How to Effectively Apply Scientific Research to Your Training: Interview with Alex Hutchinson

alex hutchinson interviewAs evidenced by many of our posts, we’re big fans of examining the latest running researching and analyzing how we can apply the findings to our training methodologies. However, applying scientific data to training isn’t simple and it’s easy to get carried away with what studies are actually reporting.

Consider the recent article in the Wall Street Journal that reported highly trained endurance athletes negated most of the health benefits from exercise and thus increased risk of death.  After reading this article, you’d be quick to stop logging miles and start running a lot easier if you wanted to live. However, if you looked at the actual study closely (which our guest this week did), you’d realize that the data is misleading.

So, how do you effectively apply all that scientific data and research without getting overwhelmed and questioning your training with the release of every new study?

In this week’s Run to the Top podcast, we’re interviewing one of the foremost experts on analyzing running research and applying (or discrediting) the results to actual training, Alex Hutchinson.

His book, Which Comes First, Cardio or Weights, looks at 111 common fitness and running myths and uses scientific research to confirm or deny their truth. In my opinion, it’s the most interesting book I read in 2012.

As such, I am excited to have him on the show today to talk more about the research he analyzed for the book and to dig deeper into the results he uncovered. In this show, we talk about:

  • Alex’s two favorite topics in the book and which ones surprised him the most. More importantly, he discusses what the data actually means and how you can apply it to your training and racing.
  • How he balances wanting to apply the study results he examines with the need to listen to his body and not become obsessed with meaningless data. Alex talks about what he sees as useless metrics and outlines some of the critical numbers he does pay attention to.
  • The role the brain plays in fatigue management. If you’ve ever wondered why you slow down in the middle of a race, only to summon a ferocious kick the last 400 meters, Alex shares the research on why this happens.
  • How to decide what type of exercise (strength training or running) to do first to maximize benefits.

This is a great interview if you love the scientific aspect of running and want to learn how, or how not to, apply the latest research findings to your training.

Watch this week’s show now

Download the podcast version here

Links and resources mentioned in this interview:

Alex’s book, Which Comes First, Cardio or Weights

Alex’s blog on RunnersWorld

Hammer Intervals for teaching yourself how to race

All links to Alex’s book are affiliate links

Read the Transcript

Jeff:                 Hello fellow runners. Welcome back to the Runners Connect, Run to the top podcast. How do you effectively apply scientific research to your training? In today’s interview, we’re going to talk to Alex Hutchinson who’s one of the foremost experts on analyzing running research in applying or discrediting the results to actual training. Alex is the author of the book Which Comes First, Cardio or Weights which analyzes a 111 common fitness in runningness and uses scientific research to confirm or deny their truth.

In my opinion, it’s one of the best books that I’ve read in 2012 so I’m really excited to have Alex on here today to share his wisdom and to dig into depth into some of the research and fitness myths that he uncovered while writing his book. If you’re interested in any of the links that we mentioned in this interview, you can access them at and as always, please do us a favor and leave us a rating on iTunes and if you want to ask questions to our future guests, you can follow us on Facebook or Twitter. Without further ado, let’s get to the interview.

Hi, Alex welcome to the show. Thanks for taking the time out of your day to join us today.

Alex:                Hi, Jeff. Thanks, it’s great to be here. I appreciate the opportunity.

Jeff:                 Awesome. I did a brief introduction about you, but you tell the audience a little bit about your background in running itself and then also in regards to your scientific in running exploits.

Alex:                Well, to start with running, I think like you and like a lot of people I started running in high school and run through high school on university and for a few year that I’ve been to university mainly is I started as a middle distance runner. I was running 1500 meters in a mile and that’s what I was probably most successful at and later I started move up and ran 5000 meters. I ran 342 to 1500 and 1552 for 5000 meters and as a distance gets longer I struggled with it more. I’ve never on marathon yet that’s on my [inaudible 00:02:04] next year but I’m 37 now and I still train and race. I train everyday and enjoy racing and I’m branching out now into trail races and I’ve tried some mountain races and having fun with that job mainly on the road stances.

Jeff:                 Nice. It’s some definitely good running background. You definitely were accomplished and for people I don’t know Alex is in Canada and so– you are from Canada, correct?

Alex:                I am from Canada. I ran [inaudible 00:02:32] cross country and so I was able to Run for Canada at the World Cross Country championships a few times so whatever the surface or the distance I do have, I’ve some experience with it.

Jeff:                 Awesome, and after you– besides your running background, talk a little bit about scientifically and kind of getting into the running background of research and running.

Alex:                Yes, I have a fairly unusual career path. At university, I studied physics that was [inaudible 00:02:59] University of Canada and after that I went to Britain into the PhD in Physics at the University of Cambridge and after that I ran full time for a year after that. Then, I did some post doctoral research at the National Security Agency done in Washington for a few years in Physics. I enjoyed the research, but it wasn’t quite the right fit for me career wise in terms of just, it wasn’t my passion and when I was 28, I went back into the Masters in Journalism at Columbia.

I wasn’t quite sure where that would lead or what kind of journalism I would end up doing because then as we all know that journalism world is in a bit of flux these days. It’s not, no one really knows how journalism is going to work, but things have turned out well because by combining my running interest, both my experience in running, but also just the fact that I’m really interested in running and I’ve always been a student of the sport with my scientific background, even though my training is in physics, really I think as a lot of people would attest science is not necessarily a specific set of equations or anything. It’s a way of looking at the world and of being comfortable with reading literature and going to scientists and asking them questions about the research and so I’ve kind of found a niche where I do most of my—most of my work is now focused on the sort of the science of training and fitness and health.

That’s runner’s world and we think we’re in Canada and various other [inaudible 00:04:31] magazines. I guess the one other thing I should mention is people think, “Oh, he spends a lot of time doing physics. What a waste”. The real advantage for me is that go on to different places, going to England– I live in Washington. I had a chance actually to train with some of the interesting coaches over the years so when I was in England I trained with a guy named Harriet Wilson who is the coach of Steve [inaudible 00:04:54] the world mountain record holder. In Washington, I trained with Mass Central which is [inaudible 00:04:59] I guess these days I have to spend specified that I’m talking about [inaudible 00:05:02] senior American record holder for 5k but who’s also the father of Max [inaudible 00:05:07] that world championship medalist.

Over the years, I’ve trained with a lot of different coaches and made me very inspiration in their lives and as much as I think science is really important that’s something a skill that a good coach go far beyond just reading studies and figuring out how to train.

Jeff:                 I think that’s great and honestly, one of the reasons I love your writing so much and I’m such a fan is that you do a really good job of combining that scientific research aspect with the experiences that you’ve had both in your own career and as well as that you’ve learned from other coaches and runners and I think that blend that you’re able to bring to the table and say, “Okay, we saw the results of this study” how does that really apply and can this really apply to training because it’s in such an isolated environment and you do a really great job of bringing that out and making that clear to the readers and as– from the research. I think it’s awesome and it’s funny, you mentioned the physics PhD. When I first heard that you had a PhD, I just automatically assume that it’s an exercise ideology and or something related to that and so when I saw physics, I was like wow, and actually kind of a follow up question, do you feel like there’s anything related that you brought over from the physics world or physics studying other than learning how to look at literature and scientific research critically?

Alex:                Well, I’ll tell you one thing. Whenever I read those descriptions of post running technique that says, “You have to be following forward because if you follow forward, it’ll push you forward for your entire run”. I can say well, one thing I can remember from first year of physics there’s some pretty basic conservation of momentum and energy law. It says you can’t follow forward for all the run unless you’re running down on Everest. And more seriously, particularly looking at things like biomechanics studies and having a certain comfort level with reading these studies about how forces are acting and inputs forces and reaction forces and stuff, there’s little bit of that but to be honest, I definitely wouldn’t exaggerate direct crossover of physics especially after undergraduate.

Once I was doing a graduate research or in post graduate research, I was focused on a very, very narrow area. I was working with Quantum Computing in semi-conductor physics. There’s very little that I did on a day to day basis there that applies here, but again like I was saying before, there’s– a lot of overlaps just in terms of how you process information, how you ask questions and how you answer them and like you said, how to not overstate the significant results because we all– [inaudible 00:07:58] very interesting full studies from exercises [inaudible 00:07:59] training and studies where they have runner A trains in one way and runner B trains in another way. These give us clues and hints about what maybe going on inside the body and then find some interesting ideas about how they train, but they don’t write a training plan for you. I think people sometimes think that because of my interest and my background, I would have a very, very science based approach to my training. Personally, I don’t own a garment or a GPS watch. I don’t do a lot of– I have a heart rate monitor, but I rarely use it in training so I think this thing that you were alluding to before of sort of integrating information to a training grand plan without letting the tail wag the dog, I think is really important.

Yes, physics– let’s rewind back to your original question. I don’t use a lot of my [inaudible 00:08:58] physics, but I think the [inaudible 00:09:01] and science at a certain level.

Jeff:                 Right. Now it’s interesting that you brought up the point about yourself not actually owning a garment and not really using a heart rate monitor and having such a scientific background, is that something that has come to you over time? Did you ever try to do– did you ever try to train especially when you are running competitively with a more scientific approach, you’re really looking at everything or has it always been a little bit more relaxed approach to training for you?

Alex:                It’s a bit of conflict and internal conflict. To be honest, it’s like– in some way, I think I’m weary about letting myself getting too wrapped up in the numbers and the data because of my information, because of my interest in this kind of stuff and because running itself lends itself to a sort of obsessive over analytical approach.

Jeff:                 Absolutely.

Alex:                And because that can then spiral into over training or not– altering your training in order to produce with data instead of [inaudible 00:10:08] training so looking back for instance– even back to when I was in high school this is what for their GPS watches. Well, we did have watches back then. I read 10 notes more of running while I was in high school and one of the points that it made at that point, they thought that a good indicator, a good advanced indicator of over training was heart rate response just after you get up in the morning. When you wake up in the morning and you’re lying in bed your heart rate will vary depending on your previous training or what else this is going on. It’s hard to get information from that, but then when you stand up for the first time of the your heart rate will spike and what they found is the difference between your lying in bed heart rate and your 15 seconds after you stand up heart rate was a pretty good indicator of– if there’s a big gap. If your heart rate really spikes after you stand up, that’s a good indicator that something is going on with nervous system that maybe indicates over training.

When I was in high school and entered university for several years, I took a heart rate every morning when I woke up and I took a heart rate 15 seconds after I stood up, pretty much every morning for several years. I guess, which is an example to say that yes, I am interested and always have been interested in figuring out what data is useful and what data can I apply to my training and I certainly enjoy and keep training logs and running various analysis, looking up not just my weekly mileage, but always keep the running three to four week total. So I know enough just how much mileage I’ve done last week and how much I’ve done on average over the last two or four weeks.

Yes, right now because I’m more running for fun these days, I don’t, but I need that. If I was still more competitive, yes, I would still try to apply some of that data, but I think you have to always be thinking about the balance between to what extent is this helping me and to what extent am I just trying to create [inaudible 00:12:16]. Am I letting my training be dictated by what I think will produce good data or a good training log or something like that? In all honesty, what I would I advise someone? What data would I advise someone to keep track of? It depends on the person. Some people really need to be held fast. Some people need to be pushed forward. Some people thrive on more data. Some people feel its pressure data. I don’t think [inaudible 00:12:46] but I do think– I guess in general that so far a lot of the data that people collect is not a really all that useful, that we know of the lesson then we sometimes pretend we know about where exactly our relation be on a given run.

Jeff:                 I’m glad that you said that because I think personally as a coach one of the definitely most difficult that I deal with is runners wanting to look at and provide too much data sometimes and I see there’s a lot– most often like easy runs where– and especially with strides where an athlete will record every split of their easy run and then record what their fastest time was for 20 or 30 second stride after their run. They want to compare that data to what they’ve done before or if they have a bad easy run mile, they just like, oh, that was a bad run. I let my pay slip in my easy run. I think for me, I’m just like, wow, easy, just take it easy. Don’t even turn on your watch. Just run easy, but you get so caught in the data that it can be– it can really distract from the training and actually what you’re trying to accomplish overall so I’m actually glad to hear you say that and kind of confirm that even though you have the analytical background that you would still approach your training in that kind of way.

Alex:                Yes, and I would say– like I said, it’s a struggle sometimes. I totally agree. Easy runs you should not be worried. I had a typical easy run group that I’ve been for many years. Back in Toronto that sometime I would run in 51 minutes, sometimes I run like 61 minutes and the truth is that really doesn’t matter unless if I’m running 61 minutes for two weeks at a time then I’m like [inaudible 00:14:35] is probably high. It’s only over the course of many days and weeks to do some [inaudible 00:14:41] manner.

The day to day variation can be from a million things and you really need to not worry about it. That being said, because I ran that route for so many years. I knew where every kilometer split was. There’s my Canadian [inaudible 00:14:55] kilometer splits and even I would try not to, but it was like a kick. I couldn’t help but check the kilometer splits and it’s something I really had to be conscious of saying, “You know what, I just want through two kilometers, 30 seconds slower than I did yesterday.

Don’t worry about it. Don’t speed up in response because what should dictate the right pace for this easy run is what feels right to be not in a– there’s no objective reality that I need to be running at a certain pace on this day. Yes, I totally agree with you, but I also have some sympathy for the runner. They’re like, “Yes, [inaudible 00:15:35] and they want to compare and they want to look for meaning in this meaningless statistical fluctuations”.

Jeff:                 Right. No, that’s funny. I have a similar story with the loop in high school very similar where I knew the exact miles puts and I knew the exact distance and my issue was that anytime I was close to a PR for the course it was like, no longer an easy day. It was, let’s go, if I hit the first mile fast, it was– let’s see if I can PR for the course today. I still overlook at myself.

Alex:                Yes, for sure. I have a good friend who’s just got into running in the last couple of years and was on a fresh marathon and I was visiting him a couple of weeks ago and he was telling me about the loop he’s running most days and how incredible the feeling of progress and he’s gotten in shape and how he’s used to run it in 45 minutes. He struggled to run this loop in 45 minutes and then he was doing it 42 and then 41 and then 39 and then 37. Last week he had gotten down into 35 and, it’s great to hear. This is what’s wonderful about running. It’s still quantifiable, but you could see your progress which just feels so great, but I kind of was trying to wonder, it doesn’t go on forever. You’re not going to be learning 25 minutes for this in the next year and 15 the year after that. You have to start looking for feedback and validation in other ways than expecting to get faster and faster on your easy– but it’s not even supposed to be work out. It’s just supposed to be your average run. You can’t be bad as an opportunity to PR every week because that [inaudible 00:17:12].

Jeff:                 Right. It’s a great advice and very great advice for anybody that’s listening to this podcasts who’s a beginner runner. Those easy ones are great first, but you can’t expect them to come all the time. You’ve got to be getting ready for that moment when you’re going to have to look for other outside motivators that aren’t going to be PRs on every course that you run. Definitely a good advice for the beginners listening on to this podcast.

Let’s dive in a little bit to your book Which Comes First, Cardio or Weights which I think is a phenomenal book. It came out on 2011 I believe, but I read it in 2012 and it was hands down– the best book that I read that year. In the book for people that haven’t read it yet or interested in reading it, you cover a lot of the fitness myths and you either debunked them or confirmed whether it’s actually true or not and out of all those myths that you have and I counted rough– a little bit over a hundred. I had 111, but that may or not be a correct number, but of all the fitness myths that you looked at in the book which was your favorite and most satisfying to debunk and why?

Alex:                Well, first of all I’d say that I came to the same counting. I think there are 111 and that’s what I’ve been going on with the official number. Once you start counting, it’s easy to encircle one. I didn’t miss one, but yes, favorite ones. Obviously, there are many– I’ll give you two that are specifically running related. One is even pacing, and this was maybe, I would say this is one of the biggest surprises for me and it’s also one that you have to be careful not to over– most of us would agree sort of intuitively that if you want to run fast 10k or half an hour—the best way to do it is as even the pace is possible.

This is just supposed I was saying. I would never have even questioned this and the idea of being that you want to distribute your effort evenly in order to be as efficient as possible. What data shows and it’s really unambiguous at this point is that if you look at say, if you look at every 5000 meter and 10,000 meter world record every sec in the modern era of track and field say for the last 80 or 90 years and you look at the splits– the kilometer splits, the first kilometer and the last kilometer are faster than every other kilometer in the race and that’s true for every– this analysis was done by some researches in Cape Town [inaudible 00:19:55].

It was true what they found the only exception of that rule in the modern era was when Paul Tergat set the 10,000 meter world record and that record was 19 kilometer was slightly like a fraction of the second faster than his 10 kilometer. But other than that basically first kilometer and last kilometer were the fastest. Now, to me my assumption would have been– this is a classic example of an experienced pacing like that what do people who were in pacing results poorly do. They sprint out at the start and they realize, “Oh, man this is too fast let’s slow down” and then at the end, like, “Oh, wait I have tons of energy after my sprint.”

But this is what the best runners in the world are doing. It gets that a couple of things the fast first kilometer has to do with the way energy systems work. You have a little bit of free energy, a little bit of energy that you can use up without particular cost in the first couple of minutes of a race. You have to be really careful like I would say this is an easy bit of trivia to misuse. I think you should sprint at the start of a 5k or 10k level on a marathon and you should, but if you’re really going for a TV, you can’t afford to be a little bit aggressive in the first few minutes.

Then what’s the key, what the world record holders do is they settle into the fastest possible phase they can maintain for the rest of the race, but what they find is even if they’re really optimizing their speed when they get filled the last couple of minutes of the race they’re able to increase their speed and this is a really actually a deep insight because it wouldn’t tell us really– it’s part of–  there’s one piece of evidence in this that suggests that really our minds are more important than our bodies in controlling our physical limits, the limits of endurance.

When you are feeling like you can’t go any further, it really feels usually like it’s your legs or your lungs and your heart that are failing you, but what this evidence for fast finish just tells us is that it’s really your brain that is giving the feeling that you can’t go any faster and once you get within the set of the finish line, your brain realizes, “Oh, we’re not going to die today after all.” So we can release a little bit more of that energy. I think a lot of what training is– for runners and sure we’re making our bodies being stronger and our hearts stronger. But we’re also teaching our brains to push a little harder and push a little closer to our limits.

Every inch of workout we do every hard workout, there’s a process of convincing our brains to release a little bit more of that reserve that’s keeping. Its long wended way of saying that I found the myth of even pacing was really a surprise to me that wasn’t true and I would say that the message that you get from it isn’t that you shouldn’t– we should still aspire to even pace. That’s still probably the most efficient way to try to run that you should expect it when you get close to the finish line and you will discover it once you have all a bit of extra gasoline tank.

Jeff:                 No, that’s a great point. Again, it goes back to the point where you’re not just looking at the data and saying, “Oh, well, this is no longer the best way to do it” and you’re trying to look into the deeper insights of why is it coming out this way? Why is the first and last, but always the fastest and what does that mean? I think that’s great for everybody that’s listening to this podcast in terms of physically and obviously how they should run the race, but how they should be looking at their training as well and not just saying, realizing that there’s also a mental component to the training that they need to teach themselves how to push past that fatigue limit and push past when their bodies like, “No, we can’t go any faster” and to teach yourself that, “No, actually we probably can if we continue to push and working on and making that happen within the training so that you can do it on race day”.

Alex:                Yes. I know this is a topic you’ve addressed in the past. I think I remembered you’ve wrote a blog not too long ago about with ideas, the things like hammer intervals and the things like that [inaudible 00:24:06]. I really strongly believe that workouts aren’t just about the physical. They are about teaching yourself and giving yourself confidence that when it hurts, when you feel like your fingers in the flame and you have to put it away, you can actually hold your finger there in the flame for a little bit longer without dying. It’s uncomfortable, but [inaudible 00:24:31] willing to do with a bit of discomfort if there’s a PR available.

Jeff:                 Right. Especially as you said like when you can see the finish line and I think that’s evident in races where I remember doing this when I was running road races. There would be some road races where you would turn the corner and there was the finish line within a couple of hundred meters or less than sometimes. And then there are other races where you could see the finish sometimes from a mile away and it was completely different in terms of how well you’re able to kick and were able to finish and it definitely relates to that point where you’re like, “Well, I can see the finish I know it’s there so, I can definitely push a lot harder. I know I’m almost done”.

Alex:                Yes. It’s some of those road races going to be deceptive if you see the finish. You think that’s right there, but a long flat road, you could see a long way.

Jeff:                 Yes and it never comes.

Alex:                Yes. It can be a painful finish. I promise to myself say, the other one that was very satisfying for me and again there’s one where there’s more complexity, it’s not just a question of right and wrong and it’s so simple, but the research on and this I think has been … I guess what I’m going to say is the research on stretching has changed people’s opinions a lot in the last few years.

A lot of complexity and a lot of uncertainties about the right way of stretching it, but as– personally as a guy who was extremely inflexible and just really didn’t enjoy stretching and yet I spent one minute decade of my life really, really just the stretching a couple of times a day that before and after every hard workout and after every run. The idea that a static stretching that traditional sort of stand and sit there and try and touch your toes and hold them for 30 seconds, there’s now a lot of research that says that first of all, not necessarily clear that it has any effect on your injury risk if you’re doing it before– I’m talking about field runners here. If you’re a ballerina then that’s a different question, but static stretching before a run doesn’t necessarily make you less likely to get injured and it may actually even make you less efficient. There are a few studies that suggest that static stretching can reduce your running economy.

Again, this doesn’t mean that you should never stretch or that flexibility isn’t important and these days before hard workouts, I do a dynamics flexibility routine with [inaudible 00:26:53] in terms of– the quality of my life, I would say not because [inaudible 00:26:59] the classic toe touching and stretch before and after every run like that. That’s been the greatest joy. I’ve got to be honest if I thought that I had to do a hard static stretching routine before and after every run, I probably did playing tennis these days, not running.

Jeff:                 It’s funny that you mentioned that. I definitely seen the research that supports that, but again going back to the– and sometimes the reality versus the research, I think I may have mentioned this to you once or before I can’t remember, but I’ve always had the biggest issue with this because I’m like, “Well, I know when I am really tight and really sore before a run, if I can just stretch and even if it’s static stretch, I feel so much better and there have been days after a hard workout where I can’t really do much, but walk for maybe five minutes and then once I stretch then I’m like ready to go”. It’s hard for me to conceptualize that not stretching might actually be– obviously dynamic stretching is probably the better option, but for me I’m just like it feels so good, it has to work.

Alex:                Yes. There are two things that we’re talking about, right, like there’s, there’s injury and there’s performance. The performance studies, they suggest maybe you might– if you do it, you might compromise your running calmly by a couple of percent up to maybe five percent at most for 30 to 60 minutes after stretching. This is totally irrelevant and basically all context except racing. I found this is a classic example of research that I found interesting in theory, but it’s like if someone is asking, should I stretch before a run. Well, that’s not really a factor like who cares if you feel not good and stretching makes you feel good then who cares if you’re slightly less efficient during a typical run or a workout. This is classic example of something that’s not worth worrying about.

Again, like I said the research is complex. There was one study by with the couple of thousand of people that was running by USATF a few years ago, not a great study, but it was interesting study [inaudible 00:29:15] less where they had a big group of people. Some of them were habitual stretchers and some of them were not habitual stretchers and they randomize half of them to then stretch so, some of those stretchers kept stretching and some of the non-stretchers started stretching and some–and then they randomize, the other half are not stretched so, some of them basically– some of the non-stretchers kept not stretching. Anyway, I’m sort of making the scene more complicated than it is.

Jeff:                 No. I’m following.

Alex:                The option of that was that the people who’d kept doing what they were used to doing did best, whether they were stretching or not stretching. If they were randomized to keep doing whatever they’ve been doing before, they did best and the people who were randomized to change their routine. The non-stretchers who started stretching and the stretchers who stopped stretching were both more likely to get injured.

The setting to be set for like I said listening to your body and if it feels good, it doesn’t feel, then it’s probably good. What I would say is that feeling good is a good thing, but then we should look at the data to say, okay but is this for instance the best way to avoid injury during a warm up and I would say to me the strongest evidence is that the most important thing to accomplish during a warm up is to raise your body temperature through a gentle job and then to take your muscles through the range and motion way or actually going to use them. Because when you get a running injury what you call a hand string. For runners, it doesn’t happen when you’re trying to do the splits or whatever, it happens in the course of the regular running [inaudible 00:31:01]. Stretching, if it feels good to you then go for it, but don’t let it replace the other parts of warm up that are important like a gentle progressive start and then some things like– some drills and some dynamics stretches that move your legs some through the range of emotions that you’re going to use during the run and a little bit of beyond and then putting it together maybe with some strives and steps so that you’re ready to go.

That’s the way I would interpret that science. It’s not that anyone just stop stretching or stretching has no benefit, but that for some of the benefits that we have contributed to stretching in the past like preventing injuries we need to look– maybe look elsewhere because there’s other factors that we deal along with.

Jeff:                 Right, that makes a lot of sense. Along that same line and you kind of maybe answer this a little bit in your first question, but or your first answer about the fitness myths that you enjoyed the most, but was there anything that you went into that you just thought it was totally going to be like, “Oh, yeah, we’re definitely going to debunk this myth about fitness or running and you were totally wrong or your assumptions were totally wrong?”

Alex:                Well, one of the surprises for me actually was the real classic pasta dinner because I have the impression that this was maybe something that they had become a tradition that maybe wasn’t really important for most people that you don’t need to eat spaghetti before a race and for most of us we can eat enough carbohydrate because I think when carbo-loading was first introduced maybe 30 or 40 years ago, it was a big sort of long troubles and process where you have to deplete yourself from carbohydrates for a few days which was pretty hard on the body and then you added them nothing but carbohydrates for a few days and that have kind of falling out of fashion so, I thought the pasta dinner was just a kind of hold all over from that. When I said pasta the dinner, obviously it doesn’t mean to be pasta.

But what I was surprised to find is that there’s quite of bit research that it is quite difficult to get enough carbohydrate in the last three to four long race in order to really max out your carbohydrates source and then vast majority of people, if you look in the real world, a vast majority of people start a marathon without full carbohydrates source. But if you really want to be toughed up, you have to make a big effort not just reversing the meal, but throughout the day and probably the two days before the marathon to be getting in loss of carbohydrates whether that like sipping sports drinks or taking lots of small meals and things like that.

That was one where I thought I was going to end up [inaudible 00:33:45]. Don’t worry about the pasta dinner, but in fact the message turned out to be, “Hey, if you’re going to run a marathon for a long race [inaudible 00:33:55] people lasting longer than 90 minutes, you should really be aware of the need to get a lot of carbohydrates the day or two before”.

Also, actually during the race most people, the evidence seem to suggest that most people don’t get as much carbohydrate during the race as they could cross this and that’s the thing, that’s often I think where they’re like, “Oh, my stomach doesn’t feel good when I take too much carbohydrate” and yes, so you need to practice for taking carbohydrate during your long run so you need to train your stomach to handle more carbohydrate because you benefit it. You can teach your stomach to get down more carbohydrate.

Jeff:                 Right. Now, that’s great. I’m glad that you shared that particular one because I think it’s really important and I have seen some of the same research and I think it’s awesome that it’s highlighted in your book and for those who haven’t read your book yet and I think this is a great example of some of those that information that you can pick up and really kind of change your outlook on your own training and your race preparation. So I think I’m glad you gave that example because I think it’s a great point for everybody that’s listening to this podcast about how to fill themselves and kind of looking at some of the research for that. That’s great.

One of the things and I found this funny is and probably the first couple pages or chapters of the book– again, the title is Which Comes First, Cardio or Weights and there actually is in from what I’ve was reading in the first couple of pages anyway there’s a micro-level of looking at that and there’s a macro-level of looking at that. What I mean by that is in terms of the research that you looked at, I’ve always thought that if you’re a runner and you want to strengths training, you always add it after your running because you don’t want to be too tired to run. You don’t want to deplete your energy stores.  You may not be able to finish your easy run and your hard workout and I thought that was pretty much the only reason. But what from what I can read in your book there’s definitely actually an actual physiological reason for that than it has to do with cellular switching. Can you talk a little bit about that and how that process work and how we can flip that switch for runners that want to make sure were keeping the aerobic system in check and probably by listening to this podcast who might be really interested in lifting weights. How we can make sure that switch is for really trying to gain muscle.

Alex:                Yes, this is an interesting example of one of the ways that that exercise science is. In the last few years, I started to harness new techniques to actually go beyond just sort of let’s have people train in this way for six weeks and then we’ll take the tape measure and measure biceps to see if it worked. They’re now being able to do things like take little biopsies after a single workout. Instead of just seeing how this is work out after six week, we can have people do a workout, take a little biopsy and look at the changes in the muscle. Look at what proteins they’re being produced to learn how the body is responding with the very specific workouts or combinations of workouts– essentially in real time.

In terms of whenever you do workout, whatever kind of workout you do– your body responds, there’s a whole cascade of signaling events that tell your body for instance, “Hey, we’re experiencing very high demand for an aerobic energy right now. You know what, let’s remodel and rebuild in order to have more mitochondria in our cells so we use– the next time this happens we’re ready to apply this aerobic energy more efficiently”.

Now, what it turns out and what was sort of a supplies of couple of years ago was that the– so there’s different signaling path ways to say make our muscles fibers big or make our aerobic energy, make ourselves produce more aerobic energy. It turns out that the two main signaling pathways would just for increase strength and increase endurance. They run through some of the same [inaudible 00:38:08] there’s an enzyme called AMP kinase that is crucial to sending the signal for more strength or for more endurance and it can’t do both at the same time. So, if you’re for instance doing a long run. If you’re out there giving a signals to your body to develop more endurance, you’re harnessing that all of those AMP kinase enzymes to signal for more endurance so then if you would immediately stop and do some pushups or whatever.

The signal to build more strength is not getting through as effectively because the signaling pathways are jammed up and they’re focused on endurance and they can switch instantly. They don’t know exactly what the dynamics are, but they know that it takes a little bit of time and so that if you do a workout that’s half strength and half endurance, if you start looking endurance they’ll be a little more optimize to make endurance gains and if you start with the strength you’ll be a little more optimized to make the strength gains.

Now, again, this is something that shouldn’t be sort of overall. The significant should overstated. It’s something that over the course of weeks and months and years, if you always do your strength training right before your endurance training you’ll probably see a difference that you’ll be a little more effective in building strength and a little less effective building endurance. But there’s also a lot of other factors and that biggest is the one you said which is just fatigue and whatever you do when your fresh, you’re able to push that workout a little more and you’re not physically fresh, but you’re naturally fresh. You’re able to push your limits a little more than when you’re already tired you’re more likely to give up a little quicker.

The other thing is just—logistics and convenience and practicality and what you do to enjoy also end up– in the real world, end up playing a big factor. If you just don’t enjoy– for instance if you find that you enjoy going for your run and by the time you finish your run, you’re not just in the mood to do anything else. Whereas if you’re willing– so you don’t, you’re not going to do strength training whereas you don’t mind doing a few sets of push-ups and did something right before you go for a run.

That even if that’s important quotes of optimal for building strength or for building endurance rather, it’s more important to workout done than to worry about these marginal facts. But like as you– as these results suggest if you’re a runner or marathon runner, the better option is to do your running first then strength after. And if you’re a runner, but also thinking, you know, I would like to get stronger. I recognize whether for health reason or which reasons or whatever you wanted to get stronger and bigger. It can be a good idea just to either move your strength training to a different time of day– so, if you’re not doing it right after your run or occasionally do it first and then go out for schedules that you’re doing. You try to look at it and then do the routine and run afterwards.

I guess another principle that I think is a good general principle as far as I need mixing up the stimulus. Even if your general habit is do your run and then a couple of times a week do some strength training afterwards, it’s not a bad idea to occasionally just totally mixed it up. Do go against what the– even though my book is well reading you go against this advice and do the opposite just to force your body to react in new things. If you do the same thing over and over again there’s just– no matter how good your intent routine is there’s a lot sort of law diminishing returns that your body will respond more strongly to change and to [inaudible 00:42:18].

Jeff:                 No, that’s fantastic and thank you for really going into depth and explaining that in a really well [inaudible 00:42:25] manner. I think it’s great that and I think that you’ve summed it up in the last part where it’s one of the situations where if you’re just deciding, “Hey, I can do both strength training and running. I just needed to figure out which one I want to do first for specific games then it make sense to do the one that you’re looking to optimize first. But if you’re–  like you’ve mentioned that if as long as you’re not putting it off or you’re not doing it and it doesn’t– if that’s the case then just go ahead and do whatever because I was actually going to follow up with the question of like– how long does the switching take and you kind of mention that actually the research doesn’t really say, how long the switches because what I was thinking was like, what if you do ten minute jog to warm up to lift or to go do strength training? Is that going to hit the switch and then [inaudible 00:43:14], allow you to make or have sub-optimal games, but it doesn’t sound like that’s going to be something that usually I’m really worried about at all?

Alex:                Yes, the first answer is [inaudible 00:43:23] second week, nobody really knows for sure. But the practical answer and might that feeling is that a ten-minute jog is not going to make any difference because when you think of like, well, how much– if you’re a regularly training runner– if you’re totally [inaudible 00:43:40] then the ten-minute jog might not make difference, but if you’re used to running then ten-minutes isn’t really going to cause any great perturbation to your body’s internal systems so, it’s not going to mobilize– I mean you’re not going to get any adaptations from a ten-minute jog so, early as not any significant once. So, it’s going to [inaudible 00:44:00] that. But expect that would be my [inaudible 00:44:02]. I would certainly say that warming up is always good idea no matter what.

Jeff:                 Great. Just as a final question and I like to ask this to people that I have been running and those types of things, but if you could go back and change one thing about your training or your approach to training when you are running competitively, what would it be? If you could go back ten years and tell yourself, one thing about training and you would actually listen to it which I know I probably went those when I was young, but what would that be?

Alex:                This is a question that in all honesty I still think about so often and I don’t know because I can convince myself with different things. I’m going to give you like at 45-minute answering here if I’m not careful, but for the first half of my running career I was in very low mileage runner and that often means people who are low mileage often mean they are hammering their workouts. But I actually was a low mileage relatively easy workout and like I was the classic under trained kind of runner and I race great. I would race far above the level that I was training at. But to for context I was running about 40 miles a week tops, when I was running 342 for 1500 meters. I always knew I needed to increase my mileage and looking back, I kind of wish I had managed to increase my mileage earlier and more safely so that I could be running 80, 90 miles a week even for  middle of distance without of being a big issue, but I actually even in the process of trying to raise my mileage a little bit just I got up to 60 miles a week. I got an injury that actually I didn’t run at all between them about 22, 24 years of age.

In the second half of my career, I run a lot when I was training with my San Francisco group, I run quite a bit more mileage. That was 75 miles a week on average and I worked out so much harder. I was so much fit, but my races then were not above my workout level. I would never surprise myself anyways. In fact, the problem [inaudible 00:46:35] problem was sort of negative surprises. Those are two extremes in my training career while I was undertrained and great racer, but which when I was more heavily trained because there’s almost so much you can do bringing the miles and where I was maybe not over trained, but heavily trained but maybe pushing a little too hard and workouts and super fit, but never able to do the race. The game was somehow I don’t know what the real magic answer is, but I would have liked to be able to find a balance to take a longer general approach, take a long term approach to slowly building up my mileage, but also have a little more confidence to not raise my workouts and to– I think that’s one thing I did really well when I was younger. I was a real disciple of [inaudible 00:47:22] do as much as you can on as little as possible before increasing and don’t raise your workouts.

In my later career, when I was training with the really, really topnotch people runners where I really had to struggle to stay with them and to be a part of that group. Even though I was aware of the risk, everyone understands, that’s what a race workouts and I’ll be convincing myself that I was in racing workouts, but I think I was always a little bit too much out there on the track. That’s not a single answer, but I guess yes. The two part answers, from the first part of my career took a long term approach in which is gradually build up the mileage. You can slow away without pressuring yourself, without trying to do it too quickly and then also just remember that training is trainable risk. As much as I look back of my training a lot from the centuries and years and I’m like, “Wow, I can’t believe I did that workout” and I get caught like it and talk before that I would not getting caught up in the numbers and getting the numbers [inaudible 00:48:27] training. I love writing down those workouts and say, “Look at this incredible workout. I didn’t think what a hero I am” but boy, I trained all those workouts for a few better racers and [inaudible 00:48:37].

Jeff:                 Now, I’m glad that you shared that answer and I have no problem with it being too different responses and two different– I guess errors of your running because I think it highlights probably the two issues that most runners have the most trouble with and I think might go with the podcast sometimes is to hammer a certain things into people. They’ll listening to the podcast and they’ll hear something from one athlete and it will kind of trigger a little bit like, “Oh, yeah, maybe I should slow down on my easy days”. But, yes, no big deal. It doesn’t actually take a minute and maybe three episodes later will bring on another guest to talk about how they made a big breakthrough [inaudible 00:49:12]. Overtime, hopefully they’ll kind of click, kind of like that then I think you highlighted two of the biggest issues I think most runners have and so I appreciate it because I think that’s really two camps that people from. I’m curious.

As a follow up, looking at your results which phase I guess maybe at your earlier career and then you’re older career which phase did you feel you had better results? Overall, actually not even feel but which phase did you actually have better results?

Alex:                Yes. If you use like IWF points to compare, my best ever result was my 1500 which was when I was 20 or 21, but for [inaudible 00:49:49] and then in my second phase, I run eight flat for 3000 and 1352 and those are a little bit weaker. I don’t think like this is what so frustrating is that I feel like I was so much such like a way, way better runner in the second phase of my career which is sort of from 24 to 28 or so. But there was also [inaudible 00:50:12] as far as if you guys doing strict IWF points to compare the shortest to the longer distance. I was a better runner when I was young and undertrained and but hungry and it’s not that I wasn’t serious about running. I was very, very serious about running. I took my recovery seriously. I took my sleep and my nutrition seriously. I took everything seriously. I just wasn’t doing a lot of miles and I wasn’t raising my workouts. I was one of the groups of runners who were over 1500, 10 to 15 seconds slower than me. I did all our workouts together—it was always at [inaudible 00:50:52]. With no offense meant they’re always overreaching the workouts and I was still in relaxed, feeling from running hard, but knowing that I can do another at that phase if I had to and I get to races and just it felts so ready to explode with all the energy that I’ve been building up.

Jeff:                 Oh, that’s interesting and as a follow up question as I made personal thing and I didn’t see this anywhere in the bio when I was looking up for you. Have you every officially broken fourth for the mile?

Alex:                You’re digging me into that, the sore pointed my–

Jeff:                 Well, when you kept saying 342, I’m like, “Oh, I wonder if he really went and try to go for the sub-sore”.

Alex:                Yes. In Canada– unlike in the states in Canada the indoors, we don’t run the mile. I only competed– I run two miles ever in my life on the track and one of them was an indoor  race when I under [inaudible 00:51:48] 410 and several years later my first year back after I ran a four or six mile but I never got into a good mile and it would have been very close. Obviously, I would have to be thrift my best time at 342.42 which depending on the conversion as either 359 or four or five and as distance [inaudible 00:52:08] the guy I would like to thank that I would have been better with the longer distance and made it, but you’ll never know and honestly it’s one of the to all young milers out there, make the effort to find mileage because that would have been very, very meaningful for me. But something that I would love to do, but I never did.

Jeff:                 Right. Well, I hope it did open up the wound there, but —

Alex:                I’m going to [inaudible 00:52:34] for my coffee now for the rest of the day. It’s good to have goals and dreams and you can’t make [inaudible 00:52:42].

Jeff:                 Right. Yes, you kind of forgot about the fact that you probably would have run as many miles as somebody who live in the US with even though they’re not still that many miles when you’re professional, but interesting. I’ll give the conversion so —

Alex:                Oh, thanks. Believe me I can make a 45-minute pace for wide on that particular day I would have [inaudible 00:53:04] four minutes a day.

Jeff:                 Nice. So, Alex, people want to follow your writing and everything that you produce. How can they get a hold of you and where can they find it?

Alex:                Probably the best– the most regular source of Nuggets of Wisdoms is my blog on the runners website it’s called Sweat Science, the URL is You can find if you go there. I blog there about three times a week and it’s mostly on new studies just quick thoughts on, here’s a new study on mobile training or something and what we can will learn from it. That has a link also to my website where—and also I’m on Twitter which that my handle is sweatscience and that on Twitter I had talked about any new post already that I’ve written in other places. Those are probably the two best ways to– and Twitter is a good way to reach me. You can also find my E-mail on my website, but the Twitter is a good way to keep in touch.

Jeff:                 Okay. Yes so, what we’ll do we’ll throw up those links at the bottom of this post over for anybody that wants to check out if they can’t remember and reading this just visit and we’ll have all those links for Twitter and Alex website and his blog on Runners World. If you don’t follow him, I highly suggest that you add into whatever way that you can tune running information because his poster consistently some of the best that I read every week. They’re insightful and again he balances kind of looking at the research with the practical applications of training. So, I definitely suggest checking it out. Alex, I want to thank you so much for being so generous with your time here with us today. If anybody who does listening, definitely if you haven’t read it yet, go out and buy or check out Alex’s book, it’s—I’m blocking on the name all of a sudden.

Alex:                Which comes first–

Jeff:                 Thank you very much. I knew his Cardio or Weights but I couldn’t remember Which Comes First. Yes, Which Comes First, Cardio or Weights check it out. It’s for me it was best book that I read in 2012 and I’m pretty sure it will be up there for you as well. Alex, thank you so much.

Alex:                Thanks Jeff. It’s really, really been a pleasure to check.

Jeff:                 Awesome.

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2 Responses on “How to Effectively Apply Scientific Research to Your Training: Interview with Alex Hutchinson

  1. Just downloaded the ebook last night and have not been able to put it down. I have to agree with Jeff. One of the best BOOKS in bedunking the fitness myths that many of us have been taught to believe. Most definitely going to recommend this book to all my friends!

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