Human Endurance & The Mind-Body Connection ft. Alex Hutchinson

Human Endurance & The Mind-Body Connection ft. Alex Hutchinson

Authored by Zhill Olonan • 
September 7, 2018
Right now we're in an era where people have finally recognized that there's some real stuff out there. There's also a greater sophistication and understanding that there's a lot of crap out there. So there's a much greater thirst for information, and we want to understand where this information is coming from and we want to understand what the weaknesses and pros and cons are. Alex Hutchinson - Episode 81

The scientific revolution is taking over endurance sport.

With data as the backbone, athletes are looking for new ways to train, fuel, recover and even think. After years of research on these topics, Alex Hutchinson has become an authority on the limits of human endurance. His newest book, Endure, is a New York Times bestseller; his Sweat Science column in Outside magazine is wildly popular; he received a National Magazine Award for his technology coverage in Popular Science.

With an unbiased, balanced outlook, Alex has been especially interested in analyzing groundbreaking research that suggests physical barriers are as much a product of our mind as our body.

In this discussion, you'll discover:

  • The different philosophies of the brain's impact on physical performance through research by Professors Tim Noakes and Samuele Marcora
  • How Alex's thinking around sports nutrition has evolved
  • Alex's approach to retaining journalistic integrity while exploring new theories, research, and products in endurance sport

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Whatever the pros and cons from a purely metabolic efficiency perspective are, if you're able to reduce your reliance on external food during a prolonged event by using a low carb-high fat approach, that could start to be a real advantage. Or, if you're in the mountains where you have to carry every bit of food with you, again, if you could start to rely on endogenous fat stores more, that could be a huge advantage. I think if I was doing a sort of broad thing, there's potential for LCHF for anything longer three or four hours, I suspect ... Alex Hutchinson - Episode 81


Geoff: Alex, thanks for coming on the program.

Alex: Thanks Geoff. I really appreciate the invitation.

Geoff: So you have a very interesting background. You're a trained physicist with a PhD, you are a serious runner, and now you write probably one of the foremost sports science periodicals and also just recently published a best-selling book. That's a very wide gamut of experiences in and training frameworks. You know, what's your day look like these days?

Alex: Yeah. I mean my my days are a little bit in flux because you know, a day right now six months after my book came out is different than year ago when I was trying to write my book. Hopefully, it will be different than a day six months from now when I'm living on a tropical island and you know sleeping twenty hours a day, but maybe not.

Yeah. So the framework of my day is that I have I have a two-year-old and a four-year-old kid right now, so it moves to the rhythm of two year old and four year old kids. I get up and get my kids breakfast and stuff and I usually run in the morning, but not always, like today. I went for a bike ride with with a friend. I'm a morning exercise kind of guy. It starts my day off right.

Geoff: Do you do that fasted or is it just sort of ad hoc?

Alex: It all depends on timing and logistics for me. I did probably prefer to do it fasted. Like I find that that's the sort of feels that the best if I can if I can just get up and you know clear the system out and go out for a workout. It really depends on how things are going, like if my wife is going for a run. So I'm watching the kids and then we have to wait for a caregiver to arrive and then I'm not running till you know, 8:30 or 9:00. Then I'll usually I prefer to eat a little bit of something before that. I'm pretty lucky in that I have dietary flexibility.

I can eat a ton in my younger days. I wouldn't do this now that in my younger days. I was sort of famous for it sometimes. Going to an afternoon workout and just stopping and getting a burger on the way if I was feeling a little hungry and then going straight into a hard workout. So I don't have problems with eating and running but I prefer I prefer to do it fasted and you know just not from a scientific perspective.

I don't get too hung up about this stuff cuz I'm not super competitive these days, but I think there's probably some sort of advantage to doing the workout fasted. t's dictated by logistics for me.

Geoff: Yeah, very cool. And then I guess in terms of, I guess the ideas that come across the table and I think maybe this is, you talk about this and in Endure a bit, but the field of sports science, I would say is really blossoming the last five, 10 years. I think you discuss Roger Banister and I think that generation of athlete was I consider, like a gentleman, scholar athlete. These were not professionals. There wasn't a business around athleticism and then probably in the 70s and 80s when sport became a big business, a lot more funding, a lot more sponsorship dollars, real money on the line and sort of the academics and the funding for science really started to come. I think within the last five, 10 years, you have wearables, quantified self technologies, a lot more biomarkers that are being tracked. 

How do you see the evolution there? Obviously you write a column about that the latest and the forefront there. Where do you source the ideas? What captures your interest these days? 

Alex: Yeah, lots of questions there. Let me say something about the evolution of first, which is I share your perspective that I think a lot has changed in the last decade or so. It's hard for me to know for sure because the degree to which I'm paying attention has changed also. So it's like 10 years ago is like, there's no sports science now, it's nothing but sports science. Well, that's because I live in the sport science world now. And so I'm looking and it's looking for me to the extent that I get press releases and stuff.

To some degree, this has just changed my own perspective. So my professional perspective was that I started out as a sort of car journalist and I graduated from Journalism School in 2005 and worked for a newspaper doing general assignment. Then started freelancing in 2006 and was looking for ways of getting into areas that were interesting to me. At that time even though I had been a serious runner for 15 years and had a scientific interest and even though I'd actually been a subject in some running studies as an undergrad because some of my teammates were in exercise physiology, I still had very little concept of sports science. I didn't think there was much out there.

I started noticing some columns in the New York Times for initially by Gina Kolata who wrote a column called Personal Best and then subsequently by Gretchen Reynolds. But Gina Kolata wrote some articles on the lactic acid myth, talking to people like George Brooks who is a very well respected scientist, about this idea that we all think that lactic acid is evil but in fact its role is poorly understood, it's partially a fuel it doesn't burn your muscles up from the inside or anything. I was like, "Wow, that's really interesting. I wish I had thought about that or known about that as a runner."

Then the other thing I noticed about those columns is, wow, they're on the top 10 most emailed list of the New York Darien Times consistently. It's like people are interested in this stuff. So that sort of piqued my interest and I started to look into it. The impression I had at that time ... When I was starting to pitch my first newspaper column on Sports Science in 2008, I think 2007/2008, my pitch was, I've just discovered, there's like 5000 people a year show up to the American College of Sports Medicine Conference. There's a ton of researchers doing this stuff. And serious athletes know almost nothing about the results of that research, much less, the casual exerciser. 

So, there's a whole there's a real gap, an information gap and I would like to try and bridge that gap. And that's what I started doing about 10 years ago, I and there were a few other players in the field. There were people like Andy Barefoot at Runners World and again at the time there was Gretchen Reynolds and Gina Kolata, there are other people too. But now I look around and it's like, "Wow, it's kind of crowded in here." There's a whole world of people trying to explain sports science. And I think for the most part that's good. I mean, I'd love to have a monopoly on good ideas, but think there's a lot more literacy and sort of awareness that's accompanied by ... There's the academic research translating that, there's also the commercial research. And there's always been the Gatorade Sports Science Institute has been around since the 80s. We can talk if you want, that's obviously ... Gatorade has become very controversial for its role in sort of influencing sport science. 

But this idea of corporate research that that can tell us interesting things about sports science and also sell products, which, it is a double edged sword, for instance. But I think that the whole pace of that even though it's existed again since let's say the 80s, Gatorade started to ... The curve really started to bend upwards. Right now we're in an era where people have finally kind of recognized that there's some real stuff there and also there's a greater sophistication and understanding there's a lot of crap out there. So there's a much greater thirst for, we want to have information and we want to sort of understand where this information is coming from and we want to understand what the weaknesses and pros and cons are. 

That's in a nutshell, I would say that ... I guess what I'm really saying is yes, I agree. things in the last 10 years have really become much more interesting in the sport science area.

Geoff: To also get into your background. I mean just reading a little bit of your bio, and you're a physicist, you spent a few years I guess doing some research for the NSA. How did you go from, physicists, I guess doing some interesting work at the NSA to a journalist? What was that transition?

Alex: As you can probably guess everyone from my aunts and uncles to now people have read the book, people are curious about that and they've asked the question and the more you answer a question, the harder it is to remember what you were really thinking. You start to answer the question and the answer becomes what you remember. It's actually really hard for me to get back into my head and remember, how much did I really know about journalism when I left my postdoc to go to journalism school? Sometimes I'm like, I knew nothing about it. I had no interest. It was just totally like jumping off a cliff. Other times, I'm like, "Oh, but wait, I did write an article for Physics World once, so I must have been interested in the idea of writing before that." 

But really, what it came down to is physics was never really my passion. I was kind of trying to figure out even from the time I was in high school, I didn't know what I wanted to do. And that sort of idea was do something that's intellectually challenging, and you'll never regret that. You'll train your mind to think, you'll do hard things and you'll keep more doors open. It's like if you go and study sociology, no offense to any sociologist out there, but you're not going to then say, "Oh, actually, I changed my mind. I'm going to do quantum physics." Whereas if you do quantum physics, you can say, "Actually, I want to be a journalist."

So at each stage, both picking my undergrad degree, then deciding to go on with a PhD. And then after the PhD, I actually took a year off, which was probably the best decision of my life, in some senses. I was very lucky to be in a position where I could do that. My parents were like, "Okay, you can come and live at home, and you can train hard and tutor some kids to make some money or whatever." But I took a year trying to figure out what the heck I wanted to do with my life. And after a year, I hadn't figured anything out. And so I took the postdoc with the NSA.

But the thinking I had done ... I read a hell of a lot of good books during that year. But I also did a lot of thinking. And the thinking I had done, it took a while to kind of germinate. But after a year to the postdoc, I was like, "Yeah, those things I was thinking about how I want to spend my life." I think that's correct. I think I'm going to leave physics and go to journalism school. I'm going to go to journalism school because I think if I'm going to do this, I need to dive in headfirst. It's going to be something that's hard to do, sort of nights and weekends or whatever, either doing it or not. And it's going to give me an opportunity to kind of mold my own future and decide what to pursue, avenues of intellectual curiosity.

To succeed in physics, if you're really, really good, you can follow whatever interests in that field occur to you. If you're only sort of good, which is probably where I would classify myself, you kind of have to pick a specialty and it's like, "Okay, the next 40 years, you're going to try and master this narrow specialization." So I wasn't good enough to be able to kind of hue my own path in physics and I thought in journalism, there'd be a little more freedom to be able to follow different areas, which is kind of what I've ended up doing I'd say.

Geoff: That's a cool transition I mean like it's no joke to do a PhD in physics so credit to you to have the intellectual capacity to master a very difficult field. Something that I was interested in playing around with, I decided, I was doing my undergrad, deciding between computer science and physics. So physics is no joke.

Alex: If you're in California computer science is the way to go for sure. 

Geoff: I know at Stanford it was very much like, "Okay." At some point, I want to do some computer science, physics seems like, it's a very intellectually interesting form to view the world as, you know, but seem less applicable to value creation.

Alex: It's cool. And let me just say, for the record here, for any physicists who are feeling slighted out there. I have huge respect for people who have gone on in physics and do it and I think it's really like ... In some ways, I think, I wonder, I hope I maybe will go back to physics at some point in a journalistic capacity and try and tell some of those stories because I think it's a real challenge and that there's really cool stuff going on at the borders of physics and it's really hard to explain. 

Maybe that's a role I can play to try and translate some of what's going on in terms of understanding, really the fundamentals of the universe. But that's hard stuff. And it's hard to understand it. Like, I, even after a decade away, I can barely understand, my own PhD thesis, but then to try and explain it is something else. I don't know if I have what it takes to do that. But if you can share with other people what's going on at the boundaries of physics? There's some really fascinating stories there, they're just not accessible. 

Geoff: No, I mean, explain quantum gravity? You're like, "Why that's important?" The view is on podcast episode. I thought it was interesting with Endure that you really followed two researchers really, right? It's a story of Professor Tim Noakes and Professor Samuel McClure and actually I've spoken to both gentlemen I don't know them, I believe you probably know them much better than I do. But it's interesting to sort of follow them on Twitter and follow their research and then also just see them as characters in the story. 

What do we want to dive into this? I mean, from a Twitter perspective, they very much hate each other. I mean, it's like almost silly, if not surprising entanglements relationship. But from their research and their research interests ... I think as you mentioned the book a lot of overlap a lot of interesting I would say, articulation of the same core concepts I'm curious to hear your thoughts about the research threads and the ideas going on between I guess the physical, the musculature of performance and the mental, the psycho, psychology of performance.

Alex: First of all, I'd say for anyone who doesn't follow these two scientists or any number of a group of scientists on Twitter, when you say it's interesting and maybe put that in quotes. It's crazy, it's ridiculous, what goes on on Twitter. In another era, we would never have been privy to these sorts of-

Geoff: Academic rivalries I guess is one would put it.

Alex: Yeah that become personal animosities to an extent, those types of things have always been present. It's just usually you don't get to stand on the sidelines, and so "Wow, those are some really juvenile name calling. What is going on?" I've spoken to both these guys. I haven't had as much opportunity to spend time with Noakes. But both Samuel McClure and Tim Noakes have been nothing but gracious to me when I've asked them questions, when I've asked and visited their labs and asked them to review things checking for accuracy. They've been absolutely great. And they both, I think, make amazing contributions to research. And I would group them both together.

You mentioned this sort of split between the physical and mental side of endurance. Of course, there's no split. It's all one thing. But I think both Noakes and McClure have done a lot to bring attention to the role that mental processes play in dictating physical endurance. And in a sense Noakes, I would say, kind of created that field. Although people who were in the field before him would disagree. They'd say, "No, no we were thinking about this all the time." But Noakes is who really, the guy who in the 90s said, "No, no, wait, we really have to think about the brain, not as an add-on or a kind of separate thing. But it's fundamental to understanding, when do I quit? How fast can I go? That depends on what's going on in my brain, and let's try and understand what's going on." 

So both those guys are great. And the fact that they've ended up with this sort of acrimonious relationship on Twitter it's challenging and to some degree having written this book, I've ended up a little bit in the crossfire. Not so much between those guys but between their followers to some degree and then there's other players in the field too. But it's ... I don't know how to say. The fact that the book ended up following these two guys and I think that's correct. That's a correct synopsis to the book that is kind of, at the core of the book is understanding the arguments they've made about endurance. 

I think both of those guys in one way or another they're going to be remembered for a long time for their contributions and to what degree who deserves more credit and then whoever else? I don't know and I don't want to have that role of judging and I'm not qualified to. But for now all I can say is I think both of them are making really important intellectual contributions and certainly have ... It was something that caught my attention enough I was like, "Hey let's spend some years and try and understand what they're doing and write a book about it."

Geoff: to maybe enlighten the audience who might not be as a familiar or having Endure which people should definitely read I think it's probably the best sport science. I don't really read sport science books, so this is a very good. So I should read it-

Alex: The top one of one. 

Geoff: Maybe it's worth articulating a little bit about the central governor theory that Noakes put out and McClure sort of psycho biological effect of endurance. 

Alex: Let me give the cartoon version of each which is basically, the central governor that Noakes started talking about in the 90s was to say, when someone finishes their race, for the most part, they're not at the point where their body has stopped working there. You finish the Olympic marathon and you go and get a flag and you jog around the track, your legs still work to your heart still works. Everything's still working. Why is that? If you're in second place in the Olympic marathon, why aren't you running to the point where you just collapse to the tracker or die? So what he proposed is, there's some sort of governor and governor is a word that you think of in terms of engines. That you could have a governor that prevents the engine from going beyond a certain speed so it doesn't rattle itself to bits. So there's a central governor as a safety mechanism in the brain or controlled by the brain or somehow related to the brain that prevents you from going right to your physical limits.

So the point at which you say, "I cannot go any further." Is not the point at which your muscles can't go any further. But it's the point at which your brain thinks you better not go any further or you're going to be in deep, deep trouble and do some damage. So you have a sort of self protective mechanism. And whether that central governor is set to kick in at 99% of your capacity, or at 40% of your capacity, nobody knows. And there's probably differences between people. But the fundamental idea is that you're not generally hitting physical limitations. You're being regulated by your brain which in a simplistic way you can say well that means the limits are negotiable. That means there's ways independent of what's going on in your muscles, there's ways of maybe manipulating your brain to change the settings of the central governor.

Now, when I first read Samuel McClure's work I kind of thought he's just kind of giving another name to the central governor theory and that's certainly what Noakes-

Geoff: Noakes would argue.

Alex: Would argue and others who in the sort of Noakes camp. But McClure ultimately argues that he says, "If you say there's a central governor really you're not actually answering any questions, you're falling into what's known philosophy as the homunculus fallacy that, what's going on? We can explain what's going on in your brain by positing that there's a little man inside your head that's making those decisions for you and in this case basically he's the central governor who decides when to call it quits.

And so McClure kind of rejects the idea that there's this unconscious circuit breaker that's, kicking in to reduce your muscle recruitment when you're close to your limits. Says, "It's all conscious." Basically, all that matters is when you exercise it, you have a perception of effort, it feels hard to a certain degree, and you'll keep going as long as it doesn't feel harder than you're willing to sustain. So if you're out for a jog in gym class, you may be only willing to tolerate four out of 10 and you're going to slow down when it starts to feel like five out of 10. If you're a competitive athlete, if you're at the Olympics, you're willing to tolerate 10 out of 10. And the reason you slow down is not that your muscles are incapable of going, but that your sense of effort is 10 out of 10, you're like, "This is as hard as I can go." And so you decide to slow down. 

This is sort of ... Matt Fitzgerald wrote a book called, How Bad Do You Want It? Because what it sort of imply about McClure's ideas, 'cause what it sort of on the surface implies is, it's all a question of how bad you want it. As long as you're willing to push harder, you can always go harder. Of course, that's not really what it means. Because ultimately, your sense of effort is dictated by your body. No matter how badly I want to fly to the moon, or whatever run at a hundred miles an hour, my sense of effort is going to reach maximum long before I get to that point. So it's not like it circumvents the physical limits of the body which is the sort of easy misunderstanding that you can just always believe a little harder. It just means that the actual limits, what's making the decisions is fundamentally in your, based on what's going on, in your brain and not some sort of, "Oh well, the muscle fibers just reached their absolute limit."

Geoff: Right. It reminds me of the speed of light, when as you approach the speed of light as a mass, mass goes towards infinity, right? So, it gets harder and harder to go even faster and faster, so it's kind of this interesting physics analogy towards the psychobiological effect. Maybe as one interpretation of it. That's the kind of natural analogy that I think about. But my interpretation of how I kind of read it, I think that ... very similar to how you portray it in the book, I think Noakes was a predecessor in terms of proposing the notion of the brain having a very important if not central role in terms of endurance, but I really do like Marcora's articulation. I think it's a very elegant articulation of the role of the brain. And I think the results that you guys showed or you wrote about where if you actually train the brain to be more resilient, that actually reflects in better endurance performance, which I thought was a very, very interesting, exciting result. 

Alex: Yeah. I think I generally tend to agree with that idea that Noakes was really transformational and Marcora has maybe taken it to the next step. Some of where I get flack in some cases is from some of Noakes's colleagues or former students and former colleagues who say, "We already thought of all that. We knew all that in 2013. Everything Marcora says, we already knew." And at a certain point, not to get into the weeds here, but it's like, "Okay, maybe, but I didn't see that in the literature anywhere and moreover, Marcora has ... as much as the theory is important, Marcora has proven to be a really elegant experimentalist, so I pay more attention to his theories because he's continually, or repeatedly publishing studies that are just jaw dropping, that force you to reevaluate your assumptions. 

So, when he does those experiments and then when he explains them in the context of his theory and the other people say, "No, we can explain that with our theory," it was like, "Okay, yeah. That's actually not a debate that I'm interested in, like who had this thought first." What I'm interested in is, "Here's a study that shows that subliminal messages can change your endurance," which again, shows that ... and this is smiling faces versus frowning faces flashed for 16 milliseconds at a time. They can change your endurance, which shows that obviously it was not your lactic acid levels that were controlling your endurance. It's in your head. Or motivational self talk. There have been a whole series, or mental fatigue, showing that mental fatigue affects your performance in quite a dramatic way. 

So, I think where Marcora has excelled is in the experimental side and I just ... I'm not the man who's gonna decide who, trace back who had the first thought first. But I am gonna write about interesting studies as they come out, so that's ultimately the reason that I've written about Marcora in the last six or seven years. He's done a lot of really interesting experiments. 

Geoff: I appreciate that and I think that's, I kind of have a similar stance. I think they're both very smart, very great academics and doing a lot of great work. It's not my role to arbitrate who ... It's kind of above [inaudible 00:28:31] irrelevant. I think we're all searching for truth. They're both currently still active in searching for more truth. Let's just figure out the truth, right? 

Alex: And of course with Noakes, actually, Noakes doesn't say much about the central governor anymore. He has, as I'm sure you know, his main interest now is in ketogenic diets. 

Geoff: Low carb, yeah. 

Alex: It's interesting that actually if you look at the Twitter, what do Marcora and Noakes argue about? 

Geoff: They argue about-

Alex: It's not thing to do with-

Geoff: Nutrition. 

Alex: Yeah. They're not arguing about psychobiological versus central governor. They're arguing about ketogenic diet, which is not Marcora's area of specialty, but Noakes drives him nuts, so you see them clashing all the time. 

Geoff: Yeah, which is actually a good segue. Let's talk about that. Obviously in our community, a lot of people are interested in intermittent fasting, ketogenic diets. For me personally, I'm not dogmatic on a particular diet. I think there's ... different diets are useful for different roles, it depends on your goals. If you're a super athlete, if you're an endurance athlete, if you're a body builder, you probably want different macro nutrients. Obviously we have what we think is a fourth macro with the ketone ester, that's an interesting role in there. 

Curious given your perspective as a sports science writer, also as am athlete. I'm sure you've played with fueling yourself. How do you think about the argument around keto being the one true nutrition path versus it being complete horse crap? How do you synthesize the argument? I think ... I follow quite a bit of the keto Twitter. It is a nasty world out there. People hate each other out there. 

Alex: Yeah, and this is what ... I've gotten pretty cautious about wading into that. I'm gonna wade in here, so let me say, I'll go ahead and say what I think, but I've gotten in general pretty cautious about it, just because it's kind of a ...

Geoff: It's very religious. 

Alex: Yeah. Whatever you say, there's almost nothing you can say that is not gonna really anger a whole bunch of people who are vocal on Twitter. And I'm not singling out one side here. There's a point at which these debates, it's like there's almost very little point in writing anything, because people have already made up their minds. Now, that's an illusion, of course, because there's the two modes of the ... the two edges of the curve where people have made up their mind. There's tons of people in the middle you don't hear from because they don't know what the answer is. And they are interested in seeing what the evidence is and balancing the pros and cons. 

But it's definitely less rewarding to write about topics where you know you're gonna get pilloried no matter what you write. That's it. If I had to cite one truth that I believe, at least that I currently believe about sports nutrition, it would be that there is not one truth about sports nutrition, that there is ... And my thinking has evolved a little bit. Obviously, it's a point of pride or a cliché among people who think they're rational to say, "My thinking, if the evidence changes, my thinking changes." 

And I try to do that, but boy, let's be honest. It's hard. When you've staked a position on something, I know that my reading of the scientific literature, when I'm scanning through journals looking for studies to write about, of course that's ... my selection of what's interesting is influence by pages that fit with the sort of argument that I've been making in the past. All of which is to say it's hard to change your mind. I will say my thinking has evolved in the last decade on things like low carb, high fat diets. I would have been pretty ... 10 years ago, I would have been pretty confident and stated without much ambiguity that no, you cannot be a good successful endurance athlete on a extremely low carb diet. It was just, it was conventional wisdom. 

There was also a pretty good body of research done through the '90s and early 2000s where researchers, particularly at the Australian Institute of Sport, but in a bunch of places, in South Africa at Noakes's lab, too, had been trying to experiment with fat adaptation diets, so very low carb diets to boost fat burning and then at the last minute you throw some carbs back in and you go and race. They just weren't finding results. So, I felt like logic dictated that you can't be a low carb endurance athlete and the existing evidence also dictated that. And even if you look back at the very famous foundational texts, like Steven Finney's work in the early '80s with five cyclists, which to some people is like, "Look, this proves even back in the '80s, but The Man didn't want you to know that low fat diets were so amazing for cyclists." 

It's like, yeah, two of his cyclists got way, way worse and he writes in the paper that even though they sort of on average were equivalent, their anaerobic performance was totally shot to hell. So it's like, if that's the best evidence you've got, I think I was comfortable saying that low carb high fat isn't gonna cut it for endurance. Now, I wouldn't say that, 'cause starting with a bunch of anecdotal stuff, like stuff in the ultra running community. They were a bunch of real early adopters, people experimenting with low carb high fat diets having success, and then that sort of leading, sort of grassroots to some research from Jeff Volek's group, looking at some of these ultra runners who on their own adopted low carb high fat diets. 

So, you can say, and it's no surprise to anyone, you can say, "Yeah, if you go on a low carb high fat diet, a ketogenic diet, you're gonna really dramatically ramp up your ability to burn fat." So, that's great. The question that still is like, okay, what about performance? What about competitive performance where you need to be able to ramp up anaerobically to go up hills or to sprint? And those questions, I look at the literature and I see mixed results, and the results tend to split along the ... You can kind of, you can know what the results are gonna be by looking at who the researcher is before the ... I'm not trying to cast aspersions on researchers, but you kind of, it's by coincidence, the results tend to back up what the researcher has perviously stated. 

If I had to sort of give my impression of where things stand, it's that low carb high fat, speaking purely from a performance perspective. I don't know a lot about the long term health benefits or hazards, but from a performance perspective, I think low carb high fat is probably, can be just as good as a conventional diet for most people in most circumstances. So, there's not like an obvious, "You will be way better on Diet A or Diet B." It's like yeah, they're both options. If you're trying to compete at a very, very serious level, so whether it's an elite level or just a very, very serious level for you relative to your own ability, I remain a little bit skeptical that it will be successful in Olympic distance events, let's say two, two and a half hours or lower, except perhaps in a very, very modified way where you're using carbs on a regular basis during your training, not to mention your competitions. 

Someone just published a study ... or interview, not a study, an interview with ... I don't know how to pronounce his name. Mate Toth, who's the Olympic 50k race walk champion, where he says he's been using low carb high fat diet. That's one of the very first examples I've seen of an Olympic champion caliber athlete. Of course, this is in the longest, like a 50k event, walking event. It takes four hours. You're not allowed to sprint, because it's race walking. So the anaerobic-

Geoff: Right, you're in anaerobic threshold, you're under the anaerobic threshold. 

Alex: Yeah. So, I'm not super surprised to see that it could be effective in race walking, and that's where some of the research has been done with race walkers. On the flip side, sorry this is a long answer but just yeah, on the flip side-

Geoff: It's a complicated story. It requires nuance. 

Alex: And this is still just the cherry on top of the icing, but yeah, on the flip side, you talk about things like ultra running, say, or mountaineering where ... So in ultra running, let's say you're doing a 100 miler. Then it's not just about how fast can you get fuel in, it's are you still able to swallow fuel after eight hours of running and trying to swallow these gels. Some people are. Some of the best ultra runners in the world are purely carb filtered, carb fueled. But a lot of people aren't. It's a real challenge. 

Whatever the pros and cons forma purely metabolic of efficiency perspective are, if you're able to reduce your reliance on external food during a prolonged event by using a low carb high fat approach, so in other words, be burning more fat, that could start to be a real advantage. Or if you're in the mountains where you have to carry every bit of food with you, again, if you could start to rely on endogenous fat stores more, that could be a huge advantage. So, I think if I was doing a sort of broad thing, I'd say potential for LCHF longer than say three hours, three or four hours, I suspect ... I'm open to the idea that LCHF might be good for elite marathoners, but until more than let's say five of the top thousand marathoners in any given year or in history start to use it, to me, that's an unproven proposition. 

Yeah, I'm open to where the evidence takes me. In terms of putting my money where my mouth is or my food where my mouth is, I eat a pretty ... if I had to classify myself, I would say I'm like a Mediterranean, Michael Pollan type diet. I'm not seriously competitive these days. I compete, but I'm not concerned about one or two percent. I don't have to lose any weight for reasons that probably don't have anything to do with my diet and more just to do with my genetics and lifestyle patterns. So, I'm not faced with this situation of needing to look for other diets, I'm just, this is the way I've generally always eaten, so I'm not compelled to search for other answers. 

Geoff: The way I kind of approach this question is that, and I think you touch upon some of these ideas, is that there's a difference between maximal, you want to be an Olympic gold medalist and a diet that might be more optimal for longevity, for metabolic problems. I think that's one segment to talk about and think about. And then I think what is getting more and more popular, at least in the professional athletes and military folks that we engage with is the notion of puritization or cycling, where in periods of training blocks, you might want to go low carb high fat and up your fat oxidation rates, and really get metabolically flexible to be able to use fasts, but then during a maximal race where you're trying to win an Olympic gold medal, you need the sugar, you need the carbohydrate for the anaerobic push. 

So, my sense is that there's like different roles per diet and you have to think about exactly what you're stepping up into building. For training, you're not running for a marathon, you're not running 26 miles every day for 10 weeks straight. You're like blocking or training up to go have a beautiful race that last day, and I think the same thing will happen for diet where a certain training block, you'll want this kind of diet to maximize this kind of endpoint, whether you want to ramp up fat oxidation, reduce inflammation, increase your anaerobic threshold. I think there will be a lot more work to figure out exactly how to time all these variables together. That's my thinking around it currently. 

Alex: Yeah. I wrote a piece for Outside a couple weeks ago commenting on a big scientific review paper by a team led by Inigo Mujika. I don't know if I'm pronouncing his name right, a guy from the ... a very good sports scientist. It was about integrated periodization, and it was making this point that for the last 40 years or whatever, people have talked about training periodization, of course, you're not doing big mileage. If you're a marathoner, there's times when you're building mileage, times when you're focusing on race speed, times when you're resting, times when you're tapering, that everything we do should be periodized in a sense, and that includes diet, like you're saying. It includes your recovery protocols. That includes your psychological skills work, if you're doing any. 

There's a time for all sorts of different kinds of interventions, and you can put them together to try ... I think one of the sort of general principles that I think is important is this idea of diminishing returns. If you do the same thing every day or every year, if you do the same pattern of things every year, you get used to it, and your adaptive stimulus is not as much. And there's this classic thing in elite sports where someone will change coaches and all of a sudden will go on a tear for a year and it's like, "Oh, now they're with a really good coach. Now this coach understands them, it's magic."

It's like no, this coach is giving them something different than what they were used to for the last five years. And I had that experience in my own running. I changed coaches a few times and each time I'd be like, "Oh, wow. It's these long intervals with short rests that make all the difference," and it's like no, that's just, that was something that was missing from before. And then I'll change coaches a couple years later and it's like...

Geoff: "This is a new truth", right. 

Alex: Yeah. And after a while it's like, okay, you start to get skeptical. You start being, "Okay, it's not that the workout is magic, it's the idea of pushing yourself in new ways, finding diverse ways to challenge yourself on a weekly or monthly basis, and also on a sort of yearly basis." I think about this a lot, because I've been a serious runner for whatever ... I don't know. 20 years. It's like, is that really ... I need to find other ways of challenging myself if I want to keep, stay psychically healthy, stay mentally challenged, stay engaged. That's why I took up climbing a few years ago and I just recently found a pickup basketball game to play in. It's like I need to make sure that I'm challenging myself in different ways. 

Whether those goals are for health and longevity, which basketball is fun, but I also think it's gonna be really good for me to move in a different way and to use different muscles. If my sole goal was to run as fast a 5k as possible, I would not be playing pickup basketball. I'd be doing more running. But I'd be ... like you said, there's this trade off between which goals you're emphasizing and how much you're devoting towards them. 

Geoff: Yeah. How many miles are you doing a week now? Or still? 

Alex: Yeah. Let's see. I would guess as a typical number, probably 20 miles a week as a sort of basement, and 20 to 30 miles is probably a good estimate. I'm sort of resolving to bump it up a little bit this fall. It's been, that's mostly dictated just by like time constraints with childcare and stuff. I get out for a run six days a week often, usually, but some times those runs are 20 to 30 minutes if that's all I can get away for. I don't know. I just started working out with a ... I hooked up with a guy who's around my level and in my area where we can start to do some hard workouts together. I'd like to get a little fitter, but not at the expense of everything else. 

Geoff: Yeah. That's a interesting question. I was just chatting with one of my colleagues, Michael, who wanted to ask you-

Alex: He's a serious runner, right? He's the guy who ...

Geoff: He did a sub three marathon, which is good-

Alex: Yeah, we'll call him a serious runner. 

Geoff: It's serious, but what was your best? What was your PR? 

Alex: I wasn't a marathoner. I was a 1500 runner, I ran 342. So, right around the equivalent of a four minute mile. 

Geoff: Okay. But you had ... and that's crazy. You ran for ... but you've done marathons. 

Alex: I ran a marathon for a Runner's World story. I ran 244. 

Geoff: Okay. That's very serious runner. Just to give our audience of how fast, that's like a sub six for 26 miles. Or what is that, like a six? 

Alex: I think it's a little bit over six, yeah. I ran a 109 half marathon, which is probably a little bit of a better reflection of my abilities. I probably, when I was at my fittest training for the mile, I probably could have run a marathon in 230 without much trouble. 

Geoff: Yeah. That's very, very impressive. He wanted to ask, "What do you think's a reasonable amount that a normal person should run?" And I have changed my thinking around that, paying out with like lead athletes and my colleagues on that team who just like love running, and then talking to folks in the military who are just like dump trucks in terms of endurance. So, my thinking has evolved from I used to be, five years ago or in college, go to the gym, run a mile, lift some weights, that's like a good workout. And now I'm thinking that everyone should be able to run at least ... at the drop of a dot should be able to bust out 10 miles. I think it's like a fundamental human marker of you can not be a completely crappy animal at surviving. 

I think one should be able to move 10 miles, which is quite a bit of a jump. I'm curious to hear your thoughts around what's like a sensible distance that people should be able to run? 

Alex: Okay. I'm gonna stay away from judgments about what people should be able to do, because-

Geoff: Very PC. Good. 

Alex: Yeah. Also because, look, what's a reasonable thing for me to be able to do is maybe different from someone who's 6'6 and 250 lbs of pure muscle. Their skills may be different in the same way that they would be like, "If you can't bench press X amount, X lbs, then you're probably not a real human." It's like, dude, I'm not built to bench press. And you can scale it by body weight, but I think we have to recognize there are differences that are independent of like what you're eating and how much you're exercising. 

That said, and age and things like that, too. We're young folks in the prime of our lives, or at least sort of cling on to the prime of my life, but in terms of what someone, you'd like to think someone could do nonstop, I mean, I think if you can run a 5k, that's a pretty good sign. That's not ... If running 5k is like you do that and 5.1k would make you drop down dead, then I would say you're probably not particularly fit. That's not an optimal level of fitness. If I were giving advice to someone about a regular exercise program that suggests, that would keep you fit and be a good indicator, I would be thinking like three to four runs a week of five to eight K. One of them might be an interval workout rather than a ... And one of them may be a 10k run. 

I think it's great for young, healthy people, like you said, you should be able to run 10 miles. Well yeah, if you're fit and that's an important thing to you, I certainly think that's ... having that level of fitness opens up a lot of doors in terms of the kinds of things you can do, the kinds of recreation you can do, the kind of life you can live. I would say that the evidence in terms of longevity and function and stuff like that points [inaudible 00:49:21]. You don't have to do a ton. And this is like, I've been dragged kicking and screaming to this conclusion, is that I always figured it's pretty linear. If you're running 60 miles a week, you're healthier than the guy running 50 miles a week, who's healthier than the guy running 40 miles a week. And there's some evidence sets that suggests that's true, but there's actually some pretty good evidence that suggests really the biggest health benefits come-

Geoff: Diminishing return. 

Alex: Yeah, from if you're doing like an hour or two of pretty hard exercise a week, so let's say an hour of running a week, you're getting most of the health benefits. I will admit that there's part of me that doesn't quite believe that data. I just feel like I know the difference between when I'm running let's say 50 ... Or let's say 40 miles a week and when I'm running 20 miles a week. And I know that I'm not as ... When I'm running 40 miles a week, there's something more there and I have to feel like that's gotta be good for something. But that's just my sort of self serving gut feeling. The evidence is like ... And I think in terms of well being and stuff too there's lots of tangibles and all that sort of stuff. But I'm not sure would say that if you can't run 10 miles, you're-

Geoff: You're sub-human or something. 

Alex: Yeah, yeah. 

Geoff: Yeah, no I mean-

Alex: Please do not quote me on that.

Geoff: Yeah. No I mean, I think me not being a journalist, I feel like I can be more sort of .. Run just, I think, standards. And I think my opinion is just informed by the realization that a sixth of the American economy is towards healthcare, obesity rates are sky rocketing, diabetes rates are sky rocketing. A third of Americans are diabetic, pre-diabetic. And I had, a few weeks ago, met the Army surgeon general. And she was saying that 17% of the active duty US Army is classified as obese. And they were having pipeline issues with their recruits coming into bootcamp. Just not being physically fit, they're playing too much video games ...

And this is sort of me being dogmatic. Maybe we should just have more guidance towards people. Have some goals to be able to run or be able to do a certain amount of pull ups or push ups. And I think maybe in a previous generation there was more opinion on that. And maybe that was for a good reason or that was of benefit, where I think maybe now where there's, I guess, a relativism towards different goals and maybe no goals that maybe is detracting to societal health. It's like, okay, maybe we should just have a high standard and inspire people to go towards a high standard. 

Alex: Yeah, so let me tweak the question a little bit. Let's say ... Is the question ... If the question was, do you think everyone is capable of running 10 miles, like within limitations, not people with one leg or people who are 95 years old. But for the most part, healthy adults are capable of running 10 miles or should be in the sense of they ... That in theory, they're capable of it if they were optimally healthy. Then I think the answer is yes. Humans are capable of running 10 miles. And being in the state where you are capable of 10 miles is to my mind better than not being in that state. 

Now there's a long-standing debate in the sort of public health realm of which research do you emphasize? Do you emphasize the research that shows that if you go from 30 miles a week to 40 miles a week you reduce incidence of ... You reduce your cholesterol, you reduce your blood sugar, or do you emphasize the stuff that says if you go from 0 to 5 miles a week, or the equivalent of that, you get these massive benefits? And this is a real argument among policymakers. Where should we put the emphasis? Because there's so many people who can do nothing right now, that if you tell them "You need to run 10 miles," they'll be like ...

Geoff: Like, "Not me," yeah.

Alex: Yeah, "You don't understand my situation. You don't understand how bad my knees are ..." There's a lot of reasons that people will come up with, and they'll be discouraged. So there's this maybe handholding approach of saying, "Well you know what? What's really important is if you can get up and walk around the couch three times, that's gonna be wonderful."

So I think what you're saying is, that approach is selling people short, and I think there's some truth to that. I think the psychology of what it will take to get people to get active is complicated. People are really struggling with this right now. I think I live in a world where, because I'm a runner and most of my friends are runners, it's like, I don't know what it takes to get someone off the couch, and I'm not gonna pretend that I'm not ... As a journalist sometimes I have to pretend to be that guy, but for the most part those aren't problems I can solve. I'm more interested in, what happens when you go from 40 to 50 miles a week or whatever, how do you get to that stage? From a societal perspective, that's maybe not the most important question, and the things that would motivate you and the things that would motivate me ... Like, come on, what can you do? Can you find your limits? It may be true that that's a complete turnoff to the person who most needs to get active, that they need to be approached in some other way. What pushes your buttons and my buttons is not what pushes their buttons.

Geoff: Yeah. Actually that's how I initially got connected to Professor Marcora. There was an article about potentially using nootropics to inspire people to work out better, right? So that's how we actually initially connected, and I think we were quoted in the same piece in the Guardian. Yeah, I think that is, frankly, probably one of the largest problems that we as a society need to figure out, right? The status quo for population health is not great. So if there's a way to ... I think there's multiple techniques to figure out how to best motivate people to be a little bit more active.

I wanted to go back to the psychobiological, or the self-talk, or the subliminal imaging. I'm sure you've played with that. I'm sure you've read the results, and you're like, "Wow. I want to apply this to myself." Has any of that technique stuck with you? Through all your research, what results have stuck with you that you've incorporated into your actual day-to-day routine?

Alex: I'm actually not a huge self-experimenter. A little bit, I'm interested, but I'm kind of ... I'm trying to think. There was a quote I read about ... This may be an obscure allusion. There is an article about experimental philosophy by a guy ... I can't remember his name. Anthony ... Kwame Anthony Appiah. He was writing about the field of experimental philosophy where people do experiments to try and test their philosophical assumptions. And he said, "Most philosophers don't like to do their experiments. They're like Catholic priests at a wedding who feel that their abstinence from the practice makes them all the more- ..."

Geoff: Purer or better.

Alex: Yeah, or able to pronounce about it's importance, because they're not conflicted about it. And in a sense, I have a little bit of that streak within me. It's like, I'm interested in whether this stuff works, but I'm not ... And it might be different if I was 20 and in the middle of my competitive career, but for the most part ... A classic example that I've mentioned a bunch of times is beet juice. Because I wrote a lot of articles about beet juice when it emerged as a supplement, because it was exciting, because there was good evidence that it worked, and then there was a series of studies that kept trying to figure out how beet juice worked, how much you should take, when it doesn't work, all of these things ... And each time, I wrote an article.

So at a certain point it's like ... I'd probably 20 or 30 articles about beet juice. And up until a couple months ago, even though I'd been writing about beet juice for eight years, I'd never even tasted beet juice. It just was never something ... And that's despite the fact that I'd been offered samples of beet juice, innumerable times.

Geoff: Right.

Alex: People had tried to send them to me. Eventually, actually a few months ago, someone ... This is a long story. I think they figured out my address from the registry of my email list or something like that and just sent me some beet juice. And I got curious and I tried it.

Geoff: I think that's actually right, I think we sent you some HVMN Ketone ... Like, you'd never wanted to try our ester right? I guess it's the same principle.

Alex: Yeah. So I wrote about HVMN Ketone for Outside Magazine, and I thought about it, it's not like this line in the sand that I never want to try anything I write about, because at a certain point, of course I'm interested in trying things and there's something to be said for first-person journalism. Like when I tried Brain Endurance Training, Marcora's Brain Endurance Training for a marathon, there's a role for that. But for the most part, I think it's ... You have to be really good at self-experimentation to be able to judge fairly whether what you're doing is working-

Geoff: Or is it a placebo, you just trick yourself, right? Yeah.

Alex: Placebo effect, and just there's all sorts of other layers of things. From a journalistic perspective, the things that go in, it's like, "Do you like it? Does it make you feel cool that you're trying this cutting-edge thing? Does it feel ... Do you like the people you're interacting with, and therefore you don't particularly want to torpedo them by saying you really hate this product?" And that's an issue for me. I'm not a cutthroat kind of guy. So if people are sending me stuff, I have a ... And if I don't like it, I have trouble saying, "I thought this was crap." 

So part of my way of getting around that is to say, "Look, there's a billion people out there who are happy to try this stuff and to write first-person stuff." And maybe I'll try stuff sometimes, but what I would like my role to be is to evaluate the evidence. Not evaluate whether I liked it or whether it was a good fit for me, whether the transcranial direct current headphones fit my scalp properly or whatever ...

Geoff: Right.

Alex: I think that becomes a bit of a distraction. I'm gonna write about, "What does the evidence say?" So that makes it hard sometimes for me to write about new things. There's a new drink that just came out that Sky Cycling is using from Science and Sport, and I've been interacting with them by email. And it's like, "Okay, these are all nice explanations, but if you can't show me data ..." And same with that Maurten Swedish drink that's been all over. It's like, I understand why you say it works, I understand that a whole bunch of really good athletes like it. But what I want to know is, where's the data showing that they're effective?

Geoff: Yeah, publish it. Right, publish it.

Alex: Yeah. And not to blow smoke up your behind, but the reason I was willing to write about HVMN Ketone whereas I haven't written that much about Maurten or Beta Fuel, or 500 other things that are filling my inbox on a regular basis, is because there was a good study from Oxford with performance outcomes, not just proxy outcomes. Now, to be totally honest I still don't know where HVMN Ketone is gonna fit in in the sporting world. I'll be interested to see how things are going over the next few years.

Geoff: Yeah.

Alex: But there is some good published data that I can write about it, and that was what I was willing to write about. So all of that is a long preamble to say that, in a sense, I probably avoid trying things because I'm writing about them more than I would if I wasn't writing about them. If I wasn't writing about things, there are more things that I would try. But in a sense, as soon as I try them, that inevitably will inform how I'm writing about them. So it's kind of like not voting as a political journalist.

Geoff: Yeah.

Alex: I kind of stay out of all of it. Now having said all of that, to actually answer your question, I tried Samuele Marcora computer-based Brain Endurance Training. I found that I was fascinated that it worked, at least in the studies that he's done. But I found it really boring. I wouldn't necessarily ... Really boring, and challenging, and time-consuming. So without dramatic changes, I wouldn't make that part of my regular routine. And other stuff like transcranial direct current stimulation, which I did try, has been a sort of departure from my usual practice-

Geoff: Is this with the Halo?

Alex: Yeah, so the Halo ... Basically electricity to your brain changes your perception of effort. I suspect that probably works in a lab setting. I'm skeptical if the commercial version works yet. Either way, at this point at least, my thinking may evolve as time goes on as it often does, but I don't like the optics or the ethics of it. It's just not really ... It feels to me like putting wheels on your shoes, or a rocket booster on you. That may change. It may just be that it's new, so I'm unfamiliar with it. But it's not something that I'm like, "I wish I had a pair of headphones to be able to electrocute my brain on a regular basis."

Geoff: Yeah. That's actually a good segue for an audience question here. Melissa asks, "What is your view on doping?" I think you just in a sense how I think about doping ... I think there will be a very interesting future where it'll be you get genetic engineering, you have things like TCDS that you can't detect, like HVMN Ketone, it's like very hard to detect, it's not possible to detect ... But there's gonna be more and more technologies that will change what it means to be a fair sporting environment. I'm curious to get your thoughts. Do you think doping is gonna just be the norm? Do you think there will be arbitrary rulings on doping? To me, it's strange when 20% of cyclists have asthma, because if you have an asthma exemption, you can have the steroid that you can ... The inhaler, and that can be useful for having better oxygen flow in your lungs, right? So it's like with all of these exemptions, it almost is like ... It's confusing. I'm curious to get your thoughts on that.

Alex: Yeah. This could be a nine-hour podcast. So let me say one thing first. I think people sometimes jump a little too quickly on the whole asthma thing. There's very, very good evidence showing that endurance athletes, particularly endurance athletes who participate in the cold, so like cross-country skiers, but also endurance athletes why may be sucking in a lot of diesel, but also just endurance athletes in general, and if they're breathing in dry air, are more likely to develop not asthma, but a related condition called exercise-induced bronchial constriction. Basically, they get asthma attacks when they start exercising, because they're breathing so much air, they're training so much, they're breathing the dry air which dries out their airways, and it gets irritated and they eventually develop a chronic-like ... Asthma-like condition. So the fact that 20% of cyclists have asthma doesn't necessarily say anything about cheating, it says something about the fact that a lot cyclist get asthma. 

Geoff: Fair enough. Right.

Alex: And like Alberto Salazar, a very controversial track coach, he got some negative press because some of his ex-athletes were like, "He told us how to cheat the asthma test. Before you go to the doctor, run up and down the stairs four times. Then you go in and you'll fail the test." That's not cheating the test. That's because a lot of doctors don't know what exercised-induced bronchial constriction is. To diagnose exercised-induced bronchial constriction, you have to exercise first. So if you're an athlete with EIB, you go to the doctor and they have you blow a test, you don't have asthma. If you run up and down the stairs four times to trigger your exercise-induced bronchial constriction, then you test positive for having an asthma-like condition, and you're given the [inaudible 01:05:57] ...

So that's just an actual knowledge of the realities of an elite sport. Now, I know there's a researcher at the University of British Columbia who I know quite well who's done a bunch of studies for WADA trying to understand this question, "Are things like Salbutamol performance enhancers?" And they've done a ton of studies on this, and there's a reason that they've de-listed things like Salbutamol recently, because they can find no evidence that Salbutamol is performance enhancing unless you have exercise-induced bronchial constriction. 

So the theory here ... And I'm sorry to go down the road on this, or into the weeds here, but I think it kind of illustrates something to the general question that you're asking. In theory, what you want for therapeutic use exemptions, for athletes being allowed to take these drugs, is that it doesn't give them an edge, it only allows them to compensate for some sort of medical condition. And you can make a pretty good argument that that's exactly what these inhalers do. Now it gets more complicated, because then you're like, "Okay, well if you take enough of them, do they also help you drop weight?" Or something like that.

Geoff: Right.

Alex: Are you getting some other benefits? I'm definitely not saying that there's no abuse of these things. But just the mere fact that on the surface a lot of endurance athletes have inhalers isn't necessarily that they're cheating. That's actually quite ... There's evidence going back over the past few decades-

Geoff: Fair enough.

Alex: That people who train will get it.

Geoff: Yeah.

Alex: But that's an illustration of how complicated this area is. In a sense, the future always looks different, and radically ... Everything's gonna change, and it's not gonna be like things are anymore. But as much as a lot of new technologies are coming online, performance-enhancing technologies, I mean, look back from the perspective of 1960 or 1980, and you're gonna see things like ... First of all, steroids, and then hormones like EPO ... We've been through a wave of radically ... Things that really, really work. We're not talking like 1%, things that will give you 5%, 10% performance boosts. They've come through the sport, they've come through sports in general. And they've done a lot of damage to sports, for sure. 

So the question is, at what point do we wave the white flag and say, "Look, just take whatever you want." And to me, the answer is never. And I'll tell you why, because it's not ... To me, sports is not ... I'm actually not all that interested in spectator sports. As much as I love ... I do watch stuff and I love watching the Olympics and everything. I 1000 times prefer participating to watching things. 

Geoff: I agree. Me too.

Alex: So it's not just ... These are not just little figures on the TV screen who are saying, "Yeah, they should just be allowed to take whatever the hell they want." These are real people. And I made choices as an athlete. I was beaten by athletes who took drugs, and I beat athletes who then subsequently took drugs and became really, really good, and then got busted. There's an Irish guy I beat at the world championships one year who then got like a minute better over 10k, and then got busted for EPO. I don't want those to be choices that are just accepted. So then, what are the rules gonna be about what's allowed and what's not? That is where it gets really hard. And even right now, let's be honest, it's arbitrary. You can take-

Geoff: That's where I was going. I think ... From talking to a lot of retired cyclists, there's a 50% hematocrit level, so everyone basically just dopes up to that limit. So if you're naturally high on hematocrit, I wish I could ... They're getting their natural, biological advantage taken away, because everyone else is doping up to that limit. So things like that just seem very arbitrary.

Alex: Yeah, and there's things like, what do you do about baking soda, or caffeine?

Geoff: Right.

Alex: Those are real performance enhancers, but we choose maybe not to ... Because you can't ban muffins or whatever. So to me, in the end it comes down to, there are some things that we definitely want banned. I do not want to compete against people who are taking steroids and EPO.

Geoff: Yeah.

Alex: As a result, we have to have a banned list. 

Geoff: Yeah.

Alex: As a result, someone has to decide what's on the banned list and what's not on the banned list. Now, anyone who thinks there's a natural line between what should be allowed and what isn't is kidding themselves. The rule is currently made up ... There's three criteria, you have to fit two of them. If it enhances performance, if it's dangerous to the athletes, and if it violates the spirit of the sport, which is a wildcard, because no one knows what that means.

Geoff: Right.

Alex: So it's a totally arbitrary-

Geoff: Because, does sugar fit that list now? Right?

Alex: Yeah. 

Geoff: Sugar enhances performance-

Alex: Sports drinks damage your-

Geoff: And if you eat too much sugar, you're gonna get diabetes. So, hey, we should ban sugar.

Alex: Exactly. And this is not purely a function of poorly written rules. This is the nature of the world. There is not a bright line. But to me, there has to be a line, because there are some things that we definitely don't want. So my response is, there's gonna be a line. Some things are gonna be allowed that you're like, "Why is that allowed?" Some things are gonna be banned that you're like, "There's no way that should be banned." Deal with it. Whatever. The rules are the rules, and if everyone obeys them then we're all playing on a roughly equivalent playing field. So I have not a lot of sympathy for people who are like, "Well I took this banned thing, but it shouldn't be banned." Well, it was banned.

Geoff: Right.

Alex: Maybe it shouldn't have been. Change the rules. But it doesn't give you a right to take it.

Geoff: No, I think that's a healthy way to look at it. Sport rules are arbitrary already, right? Why is a basketball ... Why is a three-pointer a three-pointer? Because someone made it up, and someone's gonna make up what's illegal and what's legal for doping as well.

Alex: There's a philosopher who's like, "The essence of sport is the voluntary acceptance of arbitrary constraints." That's all it is.

Geoff: Right. Yeah.

Alex: That's what sport is. We make up the rules, and then we play by them. Now, are things gonna get complicated as there's more and more undetectable things? Well, gene doping is no more undetectable than EPO was for a decade. There have always been things ... People are always gonna cheat. It's the way of the world. And hopefully you just try and make it hard enough that it doesn't totally destroy the sport. As I enter my curmudgeonly old age, I kind of ... I used to laugh at Roger Bannister ... Not laugh, but I didn't have a lot of time for his thought that, "Oh, it's too bad that everyone's training so hard, the professionalization of sport is bad." I still don't think that's correct, but I have some ... The value I look for in sport is maybe less attuned to who's getting richest, or who's setting the everlasting record, and more about, "What about pushing your limits?" And getting the value of the journey rather than worrying about the destination.

Geoff: Yeah. You have a very aesthetic perspective on sport, which I think is very noble.

Alex: Which is easy to have, because I'm too old to dream about going to the Olympics or something like that, yet you probably would have heard different things from me when I was 20 and I would have said, "All that matters is how fast you are." So let's just be fair. But yeah, it's like, it's not gonna be easy, and it's gonna require ... It's gonna be a constant source of debate and challenge. I think that's just inevitable.

Geoff: Yeah. No, a lot more to talk about, but we gotta wrap up here. So hopefully we can get you on another time. But where can people find you? So you've got the Outside Magazine column, Sweat Science, twitter handle @sweatscience ... Any other projects that we should shout out? Where do people find you?

Alex: Yeah, Twitter's probably the ... As you said, @sweatscience, and anything that's going on, if I have new articles or if I see things that are interesting, I generally post that on Twitter. That's my first port of call, so that's the best place to go. My website is if you want to look at my [inaudible 01:14:01] or whatever, and it has some older articles that I thought were good. But really, Twitter's the place to go. In terms of other projects, things going on, my big project right now is figuring out what my next big project is. I don't know. I'm spending some time just trying to figure out what the next big thing is, because as you know, after any big project you're kind of like, "Wow, that was exciting. What next?" I have no idea.

Geoff: All right, well we'll be staying tuned in to see what that is. Thanks so much Alex.

Alex: Thanks Geoff.

Geoff: We'll definitely have to talk soon.

Alex: Yeah, this was fun. It was a very wide-ranging and interesting conversation, so hopefully there's nothing in there that will get people angry at me.

Geoff: All right, cheers. Talk soon.

Alex: Okay, thanks. Yeah.

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