Malcolm Gladwell and Elite Runner Alex Hutchinson on What Separates Top Athletes from the Rest
“It can be a glorious thing to be uncomfortable.”
Malcolm Gladwell is a bestselling author, the host of the Revisionist History podcast, and a curator of the Next Big Idea Club. Alex Hutchinson is a former physicist whose latest book, Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, is an official Next Big Idea Club selection. The two recently sat down to discuss how top athletes push themselves to achieve, and why learning to endure pain comes with some surprising benefits.
This excerpt of the conversation has been edited. To view the unedited excerpt, click the video below.
Malcolm: When you’re reading this book, one of the unexpected things I learned was that we probably spend too much time differentiating among endurance tasks, as opposed to wondering what they all have in common.
Alex: You can look at a spectrum of different activities, cognitive or physical activities, short or long duration. Fundamentally, what a lot of endurance activities have in common is that you have to hold your finger in the flame. You have to resist your impulse to pull it away, [resist] whatever your first impulse is. That is a unifying theme that brings together great athletes and great performers in business and other contexts.
Malcolm: I thought of that when I was listening to the Lance Armstrong podcast, Forward. He had on a number of his former riding mates and they were all reminiscing about what it was like to be on the Tour de France. They started talking about these brutal climbs, when the weather was freezing, and they’re on the bike for a ridiculous number of hours climbing some massive mountain.
There were several things that were fascinating. The first fascinating thing was how much they clearly enjoyed not just the memory, but they enjoyed the experience of suffering in that way. And then they segued in this wonderful conversation [to their] children and their great anxiety as a parent, [which] is that they didn’t know whether they would be able to instruct their children in the joys of suffering. This is what you’re getting [at,] right? That there’s something quite unique about the mindset of these endurance heroes.
Alex: We look for all the secrets [behind] the ways great athletes become great. On some level, they enjoy hurting—they don’t enjoy extreme pain, but you hear people talk about pain [positively,] “I felt alive during that moment. It was hard, but I felt alive.” I would bet that someday we’ll be able to identify that some people are wired to enjoy pain a little bit.
It can be a glorious thing to be uncomfortable. As a kid, initially, I loved the idea that you could stop running. It was only over time that I learned to acquire a taste for it.
Malcolm: Before I read your book, my first assumption would be the difference between a truly elite endurance performer of any kind and me is that they can achieve at levels without pain that I can’t. In other words, if I compare myself to the greatest distance runner in the world, they’re so fit that they can run near a world record time and not actually suffer the way I suffer. But what you’re saying is different—that not only are they better physiologically, but they also suffer [and] are fine with it.
Alex: This one of the great debates, right? Say Haile Gebrselassie ran a marathon in two hours and Joe Schmo ran a marathon in four hours. It doesn’t that mean Joe Schmo is twice as tough as Haile Gebrselassie because he was out there for twice as long pushing his limits. There’s no doubt that the greatest athletes have physical abilities that allow them to do things with ease that the rest of us can’t. But an undersold part of that equation is [that] they have trained themselves to deal with pain.
Anyone who has trained for a sport for a long period of time ends up understanding that, yes, their body has gotten bigger, stronger, and tougher. But they’ve also learned to go into that zone of discomfort and learn the difference between a warning sign, and a stop sign. They’ve learned that if you’re breathing hard, or if your legs are feeling heavy, that doesn’t mean, “You’re out of oxygen, you’re about to die.” It just means this isn’t sustainable indefinitely, but you can ignore it. The great athletes learn to tolerate. They don’t necessarily feel pain differently than the rest of us, but they frame it differently. It’s information. And as a result, they can stay in that pain for longer.
Malcolm: How good of an understanding do we have of that process? You’ve suggested that some part of it might be a learned adaptation. I’m assuming some part of that might also be just a straight up innate difference. Can we say with confidence that the act of continuously testing the outer limits of your thresholds can raise your threshold for pain?
Alex: There’s a study that goes back to the early 80s with elite swimmers in Scotland, where they tested pain sensitivity. It [was] actually pretty brutal. [The researchers] put a blood pressure cuff around [the swimmers’] arms and [they] had to squeeze a contraction every second until [they] couldn’t take it anymore. It gets very painful.
[The researchers] found that pain tolerance ebbed and flowed with the competitive season. Not only were the [swimmers] able to swim better in the middle of their competitive season, they were able to tolerate more pain when they were preparing for a big race. The lowest pain tolerance was after their off season. So even within elite athletes, it rises and falls.
More recently, there [have] been some studies [that] show that if you take people and train them physically, they’re tolerant to other kinds of pain [as well.] So, it’s not just within a sport—their generalized pain tolerance increases. It increases specifically in proportion to how much they suffer in training. The leading theory behind the mechanism is that it’s basically psychological coping mechanisms. You learn to reframe the pain or distract yourself. It’s just familiarity with discomfort.