How To Get Into Sports Writing and the Limits of Human Performance with Alex Hutchinson

How To Get Into Sports Writing and the Limits of Human Performance with Alex Hutchinson - Main

Would you like to get into sports writing?

Canadian sports journalist Alex Hutchinson is the author of the New York Times best-selling Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance.

But he wasn’t always a writer.

In his early twenties, Hutchinson competed with the Canadian Athletics Team while training as a physicist. As his running career came to an end around 2006, he transitioned into sports journalism.

The book blends Hutchinson’s passion for running with his scientific training in an attempt to probe the link between the human body and mind in top athletes.

In this interview, Alex explains:

  • How top performers push past discomfort to accomplish more
  • Why he decided to write a sports science book
  • How he got into sports writing
  • The link between an introverted activity like writing and physical training
  • Why sports mantras work and how anyone can use them

And lots more.

I start by asking Alex to describe how he transitioned from a career as a physicist to becoming a sports writer.

Resources:

Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance

Listen

Bryan: Can physical training help you become a better or more focused writer? That's a question I've often wondered about, and it's a theme that I've explored in articles that I've written and occasionally [inaudible 00:00:40] Become a Writer Today podcast, and it's also one I want to dive a little bit deeper into in this week's podcast episode. I had the chance to catch up with the author of one of my favorite books published in recent years. The book is called In Your Mind, Body and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance. And it's by Canadian sports journalist and author Alex Hutchinson. Alex is a prolific runner, and he's also a well-regarded sports writer and author. So, I was interested to learn, not just about his writing process, but perhaps if you had a few tips for me that could help me learn how to run a little bit faster.

Now I've talked about running on and off on the Become a Writer Today podcast. I enjoy long distance running, and I've competed in several marathons over the years. And I find running is a great way to switch off if I spend a lot of time sitting at my desk or a lot of time writing or if I'm just stressed or struggling with a problem. Typically, I'll go for a five or 10 kilometer, that's about six miles, run in the afternoons or in the evenings after the working day. And at the weekend, I might go for a longer run with members of the running club that I'm in, which is in Leixlip, which is about an hour outside Dublin in Ireland. I found running is a great release because writers spend a lot of time alone in a room and running is a good way of seeing other people. But it's still in a way an introverted sport, much like writing, because at the end of the day it's you and you alone in a race. A team can't help you finish the race, you've got to do it yourself.

I got into running about eight or nine years ago, and it was actually connected to my writing process because at the time I was spending a lot of hours each day hunched over my desk and hunched over my keyboard and mouse. And I was struggling with a bad case of RSI or repetitive strain injury. And I was able to fix that, in a way, by swapping out my mouse on my keyboard by taking longer breaks from the monitor and from work. But then I started to get sciatica as well, and I never had anything like this before. But basically, pains started shooting up and down the right side of my body. At one point, my right toe even went a little bit numb. I didn't know what this was at all, until I went to a physiotherapist. He got me to perform a series of exercises and tests, and then he asked me about my working day.

And I explained that I was spending about eight or nine hours sitting down, working. And I remember he shook his head and said, that's not a healthy way to spend your day. And he recommended I started going for a walk in the afternoons or even going for a run. And at the time, a friend had just taken up running. I think he was going to use it as a way to meet some women. I was married, so that wasn't really a goal of mine, but I was interested in learning to run or at least learning how to do more than just huff and puff around the block for five or 10 minutes. So, I joined the local athletics club in Leixlip. And at first I was content to run three or four kilometers, but then before I knew it I was able to run five kilometers and then 10 kilometers. And I eventually signed up for my first marathon back in 2014.

And running actually helped me with repetitive strain injury and sciatica because I found that these pains that I was getting while I was writing actually disappeared. And I think it was either because I was building up some strength to running or simply because I had cultivated a more healthier daily routine, whereby I was mixing some focused work and some writing with exercise. These days, I run about three or four times a week, and I also balance running with some strength training in a nearby gym, which is actually a CrossFit gym, which is probably a story for another day. But I find running is a fantastic way of just switching off, and I've often thought of breakthroughs for articles or for stories that I'm working on while I'm out for a run. I've had the odd experience of having to stop a run halfway through and take my phone out of my pocket and start dictating notes to myself about a book chapter that I was struggling with.

At one time I remember I was shouting into my phone about something I wanted to write when a woman walked around the corridor with her dog, and I remember she gave me a very odd look at the time. But I didn't really care because I was enjoying the run, and I had thought of an idea that I wanted to capture. And of course, when I got into running, I wanted to learn more about the sport. So, I started reading books and articles about running, which brings me to this week's podcast interview. I discovered there were two types of books or at least sports books, typically. One is the instructional book, which will explain all you need to do to run a marathon or to run a 10 kilometer race.

In other words, if you do X, Y, and Zed, then you can expect to get this result. And I read a lot of those books. They're almost like longer blog posts. But the other type of books are more books that delve into the science behind a sport or perhaps the personality behind a sport. In this case, the book that I'm featuring in this week's podcast episode is all about the science of sports like running and cycling and other endurance events. And even if you're not into running or you're not into endurance events, there's still some interesting takeaways from the author, Alex, because he talks about how his book writing process has evolved and how it's different to his writing process for sports articles that he writes for various publications. He also explains how he pivoted from a career as a physicist to getting into sports writing and why he left that old career behind but how it's helped him with his new one.

He also talks about how top performers can push past the point of discomfort to accomplish more. And this is actually something that can apply to difficult [inaudible 00:06:08]. And at the end of the interview, we have an interesting discussion about how an introverted activity like writing is a little bit like an introverted sport like running. So, it's very nice to talk to you today, Alex. I read your book over Christmas because I enjoy long distance running, although I'm not very fast. But perhaps you could maybe start by telling me a little bit about who you are and your journey towards becoming the author of a book like Endure.

Alex: Thanks a lot, Brian. I appreciate the opportunity to be here. Yeah, I guess by way of introduction, I guess I would describe myself currently as a science journalist, but one with a fairly narrow niche. I write a lot about sports science and specifically the science of endurance. And I've been doing that for almost 15 years now. These days, I write a column for Outside Magazine in the United States called Sweat Science, an online column where the basic goal is I look at new scientific studies, and I try and evaluate whether they have anything useful to say and then translate that message for a broader audience. So, it's a science communication role that focuses in on something that's a great hobby of mine like you, which is long distance running, and more broadly endurance, so that encompasses cycling and backpacking and triathlon and things like that. I'm one of the lucky people that have been able to find a way of making my career focus in on something that's a hobby of mine.

That's not something that necessarily happened quickly or easily. I had a circuitous career path. I started out studying physics in university and ended up doing a PhD in physics and actually working as a postdoctoral physicist through my twenties. And it was only in my late twenties, and at the same time, I was actually competing quite seriously as an athlete. I ran for the Canadian athletics team, competed at the World Cross Country Championships and some other international competitions. And as that phase of my life wound down, I realized that physics wasn't going to fill the passion part of my life in the way that I'd hoped it might. So, I made a career transition in my late twenties. When I was 28, I left physics and returned to university to study journalism, did a one year master's degree in journalism.

And then from there, worked for a newspaper initially as the baseline general assignment reporter. And then after a year and a half of that, went freelance, and that was in 2006. And so, then I was writing mostly for magazines and newspapers and then started to write books. Endure is, strictly speaking, my third book, but I'd say it's the first one that I'm really proud of. It's been a growing process, where I don't think I hit it out of the park the first time.

Bryan: Yeah, it's a fascinating book. What struck me is unlike other books for athletes or at least for runners that I've come across, a lot of your insights and advice is backed up by science and by real world experience. I presume that's based on your training to prior to becoming a journalist?

Alex: Yeah, for sure. Well, it's kind of a mix of... I think to write the things that I write now, I draw on my experiences as an athlete, both in the past and the present, as someone who continues to enjoy running, even if I'm not trying to break records or anything, but in terms of pushing myself. So, I draw on the athletic experience, I draw on the scientific training. I don't necessarily use the physics directly. I'm not writing about Newton's laws or anything, but that scientific training and that comfort with reading scientific papers and maybe most importantly, the willingness to call up scientists and to ask them questions until I understand what they're trying to tell me. That part is important, and then also I had a journalistic training, which it's easy to neglect because you think, what did I learn as a journalist?

I already knew how to write. It's not like they taught me how to spell or anything like that. But in terms of it really helps... That training, I think helped me think about how to communicate to an audience and how to present information in a way that's accessible. So, it's not just about having good information, but about making it interesting and accessible to other people. So, I draw on all three of those parts of my background in my job these days.

Bryan: Did the book take long for you to write?

Alex: Yeah, it's almost embarrassing. When Endure came out in 2018, and as it was approaching publication, I looked back through some emails to try and figure it out when I'd started claiming that I was working on this book. And it turned out, I had emails back in 2009, getting in touch with people saying, "Hey, I'm writing a book about endurance. Can I come and visit your lab, talk to you about your research?" And I actually... For instance, I took a tour trip to South Africa in 2010 to visit the lab of a scientist named Tim Noakes. 2010, that's eight years before the book came out. Now, it's not that I was sitting at my desk for nine years working away at the book. I was able to, and this is a thing that worked out quite well, I was able to use my ongoing journalism for magazines and newspapers as a way or as an excuse to go and do some interesting research, ask the questions that I was interested in for my book and pay my rent at the same time.

So, I was doing this journalism as a way of chipping away at the questions I was interested in for my book. And then finally, once I pulled it all together, wrote a book proposal, got a deal with a publisher, I gave myself, nominally, a year to write the book. I got an extension, so it was probably 16 months or so that I spent formally, actually writing the book. But even then, I was still maybe spending roughly half of my time writing magazine journalism and paying the rent while I was doing this, and then the other half of my time was writing. So, call it a year and a half writing, but 10 years in the making.

Bryan: So, one of the chapters that resonated most to me was that the chapter about training the brain. And you say that there may or may not be a choice between what we think our limits are and what our actual limits are. So, do you think somebody can push past what they believe their limits are during a race or perhaps if they're in a stressful situation and they feel like they're tapped out?

Alex: Yeah. And I think you've put your finger on what I think is the essential question that I was trying to wrestle with in the book, which is what are our limits, and how negotiable are they when it feels like you can't go any faster? Is that just like, oh, your body's maxed out? Or is there more that you can maybe, under some circumstances, tap into? And I think for anyone who's participated in something like running, you have the experience that if you get into a race surrounded by thousands of people and your goals are on the line, you find that you can usually achieve something that would have been impossible in training, that you can run faster in that competitive scenario than you could otherwise. And that's, I think, one example of the ways in which we realize that what feels like a physical limit is actually influenced by the circumstances, both by the external circumstances.

Let's say you're in the Olympic stadium racing for the gold medal. You're probably going to be able to push a little harder than if you're just, on a rainy Tuesday night, out in the local park. But what was interesting to me, and I think what you were getting at with talking about the brain training chapter is that it's also influenced by what's going on in your head. This sounds like the prelude to a motivational speech or a if you believe you can achieve. But what was the big surprise to me in researching the book is discovering that there's actually some pretty good research looking at the difference that your mindset can make, and that discovering the limits that feel like they're purely physical even, are influenced by whether you're telling yourself, "I can do this, I'm ready for this," or whether you're telling yourself, "This sucks. Why am I doing this? I should give up," Because it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy.

Bryan: You also talk about how you can train the brain via a series of exercises to withstand boredom or discomfort.

Alex: Yeah, so it's interesting. Now, if you talk to any good coach or even any athlete, they'll say training is a process that improves the mind and the body at the same time, even when you're just sitting in a gym lifting weight. You're training your mind, you're training your toughness as much as training your body. But you can ask the interesting question that some of the researchers I spoke to have been asking us, can you separate those two things? Is it possible to take this out of the realm of cliche and let's say, scientifically, just train the brain?

So, you're just going to sit in front of a computer, but we're going to have you perform tasks that are mentally fatiguing, mentally taxing. So, there's going to be things like shapes or numbers or letters or arrows flashing on the screen, and you have to focus and hit the right button as soon as you see a given pattern of shapes. And that's going to make you mentally fatigued if you sit there and do that for 90 minutes. If you do that over and over again, do you train your brain's ability to resist fatigue? And there's been a fascinating series of studies funded by the British Ministry of Defense that has made... It's still preliminary research, I would emphasize, that makes the case that yeah, you can train the brain. As one of the researchers I spoke to put it, you can sit at your computer every day for an hour and make yourself a faster marathoner.

Now, is that the best way to become faster at marathoning? No, because your body matters too, and it's better to go out and run where you'll be getting the mental and physical training. I tried this out. I did a 12 week brain training module leading up to a marathon while I was researching the book. And again, it's hard to tell whether it worked, but I do know it was absolutely miserable. I would far rather have been outside running than sitting at the computer tapping these things. So I guess what I'm saying is I would not rush out and assume that brain training is going to be the next big thing for performance enhancement. But, I think it's a proof of principle that tells us being conscious of the way in which you're developing your mental skills, your mental toughness and these sorts of things; That's important, even if you're not going to do what I did, which was sit in front of the computer for 90 minutes a day playing the world's worst computer game.

Bryan: Yeah, the exercise sounded quite tedious all right. So, I'm curious for the average person, who's not a professional athlete, do you think intense, physical training, some of which you describe in the book, can help them in other areas of their life? For example, becoming more efficient at work or perhaps more creative or just helping them with their general performance outside of the track or gym?

Alex: I really do. I want to be careful not to claim that there's some sort of miracle connection that the more weight you can lift the better you'll write a report at work or whatever. One way I would put it is one of the feelings that I came away with after researching the book is that when we talk about endurance or a fortitude in a non-athletic context, when we talk about, oh man, I had to stay up really late last night studying for this exam, or I had a four hour meeting and by the end, I was just barely able to endear.

It's not just a metaphor. It turns out that if you study insurance in the athletic context, the current thinking is that you're breaking point. There's nothing in your body that you can measure that will tell you when you're about to give up. And one of the classic tests they use is you can think about sitting against a wall with no chair, the back sit kind of thing, until you collapse. And you would think, you might assume that if you had a perfect physiological measuring machine, you could measure the point where your leg muscles are about to fail or your lactic acid is too high or your heart rate or your temperature, whatever. There's some physiological thing that predicts when you fail. But in fact, your breaking point is determined in your mind. It's your subjective perception of how hard it feels that's the master switch of endurance.

And so that, I think, applies well beyond the field of sport and athletics. It applies in all sorts of facets of our lives. The definition of endurance that these scientists use, it's the struggle to continue against a mounting to desire to stop. And we encounter that in our personal lives and certainly in our professional lives. We often have to make decisions about how hard does this feel and how much discomfort am I willing to tolerate before I say I've had enough?

I guess the other thing I would say is applicable is the realization that your decision to say I've had enough is going to be influenced by what you're telling yourself. And if you go into work every day telling yourself, I hate this job, I'm not good at it, this book sucks and I'm never going to publish a deal or I'm never going to execute it in the way I want, it just drains your energy and makes you less willing to do the hard work that's necessary for any worthwhile goal. So understanding the role of building up your self belief and your confidence in your ability to get something done, I think, is a big transferable lesson.

Bryan: Yeah. There's an Irish marathon runner, I'm not sure if you're familiar with him, but his name is Stephen Scullion, but he writes motivational messages to himself on his forearm when he's competing in events.

Alex: Oh, interesting.

Bryan: Yeah. He says that's helped him increase his times.

Alex: Yeah because for sure... It's funny, when you're just sitting at your desk, it seems easy to say, I really want this, I'm going to push as hard as I want. But when you're in the heat of the battle, it's like you enter an altered mental state, and all of a sudden, everything that's important to you, when you're in a race, it's so easy to find excuses that, ah, this isn't that big a deal. I don't really care that much. And then as soon as you stop, you're like, no, I do care. Why didn't I slack off?

And so having that reminder of the work you've done, of the hard work and why it's important to you and why you want to keep pushing, that seems like a great idea. And I think it's funny. I've always been a skeptic of motivational mantras and things like that. But I've started to realize that even something that sounds fairly cheesy, it's just a reminder sometimes, all you need is a cue to remind yourself, yeah, this is important to me and I want to keep pushing. It doesn't mean you can do everything or become super [inaudible 00:19:16] normal or whatever, or invincible. You don't always succeed, but it helps you to make sure you're getting the most out of yourself.

Bryan: A while ago I was interviewing Nir Eyal, the author of Indistractible, and he was saying that science that was popular a few years ago that said willpower is limited. He was taking issue with that and saying willpower isn't really limited. We just need to change our context rather than saying that I don't have anything daft to focus on this task. So I wondered, did you have any thoughts on that? Because I know you get into willpower a little bit in the book.

Alex: Yeah. There's been a really popular scientific paradigm called ego depletion, which is this... It essentially is a metaphor that your willpower is a muscle is one way of thinking of it or it's like a jar or something that you can use up and once it's gone... So the idea here is if you spend your willpower on things that aren't important, you won't have it left for things that are important. So, this is why Mark Zuckerberg wears the same shirt every day or the same style of shirt. He doesn't want to waste mental decision power on insignificant things like what color shirt to wear. I think it's a useful metaphor, but it's turned out to be, when they try and study willpower, it turns out not to be... No one could find evidence that it's really this finite quantity that you use up.

So, I tend to agree that... I'm a big believer in structuring in my environment in a way that pushes me to make good decisions. So, a simple example is don't buy a bunch of cookies at the grocery store and then rely on your willpower to only have one every day. If you are the type of person like me, who once you have a cookie, you're like, well, maybe I should have seven. Don't buy the cookies. Just make the decision. Have them when you're at a party and someone else has them, but don't have a bag of them in your house so that you're constantly having to resist them. And you can extend that example into all sorts of facets of life, about making one decision at one time so that the environment you're putting yourself in, the easiest route to take is the one that you would want to take. So, you're swimming downstream instead of trying to swim upstream on all the little decisions you have to make during the day.

Bryan: Yeah. I remember the first time I tried for a marathon, the coach advised that we leave our running gear out wherever we're going to get dressed that morning so that when we get up, it's the first thing we see and we can't debate whether we're going to go for a run or not because we've already made that decision the night before.

Alex: Exactly. And for a similar reason, I tend to run either six or seven days a week. And that's not necessarily because I think I need to run every day. But it's because I've found that if I have a choice when I get up in the morning, then I spend a bunch of time thinking, I'm going to run four days this week, should today be one of the days I run or not? Well, let's see, let's check the weather. Oh, it's okay today, but is it going to be better or worse tomorrow? And how busy am I today, and how do I feel today, and how tired I am? And I've found it's better, I just make the rule that I'm going to run every day. And now sometimes I'm very busy for work or with family, and sometimes I'm super tired or really stressed.

And in that case, I give myself permission. I'll get out the door, and if after five minutes I'm like, I'm still don't feel good, and I'm really worried about that deadline that I have coming in two hours, I turn around and then I've got the... And if the run is 10 minutes, the run is 10 minutes. That's fine. That's okay with me. But what it avoids is the mental battle of trying to force myself to run. I'm going to run, and then if it's going to be 10 minutes, it's going to be 10 minutes and that's fine. Or five minutes or whatever the case may be. And usually, once I get out there of course, I realize, oh, I'm glad I'm outside. I'm glad I'm running. I feel great. And you know what? I can spare 20 minutes, so my day is never that packed that I can't spare an extra 20 or 25 minutes. But I avoid having to make the decision every morning because it's just easier to have a default policy, I think.

Bryan: Yeah. Well, I find running or strength training helps me actually get more done because I have more energy. But do you still compete in events? You talked earlier about you were competing in professional events in your twenties.

Alex: Yeah. I'm certainly not competing at an elite level anymore. I'm in my mid-forties now and I've got a couple young kids. And so, the level of training even to compete at a high level relative to my age, I have trouble doing that right now. And just for whatever reason, I'm not driven to do that right now, so I'm not forcing myself to do it, but I still enter the occasional 5K race or cross country race or sometimes I've even done a few orienteering or trail races just for something different. And that gives me something just... I know that at least a few times a year I'm going to compete, and that helps me stay motivated to, in any given week, I generally do a couple of harder... I'll do a tempo run and a interval workout.

And I think those are important to keep running interesting to me, so that I'm not just going out and running an easy run everyday. I'm doing intervals and tempo runs [inaudible 00:24:04] hill sprints and things like that. I think it's healthier for me, it's mentally more interesting. And I think including as part of my weekly regime, a few times when I'm uncomfortable and pushing myself and digging deep, I think that keeps me... I feel like it keeps me alive in some ways.

Bryan: Yeah, I like that. I started to find, when I was bored of running a few years ago, vary the types of runs helped. Do you have an ideal early morning routine?

Alex: My early morning routine is captive to my wife's really morning routine these days because since we have a three year old and a six year old, we can't be both out of the house at the same time. And my wife is a doctor, so her schedule is fairly unpredictable and also non-negotiable. If she needs to go, she needs to go. Whereas I'm a writer at home, so I'm the one who bends, if needed.

So, my ideal scenario is wake up in the morning, and as soon as I wake up, and let's say that's 6:30 or 7, just get out and go for a run, and when they come back, have breakfast and then spend an embarrassing amount of time, let's call it an hour, half an hour to an hour catching up on news and just surfing the web in a sense, when it comes right down to it, and catching up on a few emails and then trying to ease into the work routine. The current reality is that often when I get up, the first hour will be getting my kids up, helping them get dressed, getting them breakfast, getting them ready for the day ahead, and then depending on what's going on, if my wife's back or if we have childcare help, then I can head out for my run.

But I definitely am a morning runner. The earlier the better. Everyone's different, so I'm not an evangelist trying to say everyone should be like me, but I'm one who likes to get the run out of the way because the longer the day goes on, the more the commitments pile up and I start to think, there's no way I can spare the time. So, I take it when I have it.

Bryan: That sounds similar to my morning. We have three kids. And finally, arguably writing is an introverted profession, and running is an introverted sport. Is that something you'd agree with or have you found otherwise?

Alex: Absolutely. I think there's a distinction between, I agree that they're introverted activities, but it doesn't mean that we don't benefit from or enjoy the presence of other people. But it's a different form of interaction. It's a little less gregarious. I certainly like, a few times a week, when there's no pandemics in the way, getting together with friends and going for a run, especially for my hard runs. I really like having company if I'm doing a tempo run or an interval workout. And there may not be a whole bunch of talking that goes on during those workouts, but just being in the presence of other people and having a little banter before and after the run, I find quite nice.

And writing... I'm less good than I should be about getting together for coffee or for a pint with others who are working from home and having that fairly isolated existence that I guess the rest of the world is currently experiencing.

Bryan: Yeah, I found with long runs, if I don't want to do it, if I go with someone else it helps. Where can people find more information about you Alex or read some of your writings?

Alex: Yeah, probably the easiest place to find me is on Twitter. My handle is @sweatscience, all one word. That's where anytime I write something, I post it there, and any time I find other things that I find interesting, I post it there. I do have a website which is Alexhutchinson.net that has a little more background detail and links to older stuff. It's updated once every five years or so. But, yeah. So, for the current stuff, you can go and check out my HTML skills from 2009 on my website. But for the current stuff, Twitter's probably a good place to find me.

Bryan: Great. Well, it was great to talk to you today, Alex. I really found the book fascinating, as somebody who's an amateur runner. Thank you.

Alex: Thanks so much, Brian. It's really fun to chat.

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