Book review: Which comes first, Cardio or Weights? by Alex Hutchinson

If you read this site on a regular basis, or even if you just drop in once in a while, you’ll know that we have a great deal of respect and love for Alex Hutchinson and his Sweat Science blog. The blog looks at “common workout myths” and “debunks shoddy science” by looking at the latest scientific studies surrounding these ideas. The blog has evolved into a book, and in what I hope will be the first of many reviews of running-related books, I’m going to share my thoughts on it with you.

This is a great book. If you are an elite athlete who wants to understand more about why you do the training you do, this book is for you. If you are a beginning fitness enthusiast, and want to know what you should or shouldn’t do, this book is for you. If you are someone in between: a weekend warrior, a coach, a health care professional, then this book is for you. I add that last category in because I was recently in a doctor’s office, doing a cardiac stress test for a study I’m participating in, and I noted a couple different applications of the knowledge I’d gained from reading Alex’s book.

First, the stress test was based on me working at 85% of my heart rate max. The technician used the old 220-age to determine my max. The latest research, according to “Cardio or Weights” is that 208-.7age is a more accurate formula. In my case, the difference is about 2.5 beats per minute, or around 1%: 186 under the old system (so 158.1 is 85%) and 184 under the newer one, which means 156.5 is my 85%. I have no idea how this will impact this particular study (it likely won’t because the test was just to see if I was admissible to the study), but I imagine that, in many other cases, this could be a fairly important distinction.

Second, as I was sitting in the cardiologist’s office to have him analyse my results (everything was fine!), he noticed the book, and the provocative title, “Which comes first, Cardio or Weights?” and he immediately commented on how important cardio was for all around health, more so than weights. This is a finding that Alex mentions a few times in the book. This is not to say the answer to the question is “Cardio.” The question is which comes first, not which is better.

Hopefully a book like this allows the most up-to-date scientific information to filter down to busy doctors, physiotherapists and massage therapists who maybe don’t have time to read the latest in sports science research (even if they should). There’s a tendancy to think that once you are out of school, the learning is done, but as this book shows, there are plenty of changes of thinking taking place all the time.

I love how easy it is to read, yet how authoritative it is. And by authoritative I mean the weight of the research behind it, not that Alex has come up with definitive answers to the questions. The fact that he hasn’t in many cases is a testament to that authority, I think. The book is organized beautifully, so that you can read it front to back, straight through, or you can look up the particular area you are interested in (like nutrition, weight loss, aerobic exercise, mind and body), or even specific questions, like “should I exercise when I’m sick?” or “should I have sex the night before a competition?” or, my favourite, “can drinking slushies boost my performance on hot days?” The answer to that last question is yes.

Another great thing about this book (and perhaps this is true of almost all books now, in the internet age) is that the author is accessible and available to answer questions! I’ve gotten to know Alex through the distance running community, and he’s always been a great resource for questions about sports science. So we’ll go to the well one more time, and ask him some follow-up questions that occurred to me while I was reading.

Of course, he started his answers with the usual caveat:

I don’t really have an answer to most of your questions, and I don’t think anyone does. The research on training is still in its infancy, so it tends to deal with extremes rather than the complexity of real-world training scenarios.

First question is about cardio or weights specifically. You suggest that whichever exercise starts the session, sets the cellular switch for the session. Does that mean if you jog to the weight room, you’ve set the switch to aerobic? How much jogging sets it?

So for cardio vs. weights, how much does it take to set the switch? I’d imagine it’s a progressive thing: the more cardio you do, the more firmly the switch is set. A jog to the gym might give you a slight bias to endurance adaptations that wears off after 5-10 minutes; a 60min tempo run might put you in cardio mode for the rest of the afternoon. But these are just guesses.

Re: ellipticals and treadmills. The difference seems to be negligible for fitness/weight loss, but what about for elite athletes? Can we measure the difference in performance from cross-training on each of these?

Elliptical vs. treadmill – again, no real studies of elite athletes. But I think the principle of “specificity of training” is well enough established that we know ellipticals are suboptimal because of the difference motor patterns. You’re simply not training the same action. Treadmill vs. outdoor running is tougher. Still lots of debate about whether biomechanics are altered. I’d say, on balance, biomechanics aren’t an issue. But firmness of surface is. So running on a treadmill is probably very comparable to running outside on a super-rubbery track.

In the section about the role of the brain in fatigue, you describe how the brain affects a finishing kick in a race. If the kick is related to the brain, what is the significance of leg speed in a finishing kick? Is the best way to have a good kick to have good fatigue management? Is this why, for example, Peter Snell found that after weeks of base and hill training, he could out-kick his speed-trained opponents?

Re. leg speed vs fatigue management for the finishing kick. The eternal question… I think either one can be a limiting factor, depending on the athlete. For leg speed as limiting factor, you might think of Paula Radcliffe when she was still running on the track – no matter how strong she was, she couldn’t match the Ethiopians’ kick. The most example would be Dave Bedford at the 1971 European Championships 10,000. He was the European record holder, and he set an honest pace for the whole race (it wound up being one of the fastest ever). But the kickers sat on him and blew him away in the last lap with something like 53-55s (this is from memory, I could be exaggerating). He came sixth. But his flat-out 400m pb was about 60s, so there was simply nothing he could have done, even if he’d rested the whole way.
Having said all that, I think leg speed is very, very rarely the limiting factor in finishing kicks. Radcliffe and Bedford are extreme outliers even among record-setting athletes in that their endurance was exceptional and their speed was mediocre. Most athletes finish races significantly slower than they could run the last lap fresh – in which case, the Snell approach, managing fatigue (and perhaps mental expectations), is probably more relevant.

It’s rare to have access to a great scientific and running mind. Alex has not only been generous with his own insights, but the book allows us a window to the minds of many great researchers in the field. This Friday June 4th, at 7pm at Boutique Endurance (6579 rue St. Denis), you can listen and talk to Alex in person. If you don’t have the book, he will have some for sale.