Endurance and hydration - An interview with Alex Hutchinson

By Chris Knight | 7 Minute Read

We took the opportunity to sit down and Sweat Test author Alex Hutchinson while we were at the TrainingPeaks Endurance Coaching Summit in Colorado. 

We chatted with Alex - the man behind the book Endure: Mind, body and the curiously elastic limits of human performance - about endurance, hydration and the controversial topic of drinking to thirst...

 

Hi Alex, thanks for joining us today. Let's start by chatting about your book and I wondered what your motivation for writing Endure was? 

I was hoping to get massively rich and retire to an island in the Bahamas...

As a journalist I get to dig a lot of puddles and sometimes I want to make a big hole and stare.

A good rule of thumb for journalism is if you do enough research that you have to leave 97 percent of your research out then you know the article is going to be good, but you've also got that other 97 percent left over.

I wanted to go beyond what I can say in a thousand words and explore the real nuances because for people who have lived in the world of endurance sports it's not a case of, ‘oh, it's all in the head’ or ‘it's all in the muscles’, it's very complicated.

 

I understand the book was nine years in the making, did you enjoy the long process of putting the book together?

With a book, you have control so you can decide where you want to go and how you want to do it. That was very daunting but it was also a lot of fun. 

The process was quite different to what it would normally be in that I didn't go out and spend two years straight researching. I had interviews stretching over the course of a number of years with a lot of people – for example, I went and saw Tim Noakes in South Africa in 2010 and spent a bunch of time with him. 

I started out thinking I was going to write a book about the Central Governor Theory and then I was broadening that out to Noakes’s other work. But it soon became clear that I couldn’t write this book with a straight face by saying that endurance is all in your head because it's not.

I needed to incorporate the understanding that it's the body and the mind working together, not that it's the brain calling all the shots.

So, despite the press perhaps overstating Endure as a radical new understanding of endurance, I think the book wasn’t all that radical as it didn’t throw out popular stuff but hopefully it has helped to broaden our understanding.

 

Alex Hutchinson interviewImage: Andy Blow ©

 

You've delved deeply into sport during the course of putting the book together - have you always been a 'student of running' from a young age? 

I was a student of the sport pretty much right from the start - one of my earliest memories was beating the big kid, Stephen Mills, in a race at kindergarten.

My parents got me Tim Noakes’ edition of the Lore of Running in the early 1990s and it's a big doorstop of a book. I studied it and I read it from cover-to-cover multiple times, although I know many people have lots of issues with it. 

And so I started out very deeply steeped in those sorts of attempts to understand - not just from science but from the experience of runners in the past - the historical context of what people have done, why they've done it and how it's changed over the years.

 

Tim Noakes has been an influential figure in the world of sports science over the years as he has challenged traditional ways of thinking. How big of an influence has he been on your own development? 

Tim has become increasingly combative, especially about diet, and maybe history will prove him right. But that has also made me think I need to examine his claims as carefully as I examine the claims of the people he criticises. 

I think Noakes has a particular personality that relishes controversy and challenging the established ideas. And that can be very, very useful to some extent because I think he's changed the course of exercise physiology and forced people to re-examine some assumptions that needed to be regrown.

In the same way that the guy who founds a great new tech start-up company may not be the best guy to lead its IPO, there's different skillsets involved at different stages of companies, of history, of politics, and science too.

He's a good guy at challenging assumptions but maybe someone else is the person to construct the new orthodoxy.

 

Tim's approach to hydration has been well documented and I wonder where you stand on his position of only drinking water to thirst in order to avoid hyponatremia and improve athletic performance?

Hydration is the topic that first brought me back to Noakes’s research in 2007. He took part in a debate in the Journal of Applied Physiology with Michael Sawka and it focused on the question, does dehydration impair performance?

I can’t remember why I saw it but I thought 'that’s a stupid question, of course dehydration results in poor performance'.

But I read it and I was like, ‘oh wow, Noakes raises some interesting points'. The studies that have tried to answer this question have done so with totally flawed design, so they're always dehydrating people deliberately and preventing them from drinking water. They'd never just let people drink and see what happens.

And so his data didn't prove dehydration doesn't matter or that drinking to thirst is all you need, but it certainly made me think no one's ever really tested the question properly.

And so when I read that, I would say that my pendulum probably swung a little further than maybe it should have [towards the 'drinking to thirst' camp] and I sort of decided it's all a bunch of hype, you don’t need to worry about anything when it comes to hydration.

 

Interesting. You say your pendulum swung a bit too far in one direction - has your opinion changed over time then?

One of the dangers when you look at a body of research and decide that it's flawed, the tendency is then to assume that the opposite must be true. But in reality what you need to do is explore and test the opposite position with the same rigour.

It's very dangerous to assume that there’s a default position that’s automatically true and I think that's what a lot of people do with drinking to thirst.

Some people will make this evolutionary argument whereby thirst has worked for billions of years and therefore that's all we need. That’s no good.

If you want to make a claim that this is the way to optimise your performance, show me a study that proves it optimises performance.

 

So, if we continue with the pendulum analogy, what does a balanced view of hydration look like for you? 

I think that it shouldn't be something that you're stressing out about all the time and getting dehydrated shouldn't be some sort of terrible fate to be avoided at all costs.

But when you start looking at serious workouts or competition, especially in contexts where fluid intake is limited or when the climate is unfavourable, and on the basis of the sketchy information available I end up thinking you should be thinking carefully about your hydration and that you should probably have some sort of plan.

There are certain contexts like racing a marathon where getting dehydrated can have serious implications, so many people have to be more careful in that situation.

They need to be able to distinguish the contexts where it matters and the context where it doesn’t, and not have the fire alarm ringing all the time, saying ‘oh my God, we could be potentially dehydrated at this moment’. That's the balance for me.

 

Alex Hutchinson TrainingPeaksImage: Andy Blow ©

 

Is there a risk that the pendulum swings too far one way or the other for some people, so that they only drink to a rigid plan or drink to thirst? 

Louise Burke [the Head of Sports Nutrition at the Australian Institute of Sport] has looked at various factors that move you one way or the other on the continuum - there's the one end where you should just chill out and drink when you're thirsty, and the other end where you need a plan.

There are several factors to consider here, such as personal factors, environmental factors and mental factors. There are also things to think about such as how focused you are on following a particular direction with your hydration, your level of experience, the temperature you’re in, and of course your own genetic response to dehydration.

I thought an interesting factor was when she brought in psychology. Some people are hyper self-aware, whereas some people won’t drink unless you hit them on the head and those people maybe need a plan.

And I think there's also a tendency for people to extrapolate their own characteristics to others and assume that well if I'm pretty good at listening to my body and drinking when I'm thirsty, but some people respond better to having a plan rather than just leaving it to chance.

I do think people don't need to worry about hydration as much as they do, but I also think there's some situations where it's very worthwhile to have thought carefully about what your plans are.

Ultimately, people are different physiologically and psychologically.

 

Finally, what does the future hold for you? Is there another book on the horizon?

I'd like to write another book but right now I'm just doing journalism. I gave myself to the end of 2018 to come up with a topic for the book but it didn't happen.

There's conflicting desires to do something totally different or to build on what I've done or to be somewhere in the middle.

I hope I’m not going to spend 10 years on the next book, but I also want to make sure it’s not something I get bored of after six months.

So right now I'm just trying not force it. I'm trying to keep my antenna open and to do journalism in different areas.

 

Excellent, thanks for your time today! Enjoy the summit! 

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