By Brodie Ramin, MD MPhil CCFP
When Alex Hutchison was chosen to cover Nike’s Breaking2 project which aimed to make history by destroying the 2-hour marathon barrier, he started to get hate mail. And Hutchinson, as a polite Canadian, was sympathetic with the haters. As a runner, a writer and perhaps the best popularizer of exercise science alive today, he could see their point. “Though I’m surprised by the vehemence, I understand where it’s coming from. Running’s simplicity is its defining characteristic” he writes in his new book Endure: Mind Body and the Curiosity Elasti Limits of Human Performance which was 9 years in the making and distills everything we know about the science of exercise and athletic performance. What the haters hated was Nike’s commercial and technological incursion into this beautiful sport.
But running, indeed all sport, is not simple. Once you turn up the power on your microscope and look deeper and deeper at the cellular and molecular actions of the body under the stress of intense physical exertion you start to see worlds within worlds. It’s not simple to sort out, nor is it easy to define the limits of what can be achieved. The subtitle of the book is Mind, Body and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance. Hutchinson breaks his inquiry into such chapters as Pain, Muscle, Heat and Fuel. Each chapter uses an engaging and illustrative narrative from sports journalism to explore the limits of performance.
Hutchinson also explores the limits of our knowledge, or more frequently, our ignorance. The chapter on Heat focuses on the death of teenager Max Gilpin following a scorching afternoon’s football practice in 2008. In Hutchinson’s hands the tale becomes a scientific murder mystery which breaks though layer after layer of conventional thinking about how the body works and how it responds to stress, to heat and to exercise. He shows how so much of what we think we know is wrong, completely wrong, 180 degrees wrong. These ideas are then blasted away by Hutchinson using the weapons of science.
The chapter on Fuel explores the well-trodden carbohydrate vs. fat dietary debate then goes one step further. Hutchinson explores a study published in 2017 showing that endurance athletes on a three-week high-fat diet became “fat-burning machines to an extent few had imagined possible” But the problem was that fat metabolism uses more oxygen, and the performance of these athletes was limited by this increased demand for oxygen. It’s not fat or carbohydrates Hutchinson shows, there is a balance to be sought. The best athletes achieve “metabolic flexibility” by maximizing both fuel pathways.
Pain is a fascinating case-study in limits, as it is seemingly so simple to test. Who can suffer the most, for the longest? But pain is also “a subjective, situation-dependent phenomenon” and regular physical training can actually increase an athlete’s pain tolerance. The word pain is mandatory in most motivational athletic aphorisms, such as “No pain, no gain,” “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional”, “Pain is weakness leaving the body” and many more. Hutchinson explores the role of pain in creating champions. One way to suffer is to see how far you can cycle in 60 minutes, a challenge known simply as the Hour. Hutchinson uses the story of the Hour to explore pain, ultimately suggesting that “top athletes really push themselves to a darker place, and stay there longer, than most people are willing to tolerate.”
In the end, you realize that Hutchinson is a scientist trapped inside the body of a runner. I don’t doubt that VO2max data, racing split times and metabolic pathways fill his dreams. He wants you to share in this knowledge, to pick up the weapons of truth-finding that science allows us all to wield in the battle against ignorance, against injury and against our own limits.
Brodie Ramin is a writer and physician based in Ottawa. He practices family medicine and addiction medicine and is an Assistant Professor at the University of Ottawa.