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The Science of Human Limits

The Science of Human Limits

Health and performance expert Dr. Greg Wells hosted a Q&A on his podcast with human performance expert Alex Hutchinson. They talked about his new book Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, as well as general wellness tips for performing at your best. Read highlights from the podcast below or listen to the whole conversation here.

The Science of Human Limits: Introducing Alex Hutchinson

Dr. Greg Wells: All right, so I’m sitting here with your book, Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance. Congrats on getting this out. It looks phenomenal. I’m about two-thirds of the way through. I read it when I need to get psyched to go out and running. How’s the book been received?

Alex Hutchinson: It’s been great. I knew there was a subculture or subgroup of people who really care about endurance, and I’ve been really thrilled with the response from those people. It’s also been exciting to see the book reach people who aren’t necessarily endurance nerds, but who are interested in the idea of persistence and how that applies in lots of facets of life outside of marathons or whatever the case may be.

GW: What’s resonated most with people? What sort of messaging are you getting back about how the book is changing people’s perceptions?

AH: What I hear a lot is, “Oh, it’s so great to understand more about the role of the mind and realize that most barriers are in the mind.” It’s funny, because, in a sense, that’s what the book is about, but of course, I spent close to 300 pages trying to say it in a really complicated way and not have it come out as a sort of three-second slogan. I guess it’s reassuring that people have read some fairly complex science and come out with what I think is the key message: that the barriers that we experience as physical are often controlled in the mind. Not that they’re imaginary or easy to avoid, but that the mind plays a role that’s far greater than what most of us intuitively realize.

GW: How has that played out for you, personally? Now that you’ve written a book, now that you’ve done the research, and with your tremendous background as an elite runner, do you have a different mindset? Has it changed the way you work or workout?

AH: Having thought about this very, very deeply, and talked to hundreds of people who know a ton about the subject, I think there are some really powerful insights, but none of them make it, “Oh, it’s all in my head, therefore I can run faster.” But there are lots of things I talk about in the book and have talked about since it came out, like the idea of motivational self-talk and the power of understanding the internal monologue in your mind. I’m a full believer in exploring that, but it doesn’t mean I’ve suddenly gotten control of it or am completely able to suppress negative self-talk during runs.

At this point, what I would say is that the knowledge has pointed to a pathway for me, sort of taken me to the top of the mountain. I’m certainly much more aware of things, for example, whether I’m grimacing with a sort of artificial and unneeded frown during effort rather than relaxing my face. Or whether I am aware of saying, “This is terrible Alex, you’re going to fail again.” I’m much more aware of those things, but changing them is a process, not an instant insight.

I don’t want to sell my book short, but the truth is that understanding or appreciating the complexity of the mind’s role in endurance is really just a starting point. You still have to go out there and do the hard work to push through things.

The Importance of Sleep

Dr. Greg Wells: What about sleep? I know that the sleep research is exploding, and it’s really becoming common for people to speak about sleep and napping, about the benefits of sleeping better or getting the right amount of sleep and the effects of sleep deprivation on health and performance. What have you seen lately in the area of sleep?

Alex Hutchinson: This is an interesting one. I’ve written about sleep a few times lately, because I absolutely believe what’s being said a lot these days, that sleep is the most powerful, least expensive, most accessible performance enhancer you can get. The trouble with sleep is that it’s important to acknowledge that actually we don’t have a lot of research about sleep. It’s very hard to study. You can’t randomize someone to get a really, really good night’s sleep. You just never know. You can’t control people’s sleep in the way that you can control what they’re eating or how they’re training. As a result, there’s a lot of circumstantial evidence that sleep is important and that sleep deprivation is something you want to avoid.

Of course, the counter to that is that there are plenty of examples of people’s personal experiences with sleep that underline how important it is. There are lots of interesting nuances that people, like you, who do these crazy ultra-endurance challenges have been discovering that involve missing sleep and going for long periods of time.

One interesting development in the last year or two has been some evidence that if you’re doing something like that, if you’re going through the night, you can bank sleep in advance if you forcibly extend your sleep time. Of course, again, you can’t force sleep, but if you say to someone, “you have to spend 10 hours in bed, you can spend it however you want, but you have to be in bed for 10 hours,” the evidence suggests that those people are able to tolerate sleep deprivation a bit better. To me that hints that even if you’re not going to be racing all night or something crazy, how you sleep on a regular basis will affect how ready you are to handle big challenges, whether it’s cognitive challenges at work or at school or physical challenges.

Why Breakfast Matters

Dr. Greg Wells: I’m sensitive to your time. I’ve got one last area I want to cover because it’s one that’s massive. Just this morning, I was chatting to one of the CEOs I work with about the idea that if you win the morning, you win the day. Specifically, we were talking about improving breakfasts in order to be able to optimize energy and concentration, alertness and focus. It’s quite funny how business leaders end up trying to replicate things that athletes do, and I think it’s fascinating how much info can move back and forth between those spaces. Is there anything new in nutrition or the related areas that might help people to win the morning, win the day?

Alex Hutchinson: It’s interesting, because lately there has been a kind of breakfast backlash. In the last few years, people have looked more critically at the ideas that “breakfast is the most important meal of the day,” or, “breakfast makes you smarter,” truisms that mothers have been repeating for a few generations. You can poke holes in some of the studies. You can find that the evidence isn’t as strong as it appears. Yet, I would say that even though the proof is not as solid as maybe I would like it to be, I’m still pretty convinced that breakfast is a super important meal for a couple of reasons.

One is that you need fuel for your brain if you want to be at your best mentally. To me, I can say personally, I think breakfast is really important. I think there’s some evidence. And it may be particularly true for kids, who are chronically hungry and in more need of food than the rest of us.

The thing I looked at most recently, that’s most relevant to people who are physically active, is this idea that when you get your calories matters. If, every day, you eat 2,500 calories and you burn 2,500 calories, or whatever the case may be for an individual, you might think, “Well that person is balancing their calories perfectly.” But if you’re not distributing your calories in the right way, you may be spending a large part of the day in caloric deficit.

Let’s say you get up and have a very light breakfast, do a really long workout and then have a snack. Let’s say you burn 800 calories, but you only eat 400, or you burn a 1,000 calories and then you go through your day. You walk to work, whatever the case may be, you burn a few more calories. Maybe you’re 500 calories below your needs for that day and then you have a medium lunch or whatever. You don’t actually get back to caloric balance until dinner when, like most North Americans, dinner is this massive meal where you get 50% or more of your daily calories. You are balanced for the day, but between 9:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m., you’ve been 500 calories short.

There have been some fascinating studies just this year, really hard studies to do, where they had people track their activity and everything they ate on an hour-by-hour basis. They could calculate caloric balance by the hour. What they found is that the people who spent the longest in caloric deficit during the day, on an hour-by-hour basis, and the people who had the biggest hourly caloric deficits were most likely to have hormonal disruptions, higher stress hormones, lower levels of things like testosterone for men and the equivalents for women. Potentially, they’re more likely to have, in women, abnormal menstrual function. This idea that even if you’re in caloric balance, if you’re not getting the calories you need when you need them, it’s maybe the equivalent of putting your body under stress all day. Long story short, the best solution to that is a big breakfast. You get your calories in the morning and that way you’ve got calories in your system for the workouts you’re doing or the activities of daily living. You’re not waiting until dinner to get your calories. You’re getting your calories either immediately after or before you actually need them.

That’s my best pitch for the importance of a big breakfast, but I do recognize that the evidence isn’t ironclad.

An award-winning science journalist, Alex Hutchinson draws on his experiences as an elite long-distance runner for Canada’s national team and as a scientist to explore the limits of human performance and understand the subtle factors that define champions.

Dr. Greg Wells is a health and high performance expert who draws the parallels between elite athletes and top executives to help business leaders perform at the highest level, even when under the most extreme circumstances.

Interested in learning more about Greg and/or Alex and what they can bring to your next event? Email us at [email protected].

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