Meet the runner and author - Alex Hutchinson
Alex writes for Outside magazine and has recently published ENDURE: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance. He is an award winning writer and a previous runner for the Canadian National team. I got in touch with Alex after reading Endure - easily one of the best books I've read during lockdown - to ask him some questions about his running and life. You can find him @sweatscience on Twitter. He also has a fantastic newsletter which you can subscribe to via the website http://www.outsideonline.com/sweatscience.
If you live locally you can buy Endure from this amazing bookshop in Winchester, UK- https://www.pgwells.co.uk. If you don't then please support you local, independent bookshops.
Tell me a bit about yourself - where you live, what you do for work, family, pets etc.
I’m a science journalist, living in Toronto, Canada, which is where I was born and grew up. I mostly write about the science of running and other endurance sports, for Outside and other publications. My wife and I have two girls, currently ages 4 and 6, who keep us pretty busy.
Do you have a coach? Or someone that advises you on training?
These days I mostly guide my own training. I’m still good friends with my old coach Ross Ristuccia, and occasionally do some workouts with some of his runners. I’ve been lucky enough to run with several really excellent coaches over the years, and have learned a lot from all of them.
How did you get into running?
I was running cross-country at school as early as grade three (that’s around 8 years old), and joined a track club in high school when I decided to start training more seriously. Running was pretty much the top priority in my life in my late teens through my early and mid 20s, competing as a 1,500 and 5,000-metre runner on the track. These days, my relationship with running is much mellower.
What does a typical training week look like? Has this changed over the years? Do you do any strength and conditioning, yoga or pilates type work?
These days I typically run 6 days a week, including one tempo run (usually around 5K) and one or two interval or hills workouts. The other runs depend on how much time I can squeeze in, and might by anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour. This is a lot less than I did in my 20s, when I ran 70 to 75 miles a week including a lot of very hard workouts. I try to do some bodyweight strength training a few times a week, though I don’t always manage to live up to that goal.
Do you follow a specific diet? Take any supplements/vitamins?
I don’t have any particular diet and enjoy eating pretty much everything, but I try to emphasize as much vegetables and fruit as I can, fish once or twice a week, and so on. I guess you could call that a Mediterranean approach, broadly speaking. The only supplement I take is occasional vitamin D in the winter. I’m not convinced it’s useful, but the research leaves open the possibility that it might be. My take on the research is that most other supplements are either useless or outright harmful.
Favourite location to run and why? What has been your running highlight?
I always love the rare occasions when I get a chance to run in the mountains, but my favourite place is probably along the Humber River starting a block from where I live in Toronto. This is the neighbourhood where I grew up, so I’ve been running here ever since I started, and it’s a remarkably beautiful and peaceful oasis in a city of more than 4 million people. I’m super-lucky to live so close to it.
Favourite domestic and international races?
There’s a local 8K in High Park called the Spring Run-Off – that’s been my main fixture in recent years, as it is for a lot of people in Toronto. For sheer adrenaline, the most exciting international races I ever participated in were the World Cross-Country Championships. There is no scene more chaotic and exciting than the opening half-mile of that race, because hundreds of similarly matched runners are battling to get position before the course narrows down.
Best performance and why?
From a pure time perspective, my best 1,500 of 3:42.43 is the “best” race I ever ran. From a competitive perspective, I think it would be the year I came fourth at the Canadian 1,500 championships. The race was slower (I ran 3:47 because the opening laps were fairly slow), but I think that was the moment I was at my competitive peak. Of the guys who beat me, two were the best Canadian milers of all time (Kevin Sullivan and Graham Hood), and the third was a very good friend of mine who I’d been battling back and forth with all season. He got me that day, but I still think that day was the fastest I ever was.
Worst performance and why?
Hard to pick this one from so many contenders. I’ve lots of races where the outcome was disappointing, but the one where I was most disappointed in myself might be the national cross-country championships in 2003. The reason is simple: I dropped out. A bunch of things were going wrong: I had a bad stitch, and then my shoe came off in the mud. I had hoped to contend for the win, but found myself way back with my shoe slipping off repeatedly. It was a tough day, but I still should have finished the race, and I’m embarrassed I didn’t.
Do you have a running philosophy? Has it changed?
My approach to running had changed a lot over the years. It was much more about competition when I was younger. These days, it’s more about enjoying the process, the feeling of being fit, and opportunity to get together with friends. I still love competition, but in a different way.
Favourite bits of kit? If you have any sponsors I’m happy to link to them in the blog,
No sponsors. I’m a kit minimalist. Most the clothes I run in are old race t-shirts and uniforms that I got for free years ago. Most of my shoes are whatever was on the discount rack. I don’t have a GPS watch or any other high tech stuff beyond a Timex watch. The fact that I don’t need to obsess about kit is one of the reasons I love running.
What have been your worst injuries and how have you managed them? Have you any current niggles?
I had a stress fracture in my sacrum three months before the 2004 Olympic Trials, which was awful timing. I cross-trained like a maniac for about 10 weeks in the pool and on the bike, did a couple weeks of jogging, then competed in what ended up being my last “serious” race. It was a disappointing was to finish up my track career. These days, I rarely have any injury issues. Doing half as much mileage and—I think more importantly for me—fewer hard sessions each week and nothing on the track seems to be the secret for me.
Who has influenced you most with respect to running
Over the long term, probably Tim Noakes through his book Lore of Running. It had a huge impact on my thinking as a young runner. Later, I found Roger Bannister’s writing very compelling.
Any racing plans for the future? Hopes for the next couple of years
I’m signed up for this fall’s London Marathon, but we’ll see what happens. In the “someday” category, I’d love to try a mountain ultra someday, but that’ll probably have to wait at least until my kids are in school.
What changes have you made to your running based on research that you’ve read?
Fewer than you’d think, to be honest. I find the research fascinating to try and understand why runners do what they do. But the training patterns of the best runners in the world are still mostly based on trial and error. I can’t, off the top of my head, think of an obvious instance where scientists have been able to show that coaches and runners were doing it wrong all along. Oh wait—maybe stretching. I used to stretch diligently, but once I read the research (or lack of it), I stopped. That was 15 years ago, and I haven’t had any second thoughts about that one.
I’ve recently become aware of how few studies are sex disaggregated. I think this might be important e.g. the cortisol response in women is higher when running fasted and provides less adaptation compared to men. Do you think this is a growing field? Any insights?
The fundamental problem is not just aggregation of results, but the simple fact that so few studies even include women in the first place. There’s a growing recognition, including among research funding bodies, that this is a problem, but the pace of change still seems slow. How significant will sex differences turn out to be? We’ll have to do the research to find out. In the end, all research just gives us average results, so appreciating the importance of individual variation is another related theme.