of boring with some of my answers. Endure was all about how you push harder. And now as a 45-year-old, trying to figure out what the rest of my life is all about, I’m trying to explore why we push harder. Why I feel like I need another next challenge, and you know, beyond paying rent. And I think it’s a hard question, I’m thinking about why we are driven to explore, to push? 

Sam: That’s great. That’s really timely, again, I’m coming from the workforce side, but you know, we see workers coming unstuck from brands right now, because why do I do this every day? The pandemic shifted people’s perspective of where they want to spend their time.

Alex: Yeah. It’s interesting. I started thinking about this before the pandemic, but boy, is it intensified as I’m like, what am I doing and why? And rather than fight it, I want to understand this sort of the evolutionary and neuroscientific origins of why are we wired this way? Why are we wired to push? And what are the dangers of pushing or not understanding those impulses in the modern world where we’re not chasing antelopes, we’re chasing whatever promotions? 

Sam: Well, that’s fun. I’d be excited to see what the outcome is. I tell one of the stories from the book that I tell is that, it was early in the book, it was about almost like the splits. I think it was maybe a hundred meter or 200…

Alex: When I was getting the wrong times? Yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s really the origin of my interest, I think, the way that being deceived. And if we could harness it, if we could fix this, I guess I was saying that a little bit in interviews, if you can figure out a way to trick people like that systematically, it’d be great, but it’s not. You can’t just lie to people gratuitously. So I got lucky that someone lied to me in just the right way.

Sam: Well Alex, thank you. I have one more question for you, so much about what we’re talking about is around the future of work. I think that, like you just mentioned, there’s so much that people have to think about today in order to get the best out of their team every day and individually, whether it’s positive thinking or otherwise. I want to ask you, what is your hope when you think about the future of work?

Alex: Yeah. You know, one of the issues that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately is the question of kind of meaning and challenge and making sure that people who are most satisfied in their career, they have a why, they’re doing it for a reason and they’re challenged.

One of the things people talk about with flow is you need to have a challenge that’s at the sort of utter edge of your capabilities, but it’s not so hard that you can’t do it, but it’s not so easy that it’s just it’s rote. And so I think, in a utopian future, in terms of a direction we want to go, it’s finding ways of employing these people’s talents in a way that challenges them and in a way that pushes them, not in a way that just is a bottomless pit and demands more and more and more of them, but demands just enough of them, that they’re using their talents and they’re being challenged without being sort of squeezed dry.

Sam: Alex, thanks for taking the time.

Alex: Thanks, Sam. I really appreciate the opportunity to have a chat.

Topics Discussed: Leadership, Endurance, Failure, Future of Work

Dana Safa, Manager of Digital Marketing at 1Huddle

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