Smart Athlete Podcast Ep. 21 - Dr Thomas Solomon - FOLLOW YOUR BLISS - Part 3 of 3

Yeah, no, I’ve definitely gone through a lot of that kind of the last year or so after an injury, season ending injury last year, and just figuring out why am I doing this anymore? What do I want to do? You know, how do I enjoy life?

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JESSE: Yeah, no, I've definitely gone through a lot of that kind of the last year or so after an injury, season ending injury last year, and just figuring out why am I doing this anymore? What do I want to do? You know, how do I enjoy life? Because like you, I started when I was 12. You got a few more years on me, but kind of similar starting timeframe. And it's just like you work so hard for so long and then you're like, okay, it's your focus. Like that, it's been my whole world for almost 20 years, and it brought me a lot of enjoyment. But then you're like, it diminishes and you have to figure out, okay, well, what do I enjoy now and stuff, at least for me, it's been tough just because all the other hobbies and activities have fallen by the wayside to make room for the focus. And then what it's kind of falling out of the limelight. You're like, oh, there's this big boy to kind of figure out what to do now.

THOMAS: Yeah. That's a very tough thing I think for a lot of people who have competed. When that day comes, that they end the competition is like, what next? And you suddenly have all these hours free in the day, and you don't have to worry about what you've just eaten. For health, you should but of course, like for your athletic performance, it doesn't matter anymore. So, that's difficult, and I think one of the other, what's the word, not concerned, but one of the other issues is that there's nothing to help people understand how to overcome that. You know, there's no guidance. And there are good examples right at the top Olympic end where people are in their career, and they don't know what to do. They're like, well, what now, you know, Do I go into politics, so I go into coaching, or you know what?

JESSE: As we're talking about it, I'm like, I should find a bunch of former professional athletes and figure out what everybody did and just start talking to professional athletes about it. I don't know what for, I don't know what reason I would do it besides curiosity. But yeah, it's definitely-- because everybody takes a different journey. I know there are plenty of people that go on to coach because it's like, obviously, you've got the time experience and all the in depth knowledge of the sport. And then there are some people that are like, all right, I'm going to go work an office job that has nothing to do with what-- So, it's kind of varied ways people take life after sport, I think might be interesting. So, I want to talk about your research, you are, at least so far, the most prolific research author I've spoken to, at least so far. So, first I want to know, how do you come up with so many topics? As I was looking through the research database with all you know, all this stuff you have your name on? And there are sometimes three, four, I think even sometimes five, maybe more. I didn't go through every year you publish. But I mean, a lot of studies that came out for you a year, how do you come up with so many topics, and set up all these studies to come out in a single year?

THOMAS: Yeah, good question. I've never been asked that, actually but it's a very practical question. So, I guess the way the development of ideas works is when you start off in that career path, you're generally being supervised by somebody else. And the research projects you're working on are often the brainchild of that person. So, the hypothesis you'll be testing will be whatever they've been working on for years, and so on. When I finished my PhD in the UK, and move to the US to do a postdoc in Cleveland, a little bit of good fortune, I went there at a time where the supervisor I had was very well funded, he had a pretty big group, and there was a kind of small collection of good postdocs around me.

And we work together tremendously well, and like discussed ideas all day, every day and did a lot of work and so on. A little bit of good fortune and that kind of helped me embed myself in that career and kind of grow from there. So, at that time, the ideas were actually coming from the supervisor that we had, but he was pretty good at helping you nurture your own development. And so that was one thing I was very thankful for there was being allowed to have some independence and start to nurture your own ideas.

So, when I left there, I moved to Denmark, I lived in Denmark for about six years, and progressed up to become an associate professor there. So, at that point, you've gone through, like a transition from being a, somebody else's worker working on their ideas, transitioning through this, this phase of becoming a little more independent, to a point where you are entirely independent and quite autonomous, and you're bringing in your own grants, you're paying your postdoc salaries, and so on. And at that point, then you're that person. So, your students and postdocs, and now working on ideas that you've had. And there's a bit of mutual, of course, discussion and some people have their own independent projects. But for me, it was always like looking at the direction, so what is it I'm trying to look at. And so there's a continual theme throughout my publications that kind of geared towards trying to understand how physical activity and exercise can be used to either prevent or treat various components of diabetes.

So, whether looking at blood glucose control, or whether it's looking at blood lipids, or whether it's looking at ways of optimizing how to use activity in these patients. And so there was a kind of continual theme towards that. And where I eventually ended up in I suppose, in the last sort of five years of the career was I started getting less interested in, I said this earlier, actually, the less interested in like the means of the population and more interested in the individual. And that's kind of where the overlap with coaching comes from. Because you're then looking at how does one individual person responds to this? And why did they respond in that way?

And that's really where I ended up, I guess, leaving the career path was at that point where that, that was my interest, and I've done some work in that area, and probably could have kept going, but I felt I needed a change. Yeah, so everything was generated towards that goal. And now of course, there are groups that will continue doing that type of work. And managing the experiments, that can be challenging because you need people. So, you need to employ good students, good postdocs to be able to carry out the projects. And I suppose one of the issues in science is not everything comes to fruition. And so you can have projects that may be good ideas, but you just can't get them off the ground because you don't have funding, or you don't have the people to work on it. So, yeah, a little bit of strategic planning to get things completed.

JESSE: So, you're talking about focusing on a single individual and not so concerned about the mean, at that point where you're doing like case study type work, or?

THOMAS: No, not so much. So, those interests essentially came out of looking at if we just just give an example, to kind of set the scene. If we have a group of patients that have undergone a particular treatment and doesn't matter what the treatment is. And we look at the entire group of patients, and this particular measurement has increased following the treatment That looks brilliant, and you can run some stats, and you can show that it's significant and so on and that's nice. But when you look within that sort of average value, there's often patients who do not respond or they respond ridiculously well. And-- [crosstalk]

JESSE: 80/20.

THOMAS: Exactly, yeah. And so when you work with people, and you talk to them, and when we're talking about exercise, which is generally a health promoting thing, there were a number of cases where our research participants and patients in the hospitals had undergone like long term interventions, and they'd invested all this time and effort in coming to the lab and training and getting sweaty and giving up part of their day and then at the end of it, nothing has changed. And on a personal level, they find that quite hard to deal with. They're like why haven't things improved. And that was kind of where my interest came about there is actually ignoring the scientific approach and actually thinking, actually, these are people, and they're not so happy when things don't improve. So, is this real or is it just anecdote.

And so when I looked into that a bit more that there were more than just random coincidences. There were a number of people that have this same kind of outcome, where they're not necessarily getting more diseased, but they're just not improving. And so we were trying to identify what factors could be responsible for that. And then if I bring a parallel to coaching, again, we do the same thing all the time. You have an athlete that doesn't seem to be responding to a particular strength training regimen or a particular speed workout or set of speed workouts, why is it? Are they malnourished? Are they not sleeping? Is there stress, psychological stress, and they're like family events going on? And if all of those things are normal, then you look at the training, is the exercise wrong? And so it's kind of fun, it's very analytical, but you can kind of chip away at it, and yeah, so I kind of a random parallel between academic research in diabetic patients and athletic performance, but it's essentially quite similar.

JESSE: Yeah. Because that's a, I guess, novel and kind of neat way to, to look at the research though. And I guess it makes sense too in both directions, both in terms of say a patient that doesn't respond to treatment, and then somebody who like hyper responds to treatment like what, are there factors? Can you somehow, like for you the non responder? Like, could you somehow gather a group of nonresponders and then try a new set, and then see how did they respond to this new entirely different stimulus.

And then you could-- I know sample size is a big issue when it comes to academic studies, and as I talked to everybody it's like getting enough people to participate at least in my head because I come from a math background. So, I'm like, just turn the numbers. You could do that like, for an infinite number of variations, theoretically, where it's like, all right, new set, we took all the nonresponders and put them in a new set. Now we have a new set of nonresponders that we like, [??? 11:28] you're right, you just keep going down until you've like, resolved everything.

And then you figure out like, okay, if you fit this criteria, you should be doing this kind of treatment and this. Anyway, it just gets my head spinning about a different way, you could try to figure out how to help people, which is kind of like, I mean, really, what we both do in different ways, is like looking at the individual how can I help and affect this person?

THOMAS: Yeah, that's right. And I think I mean, you've hit that on the head is that if you have somebody that has not responded to one particular approach, it doesn't mean that they will never respond to something else. And so when you take that collective of people who haven't necessarily benefited from whatever it is, they've done, what is it that we can do to optimize the approach and that'd be a good use of everyone's time.

JESSE: Do you have, I'll say a favorite piece of research, or do you feel like you have a lot of research that maybe it's hard to pick out. Do you feel like there's anything that was like, the most important piece that you did or worked on?

THOMAS: Yeah, I think one of the-- It started in Denmark. There was a line of work where we noticed that if we take a diabetic patient, we noticed one observation that the patients who had very poorly controlled blood glucose levels, tended to respond a little less to an exercise training stimulus. And so that observation, it was a very small observation. But for me personally, that kind of led to a development of ideas that set the scene for me until I left the career path in December just last year. So, that particular period of time, which I think is 2012, was quite a nice year to make these observations because it kind of mapped out the next seven years. And that's a very personal, yeah personal feeling. And perhaps, probably it certainly wasn't the piece of work that gained the most like citations or the most like notoriety. It was just a personal like, I was pleased with that, so yeah.

JESSE: Yeah. Well, I mean, if that particular time, that period, that one piece sparks a whole slew of things, and it's like, even if it's a personal satisfaction, it's still, I would say that, I'll call it a high performing piece of research just because it sets the scene for all the other things you end up doing.

THOMAS: Yeah, that's right, opens different doors. And I'll say, I think no matter what you do in life, no matter what your job is, you need sort of new developments, and you need kind of refreshment every so often. And that was one of those moments in my career at that time was like, oh, this is something refreshing. And this is you could see it kind of like all the sparks going off here. So, that's quite nice.

JESSE: Yeah, where it's like the work becomes energizing, rather than like draining to have to do it.

THOMAS: Yeah. Yeah.

JESSE: So, one of the things I noticed, I'm sure you see this, maybe not all the time, but from time to time you'll see like, I'll say, a publisher or blog style publisher like online, they'll quote research and then they'll give it a headline that has nothing to do with the research or it'd be like really overblown. You're like, that's not quite what the study was saying or maybe the study is faulty. So, I want your opinion on, so as a layman, or up for other laymen, if we're looking at scholarly research, or looking at these articles, and then trying to verify with the research, are there any immediate red flags to look for when you're like, this isn't very good science? Like, is there anything you would see that they would pop out?

THOMAS: Yeah, I know what you're talking about because there's a lot of sort of mass media that that translates science, or translate is probably the wrong word, but-- [crosstalk] science. And I guess, as a scientist, it can be frustrating. And I suppose also, I've had personal examples where I've been involved with journalists and an articles that have been written. And when you read the final article, there are some clever ways that your conversation has been like, turned into a discussion with other scientists when that never took place. And that's a little frustrating.

But that said, I love that those people exist because we need-- We're very bad a scientist generally getting the public message act, and we need right, but I can translate. And so yeah, so when you're reading these stories, yeah, are there things, are there red flags you can look for? I think the first thing that stands out to me is when there's a, what you call it like a journalist article, that they will mention an author or a study, but there's no ability to click a link to go to the actual study, so you can't find the original source. And a lot of, I find anyway, a lot of journalists are quite bad at that even some leading news outlets.

People that are quite good at it, Alex Hutchinson is very good at it. I like his approach, his style he takes and I think he now writes for Outside Magazine, but he has a sweat science kind of blog article post outlet. And he's very good actually evaluating the science and then also providing links to the original source. And so you can get involved with that. The difficulty is, it's not everyone has the education, I suppose, to be able to then interpret the original data, that there's a difference between just reading the abstracts and reading the paper and understanding the nuances. So, you put your trust, right, in the journalism, and it's difficult to do. But I would say that's probably one of the key red flags is what's the source and can you access it? Yeah.

JESSE: It's something I struggle with, and part of the reason I like having people like you on the podcast or really why the podcast is focused on people like you, is that I feel like we need more go between, between people doing the research, and the rest of society who hopefully, can benefit from the research. Just because I mean, I didn't do a masters or doctoral, but I did do some research with my degree for undergrad. So, I come from a background where I'm at least moderately familiar with reading research papers. And even sometimes I'm like, wait, what's happening, just the way that they're the kind of standardization of how they need to be written, it's not common language.

So, it can be very confusing sometimes, especially when you haven't been in that environment in quite some time, let alone not familiar with it at all. So, it's like, I wish there was some way we could like, you know how you can go on Google Translate, and if I'm like, what's this word in French? I can go type in. I wish you could take a paper and be like can you translate this into everyday English for me, and make it easier without the interpretation of like a pop journalist that's not very good at reading the science?

THOMAS: The answer is 42.

JESSE: Right. Always make sure you have a pillow with. No, it's a towel, don't forget to bring a towel. Pillow's in my head. Towel, it's a towel. So, we're coming up here on the end of our be mindful of your time. So, I asked everybody this season, I don't know if you watch Matt's episode a couple weeks ago. But I asked everyone for this year, if you can only choose one food for recovery, what food do you choose?

THOMAS: My honest answer, and it's not a good answer, my honest answer would be a nice cold beer. But that's not from any kind of physiological viewpoint at all apart from the rehydration, which is quite useful. Yeah, for one food for recovery, I mean, if we go by what we should be doing, then after like a hard workout, I guess that's what you're talking about here is like post-exercise. Yeah, it is a mix of some carbohydrate and some protein to replenish our glycogen stores, and to help support muscle protein synthesis. How you do that, there's a million different ways. You know, you can reach for a bottle of energy powder, you can reach for a nice, like cooked meal that happens to be in the fridge.

Me personally, I quite like just to eat some bread and some cheese and a bit of like - or something like this. But it's just whatever you've got on the shelf. I don't advocate superfoods, I don't really believe there's such a thing as a superfood for recovery after exercise. Yeah. There's no one nutrient that's going to optimize our adaptation or resynthesize what we've depleted during the exercise. So, yes, I'd be hesitant to pick out one single food.

JESSE: No, that's okay. There is I love this question is, I mean, food's universal, we'll have to eat. But it kind of forces you to be able to pick something. And what I noticed kind of like you did is that a lot of people will say I've gotten pizza several times, and just tacos. Every once in a while I'll get something usually from the like, dieticians are more like nutrition focused career people, something that is what you would anticipate is like the quote-unquote, healthy answer. But it seems like regardless of performance level, people have almost like a comfort food that they're like I need this is. Maybe it's not a case of I just need the physiological side of it, but like, I need a mental reprieve. So, like I need almost like a treat.

THOMAS: Yeah, yeah. I think it's funny actually, there was something we used to call it dirty Sunday. And in Cleveland, after a long runs, we would go and eat some obscene my fast feet whatever it is like Arby's, McDonald's or whatever, a milestone of nutrition after a long, long effort. Yeah. But I think one of the interesting things with that is what you have access to, and we can, as scientists, nutritionists, whatever you can preach what people should be doing.

But the reality is what people actually do can be quite different. And it's often related to what you have access to, and it's happened to me 1,000 times and it happens to people like coach is you come back from a ridiculous workout and your fridge empty. And you're like okay, so what do I do? I need to hobble down to the store and buy some groceries or you could get [??? 23:08] and get something delivered. Yeah. So, I'd be lying if I said I hadn't made fast food delivered a kebab after a workout because I had nothing in the house.

JESSE: No, that's okay. I just love seeing like, the reality of because we all have that idea about, like you said, okay, like the proteins and carbs are often prescribed in a four to one ratio. And, okay, I needed to have all this perfect timing and all these kind of things where it's like life is messier than that. So, I just love seeing how it actually works out for most people.

THOMAS: Yeah, yeah.

JESSE: Thomas, if people want to get in touch with you can see what you're doing, where can they find you?

THOMAS: Yeah, so I think in the context of this discussion, the website,, you can check--

JESSE: It's up on the screen if you're up on YouTube.

THOMAS: Yes. Excellent. So, yeah, you can connect there and you can find social media channels through there at VEOHTU. And that's the best way to get ahold of me. So, yeah.

JESSE: Sounds good. Thanks for coming on today, Thomas.

THOMAS: Thank you very much. Pleasure. Thanks for, yeah, thanks for asking me some nice questions.

JESSE: Cheers.

THOMAS: Cheers.

JESSE: Okay. So, we'll cut the recording here. I'll stop the recording. I always forget to do this.

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