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Saturday, June 30, 2007

The Ethiopian running dynasty: What is the secret to its success?

About a month ago, we did a post questioning whether we were about to witness the end of the Ethiopian era of long distance running dominance. The jury is still out on that one, though a world record for Meseret Defar in Oslo in the 5000 m seems to suggest that even in Kenenisa Bekele is not going to continue his dominance, the women athletes will probably reign for a good few years yet.

The next question is why are the Ethiopian athletes so successful? Usually, when one asks about African runners dominating in middle and long distance running, we think of the Kenyans, because there seem to be infinite numbers of them and they win just about every major marathon in the world. On the track though, it's a different story. Since 1993, Ethiopians have won all but one of the World and Olympic 10 000 m titles. The athletes in question are Haile Gebrselassie and the afore-mentioned Bekele, who now share 5 out of the last 6 world titles and all three of the Olympic titles (Trivial pursuit fact - the only man other than these two to have won a title in the last 12 years is Charles Kamathi of Kenya, who won in Edmonton in 2001).

In addition to this dominance on the track, they have also dominated the Cross Country scene, with Bekele winning 5 out of 5 long races and 5 out 5 short races at the World Cross Country championships between 2002 and 2006.

Yet they clearly don't have the depth that the Kenyans do. I was speaking with a colleague at the Sports Science Institute here in Cape Town. He is Kenyan and is in South Africa to try to set up a relationship with the University of Kenyatta so that we can do some research on the Kenyan runners. He tells me that a typical track meeting in Kenya will have not one, but ten 10000 m races! Each one has 30 participants, and every single one runs under 30 minutes! Think about that - 300 runners all running under 30 minutes at EACH meeting! Astonishing depth. And he says to me that the Ethiopians have nothing like this level of depth, but that they use their talent more effectively.

So this post is not about the reasons for East African running success - that is a post for the future, when we will look at just what it is that makes these guys so good - is it training, is it genes, is it diet, is it lifestyle (it's probably all of them, but we'll cover that in the future). And one really important thing to realise is that the Kenyans who are most successful are a mere stone's throw away from the Ethiopians who are successful. If you looked at a map of where the best runners come from in both countries, you could draw a circle around the border between them and you'd pretty much have the catchment area. So if the reasons for the dominance of both Kenya and Ethiopia are physical and physiological, then one would be able to treat them almost the same, because they are very similar in that regard. But for now, we concentrate on the Ethiopians and ask how it is that they have managed to dominant where it counts even though they have a smaller talent pool than the Kenyans. And I believe that there are two key reasons why they do:

  1. Administration and policy, which has created a more narrow focus and restraint than in Kenya
  2. Training differences
1. Administration and policy

To begin with, there is such a thing as "spoiled for choice", and this is what has happened in Kenya. To use a mining analogy, in Kenya, there are so many athletes that it is like walking through a field and picking nuggets of gold off the surface. In Ethiopia, the gold is there, but it is more scarce and so has to be mined. And the process of 'mining' for this gold has resulted in a sporting system that is consistent, controlled and influenced by a select few. In contrast, Kenya is a cosmos of running talent and everyone and anyone seems to have jumped onboard and is, in many cases, exploiting the talent to the point where it is now being diluted by the number of people who are involved.

For example, I am sure that many of you know of the famous Kenyan training camps, where athletes will live, eat and sleep running for months at a time. In Kenya, these camps are privately run, by individuals, which means there is effectively a bidding war for the athletes to attend camps. Ethiopia does not have the same problem - the Ethiopian federation calls for its athletes to convene at a training camp, and it happens without too much fuss. Of course, having athletes like Gebrselassie and Bekele to set the example is a great help and you can be sure that where they go, others will follow. But the point is that in Ethiopia, the system is much more tightly run, with fewer coaches, fewer agents and fewer athletes. The result is that they can focus their energies on optimizing what exists. Kenya has the opposite problem - dilution of talent caused by too many outsiders and a relatively weak government control, who are unable to prevent the money-merchants like those of Qatar from coming in and buying out the best Kenyan athletic talent.

Now, the result is that Ethiopia has managed to take 20 athletes and produce 3 or 4 world class, world record setting runners. Kenya has perhaps 200 athletes with similar capabilities, but may be less efficient at getting those athletes through a working system to produce runners capable of challenging the best. Of course, they are still brilliant runners, and win just about every marathon and fill up the top 10 at most other races, but they don't claim the position that matters - first.

So the moral of the story is that sometimes you are better off when you have pressure to produce from a smaller crop, because it focuses the efforts. Combined with the magnetic personality of Haile Gebrselassie and a government who control the sport tightly, it equals 12 world Cross Country titles, and 8 10000 m track titles in 12 years!

2. Training differences

At this point, we leave the admin and get onto something a little more relevant to everyone out there. It is based largely on rumour and what I have read, because unfortunately, I'm yet to verify it with actual observation and fact - hopefully someday!

But if you think back of the great distance runners who have come from Ethiopia, there is one characteristic that sticks out - the finishing kick. In 1980, the Olympic 5000 and 10 000 m champion was an Ethiopian named Miruts Yifter, who was dubbed "Yifter the Shifter" because of a ferocious finishing sprint. Move ahead to Haile Gebrselassie, who was renowned for finishing speed over the final lap. I recall that Gebrselassie once ran the final 200 m of the 1995 World Championships in 25.2 seconds, at the end of a race that was run in 27:10! And Bekele is the same - 52 second final lap finishing speed. Among the women, Deratu Tulu, Gete Wami, Meseret Defar and Turinesh Dibaba all possess the same type of speed. And it's something the Kenyans have never really had an answer to. So the question is whether this speed is the result of some genetic advantage or whether it's a function of their training. And my feeling is that it is likely a training effect.

From a coaching point of view, training for speed and the finishing kick is quite a well known fact. You can design training sessions to specifically improve your ability to speed up at the end of the race, and I have read reports and accounts about how the Ethiopians do this regularly. For example, no Ethiopian training session is finished without doing some sprint drills. They will do 50 m strides, beginning at a fast pace and finishing at a sprint. They also do an incredibly high amount of hill work, doing steep hills (less than 100m) FAST.

The key to doing hill work, incidentally, is that you must choose either a short, very steep hill, or a very long, but gradual hill. A lot of runners will do long hill sessions (more than one minute of running), but the hill is so steep that it becomes almost 'static', and then the whole explosive effect of the hill is lost and they lose their normal running form. So what is most important is that the stride rate is kept high - if your stride rate falls below about 85 to 90 strides per minute, then the hill is too steep. So as soon as you do a long hill session (one minute of running, as I said), you have to make sure the hill is only gradual, so that you can keep light and bouncy. HOWEVER, as soon as you do a short hill, you have to make it very steep, but make sure you can keep your form all the way up. By form, we're talking running on the toes, pulling short and fast with the arms and keeping the trunk vertical and the hips forward. And this is what the Ethiopians do. And so when you watch an Ethiopian launch a finishing kick over the final 400 m of a track race, and marvel at how they seem to bounce off their toes so easily, that's sprinting and hill training doing it for them.

Finally, the Ethiopians also do a great deal of what is called Plyometric training. This is bounding, skipping, bouncing and technique training that improves running performance by teaching the body how to be elastic during the period from when the foot hits the ground until it leaves it. And there is a lot of evidence now that suggests that the African runners might have a more efficient mechanical running stride than a white runner. This is something I'll cover in a future post, I promise, but very briefly, most of the muscle activity during running happens while your foot is still in the air, about 100 milliseconds before it hits the ground. So your muscles are firing hugely at this point, and the reason they are is that your body is preparing itself for when it hits the ground. Once you hit the ground, these 'active' muscles catch the energy, like a sprint, and then harness it so that when you push off again, you do so with more force than if you just pushed off without this 'elastic' component. And so what happens with fatigue is that the muscles don't fire as much before you land (this is called preactivation, by the way), and your efficiency goes down. What the Ethiopians are doing is harnessing this by training it specifically, and I'm not sure that they Kenyans have done this quite right yet.

So that's a very basic oveview of what it is that has made Ethiopia, and not Kenya, the most successful running nation over the last 10 years, despite a smaller talent pool. Further articles and posts will look at just what it is that makes East Africans in general so dominant, so join us then and we'll investigate this further.

Bye for now

SA's B-Team: Rest or no rest? A science view

Today the All-Blacks take on the Wallabies in the third Tri-Nations test, but this week has been dominated by the build-up to the SA-Australia test next week, and the headlines have all been around the squad picked by Jake White. A veritable B-Team, which has caused an uproar in Aus and NZ, even threatening at one stage to derail the Tri-Nations altogether. But what do we at the Science of Sport make of this? Jake White has been harking in the media for the last week about how Professor Tim Noakes, sports scientist at the University of Cape Town has insisted that the players need to rest (I believe that this strategy is his "insurance policy", creating a fall guy in case it doesn't work, but that's another story altogether). So sports science has been thrust into the limelight this week, so we have to respond to this one and lay down our views.

Firstly, let us nail our colours to the mast - the players do play too much rugby. A typical season would begin in January for the Super 14 and then continue, uninterrupted, until November. That gives the players one month of recovery, but they obviously have to start preparing and training ahead of the season, so they have a real problem. In running, for example, a typical year would consist of perhaps 9 months of training and competition, one month of COMPLETE rest and two months of down-time training. The same goes for cycling, and probably should for rugby. Australia, New Zealand and England have complete rest for at least two months of the year, because their domestic competitions are not quite as long as ours in SA, so there is a key difference here. It has been noted before (by keo.co.za) that the All-blacks play as many games as we do, and this is true. However, they get to rest for at least one month, and this makes all the difference.

So the problem of playing too much rugby is very real. However, the story does not quite end there. As you will all know, New Zealand made the decision to rest some of their key players at the start of this year's Super 14. They sent these players on a 'reconditioning' camp during this time. Now, I met the team doctor from the Crusaders, who had a number of players at this camp, and he said to me that the players were absolutely loving the break. For the first time in perhaps six years, they were in what we would call an 'anabolic' state. This means that they are able to gain muscle and keep their training level high. Normally, what happens during a season, is that they lose weight progressively between January and November, because the constant high intensity work prevents them from doing the necessary training to build muscle, and also the workload is so high that they can't maintain body weight (for various reasons I won't go into here). The best they can do is hope to start the next season at the same point as the previous one - they can never get stronger or bigger than this. So the point is that the New Zealand rugby players were able to gain weight for the first time in many years.

Why am I making this point? Because in training theory, the time to do this is at the beginning of the season, not the middle. And so if the motivation for pulling the players out of the Tri-Nations is to "recondition" them, then the timing is wrong. So while I agree in principle that players need rest, I don't believe now is the time for it to happen - I think that the two weeks between the NZ and the upcoming Australia game would have been sufficient to recover for the next two games, and then a 7 week period would begin where they could rest and do some fitness work to be in peak condition for the tournament. If we were serious about this rest period, these players would not have played any of the test matches this year - they would have been rested against England and Samoa, and not played the home tests against NZ and Aus either. But to interrupt a competitive season to miss two games having played for 4 months up to this point, when there are 7 weeks of rest coming anyway, is a weird decision. And my speculation (and this is all it is), is that there is more going on than just rest - it's a psychological 'mind-game' of keeping cards close to the chest - nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Of course, I am approaching this as a running and cycling coach and scientist, and there may of course be factors in rugby that dictate that rest is important. The physical demand of contact situations is a one such factor, with contact being perhaps the key ingredient that can lead to burnout and injury. However, that too would not be too difficult to control, it can be controlled in training sessions, or the key players could be sent on at half-time. I just think that there is too much to lose from handing NZ in particular easier games than might otherwise be the case.

Jake White has lamented in the media (as Jake seems to do more and more these days) that his players were fatigued during the final 15 minutes of the test against NZ last week, and they were. They could hardly chase down kicks by the end of the game. But here again, the rest period is not going to improve that situation. The reason for this also comes from the theory of training athletes in what is called a periodized plan - you cannot reach match intensity and fitness through endurance and weight training. Even doing high intensity training sessions to simulate match intensity does not work, because of the lack of contact. And so you probably saw how the All-Blacks were just slightly off the pace when they returned to the Super 14 earlier this year? That happens because you just cannot 'teach' your body what the demands of a match situation will be like without playing matches. And so if Jake thinks that resting the players will improve their ability to play passion-driven rugby for 80 minutes, then that too, I believe, will be incorrect.

So what should have happened? I think that we should have pulled those players for the second half of the Super 14, rested them for at least two out of the three tests against England and Samoa, and then let them hit the last 3 months of the season hungry and strong for some intense competition. Once the competition period starts, you can't pull guys out and say let's try that phase of the periodized plan again. But resting for months and then building into competitive rugby would fit more with a classic periodization plan. I just think that there is too much to be lost from resting players now, when there is a long rest period coming up just after these games anyway.

Time will tell of course, so we'll see what develops over the next few weeks. But I don't think that this will make a noticeable difference, and the risk is that it disrupts what was building towards a very big challenge for the World Cup.

Oh, one last thing, NZ will beat Australia by 15 points today, we'll beat Australia by 5 next week (much to their embarrassment) but then NZ will put 15 on us the week after. Those are my predictions. We'll see how they go!!!


Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Dr. Don Catlin's wave of the future

As is written in the quote above, Dr. Don Catlin is a renowned expert in doping and, more importantly, catching dopers. I just read this incredible article about his career and his idea for the future of doping in sport from the July 2005 edition of Outside Magazine.

If anyone knows about doping and the system of catching cheaters, it is Catlin. This is a must read for anyone interested in this topic and also for anyone interested in ever watching a clean sporting event again.

Monday, June 25, 2007

The America's Cup - Old foes meet again

Saturday marked the start of the America's Cup. All the lead up over the past three and a half years has lead us to this moment, where the Defender's (Alinghi from Switzerland) once again face Emirates Team New Zealand in a rematch from 2003. In that contest Team New Zealand proved no contest to Alinghi, who proceeded to thump the Kiwi boat 5-0 in the best of nine series of racing. Dean Barker (the Kiwi skipper) has ensured that history will not repeat itself entirely by taking the second match from Alinghi on Sunday to even the score (Alinghi won the first match) 1-1.

This America's Cup competition has been hailed as one that has brought sailing to the masses. The series of races leading up to the main event was covered far and wide by the international media and saw three countries (Germany, China, and South Africa) enter boats for the first time in the Cup's majestic history. But what exactly is this sport all about, and what predicts performance?

In many ways America's Cup sailing is a team sport version of Formula 1 racing. First and foremost, it demands incredibly high technical standards. The boats and masts are made of carbon fiber, as is much of the hardware on the boat, and the sails are kevlar and carbon. This characteristic of the sport dictates that enormouse budgets are required by those who choose to enter this arena.

Yet in many ways this sport is much like cycling. Even given the lightest, fastest, and most high-tec bike, you still have to make it go. And so it is with the America's Cup. A team of no less than 17 individuals does all the jobs required to make these boats go fast, and a team must be completely in sync to achieve success.

The jobs require a wide array of skills, both athletic and sailing specific. The "grinders" are 100+ kg guys who operate the massive winches to pull in the sails. They often work with another guy on one winch, and so they must operate as one as they crank the winch as fast as possible. Due to the massive loads and sails, we are talking about huge power outputs here, like in the order of 1000+ Watts but for short bursts (5-8 s) at a time. At the other end of the scale, the bowman needs speed and agility as he maniupulates hardware at the bow and runs fore and aft all the time.

In addition to this, one person's job most often occurs together with other jobs, and therefore the team must function as a well-oiled machine so that everyone's tasks are accomplished while maintaining the boat's speed, with no one waiting for another to complete his task before the next guy can start his. To use a cliche, it is poetry in motion when you can understand all the activity that happens on these boats on an ongoing basis!

As we mentioned, the series is tied now at one race each, with the next race on Tuesday, 26 June. It is being billed as a potentially decisive race as Team NZL appears to have some momentum after beating Alinghi on Sunday. However, the driver of Alinghi, American Ed Baird, has over 10 years of America's Cup driving experience, and Alinghi's overall record since entering the competition in 2000 is an impressive 82% (61 out of 74).

You can follow the racing live on the Versus Network in the USA, Supersport in South Africa, and the rest you can listen to the live broadcast from the America's Cup Website. Come back later for a post about how to win an America's Cup race!

More on Doping - Can it guarantee performance enhancement?

Thanks to Luckylab and bikejenbike for their comments on the earlier post (Shadow of doping, 23 June). This post will address those comments.

First, for a quick and easy (and disturbing and fascinating) read on the East German doping "machine" of the 1950's to 1990, read Faust's Gold by Steven Ungerleider (pic below).

Luckylab asked in a comment about how much doping actually helps, while bikejenbike wondered how the smaller American swimmers actually beat the East Germans from time to time.

One thing we touched on briefly was that we do not know the real effect of all the different performance-enhancing drugs. This would require loads of studies that investigate each drug individually, and also in conjunction with other drugs (since often they are taken in combo with each other). The ethical issues here are too numerous to list, and that is why this research remains largely unperformed. Having said that, however, see the previous post that looks at the article of Franke and Berendonk, which does provide some data on how effective doping can be.

To go one step further on this, there is in many individuals a strong placebo effect. Some people, if they believe that the pills they are taking will enhance their performance, will indeed perform better. You can imagine that this placebo effect will vary among individuals, and so it is incredibly difficult to quantify the placebo + physiological effect(s).

David Millar, in some of his post-bust interviews, described how he used the EPO as a crutch and did not think he had to train as much since he was on this wonder drug. Therefore if he has a better approach to training post-bust, then this might explain why his performances are similar. Or, it could also mean that he is taking something else that is equally as effective!

Next, motivation is a crucial variable in athletic performance. So even if an athlete is doping, this does not mean he or she is the hands down winner. Many of the female swimmers in Faust's Gold described their unhappiness with themselves and life in general while they were being exploited by their coaches and doctors. While they were primed physiologically to win, some were battling with large amounts of self-loathing and low self esteem because of the undesirable effects of the steroids (namely, body hair everywhere and highly elevated libidos, along with depression and mood swings. Adolescence is hard enough without drugs, and you can imagine what these teenaged females were experiencing).

Third, the use of performance-enhancing drugs by themselves does not make an athlete successful, and therefore does not guarantee improved performance.

Our model of this area is that the drugs permit an athlete to recover more quickly and more completely between training sessions, which therefore permits the athlete to train harder (intensity) and longer (duration), which are the two primary variables one manipulates in a training program. Given that an athlete will respond to a training stimulus, then more training will equate to better performance (assuming factors such as motivation, equipment, tactics, etc. are all equal).

The problem most of us face is that sooner or later, and often times it is sooner, we stop coping with the increased intensity or duration of a training program. The consequence of this is most often an injury which requires us to stop training or to reduce greatly our intensity and/or duration of training.

So drugs, especially anabolics such as testosterone, growth hormone, and steroids, enhance an athlete's ability to recover, which then permits them to complete more (harder and longer) training, which in turn produces physiological adaptations that allow them to cycle harder or run faster or throw farther.

For an amazing read on one athlete's experience with performance-enhancing drugs, read Stuart Stevens' (right) "Drug Test," from the November 2003 edition of Outside Magazine. He is a recreational ultra-endurance cyclist who used drugs with a physician's assistance to see what all the hype was about, and to find out if the drugs really work. It is an incredibly insightful text and well worth taking a look at!

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Drugs work - but by how much? A look at doping and performance improvements

Performance enhancing substances - do they work? And by how much? It's a relevant question, and I thought it would be good to have a look at the answers. I was going to write an article on the Ethiopian dominance of long distance running in the last ten years, but we've been receiving such thoughtful comments and questions from people regarding our posts on drug use in cycling that I thought it might be better to continue on this theme and look at just what a scientist makes of the prevalence of doping in sport. I also said I'd look at altitude training, and I will, but I'll do that tomorrow. For now, we keep going on doping.

Yesterday LuckyLab asked how much of a difference doping actually made? And unfortunately, it's quite difficult to get hold of that information! As you can imagine, it's difficult enough to find out who is doping and with what, never mind trying to track their improvements in a controlled manner! And make no mistake - this information exists, because scientists are giving out the drugs, and as scientists, they are compelled to measure changes and improvements (it's our curse as scientists!). But this information rarely makes it out into the public eye, except once....

As far as I'm aware, the only paper published in a reputable journal is one by Franke and Berendonk. This paper was published in a journal called Clinical Chemistry in 1997, and this post is a breakdown of what it showed...

To begin with, the paper by Franke and Berendonk opens with the following sentences:

"One of the largest pharmacological experiments in history has been running for more than three decades, namely, the administration of drugs to athletes to enhance performance in many different kinds of sports"

Another quote from the article's abstract (or introduction summary):

Top-secret doctoral theses, scientific reports, progress reports of grants, proceedings from symposia of experts, and reports of physicians and scientists who served as unofficial collaborators for the Ministry for State Security (“Stasi”) reveal that from 1966 on, hundreds of physicians and scientists, including top-ranking professors, performed doping research and administered prescription drugs as well as unapproved experimental drug preparations. Several thousand athletes were treated with androgens every year, including minors of each sex. Special emphasis was placed on administering androgens to women and adolescent girls because this practice proved to be particularly effective for sports performance.

Scary stuff. I won't go into massive detail in this post on the background of the study. But very briefly, Werner Franke (the author of the research paper) is one of the world authorities on doping in sport. He has a personal interest, because his wife, Brigette Berendonk, was a German Olympic shot put and discus thrower, and was on the programmes he writes about.

And their paper is all about the hormonal doping and androgenization (which means making males out of females) of East German athletes. This is still topical, because the case of the current Tour de France champion, involves a similar product - testosterone. In this research article, they write about a number of anabolic agents, notably Dianabol and Turinabol.

But let's get stuck into it. And we'll use the example they give of a German Female shot-put athlete. This athlete had been training for 14 years before she was put onto the programme, so certainly, her improvement in results cannot be explained by a response to training, as it might be if she was still a junior athlete.

So the Figure below shows the improvement in performance in this woman shot putter during a 5 month period in 1968. The blue block on the X-axis shows when she was given the drug - Turinabol, in doses of 14 tablets per week (10 mg per day, each tablet = 5mg). You'll see how she gains muscle strength and improves her performances dramatically in only a few weeks - we're talking 9% over the course of about 10 weeks of drug use! But it gets better (or worse, depending on your point of view!)

Jump ahead to 1969, where the same woman went through very much the same procedure. The Figure below shows the performances over a similar five month period. This time, the drug was administered in slightly higher doses, and in three separate cycles. The result is the same. Her performance improved by an amazing 17% from the start to the end of the season, with a new world record of 20.10 m the culmination.

There was more to come. In 1970, the same athlete was again systematically doped, but with even higher doses. She once again broke the world record, and this time, broke the indoor world record as well. She ended with a personal best of 20.22 m, which was a fully 2m further than she had managed to achieve on 14 years of training BEFORE starting on the doping programme! This is an 11% improvement! But what is particularly important is to notice how her performances when NOT ON THE DRUG are so 'poor' - she starts each season a full 3 m off what she will reach at the end, with the aid of the steroid.

The paper by Franke further breaks down the recorded improvements in performance when using anabolic agents. The table below shows some of these improvements:

Not exactly and all-encompassing and comprehensive list, but it illustrates two points. Firstly, we don't know enough about the effects of these drugs on performance. That's pretty obvious. But secondly, what we do know tells us that they work really well - 7 seconds on a 1500 m time is enormous. So is 4 seconds on a 400 m. Even 2 seconds in 400 m is a lifetime. So if you look at the current world record in the 400 m event, it stands at 47.60 (Marita Koch). No one has managed to even threaten it since the 1980's, and it's quite conceivable, assuming the table above is correct, that this 47.60 is worth about, oh, 50.60. And suddenly then, today's runners are comparable!

So, we can pretty much see that doping with anabolics does work. If only there was similar evidence of the effect of EPO. There is some information on EPO, however, and it comes from Marco Pantani, and is reported in a book by Matt Rendell called The Death of Marco Pantani and then reported in an article by Tim Noakes published in the International Journal of Sports Science and Coaching in 2006.

In this book, Rendell exposes results of rider's hematocrit levels during the course of three years - 1993 to 1995. Remember that the hematocrit levels are an indication (albeit indirect) of the use of blood doping or EPO. A normal individual would have a hematocrit between about 40 and 43%, while a trained athlete could see this get up to about 48%, possibly even 50% if that person has done altitude training. However, it is also important to remember that when a cyclist is training hard, his hematocrit levels will fall. Therefore, in the peak of competition, it would not be unusual to see relatively lower hematocrit levels, in even the elite athlete population.

So what does the data say? The graph below is a rough summary of the information from Rendell's book. It shows the hematocrit of riders who were part of a state run programme by the University of Ferrara in Italy. I have highlighted in red the periods where cyclists would be competing in the Tour de France or Vuelta. The bars in green are the "off season" where cyclists are not racing and blue are mid-season. Remember, it would be normal to see that the hematocrit is highest during the rest period, and lowest during the racing season. Yet it is quite obvious from this graph that it is the other way around, and that is something that would presumably only be possible if the athlete was using a product such as EPO.

I have also shown on the graph the values of one Marco Pantani (yellow triangles), and you can see how in 1995, his hematocrit reached an astonishing 64%! This kind of variation just cannot be explained by anything other than pharmaceutical use, in my opinion.

In his book, Rendell concludes that "There is incontrovertible evidence that Marco’s entire career was based on r-EPO abuse, which was both effective and, until 2001, undetectable by tests used in professional cycling. Is it reasonable to suppose that the most successful period of his career, from 1998 until 5 June 1999, depended on anything else?

THe bottom line then, is that doping seems to work VERY WELL. It's still difficult, if not impossible, to put an exact number to the benefit, though the data of Franke et al give a pretty good indication that it's at least 15% in those power based sports. It may be slightly less for endurance based sports, like cycling. But as i wrote yesterday, there's substantial evidence that hormone levels, particularly testosterone fall during the course of a race like the Tour. And so if Floyd Landis and others are using the drug, the benefit would come from defending this drop-off, which promotes recovery and hence allows them to maintain their form throughout the Tour. In theory then, the systematic use of drugs will have a large effect in cycling, not because it acutely boosts performance, but because it allows it to be maintained. Think of your own training - you always have good days and bad days. But what if I said that by using a drug, like testosterone, you could drastically reduce the number of bad days - that is what these drugs will do for cyclists.

So that's it - a heavy, quite technical post. Well done for making it this far! As usual, I welcome any feedback, it always stimulates me for future posts! That's it for now as far as doping goes, though I'm sure this is one I'll return to in the future. Next time, I'll hopefully get round to that altitude training article, and the one on the Ethiopian athletes!

See you soon!
Ross T

A culture of doping in cycling? Anything that could go, must

Yesterday (23 June), I wrote two posts about the ominous shadow of doping in cycling, with the Tour de France coming up. In one post, I gave the example of how Bjarne Riis, the winner of the 1996 Tour, recently admitted to doping. The problem is that he does not appear to be an isolated case, and even within that race of 1996, the top 4 riders all have some sort of history or track record of doping. The same goes for every single winner of the Tour de France since 1996 - either they are known drug users, or they are rumoured to have doped (with plenty of circumstantial evidence), or they are currently being tried (as in the case of Floyd Landis).

And so I wrote that the "deeper you dig, the uglier it gets" for the sport of cycling. And in response to this, Lei and LuckyLab posted interesting comments on the use of EPO when altitude training would work (check them out in that post on the 23/6).

So I thought it would be good to do a post on the culture of cycling and why exactly it seems to be so 'rotten' with drug use. And this is by no means a simple matter. Some day in the future, on a rainy day, I'll put a lengthier post on this topic, but for today, it's the summary version!

The first point is that the Tour de France must be one of the first sporting events where doping was practiced. As far back as the early 1900's, riders were drinking wine and using strychnine to "dull the pain". Then, with World War II came the introduction of amphetamines, which were initially created to assist soldiers in battle to remain alert and focused. They were soon used by professional cyclists, among them Tom Simpson, who famously died near the summit of the Mont Ventoux in the 1960's. In the legendary book Put me back on my bike by William Fotheringham, Simpson is credited with the following quote:

“I know from the way they ride the next day that they are taking dope. I don’t want to have to take it – I have too much respect for my body – but if I don’t win a big event soon, I shall have to start taking it”

Also at this time, one of the men to have won the Tour five times, Jacques Anquetil, was in his prime. Anquetil reportedly perfected the use of “the Anquetil cocktail” comprising a painkiller, morphine or palfium, injected directly into painful muscles even whilst cycling; an amphetamine to offset the somnolent effect of morphine; and a sleeping tablet, Gardenal, to allow sleep when the stimulatory effects of the amphetamines were still active. Anquetil’s recorded comment is that: “You would have to be an imbecile or a crook to imagine that a professional cyclist who races for 235 days a year can hold the pace without stimulants”

Anquetil also reportedly stated: “For 50 years bike racers have been taking stimulants. Obviously we can do without them in a race, but then we will pedal 15 miles an hour (instead of 25). Since we are constantly asked to go faster and to make even greater efforts, we are obliged to take stimulants”

A final quote comes from a cyclist, Jesus Manzano (I do acknowledge that these quotes and statments are sometimes inspired by ulterior motives and might be sour-grapes, but given the number of them, they need to be heard), who was banned in 2004 for using doping products:

“They said that I was a rotten apple, but I now believe that the whole tree is rotten … When you train a lot your haematocrit goes down, so how is it possible for someone to go to the Dauphiné or the Giro with a (haematocrit) level of 52%. How do they get it up to this level? With EPO. But it’s the UCI’s (Union Cycliste Internationale) fault. Because they could sort it out very easily. They could take that cyclist to Lausanne, get him to spend a year training (without access to EPO) and see what happens. He won’t end up (with a haematocrit) at 52%, but at 38%. He won’t even be able to get out of bed. But it’s all a farce. The only ones who are getting rich are some of the doctors, and not the cyclists… I have a witness who said that one doctor was asking for six million pesetas (£30 000) to use his preparation methods. Will they be asking for six million for just aspirin and mineral salts?”

So this is the culture of the Tour de France, unfortunately. I once attended a presentation by Dr Alejandro Lucia from Spain, who was a research scientist of the Banesto team that included Miguel Indurain and Alex Zulle. His opinion on the matter was that to the cyclists, the use of doping products had become as acceptable as drinking Gatorade or some other energy drink during the race. So just as you might plan to run a marathon or go for a long ride and feel that you can't do without some energy bars or gels, so too professional cyclists feel that doping is not an option but a necessity. And this may also be the reason why many cyclists can so easily deny the use of anything illegal - they genuinely believe that it's not illegal, just that it is necessary! So when they say they have "done nothing wrong", they may actually believe it to be true, even when they might have used hormones or other drugs!

So coming back to Lei's question - "Why would a cyclist use EPO when they could get the same effect from altitude training?", there are a few reasons. One is that EPO is a more effective means to achieve this, but I'll explain this in another post. For now, the answer is that they have to do everything possible, because it seems to be the culture within the sport.

Believe it or not, I actually know one of the better known cyclists who has been implicated in this whole affair (I won't reveal the name here). And I was part of a group that was showing him and some team-mates around our training and research facilities in Cape Town, and the one question they wanted answered was whether it would be possible to do altitude-simulations in Cape Town? It later emerged that he (and others) were using EPO, blood doping and probably using altitude tents anyway, but that doesn't matter, because if you are not doing everything possible to gain an advantage, you might as well do nothing.

And so yes, EPO is the lazy way to get the blood cell number up, as LuckyLab pointed out. But they'd do both if they could, they already do....

A final quote comes from the judge who presided over the doping case of Richard Virenque. His name is Judge Daniel Delegrove:

"These are not racers, they are pedalling test-tubes"

Next time, I'll do a post on altitude training, what it means to the athlete and why it works. Also, why science hasn't really been able to show that it works, and some interesting thoughts on altitude training.

See you!

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Know your drugs - understanding the Tour de France

OK, we promise that when the race starts, we'll start focusing on the cyclists and give you detailed analysis and discussion about the riders in the race. Then we'll talk about why Vinokourov is better on the shorter climbs than the longer ones, why Boonen is such a great sprinter and why the guys who time-trial well are often nowhere to be seen on the climbs.

But for today, in keeping with our previous post on drugs, we thought we'd give you the scientific low-down (in every day language) on what the drugs that have been in the news actually do. In otherwords, in keeping with our quest on The Science of Sport, we aim to explain the HOW and WHY? behind sports performance. And unfortunately, that includes drugs and doping.

So we look here at two commonly used drugs, both of which have been in the news quite heavily in the recent past.

1) EPO

EPO, short for erythropoeitin, is a hormone that is normally produced by the kidneys. It then has its effect on the bone marrow, which produces more red blood cells. So the effect of injecting synthetic EPO is to increase the body's natural production of red blood cells. Why would you want to do this? Well, the theory is that the red blood cells, which carry oxygen, are an important determinant of performance ability. That's because the oxygen is required by the muscles and the theory for fatigue during exercise is that if your muscles do not get sufficient oxygen, they rapidly fatigue. Connecting the dots, you get the logic that if you can increase the body's oxygen carrying capacity, you increase the ability to exercise before fatiguing.

And this is probably correct, but it might be a little over simplified. Why, for example, does EPO have it's greatest effects during endurance exercise like a Tour stage, where the cyclist is not really riding very close to their aerobic limit? In otherwords, if EPO was improving performance by increasing oxygen delivery to the muscle, then it would be most effective in the event where oxygen delivery is the potentially limiting factor. And when is oxygen potentially limiting? During shorter, higher intensity exercise, like 1500 m running events, perhaps up to about 15 minutes of exercise. Longer than this, and oxygen supply is not really limiting. So anyone who's ever ridden for 5 hours will tell you that you never really hit that limit, because you don't exercise near your maximum level. So we believe that EPO must have some other effect in addition to the one it has on the blood and oxygen levels.

Bottom line though - EPO works, and so that's why cyclists use it. The problem is that the more red blood cells you have, the thicker the blood becomes - it becomes more viscous. Imagine adding flour to a mixture of milk and water when you are baking. Eventually it gets so thick that it's difficult to mix. The heart has to do the 'mixing' for the blood and so if the red blood cell count is too high, then the heart has to work harder. There was a spate of sudden deaths during the night in young, fit European cyclists about 5 years ago - these were all rumoured to be linked to EPO use, because the cyclist's hearts were just not able to pump the blood anymore.

I once saw the most chilling quote in a book - it spoke of how some cyclists would actually set their alarms to go off a few times a night, and they would then wake up, cycle for 10 minutes on the indoor rollers and then go back to bed. The idea was that they would increase the heart rate and 'protect' the heart from having to pump too much per contraction. The quote was that "Cyclists would live to ride during the day, and then ride to stay alive at night".

EPO has now become much easier to detect, though there are of course still problems. However, i suspect that there are other, similar but undetectable drugs being used. Remember the BALCO scandal of five years ago? Just because someone has not tested positive does not mean they are not using - some drugs are created specifically to ensure that they are not detectable. So I think there may well be drugs out there that will be discovered in maybe 10 years, but which are improving performance now.

2) Testosterone

The second drug we look at is the male sex hormone, testosterone. This was a super famous drug in the 1980's, when, together with similar anabolic drugs, it became widely used by sprinters and field athletes, particularly those from East Germany and other Eastern Bloc countries (where many of these synthetic hormones were created). In general, anything ending in -one or -ol is an anabolic, used by athletes to increase muscle mass and promote recovery. Ben Johnson famously broke the 100 m world record in Seoul 1988, only to be stripped of the title and record for use of Stanozolol, an anabolic steroid.

More recently, testosterone hit the news after Floyd Landis tested positive after the 2006 Tour, specifically a stage where he heroically clawed back a huge deficit to claim the yellow jersey.

Testosterone, as we've said, is an anabolic agent, which increases muscle mass when used in conjuction with training. So why would a cyclist in the Tour de France wish to use it? For one thing, cyclists need to be small, so that they can climb 10% gradients on mountain passes without having to haul too much mass up the climb. Secondly, testosterone is used best over long periods, in conjuction with training. It would have little effect when used once.

So either we have an anomaly, or perhaps Landis (and others, perhaps?) are using it every day, but not being detected. It's important to remember that one is only picked up if the ratio of testosterone to another hormone, epitestosterone exceeds 4, then they do further investigation. So it's possible to use both testosterone and epitestosterone in the right amounts and never be picked up by this screening process.

But we still haven't answered why a cyclist would use it? Some fascinating research from Spain has showed that during the course of the three-week Tour, a cyclist's testosterone levels, together with other hormone levels, decrease progressively. This decrease has been linked to an impairment in performance - the final time-trial in the Tour de France, for example, is always quite a bit slower than the first time-trial. So performance goes down over the course of the race, and so do the hormones. The theory is that the stress of riding 5 or more hours every day puts the body into what is called a "catabolic" state - everything is breaking down. Now, in theory, the use of testosterone, which is "anabolic", prevents this and allows the cyclist to recover better. And so this is why it would be used - it prevents the normal decline in hormone levels and performance over the course of the race.

So that's an overview of two of the drugs that have been (and seem to be, and probably will be) used for cycling. Let's hope that the 2007 Tour is not affected by these or any other doping products, and that we can enjoy writing about the cyclists instead of the doctors for three weeks in July!


The shadow of drugs over the Tour de France

The 2007 Tour de France begins in about 2 weeks from today, and yet again, an ominous shadow is looming over the race and the sport in general.

You'll see a doping alert news search down the left hand side of our blog, and unfortunately, it's been in overdrive since we started out. It seems as though every day, something new emerges from the murky underworld of the sport, and not a week goes by before another high profile cyclist either confesses or is implicated in what is becoming an increasingly messy situation.

Most recent of these was Bjarne Riis, winner of the 1996 Tour de France, and the man who ended Miguel Indurain's quest for 6 consecutive titles. Riis, who rode for Telekom, admitted to doping in the following statement

"The time has come to put the cards on the table," said Riis. "I have done things which I now regret and which I wouldn't do again. I have doped. I have taken EPO. For awhile it was part if my life."

When a journalist questioned Riis about what else he took besides EPO, he responded that he also took hormones and cortisone.

This announcement was part of a mass confession of sorts, with Erik Zabel, who also rode for Telekom, admitting to doping. The world waited with baited breath for Jan Ullrich to admit, but he has continued to deny the use of drugs, despite the fact that his blood was found in a laboratory of a doctor who was known to be involved in blood doping.

The list reads on - Ivan Basso, heir apparent to Lance Armstrong as the Tour champion, Floyd Landis, who did succeed Armstrong, are but two others to be implicated, or even test positive, as in the case of Landis. Yet they continue to deny, steadfastly sticking to a story that most people are becoming increasingly sceptical of.

So what do the cycling authorities make of this? Do they, for example, strip Bjarne Riis of his 1996 title? They may well, but here is the problem. If they take the title away from Riis, and award it to second place that year, it goes to.....Jan Ullrich, of the Operation Puerto scandal, and a possible drug cheat. So never mind that, let's jump down to the third place rider that year, and then the title goes to....Marco Pantani - another known drug cheat, who was tried and convicted by an Italian court, backed by evidence of blood measures that you can read about in the great book The Death of Marco Pantani by Matt Rendell. So that's out. So we jump to fourth from that year - Richard Virenque. Oh, wait, he is also a self-confessed drug user, having broken down famously at a press conference after the Festina scandal of 1998.

So you see the problem - the deeper you dig, the uglier it gets. And it gets even worse - look at the list of winners since 1996:

1996 was Bjarne Riis - confessed to using EPO and other drugs
1997 was Jan Ullrich - widely believed to be guilty, having been implicated in blood doping practices
1998 was Marco Pantani - tested positive and served a ban for doping later on
Jump ahead to 2006 and you have Floyd Landis, who tested positive and was stripped of the title, and who is currently fighting tooth and nail for his credibility.

All this leaves the period between 1998 and 2006, which was dominated by a certain Lance Armostrong. Armstrong has never been far from rumours, and we may never know the truth. The latest development sees David Walsh bringing out an Engligh follow up to the French L.A. Confidential book of 2004, containing yet more allegations. Armstrong goes on the attack every time, and so we have a game of tennis - accusation and denial, back and forth. Then there are the numerous rumours and even positive tests that have never been proven, but continue to smoulder beneat the surface, occasionally bursting above it as witnessed by the sensational l'Equipe articles of a few years ago when they 'proved' that Armstrong had used EPO in 1999.

And while we will stop short of passing our judgement on any cyclist who has never been convicted, we are obliged to consider the facts and present a somewhat scientific spin on things.

And the first point that we must make is that if it's now known that Ullrich, Pantani, Basso, Virenque, Riis, Zulle and others have all used doping products during their careers, then is it possible for one person to be so dominant that he can defeat these men WITHOUT the use of drugs? Unfortunately, there is no evidence of just how much EPO or blood doping would improve performance, so we don't know just what the drugs are doing. But it would be quite safe to assume that they improve performance by 5% - that's 20W on an Alp d'Huez climb, about 30 seconds. Now, if Ullrich and co. are using, then is Armstrong so much better that he can win by 30 seconds DESPITE not using? The answer may be yes, but it's an important point to remember. Elite athletes will all say that they are "forced" to use drugs because without them, it's not possible to be competitive - well, if that's true, then the effect of drugs is probably much larger than our conservative guess of 5%, and the difference between a "clean" cyclist and a drugged one must be even greater if the clean cyclist is winning.

Now the second point, which has implications for the sport as a whole, is whether cycling has in fact cleaned up its act. And for this, we turn to Richard Virenque. After his tearful confession in 1998, he served his two year ban and then returned to the sport. And on returning, he professed that he was now clean and not using drugs any longer. Yet his performances were almost identical - his climbing power output and times on the major climbs were the SAME as before he served his ban. So we can make one of two possible conclusions

1) Either the drugs he was using before his ban did not work at all, because he is now clean and able to ride the same times and power outputs, or;

2) He is still using the drugs that gave him the ability in the first place!

So that's where we'll leave it, I realise it's a very controversial post, but the idea is to stimulate thought and discussion. We are not closed to any possibility and so of course it is possible that there are no drugs in the sport and that it is possible for a clean cyclist to be 10% better than the second best cyclist, but these issues need to be discussed if we are ever going to watch a race on equal terms again.

In our next post, we'll look at some of the drugs that have made the news recently, a little bit more of a scientific post, because I think it will be quite interesting to consider why the cyclists are using the drugs they are.

Join us then!

SA vs NZ: A scientist perspective and concern about big picture thinking

I guess as a South African, it's almost a duty to write something on today's rugby match between the All Blacks and South Africa. Not that I feel obliged, because like any other sports fan, it is something I have a firm opinion on. I'm sure you know the score - New Zealand overturned a deficit of 9-points at one stage to win 26-21, and bring SA down to earth somewhat.

The danger is getting too involved in a sport where I'm not 100% confident in my technical knowledge. And I have no doubt that by the time you read this, you'll have seen a dozen experts picking the game apart, and heard opinions from people who I am sure know the technicalities of the game far more than I do! And I'm a big believer in staying within the scope of your expertise - training, running and cycling, I know, the rest are hobbies. So I won't be another armchair fan who solves the world's problems without getting his hands dirty!

However, like anyone, I have an opinion and will be the first to admit that mine is influenced by my own personality - analytical and thoughtful (which I'm led to believe does not always equal right!). And so here is my take on the game.

First of all, South Africa appear to have figured out that one can win matches without having the ball. This was evident in the Super 14, where our teams all played a similar game, with the exception of the Cheetahs. I'm sure many will disagree, but I have a feeling that if the matches are analysed technically, it will show that South Africa prefer to let the opposition have the ball, adopt a defensive focus and rely on pressure to force the error. And this has been mighty effective and almost was today - witness Butch James' try from an intercept that was the result of pressure. This is low risk rugby, play with heart and intensity, force the error and then capitalize. I have personally heard it referred to as "Subdue and Penetrate" rugby by one of the great coaches of the modern era. That of course never makes the media...

I don't believe this is a sustainable way to play rugby. For one thing, it's been suggested that rule changes in the future will only make this more difficult to do successfully. But this is after the World Cup, so it's not a factor right now. But the more important reason is that it requires such a high level of intensity and concentration that to do it game after game is nearly impossible. And in the World Cup, we will have to win at least 4 tough games out of 7, and the chances of winning them like this are a concern to me. We will rightly claim that we are the only team who have made New Zealand look ordinary in the last 3 years - they look sloppy at times, rushed and make what seem silly errors, forced as a result of pressure. But we feed off the scraps, and that's not going to build a dynasty any time soon. Again, I'm sure some will disagree.

The final important point that I have to make is that it worries me to see how our players celebrate tries (and victories, as witnessed before today). There is something arrogant about it - a symptom of what I believe is happening off the field, creating a culture of machoism in our teams. I realise that this might be the South African way, but again, I don't believe it's sustainable to play with this level of intensity. And so this probably sounds ridiculous, but I believe that when a player is pumping his fist aggressively as he crosses the line, it's a telling sign of a problem waiting to happen, and that's what we do when we score. It even happened against Samoa, who the Australian second team had disposed of a week earlier.

My thinking on this is greatly influenced by some American Football coaches, who used to discipline players severely for over-celebrating touchdowns. They felt it is a sign that the player is not thinking correctly and is too pumped up. The culture they had distilled in players was that they were to be humble on the field, do the jobs and score the points. And that is what Richie McCaw and Joe Rokocoko did today. South Africa, however, were so fired up that even after scoring a try, South African players ran into a crowd of players and shoved the All Blacks out the way. If you have just scored, then don't get involved in that, it's just not needed. And so it's an attitude difference, which has sadly been typical of South Africa since I can remember - recall the Jannes Labuschane tackle on Wilkinson at Twickenham a few years ago?

So let's get back to winning rugby matches with skill - surgeons with scalpels, not butchers with carving knives.

But that's just me!

Follow up on EPO - an interesting question

So we wrote earlier today that EPO is a hormone (or a drug) that is used to stimulate the production of red blood cells.

And Lei, who has a running post as well - check it out here - wrote in and asked a really interesting question, which has stimulated a new post or two. As I gather, Lei is a medical student, who has set her sights on running a half marathon in September (way to go, Lei!), and she asked whether the effect of EPO is the same as that of altitude and if so, then why would cyclists use the drug, with all its side effects when they could get the same result from some altitude training?

So as I see it, there are two very interesting and relevant posts that I could write on this one:

1) The culture of cycling - why would cyclists use the drug when there are possible natural methods to achieve the same result? There are of course scientific reasons as well, which I will get into, but I really do believe the key is the culture of cycling, and in particular, the attention to detail and 'paranoia' (for want of a better word) that forces cyclists to try everything for the edge.

2) What are the benefits of altitude training and does it really work? I'll look at why altitude training is one of the more controversial issues in sports science, even though athletes swear by it!

So those are the two posts I'll work at tomorrow, so check them out over the course of the weekend, and thanks Lei for the idea!


Oscar Pistorius latest news

Check out our latest article on Oscar Pistorius (Published 11 July) here

So about three weeks ago (June 3), we featured an article on Oscar Pistorius, a South African double-amputee who has aspirations of running in the able-bodied Olympic Games.

I wrote at the time that until it could be proven conclusively that the limbs he wears do not give him a biomechanical advantage, he should not be allowed to compete. My gut feeling, based on a few observations and physiological principles, is that the limbs do give an advantage (see the post on the 3rd of June). The problem is that for every argument one way, there is a counter argument for the other point of view. But, it's not proven either way, and so this post was basically a call for research - let's first see what the science shows and then we can decide, based on facts rather than emotive opinions.

Well, it now seems as though this MIGHT happen (fingers crossed), with the IAAF announcing that they would work with Pistorius to do research on the limbs. I would be fascinated to see what they propose to do - the practicalities of doing sprint research on an amputee are enormous. IAAF, if you guys read my blog, drop me an email, I'd like to know!!!

In any event, let's hope we find some answers soon. I have seen Pistorius on TV often, and he beats the same drum about how the don't give and advantage and that they are passive and actually hamper him - these are of course expected statements (what else can he say, really? He can't give credence to the opposing view). His coach is similar, and seems to me to be shooting from hip, without too much thought. There is a danger here of the Pistorius camp adopting a slightly self-indulgent position, a victim mentality, so hopefully the issue will be resolved soon The same could be said for some of the statements coming from the IAAF, though they have, understandably, been less vocal. I for one would prefer some circumspection and prudence, and let's see what the research says. Then start making claims. But hopefully, the journey has begun...watch this space!

Friday, June 22, 2007

A different approach to running - really funny

Here at the Science of Sport, we take a reasonably serious view on sport, since we try to analyse and dissect what goes into what you see. Of course, we try to keep things light and easy to follow, so that the science is interesting, but it's still pretty factual. But we're as open to some humour as anyone, and that's why this blog

is a must-read. We got a good post from Vanilla for our Comrades behind the scenes story, and so I checked out this blog - hilarious! It's really great entertainment, videos and all! So check it out, you'll enjoy it for some light relief and Vanilla is a runner I've no doubt we can all relate to as well!

I hope you don't mind Vanilla, but you had a quote that I thought was absolutely priceless, so I'd like to include it in our blog. If that's a problem, just let me know and I'll take it down.
"Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must outrun the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning in Africa, a lion wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the slowest gazelle, or it will starve. It doesn't matter whether you're a lion or gazelle - when the sun comes up, you'd better be running." – Unknown
Check out the rest of the blog for some great articles - it's a little different from the science, but great reading!


Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The Comrades they don't show on TV, and the science behind it

Today is our final look at the behind the scenes of the Comrades marathon, and as promised, we'll have a look at some of the human interest stories and the science behind Comrades training. This is probably a bit late for many, but hopefully it'll be interesting and stimulate some decent training for the next down run (bring on 2009!)

So as i said, I spent just about the entire day in the medical tent, but was lucky enough to have to go out to the finish area to try to identify and recruit the runners for our research study. Our medical passes got us into the final finish chute, where the runners receive their medals and then grab a Coke or Energade or leave for home/hotels. I'm sure TV shows this just as well, but the attrition in that finish chute is something to behold. Quote of the day comes from one of our Austrian cardiologist colleagues, who had never seen anything quite like this "Zis race is more the survival, no? People are training for 4 hours a week, zis is impossible in Austria!" He couldn't believe the number of people who do the race without what he would have considered decent training.

You see, part of our research was to measure how much people train - time, distance and speed. So he interviewed all the runners in our study, and was blown away by what he perceived to the minimal training that is done. All his experience is on triathletes and marathon runners and he says that in Austria, people don't even consider a marathon until they are able to do about 12 hours a week of training! Welcome to South Africa!

Which brings us to the essence of Comrades - it's a culture, more than a road race. A battle for survival, absolutely, and I would be fascinated to know just what makes the typical guy run the race. I have three examples of people I met during the course of the day who illustrate more than anything what I mean.

The first is a runner from England, experienced marathon runner, with a fast 2:36 to his credit. He finished the race in 7:09, one of the faster runners. But I kid you not, there is a walk of about 200 m from the finish line to the medical tent where we were stationed. We started walking at 13h04 and arrived, 200 m later, at 13h29 - 25 minutes to walk 200 m. And every time he took a step, he groaned, mutter unprintables under his breath, and then soldiered on. Fifteen minutes earlier, he was running at 5 minutes per km to get his silver medal. Absolutely remarkable how his brain just shut everything down the moment the goal had been achieved! And if you thought a wounded "Comrade" would get some sympathy along the way - think again, people chuckled the whole way there!

The second was a guy who finished in about 10 hours. He came to the medical tent for treatment though, because he had severe cramp in just about every muscle - in fact, he was bandaged up around both quads and both calves! I ask him how the race was and he says it went according to plan. I say it looks as though he had a tough day, and his reply is that this happens every year! He has run 8 Comrades and EVERY single year, he ends up in the medical tent with massive cramps! He says he'll be back for sure next year! Imagine standing on the start line knowing with almost 100% certainty that in about 10 hours, you won't be able to stand properly and you'll end up in a medical tent in complete agony - that's a Comrades runner.

Finally, met a guy who got to Drummond in 4:10, on course to run well under 9 hours and claim a Bill Rowan medal. But then the wheels came off and the second half to 7:30 and he finished just under the overall cutoff! It was only his second run over 21 km - he qualified on Loskop and then ran Comrades! Only in SA! But what an amazing guy, tremendously positive and optimistic, disappointed of course, but seemed ready to go again soon after leaving. I'm sure he'll be back. He too was the epitome of a Comrades runner - they all finish in some pain, very few tell you they had a good run, and many swear never to come back, yet they all do, year after year, for more of the same.

Now our international visitors probably wonder what the fuss is about, and why on earth anyone would do that to themselves, never mind once, but repeatedly. And I don't know the answer to that - I'm told it's a culture, and it certainly is. People plan their year around this race, and everything goes into the first 6 months of the year and preparing.

And since it's so important, perhaps we can look at the training and just what might be done to prevent the pain that so many experience. I'm sure you can all pick up the common thread is that people who finish the down run can barely walk. Running 90 km does that to you! But running 90km downhill is a real killer!

The reason is that when we run down hill, the muscle has to work very hard to DECELERATE us, and it actually involves a different type of muscle contraction. It's called eccentric, and the muscle actually lengthens when it contracts (confusing name, huh?). A normal muscle contract, when you pick up a weight or walk up a flight of stairs, for example, is called concentric. The problem with an eccentric contraction is that the muscle gets very tiny tears and these are the source of all the pain and the 25 minute 200 m walking times! Because the muscle swells up, and the nerves become very sensitive as the body tries to fix the damage and the end result is major pain. Forget about lactate - people may have told you or you may have read that the reason your muscles get sore is because of lactate - absolutely untrue. Lactate is gone within 30 minutes of finishing the race, but the pain can last for days. The real cause of the pain is the body's response to tiny tears in the muscle, and these are worse after running downhill.

So what do you do about it? My theory, borne out by science, is that practice makes perfect. You have to teach the muscle how to work eccentrically and this means training very specifically. You have to run downhill often and work out in the gym often. People do this - they hit the gym with passion, but I feel that they focus on the wrong part of the contraction - it's the lowering of the weight, not lifting it that is important, because lowering is the eccentric contraction. So that's the first point - plenty of lowering of weights in the gym.

As for downhill running, it helps, but can obviously be overdone. Everything in moderation, but in my opinion, it's the technique that is most important in running downhill. When you run downhill, what you need to do is lower your hips, so that you land on bended knee and softly, to absorb the impact with some cushioning. Also, don't lean backwards, this can be very risky, because it loads the leg with the whole body weight coming down. So people need to practice running downhill before a race like Comrades.

How important is this downhill running? I think it's critical. If you look at the top 10 guys, the only one who came into the stadium with any bounce left is Shvetsov, and I have no doubt that he is the strongest runner in the race. The other 9 guys looked like they were running on brittle pieces of charcoal instead of legs - they had lost their ability to cushion the landing and then spring up completely. And that's a function of training. So if you want to avoid a 25 minute walk for 200 m, or cramp 8 years in a row, plan to learn how to run downhill - think eccentric, though not the type of eccentric that makes people run 90 km!

I hope you've found these Comrades posts interesting. They've certainly been fun to write, I hope as much to read.

In the coming weeks, the big events are the Tour de France, Knysna Marathon (for the SA runners), the America's Cup and the International Athletics season. As usual, we'll be trying to interpret and analyse as much as possible, and come up with some practical information that can help make you better at whatever sport it is you choose!

See you soon!

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Comrades marathon - An interesting observation from a fellow blogger

The other day Andrew from Cape Town visited us for the first time, and dropped off some very kind and constructive comments. In a brief exchange between myself and Andrew, he dropped in this pearl from the Comrades broadcast on Sunday, which I think, more than any other, illustrates exactly the point I was making in my post on the race from Monday 18 June (check it out below).

"Thinking of Sipho Ngomane, while watching the race on Sunday, they had an interviewed with him, and a comment of his peaked my interest, “As soon as I’m out of my contract, I’ll focus on marathons.” Listening “between the lines” I could pick up he wasn’t that keen Comrades anymore." Quote from Andrew at the Comrades blog
If this quote from an elite runner doesn't tell you what the problems with SA road running are, then nothing will. Until such time that people like Nick Bester and the drivers of the ultra-marathon machine stop exploiting the athletic talent we have, we will not compete with the likes of Shvetsov at Comrades and any other runners over the marathon. Sipho Ngomane is a 25 year old runner, with a personal best at 21 km of just under 62 minutes (if my memory serves me), and he has now run 4 Comrades and 4 Two Oceans! What a shame!!!

And it's not only the managers and agents to blame - it's the authorities, who use their money so poorly that our talented runners are forced to the ultra distances too soon. When Nedbank sponsored ASA to the tune of R85 million, half that money should have gone into creating an elite racing league over 10 km and 5 km, so that runners with some talent were basically being paid not to run the ultras, at least until they were older. Then they'd hit Comrades with speed and experience, and the likes of Shvetsov and his comrades would know they were in a race!

Thanks to Andrew for that one - check out his blog at http://www.comradesblog.com/

Next time, we'll look at science behind the down run, and what single factor, more than any other (in my opinion), will predict how well you can perform, and how you should train.

Bye for now!

Monday, June 18, 2007

The Comrades - inside the medical tent

So Durban (and South Africa) woke up to the sad news this morning that two runners had died during yesterday's race. As I promised yesterday, today we'll have a look at what goes on behind the scenes, especially in the medical tent (since that's about all I saw of the race), and I suppose we should start with this sad event.

Both deaths happened at the finish line, the first was a 34-year old man who collapsed at some point during the final kilometer and was then carried to the finish line by other runners, as is the Comrades tradition. It makes for stirring television and high drama, befitting the race, but unfortunately, can lead to complications for the affected runners. In fact, we had a celebratory dinner after finishing in the tent and when our Austrian colleague, who is also a cardiologist, heard that runners had picked up and carried a man across the line, he was shocked and amazed to say the least, since it can worsen the problem, especially if carried vertically (it's better to be horizontal). That this is a tradition at Comrades was even more amazing to him, he was incredulous that they would be allowed to do this.

The second runner collapsed after finishing, and was tended to immediately by doctors, both on the line and in the tent. They in fact resuscitated him meters from where we were doing our testing, and he was taken to hospital, where he unfortunately passed away. So these two sad days spoiled an otherwise very good day for the medical team, with the Chief Medical Officer saying it was one of the quitest days in many years. I've worked in the tent the last three years and it certainly was not nearly as busy as in the past.

But what of these two deaths? One happened in a runner who had done 14 Comrades before, an experienced runner who was by no means unfit. The other was in a young man, also fit, since he ran under 11 hours before collapsing. So these events are reminders that anyone can be affected - be it by genetic abnormalities, perhaps flu, or some problem related to cholesterol or coronary artery disease. Of course, all of this doesn't help anything, and we must avoid playing the blame game - was it the lack of medical treatment, was it the other runners, was it the race organizers? It doesn't really matter right now, though lessons would need to be learned. My personal opinion is that runners should be educated, perhaps by a campaign before the race, to assess the situation a little more - if a runner has cramp, by all means pick him up, but if a runner is lying still and does not respond to talking, rather get medical help to him as quickly as possible. Perhaps in future years, this is the way to go.

As for the rest of the day's action in the medical tent, most people come in simply because they are exhausted, or have severe cramp, brought on by the steep downhills. Almost all just need to lie down for 30 minutes, rest up and then they are fine. There is a common problem of nausea, which is brought on by a number of factors, and then worsened by the fact that for 10 hours, most runners drink and eat nothing by jelly babies, Coke and Energade, which would be enough to make anyone feel ill! Blood pressure drops a lot as well and so the most effective treatment is simply to lie the runner down and raise his/her legs until the blood pressure normalizes.

What were we doing the medical tent? As mentioned, we worked with some Austrian scientists to look at how the cardiovascular system functions after the race. We tested 100 people at the expo on Friday and Saturday and then asked them to come back after the race. About 60 did, which was pretty good going, I think. We were measuring their cardiac output, which is the volume of blood pumped by the heart per minute and also the stroke volume, which is the amount pumped per contraction.

Very briefly, we found that in most people, the cardiac output and the stroke volume fall after the race, which is really very interesting, because their sympathetic nervous system (which is the body's fight or flight system) is hyperactivated. Normally, if the sympathetic system is active, the heart pumps more blood. But after Comrades, it pumps less, so that's a really interesting finding. We now have to think why that happens - there are a couple of possibilities, neither of which I'll get into now. But basically, you could think of it as a simple equation of supply and demand - the tissues, muscles and organs set the demand which is met by the cardiac output - the supply. So when the cardiac output is lower, it means that the demand is down, and that has all sorts of implications. Is the body in a mega-conservative state, where it tries to minimize demand by 'shutting off' blood to all parts of the body where it's not needed? A survival mechanism for 90 km perhaps? The next step will be to answer these questions.

So that's a bit of a technical post, tomorrow I'll post on a little more of the science that goes into preparing for Comrades and exactly what happens to the body during the race. I'll also try to paint a picture of what it's like at the finish area, to illustrate how the physiology responds to 90 km.

See you tomorrow!

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Comrades marathon

The first ever Comrades held on the 17th of June has come and gone.

I was in the medical tent, for the third year running, doing a research study, and so missed much of the race (next year, maybe I'll watch it!). But it was once again a memorable race, though perhaps for different reasons. It's a race that will be recalled for many years, or at least until the incredible 5:20 performance of Leonid Shvetsov is erased from the record books. Some are already saying that the record will stand for up to 20 years (the previous one stood for 21), I suspect that there were signs that Shvetsov will only run faster next time we head from Pietermaritzburg to Durban.

For one thing, he was not challenged over the final 30km, effectively running a time-trial in conditions that few would suggest were good for long distance running. Another factor, of course, is the temperature - it was a much warmer day than previous years. And then finally, the manner of his victor, and perhaps more importantly, the time differences between himself and second, and also other gaps within the top 10 suggest that today was NOT a good day for ultra running. No other man broke 5:30, and the tenth best time was a lot slower than in previous years. On a good day, Shvetsov can break 5:15 - watch this space for 2009, and remember, you read it here first!

But it once again re-inforces the importance of speed - Shvetsov is a man with a 2:10 marathon, a time that is quicker than just about any South Africans can run, let alone those whose focus is on the ultras. And that speed means that a halfway split of 2:43 is a comfortable pace, whereas those who have 2:20 in their legs are much closer to what one might call a "tempo pace", reducing the preservation time. So how do we compete with the Russians? Simple answer, less focus on marathons and ultras and more on speed, because until we produce a crop of 28 minute 10 km runners who can one day graduate to 2:10 marathons, we'll be chasing Eastern Europeans every June 17th!!

Tomorrow, I'll post about the "back end" of the race - the medical tent, the masses and the parts that people don't see on television. So check us out for some insight into what really happens in the Comrades marathon, what it takes to run 90 km on a hot day, and how these men and women survive and conquer a trip that most would only make in a car!