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Be it doping in sport, hot topics like Caster Semenya or Oscar Pistorius, or the dehydration myth, we try to translate the science behind sports and sports performance.

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Saturday, December 29, 2007

Weight loss and computer games Part 2

The Nintendo Wii study - marketing meets science, yet again!

If you scroll down this page, you'll see a post I did a little earlier today looking at a comparison between the Nintendo Wii computer game and an X-Box 360 game. The study found that Wii games, which are "active" and involve simulated hand and body movements by the players, burn more energy than the chosen X-Box 360 game (Project Gotham Racing). This has led to the inevitable marketing suggestion that Wii should form part of a weight loss strategy in response to concerns over childhood obesity.

In response to this post, we received a couple of great email comments noting that the selection of the X-Box game is itself a 'flaw' with the study. Both Stan and Daniel made the point that comparing Wii games to a car racing game (which is what Project Gotham is, by the way) may not be the ideal comparison. They suggested that perhaps the better comparison might be between Wii and some of the more active Playstation/X-Box games, like dancing games (which they do produce). So the choice of games, both neglecting the more active X-Box games and the more passive Wii games, represents a point of contention.

The reason for the choice - a "strategic" decision, perhaps?

Now, this is of course a valid point. I suspect that the authors (and certainly Nintendo), would argue that MOST of the X-Box games are in this category of "passive" games, but perhaps a comparison with a dancing game was required. There are a couple of other limitations, including the fact that energy expenditure was not measured directly, but rather calculated based on accelerometer data. It's not difficult to measure energy expenditure, so it is only a matter of time before this is done.

However, when you look at the choice of games, it's clearly one of the less active X-Box games compared to the more active Wii games (not all Wii games are this 'active'). Now, here at The Science of Sport, we're always alert to conflicts of interests in science - my (Ross) marketing training has made me more sensitive to this. On top of this, both of us are directly involved in perhaps the biggest conflict of interest of all - the sports drink industry, where Gatorade has its very own Sports Science Institute that funds "research" that, surprise, surprise, tells you to drink as much as you can!

So the conflict alert had been sounded from the beginning. Now, I looked at the paper specifically to find this, and I can't believe that I missed it the first time around:

Here's the thing - the study was funded by Cake, which is the MARKETING arm of Nintendo....Forgive my cynicism, but let's not all scramble to purchase Nintendo Wii as the solution to childhood obesity based on this study! Had there been no difference, I'd be willing to bet this research would not have seen the light of day. Having said this, the scientists have, to their credit, written a reasonably neutral discussion - they even make the point that the energy advantage is minimal on Wii and actually state in their paper that the "energy used when playing active Wii Sports games was not of high enough intensity to contribute towards the recommended daily amount of exercise in children".

So no problem with that - it's the use of the data by others that represents the conflict of interest. This is the eternal dilemma faced by science - funding is critical, of course, and the search for knowledge requires a question (does "active" gaming burn more energy than "passive" gaming?) But when the funder and the provider of the question are one and the same, or when the funder stands to gain from a specific answer, there's always a possible issue. This particular occasion is not the best (or worst) example of it, but it's there nevertheless.

But I wonder if the choice of games, and the study design, were not somehow 'strategically' influenced by Nintendo. It would be a shame, but as Daniel has pointed out, same old tricks recycled in another form!

One thing is for sure, it will come up in 2008 as well, and we'll hopefully be onto it!

Thanks for the comments - we love this blog and the readership we've gained because the 'dialogue' we have stimulates understanding all round!


Weight loss and Nintendo Wii

Nintendo Wii is not an exercise and weight-loss option: A study you never thought you'd see...

It's been a quiet period for us over the last week, but we're sure you understand! If you are anything like us, you've been relieved to you open your e-mail inbox to see nothing but a few junk emails, none of which require thought as you hit 'delete' (We hope that this email, if you're reading it as an email, is not one of them!).

But we have received a few great emails, and questions, and one suggestion for a series on weight loss and running. That sounds like a great idea to us, and for sure, it's in our list of "Topics to cover in 2008".

But for today, I was in the process of doing a post looking back at the most interesting SPORTS SCIENCE articles of 2008. And as I was about to begin, I came across this really interesting article published this week in the British Medical Journal. It's interesting, not because it's a breakthrough piece of research that will advance the field of exercise science or because it challenges existing thinking, but more because:

  • It might be relevant to you, if you have purchased one of these for Christmas
  • It is an indictment on society that there is even a need to do this type of study
The context - the gaming wars and obesity

Right, so here's the context. In the past few years, we've witnessed the "computer game wars", with Sony Playstation, Microsoft's X-Box and Nintendo's Wii all vying for market leadership in what is clearly an incredibly lucrative market.

For example, in August this year, it was reported that Nintendo Wii had become the fastest ever game-console to hit the 1 million mark in the United Kingdom - it took about 9 months. In August this year, total sales of 10.1 million Nintendo Wii, 10.3 million X-Box 360 and 4.1 million Playstation 3 were reported. I recall people queing overnight to buy their consoles when they were first released, and even acts of violence when consoles were sold out! Perhaps you have further added to this number in the last few days...(though hopefully not with the violence option!)

At the same time, the obesity rates in the western world (Europe and N.America, mainly) have hit record highs (though the rate has apparently levelled off in the USA). This is the case for adults and children, but the increasing prevalence of obesity and the associated conditions are becoming more and more worrisome in younger populations. It's reported that children in the UK spend an average of 12.2 hours PER WEEK playing computer games! Of course, the link is always made between computer games and obesity, because hours of computer games per day does not lend itself to a life of exercise and activity!

The marketing angle - Nintendo Wii causes more weight loss?

Now, you may be aware that the uniqueness of the Nintendo Wii system is that it involves the use of a hand-held wireless wand that requires the player to move around using arm motions. You can play games including tennis, golf, baseball, boxing and tenpin bowling. So it's a "more active" form of computer gaming than the passive X-Box and Playstation fare, which is great for thumbs and wrist exercise, but not much else!

Or at least, that's the claim. It seems that an entire industry jumped up around the Wii "Weight loss Plan", and there were a number of bloggers who put the theory to the test. One gamer did a 6-week self-experiment in which he played Wii games for 30 minutes a day, and apparently came out 9 pounds (about 4kg) lighter at the end! While this is an interesting 'experiment', it has numerous flaws (I don't think the author would ever claim it as a work of scientific integrity, to be fair - at least, I'd hope so), and so other studies were needed. This did not stop numerous TV appearances, marketing claims (obviously) and an added push to already growing Wii = Weight loss movement!

The study - Nintendo Wii - it burns you a quarter of a chocolate bar more per hour!

Enter researchers from John Moores University in Liverpool, who did a study that was published this past week. They looked at energy expenditure in 11 children (13 to 15 years old, boys and girls) playing either Nintendo Wii games (bowling, tennis and boxing), or an X-Box 360 game (Porject Gotham Racing 3, for those who are interested!) The objective, of course, was to measure energy use in order to predict whether the Wii burns more calories. If it does help with weight loss, then it will have comparable rates of energy use to other exercises, and much higher than for the X-Box.

The finding - a "whole" 250 kilojoules per hour more

So what did they find? Well, the table below shows the energy cost, in kJ per hour, for the X-Box game (a driving game, remember), the three Wii games and some other activities you will probably be more familiar with.

To put this even more into perspective, if you, as an adult (assuming you are, that is!) went out and ran at 5min/km for 60 minutes, you would be looking at between 2000 and 4000 kJ burned! It is admittedly impossible to compare, because the above values are for 15 year old children, and not typical 70 to 80kg males, but you get the point.

So there are really two messages here. Firstly, Wii games burn more energy than the X-Box 360 game tested. Secondly, neither comes near the good old-fashioned exercises that one would normally associate with weight loss. But that's another point. For now, let's stick with the study in question.

So then we have an increase of 51%, which at first glance must seem enormous. The Nintendo marketing team must be licking their lips...more on this later!

The reality is that the total amount of energy burned here is so small that it basically makes no difference - we're talking a quarter of a Mars Bar per hour. Therefore, you have a choice of sitting down and playing X-Box and becoming unfit and overweight, or you can do the same playing Wii games, except you can eat a quarter of a chocolate bar more per hour of playing before you get there! So yes, you can have your 51% more, but it's 51% of such a tiny amount that you're better off simply getting up to change the TV channel a dozen times a day than going for Wii instead of the other options.

Putting a spin on things

But, as one might expect, the finding is being spun in different directions, depending on who you ask. The afore-mentioned gamer who lost 4kg playing Wii says in his website that "studies conclude that Wii is a viable workout". Depends on how you define "viable" - if viable means you burn a quarter of a chocolate bar more per hour, then it certainly does help.

The scientists who performed the experiment, incidentally, suggested that "the energy used when playing active Wii Sports games was not of high enough intensity to contribute towards the recommended daily amount of exercise in children". That hardly sounds like the description of a viable workout to me! They do however admit that the "trivial" amount could still make a contribution to weight management, but then so again, so could about a hundred other things. For example, you probably burn this much simply by parking at the far end of the lot at the shopping mall and walking!

I think that the point is that if you are completely inactive, and you do NOTHING but play computer games, then suddenly swopping Wii for the other two is going to make a difference - hey, just the fact that you might stand up makes a difference! But the reality is that given lifetime of Wii, you still won't be exercising!

A sad indictment on society

I think that the mere fact that this debate exists is a worrying and sad indictment on society. I must emphasize that I'm actually not against computer games - in fact, I confess that one of my very own Christmas presents was Madden 08 - a Playstation game, which I've put to use since the 25th! But everything in moderation, that's the key.

And the point is, you cannot substitute computer games for exercise. Parents who allow their children to spend hours a day in front of a television without encouraging exercise are, in my opinion, walking a fine line of neglect, because of the health problems those childrens may one day experience as a result of neglect. And choosing Wii over Playstation or X-Box 360 because they think they're encouraging exercise is a futile exercise.

In fact, I suspect it will be a matter of time before an adult with heart disease and obesity sues their parents for neglect for failing to encourage exercise when they were younger! Stranger things have happened!

It seems to me that we are moving further and further away from 'traditional' exercise, which has led us into the era of justifying an activity such as computer games as a means for weight loss! One might however argue that "if you can't beat them join them". That is, children enjoy the games enough to want to play them, so we might as well figure out ways to get them active doing what they want to do, because forcing exercise is perhaps even more futile. However, this strikes me as slightly defeatist, though I recognize the tricky situation that exists for parents.

I'm young enough to appreciate the emergence of computer games, but fortunately I am old enough to remember that when I was 13 (as the children were in this study), my family did not yet have a personal computer (this was in 1994, we were slow on the uptake! I'm grateful!), and so I spent my Saturday afternoons playing soccer, tennis, cricket or running with friends. I never knew better, and perhaps that is the problem - children simply "know better", and prefer to spend their time playing "virtual tennis" in the comfort of their homes, with a Coke and a packet of Crisps an arm's length away.

So they're playing Wii and using their arms - great. But what happened to actually playing tennis? That's the control group that was needed in the Liverpool study, that's the comparison we should be talking about. But then we all know what that would show, right?


Check out the "Addendum" to this post, looking at the interpretation of the results and the possible conflict of interests with the study

Monday, December 24, 2007

2007: Running Year in Review

Highs and lows, world records, meltdowns, and great races from 2007

The Science of Sport was only really born in April this year, and so we missed some of the year's running highlights. But we'll take some liberties and include those in our look-back on the year that was in running.

Highs and lows

When we look back on the sport of running in 2007, a few things stand out, sadly not always as highlights. There were some great moments, absolutely - Gebrselassie finally bagging the marathon world record, Asafa Powell breaking the 100m World record (again), and Tyson Gay imposing himself on Powell and the rest of the world at the World Championships in Osaka. Then there was Zersenay Tadese, who ended a dynasty at the World Cross Country Championships in Kenya, Paula Radcliffe made a comeback from pregnancy to win in New York, and Martin Lel grew his reputation as one of the great marathon racers, first in London, then in New York.

But there were also lowlights - Marion Jones' confession of drug use was the inevitable drug related low of the year - her gold medals, having been returned, are still in doubt because everyone she beat is as much a drug cheat as she was!

But it was two Comrades Marathon runners in South Africa, Chad Schieber, Matthew Hardy and Ryan Shay who cast the biggest pall over running in 2007 - they are all athletes who collapsed and died during marathons this year. This became one of the biggest talking points here at the Science of Sport. It began early this year, with the collapse of Alberto Salazar during training, and ended, perhaps most tragically, with the death of elite marathon runner, Ryan Shay, aged only 28. It was not limited to road running either, with soccer players falling victim to cardiac problems as well, most tragically Antonio Puerta of Seville, who died during a Spanish Premier league match.

We tried to cover the spectre of sudden death during exercise as much as possible, explaining the causes, the risks, and ultimately, what this means for all of us, who may have the perception that we are protected as a result of our fitness. And while we certainly are afforded some protection, we are not immune, as 2007 has reminded us. So as we look back on the highs and lows, we remember these athletes, and their loved ones.

Performance of the year

OK, so we're biased towards the longer distance events here at The Science of Sport, but our vote for performance of the year goes to Haile Gebrselassie. A man who's hardly in need of any more awards or accolades, but he can now add to his collection the Science of Sport award for Best Running Performance of 2007! His remarkably paced and controlled World Record of 2:04:26 was a magnificent performance, one which we analysed in some detail - first as it happened, and then with the pacing splits and analysis the day after.

You'll see from Geb's splits how the record was really under control the whole way - he began needing to run 2:57.6/km to beat Tergat's time, and this never spiralled out of control - he churned out kilometer after kilometer of even paced running and at 35km, he was exactly on pace. A fast final 5 km, and the record was his! All that remains for Geb now is the Olympic Gold in the Marathon, and we wait with baited breath for Beijing...

Athlete of the year - sprint events

OK, so now we'll try to redeem ourselves for our distance bias, by giving this out as an award in two categories (OK, so we're still showing our bias!). First, for Sprint/Short distance athlete of the year, our nod goes to Tyson Gay, who completely dominated the World Athletics Championships in Osaka, Japan. In particular, it was the ease with which he dealt with the World's fastest man, Asafa Powell, that earns him this 'presigious award' (along with all the other 'lesser' awards he's won! Just kidding, IAAF and USTAF!)

The build-up to the Men's 100m final was the most hyped of the IAAF Championships, but in the end, it was Gay who handled the pressure and dominated the race. He went onto dominate the Men's 200m final as well, and played his part in the USA's victorius 4 x 100m relay team. The 100m-200m double has become something of a tradition at the World Champs (Maurice Greene, and most recently, Justin Gatlin also achieved it). But Gay came in and defeated a World Record holder, and did so with ease. It capped off a magnificent year for Gay, one in which he also ran the second fastest 200m time in history (19.62s), and won the double at the USA Championships in Indianapolis. His racing ability makes him the man to beat in Beijing, despite the fact that Powell went on to break the 100m world record a few weeks later.

An honourable mention here goes to Allyson Felix, a 21-year old who won her second World 200m title in Osaka, beating a stellar field (on paper, anyway) by 0.53 secs, the largest margin in the history of the Championships. Her winning time of 21.81s was a huge PB, and the arrival of a true world star. She races so infrequently that the world was denied the chance of seeing her run more often in Europe, but as she matures, that will surely change. What is more, she gave notice this year of her frightening ability over 400m, beating Sanya Richards in Europe. I do believe that in time, she will dominate the 400m event, and given her established dominance over 200m, we may be seeing the women's equivalent to Michael Johnson - unbeatable over two distances, for a long time. Perec won the double in Atlanta, but Felix could rule over these events for a long time to come.

Athlete of the year - distance events

You thought Gebrselassie, right? Well, you'd be wrong! Again, this is my personal bias, but I choose instead to give this award to Martin Lel, who in 2007 was the best marathon racer in the world. Gebrselassie is a great athlete, no doubt, but the one question mark that remains against him is his ability to win a competitive marathon, as opposed to the time-trials he was won against the clock. No such questions against Lel, who this year won the London and New York Marathons. In London, he led 5 athletes into the final 400m and then dismissed them with a remarkable finishing kick. In New York, he did the same to Abderrahim Goumri, who once again had no answer to Lel's finishing speed. An analysis of this race can be found here.

Just how good is that kick? Well, we timed the final 400 yards in 57 seconds - that's a 63 second last 400m on the track, at the end of a marathon race! Remarkable! But apart from just the sheer speed he possesses, Lel is a high pedigree athlete. We featured him in a post leading up to the New York race, where we picked him as the winner, based on his 60:10 winning performance from the Great North Run a few weeks earlier. Lel has the potential to run the world record close, and he most definitely has the ability to win the Olympic title, if he chooses to run in Beijing.

Unfortunately, his status as leader of the Marathon Series means he's likely to choose London and probably New York again, and give Beijing a miss, which is a shame. In London, the competitive field means he probably won't go for a world record (tactical race is more likely), and so we may have to wait on that all-out race against the clock. But he ends 2007 as our Athlete of the Year.

An honorable mention here goes to Zersenay Tadese, of Eritrea, who has been the subject of some recent posts relating to his incredibly good running economy - The Most Economical Runner in history, they are reporting! But earlier this year, Tadese ended the Bekele dynasty at the World Cross Country Championships in Kenya, and followed this up with a World Title over 21 km in Italy. Regular readers will know that I'm a huge fan of Tadese's, I think he's a wonderful runner. I pick him to be the next world record holder in the marathon, and with a little bit of luck, and good preparation, the 10 000m title in Beijing is not out of his ability! Bekele will need to be in great shape to beat him, better than he was this year. Otherwise, Eritrea will be celebrating its first Olympic Gold medal.

Other honorable mentions go to Paula Radcliffe, who made a stirring comeback after pregnancy and the birth of her daughter to win in New York. Radcliffe will bid for the elusive Olympic title next year, but will have to get through the heat, the humidity and possibly our other honorable mentions, Lornah Kiplagat and Catherine Ndereba. Kiplagat did "the Tadese" in 2007, winning both the World Cross Country and 21 km titles. Ndereba won the World Marathon title in oppressive heat in Osaka, which is a good sign since it shows her ability to handle those conditions - Beijing will throw up more of the same and so Ndereba will line up as a big contender.

The Choke collar award for choker of the year

The winner of this dubious award is Asafa Powell. Before you cry out in disbelief that the man who broke the world 100m record could win this title, let me clarify - Powell is a great athlete, the fastest man in the world. But how he managed to not even win the silver medal in the IAAF World Champs in Osaka is testament to the fact that he simply doesn't know how to handle the big occasion. Instead, he chooses a relatively obscure second tier meeting in Italy to blast out a time that he should have run 3 weeks earlier. His form in Osaka had been excellent, he was running dominant races looking comfortable and relaxed as he oozed power and class. But suddenly Gay was on his shoulder and he froze. Then Atkins came up on the other side, and he gave up. And so for giving up, the Let-down of the year award. He's still a great athlete, let's hope he brings that to the 100m final in Beijing!

The undo a lifetime of achievement award

This award goes to Marion Jones, who, after years of denial, defiance and deception, eventually confessed to having used performance enhancing drugs. We can only assume the prospects of criminal charges drove her to what was ultimately, in my opinion, a half-baked confession - she did what every 4-year old figures out when they're caught with their hand in the cookie jar - she confessed to some charges, but still maintained her "innocence" in other areas. She maintains that she was tricked into using, that she thought it was "flaxseed oil" and not actually a banned substance. Anything to keep the wolves at bay, I guess...

The end result is that Jones' record achievements from Sydney have been wiped off the books, and she has returned all her medals. Her image, once that of women's athletics, is now associated with shame and guilt and all that is wrong with the sport. A long way to fall, and a career of achievements built on lies and deception is undone. The worst thing of all was that despite the fact that she knew her guilt after being confronted by prosecutors (she was "innocent" - it was flaxseed oil, remember?), she went so far as to initiate an aggressive, proactive campaign to clear her name, hiring PR consultants to fight the good fight on her behalf. Keeping your guilt quiet is one thing, taking the fight to your accusers when you know you'r guilty, that's another thing altogether. Congratulations, Ms Jones...

The "Losing sleep over the future award"

This unique award goes to Liu Xiang, of China, who next year, will take to the start blocks in Beijing knowing that unless he wins the Olympic Gold medal, he will be seen as a failure by about a billion people! In 2007, every move Liu has made has been scrutinized, because he was unfortunate enough to be picked to be the Face of the Beijing Olympics. His bad luck was that he was so good four years out from the Games, and he became a symbol for China's aspirations to dominate the Olympics and the commercial world - Chinese consumers have associated Liu Xiang as an endorser of 19 different brands! So far, he's stood up to the challenge, but come Beijing, he's going to feel the crush of expectation unlike any athlete has probably had to deal with, ever! What makes it worse is that his event, the 110m Hurdles, relies on absolute precision, and any tightness or nervousness is not simply seen as a bit of tension in the shoulders - it could be disastrous. And even worse, 2007 has seen the emergence of Dayron Robles of Cuba, an exciting new talent who is getting better and better all the time. Good luck, Liu...


So it's been a wonderful year for running and for the analysis of running (which is what we try to do, after all). Unfortunately, some sad analysis of death during running, but a great deal of fantastic performances, great athletes and wonderful races to analyse.

Let's hope that 2008 brings more of the same!


Can Paula Radcliffe win the elusive Olympic Gold Medal in Beijing? And will Haile Gebrselassie add marathon gold to his collection? Read our PREVIEW OF 2008 here!

Friday, December 21, 2007

A merry Christmas to everyone!

The year is rapidly winding down with Christmas approaching, and with the festivities planned for next week, today may well be the last day that many of our regular readers are in their offices. If you're anything like me, you're only there in body, your mind is already looking ahead to the holiday break, however long or short it might be!

But before a lot of you left and stopped reading for a while (we hope it's only a while!) we thought we'd take this opportunity to thank all of our regulars, our subscribers, our visitors and especially the people who've contributed to making "The Science of Sport" so stimulating for US to write through their great comments.

We are extremely flattered whenever anyone is positive about the work and thanks us for the articles, but you should know that it's as stimulating and interesting for us to bring sports sciences across in a more entertaining, news-relevant manner, so we should in fact be thanking you!

We're proud to have such a discerning and informed following - some of the comments we receive would not be out of place in a scientific discussion at a conference (actually, some of the scientists at those conferences might find themselves out of place discussing concepts with some of you!). I would list some names and give specific references, but I know I'll leave people out, so let's leave it at ALL of you!

A special nod of appreciation, incidentally, go to one zig600@yahoo.com - you couldn't have know this, but you were the first person to ever sign up to receive our daily posts via email (you can do this at the top left corner of the site, incidentally)! And then to the next 368 people who've done the same, (welcome (Annethea, you are the newest 'member'!), thank you for inviting us into your inboxes!

What does the remainder of 2007 hold in store?

Things slow down to a crawl over this part of the year, especially here in SA where it's our summer break - most people have been off for a week and probably only return to work in early January, so we're going to save our series for 2008 - altitude, lactate, fatigue, and whatever else is thrown up!

Until then, we will look back on the year that was, and give some of our more entertaining analyses of sports events from the year past. We'll also look ahead to 2008, a Nostradamus exercise of predicting the future as a bit of fun!

2008 being an Olympic Year, with all attention geared towards Beijing, there will be some fantastic news for us to write on, as well as some hopefully interesting series!

With that, then, we would like to wish all our readers a very safe, happy, and rewarding Christmas and New Year. If you are travelling, do so safely, keep training, and we hope 2008 is a prosperous year for all.

Best wishes

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Oscar Pistorius banned - IAAF result


On January 14, the IAAF issued a report revealing the results of scientific testing done on Oscar Pistorius. If you would like to be redirected to a summary of those results, click on the links below:

  1. IAAF Announcement: Oscar Pistorius banned - IAAF report findings and analysis
  2. Oscar Pistorius to challenge ban - Insights and discussion on the results, the history of the debate and what the future may hold for the debate
Leaked reports that Pistorius' Carbon fibre prosthetic limbs provide a "considerable advantage"

The IAAF tests on Paralympic athlete Oscar Pistorius have now been handed to IAAF President Lamine Diack, and the early reports are that the tests have indeed confirmed that the carbon fibre prosthetic limbs, knowns as "Cheetahs", do in fact provide Pistorius with "considerable advantage" over other runners.

Unfortunately and frustratingly for us, the IAAF have issued a press release which states that "the IAAF does not plan to discuss the contents of the report, or make any public announcement about any decision related to the report, until 10 January 2008". Because of this, we don't have access to the specific results and so we cannot, unfortunately, bring you any more detailed insights or interpretation of the specific test results. But the lead researcher, biomechanics expert Prof Gert-Pieter Bruggemann was quoted in a German newspaper as saying that the advantage is considerable - several percentage points in size. Apparently Prof Bruggemann was himself surprised at the size of the difference.

To be quite honest, I'm also surprised at the apparently definitive result, but not because I don't think there is no advantage (I'm on record as suggesting about 5 seconds advantage, and only next year will the actual facts emerge), but rather because of my slight scepticism about the tests the IAAF eventually put him through. I think that the IAAF took on a brave, but essentially impossible question to answer by trying to find the mechanisms and underlying physiology for the potential advantage.

However, returning to the tests, the focus was clearly on the oxygen consumption and lactate accumulation during running. There was a very sound physiological basis for investigating oxygen consumption, but lactate was not quite as clear cut. There were also many potential pitfalls and possible problems with the measurement of these variables during a short duration sprint and sub-maximal exercise bout, so I'm not 100% convinced the issue is resolved - in my opinion, it has been for a while, but whether this result will end it, I'm not sure.

But because the test results are not available yet, it would pure speculation as to what they found. I suspect that his oxygen consumption must have been radically lower than other athletes', but I would suspect even more strongly that the biomechanical assessment of the limbs (apart from the physiological data measured when he ran) were the clinchers in this argument.

The theoretical basis for an advantage

Now, it may seem radical to some of you that the prosthetic limbs actually provide an advantage. This is a case that has been absolutely gripping as far as sports science goes, and earlier this year, when we did a series on Pistorius and the possibility that he had an advantage, we tried to explain just what the basis of that advantage would be, and it produced some excellent debate and discussion (mostly, anyway!)

I think that in our 8 months of existence here at The Science of Sport, the longest post we ever did was one I wrote looking at all the available evidence and theories for Pistorius having an advantage. This was an epic post to write (and probably even more challenging to read!) so rather than rehash all the same old points, and put you through that test of endurance, I refer you onto the following post if you are interested in some of the relevant arguments:
The main point we were making in this post was that because the carbon fibre limbs are providing elastic energy return without any possibility for fatigue, Pistorius would have a substantial advantage that would be seen most in the second half of his races. The human tendon is also able to provide energy return, but it comes at a cost - this "cost", while difficult to quantify, results in what we recognize as fatigue, with the athlete slowing down progressively as the race develops.

The Cheetahs, however, provide "free energy" the whole way around. In addition, the far lighter limbs (carbon fibre vs. bone, muscle, fat and blood = major weight difference) would also provide an advantage. There was a bit more to it than just this, but it's covered in the above post for interested visitors. But basically, the hypothesis created based on this theory is that when everyone else was slowing down (despite the fact that they're sprinting maximally), he would be speeding up.

With this hypothesis in mind, we waited for his first European race in Rome, and analysed his pacing strategy during that race. Sure enough, Oscar Pistorius ran a 400m race that no athlete has ever done - even the great Michael Johnsons and Jeremy Wariners were running a race completely different to Pistorius. We covered this analysis in the following post:
Now this finding alone could well have been enough to conclude that the advantage existed. In trying to find the mechanisms, the IAAF were really taking a chance, because mechanistic physiological studies are really very difficult to do. This one was particularly challenging, partly because of the fact that he is a sprinter (it's far more tricky to interpret VO2 data in sprinting than long distance running), but also because of the emotional aspect of the issue.

An impossible question to answer

In fact, this is one of the most challenging scientific questions that I can think of, and if we had an award for "Stimulating science question of the year", this would be it. The main issue is that the study is impossible to do "properly". In other words, you cannot have a Control group, because you can't have other athletes run on carbon fibre blades, and you cannot measure Pistorius running on normal limbs! So to actually ask the question "Do the blades give Pistorius an advantage over other runners RIGHT NOW?" is an impossible one to answer with 100% certainty.

And this is where many of the problems developed, because people, understandably, want this question answered. One has to realise that no one can answer this question, though.

Instead, the real issue was never whether this particular model of limb on this particular athlete provide an advantage. The real question that should have been asked is "Is Pistorius different from able-bodied athletes in a PREDICTABLE, measurable manner?" Because IF you can find difference, and IF you had predicted those differences based on the theory and physiology explaining them, then you would know that something was at play with the prosthetic limbs. And the extension of this difference, is that regardless of whether he's better now, technological developments in the future would further improve the limb and eventually, this measured difference will become significant enough to see the athlete win. Now, the pacing data from Pistorius' race in Rome was highly suggestive of this difference, and it was definitely a favourable difference.

The crucial point made in the earlier series was that if Pistorius went away and spent 2008 training and working with the engineers who make these blades, would he come back in 2009 running 2 seconds faster? If so, was it his hard training, or was it the technology? Ultimately, you'd never know, and for that reason, preventing the use of the carbon fibre blades was the correct way to go.

The IAAF - substantial investment and accommodation

The IAAF have been exceedingly gracious and accommodating in this case. They have bent over backwards, forwards, sideways, and done handstands in order to accommodate Pistorius on this issue, even paying for the tests to be done (a figure that would be in the high five figures, for the advanced type of testing that was done). Not that it is wasted funding, because the question was so fascinating and relevant, but because I don't believe it was ever the responsibility of the governing body of the sport to prove the presence of an advantage, especially given that they have rules in place to regulate the equipment used by athletes.

Instead, I really do believe that it should have been up to the Pistorius team to prove that they did not have an advantage. That is, they were the ones requesting permission in a special case, so would have been well-advised to prove that the limbs were not advantageous themselves. Of course, the IAAF probably would have done their own testing, but had Pistorius and his team approached the IAAF with some data, their position would have been enormously strengthened.

One of the most telling indictments on the situation is that in 2005, I was called up by members of the Pistorius team who were looking for an "endorsement" that the limbs did not provide an advantage. I would not give that endorsement in the absence of test results and proof, and neither could Prof Tim Noakes, who I know was contacted as well. Both Tim Noakes and I advised them to get the scientific testing done before they even contemplated the bid to compete in Beijing. We both invited them to come down to meet with us in Cape Town and discuss the way forward, because it was quite clear that the science was the key and had to be negotiated eventually. Yet two years passed and nothing was done.

Now, the million dollar question - if it meant that much to you, and you were desperate to compete, and you KNEW that the scientific evidence was going to make or break your attempt, why would you not have had the testing done? So why not be proactive and make it even more difficult for the IAAF to prevent you from competing later on?

Instead, Pistorius and his team went on what the media called "PR and support generating tours" of the USA, drumming up support and funding for his effort - everything but the science. I was involved in a TV debate on the issue - the problem was that we never debated anything, because any science that was put forward was simply brushed aside and we were reminded that he is inspirational and a role-model. I agree on both points, but it definitely highlighted an aversion to proof, perhaps because that proof would should what that IAAF now have?

The focus on the support and PR was understandable though, I suspect most would do it, but it does highlight the difference in incentives between the groups. And ultimately, it was left to the IAAF to carry the can, and despite some debatable science tests, they carried the situation as well as I think anyone would ever expect.

What next for Pistorius?

As for Pistorius, there was a time earlier this year when the issue was topical and in the media every day, that he actually threatened at one point that if they banned him from running in the Olympics, he would quit the sport altogether and not even run at the Paralympics. This was an unfortunate comment, because he was effectively holding himself to ransom. Also, it didn't demonstrate much respect for the Paralympic movement, and for the enormous role he could play as a role-model for people everywhere. Make no mistake, Pistorius is an inspirational character - it's not for nothing that Tom Hanks has visions of a movie of his life! So I really do hope that he is able, assuming he accepts this decision, to move on and continue to inspire people with his determination and courage. The emotional issue should always be seen as distinct from the scientific one.

But for now, I feel the IAAF have made the right call - it's taken a long time, and it may not even be finished yet! But based on the theory and the limited results so far, it's a decision that is in the sport's best interests.

We'll do our best to bring you detailed reports and scientific interpretation as they come, if they come!


Monday, December 17, 2007

The Mitchell Report at a glance

Fishing for guppies and landing a whopper

Former Senate majority leader George Mitchell's report on drug use in baseball was released on Friday afternoon, and sent the pundits and talking heads venting over the airwaves this past weekend. It is a behemoth of a report at 409 pages, and for all of those with some spare time this holiday season, you can download it here, while those with admittedly less time can view the executive summary here.

In the beginning many thought this was a fishing expedition of epic proportions, and was destined to return empty handed, or with only a few small time offenders. However in the end they landed a legend of baseball, the seven-time Cy Young winner Roger Clemens. Many other names were included in the report, and a history of drug use in baseball over the past 15 years is an important addition.

Also, on Sunday night Alex Rodriguez appeared in an interview on 60 Minutes, denying any drug use and also stating that he never once saw any illicit activity, although mentioning that there was always talk about it here and there.

Besides the players who were named in the report, the biggest loser is probably the Players Association. Mitchell states plainly that the association was "uncooperative" in many ways:
  1. Rejecting requests for relevant documents
  2. Granting only one interview with the executive director Donald Fehr
  3. Rejecting an interview request with the chief operating officer Gene Orza
  4. Denying a request to interview the director of a Montreal laboratory that analyzes samples
  5. Actively discouraged players from cooperating with Mitchell's investigation
This is a real pity for the players as cooperation with Mitchell could only have benefited them in the long term, and therefore the lack of cooperation by the Players Association to us represents an extremely short-sighted view intended to try to protect themselves from harm. A more mature decision would have been full and transparent cooperation that would help legitimize the players and strengthen their credibility.

"The problem is serious"

Ok, so tell us something we do not know! As obvious as Mitchell's statement sounds, it is an important step in this process. Yes, the pundits and bloggers would all agree, and have all been saying for a long time, that indeed the problem is serious. However we lacked the hard evidence and inside information to back this up. Mitchell's report now goes on the official record and we hope this leads to future steps in the right direction for baseball (and perhaps other sports). Namely, admission by the players and teams that indeed there is a problem is what must occur before the sport takes a serious turn towards cleaning up.

Cycling and baseball both miss the boat in the 1990's

Mitchell identifies the turning point as sometime after the 1988 Summer Olympics when Ben Johnson tested positive. In fact there were many news reports during the 1990's about steroid use in baseball, and as early as 1988 many fans were already jeering Jose Canseco about his alleged steroid (ab)use. So the interesting thing is that as players' power increased and rumours began to make the rounds, baseball found itself in a similar position to pro cycling.

In the peloton during the 1990's the same thing was happening---average speeds were increasing, rumours were lurking, and the media suspected something was up. Admittedly, hindsight is 20/20, yet it is interesting that neither sport moved on these signs and "symptoms." Cycling introduced the 50% Hematocrit rule, which was pretty weak and easily manipulated, and baseball just ignored the problem for as long as it could.

And now the two sports find themselves in equally sticky situations. Wide scale and official reports (Mitchell's report in baseball, and The Operacion Puerto report in cycling) have torn open each sport and exposed its biggest stars.

And now. . .?

The fallout from the Mitchell report is still heavy and sinking in as more and more people read it and analyze its contents. At 409 pages, the full report is a handful, but the executive summary is an excellent place to start and anyone interested should definitely read it (it is only 40 pages). In the weeks and days to come still more bloggers and writers will weigh in on what all of this means, but one thing for certain is that Commissioner Bud Selig and MLB now go in to bat. This is their call to action, and we can only hope they choose to be courageous and think about the long term health of the sport.

As we said, at 409 pages this one is a handful, but join us this week as we try to pick it apart and look at the greater implications not just for baseball, but what something like this means for all of sports. Also, don't forget about the impending IAAF report on Oscar Pistorius, which we wil analyze in full and is due out any day now. Finally, we will run a short series on exercise in the cold, as the northern hemisphere winter is in full swing.

Stay with us for a busy couple of busy weeks ahead!

Friday, December 14, 2007

Running Economy Part III

Training techniques to improve economy (or should that be performance?)

Today sees the third and concluding part of our series on Running Economy. It's been a whistle stop tour of a complex subject. We have no doubt that we'll be returning to the topic in time, because it has major implications for how we understand fatigue and performance, but for now, we stuck to the boundaries - there is a lot to be written in the coming week! But hopefully today we'll provide some 'meat' that might help explain economy a little more, as well as provide some practical insights into how it can be improved.

On that note, there's a very valid question about whether you should worry about training specifically to improve your running economy, or whether good, common sense training just happens to improve economy as you do it.

I was out on a training run just yesterday, and have a 10 km loop that I do once in a while. Compared to about a month ago, when I just started running again after a layoff due to illness/injury, I covered the 10km a minute or so faster, running at the same effort level as before. And it occurred to me as I was jogging along that if I were to put on my scientist's hat (or lab coat, if you wish), I would probably find about four or five reasons to explain how I can run faster with the same level of effort - running economy would be one of them, for sure.

So in other words, scientists are sometimes very good at looking at the runner (or sportsman) after the fact and working out that X, Y and Z have changed, and that must explain the faster running, when all along, it's the simple fact that you've been running that explains it! Had I consciously spent the last month trying to improve my economy to help me get faster, chances are I'd only improve by the same amount anyway, or maybe even less!

The point is, sometimes the simplest solution is the best one, and that is the case with running economy. Over-complicating things by trying to target what we've emphasized is only one of many factors contributing to performance is likely to be a bit of a self-defeating task - rather just train, and let it happen!

The best way to improve running economy - just run!

Don't worry, that's not all we have to offer as practical advice for today! But it's the most obvious and truest statement we could make! When it comes to training, practice makes perfect. A great illustration was provided a few months ago when we were discussing Pose Running Technique, and we came across a study that looked at the oxygen cost of running in a group of athletes who had been taught Pose for 12 weeks.

What one would predict is that when learning a new running technique, the oxygen cost would go UP, because you'd be less economical as a result of doing a task that is relatively unfamiliar. And sure enough, that's what they found - running economy was worse when running Pose. A number of people wrote in and said this was expected, and that given more time (than the 12 weeks of training in the study), the Pose Runners would improve their economy. Maybe that's true (the debate about Pose was covered back then, you can link to the posts and read it), but the point is, within 12 weeks, economy was still worse.

Turning that around, it implies that regular running will improve economy. We don't often think of running as a task that requires co-ordination, timing, balance and motor control, but it most certainly is. If you ever want to see that in action, then you need to watch an elite runner training. They move differently from you and me (OK, from me - you may be one of them!). I remember standing track side as SA's Olympic Silver Medallist Mbulaeni Mulaudzi did some 300m repeats once, and being struck by the fact that he just moved differently - the flick of the heel during the swing, the arm carriage, knee drive etc. are all subtly different and I have little doubt that this neuromuscular control, while not exclusively responsible for performance, plays a big part, especially in distance runners. There are some other factors, which we'll touch on in a moment, that also contribute to this, though.

Endurance running - what do the studies show?

A couple of problems exist with the scientific literature on running economy. First, there are surprisingly few studies - remember, running economy was called the "forgotten" variable by one author (Carl Foster). Secondly, the initial level of fitness and ability of the runner plays a huge role, as I'm sure you can appreciate - a good runner needs very different training compared to a novice. So it's a little tricky to tease out the valuable information.

In general,however, research studies support that running economy improves with higher volume, slower running. So longer and slower distance training is more effective as a means to improve economy. The reasons for this include the increase in mitochondria, which means more effective use of oxygen by muscle. Also, it's been found that the longer and slower running eventually leads to a 'learned' neuromuscular response where the vertical oscillation of the runner is reduced. In otherwords, less time going up and down, more energy saved, and this is simply a function of repetition!

Now here's where things get tricky! Many of you are probably thinking "what about speed work?" Surely that will see massive improvements in running economy? There's always confusion about whether faster runners are more or less economical. And here, the general rule is that it follows what one might call The Law of Specificity, which basically says that you'll be good at what you train for! In otherwords, if you are a middle distance runner (800/1500m), then you'll be more economical at higher speeds than a marathon runner at those higher speeds. The interesting thing is that it's been found that this same middle distance runner then becomes less economical at the slower speeds than the marathon runner. So again, economy is good where you train it, which to me really re-inforces the value of training specifically, and how important co-ordination and motor control are!

So the take home message - if you're talking novice runners, with little running behind them, then any running will make a difference (as it did for me in the last month, I'm sure!). This is the point I made earlier - economy improves with fitness, and so any running is beneficial. But if it's performance you're after, and the very small improvements that make a big difference to performance (not just economy), then other forms of training become more critical. This also illustrates the complexity of training, and this is where we get into plyometrics and strength training.

Strength and plyometrics

Let's deal with strength training first. There is evidence that strength training improves running economy, probably because it improves the function of the neuromuscular system. In order to understand this, we first have to run through an admittedly basic introduction to an important concept known as the Stretch Shortening Cycle.

Basically, when you are running, a great deal of muscle activity occurs in the milliseconds BEFORE your foot lands on the ground. Why? Well, the muscle is 'pre-activating' in order to increase stiffness of the leg and joints ahead of landing. The stiffer muscle not only absorbs more shock, but it also helps the muscle-tendon unit to store more energy.

Think of the muscle-tendon as a spring. When you land, the muscle lengthens, in what is called an eccentric muscle contraction. As soon as you then push off, for what is called the concentric part of the running stride, you can 'harness' the energy that was stored when you landed. The concentric contraction is more powerful and more efficient, if it follows the eccentric contraction. It therefore uses less oxygen and energy to do the same job, or can do a better job. This is why if you want to jump up as high as possible (for example, to slam dunk a basketball), you bend down and then 'bounce' back up - you are taking advantage of what is known as the "Stretch-shortening cycle" to improve the performance of your jump.

The same goes for running, where this Stretch shortening cycle is critical to performance. The result of all this pre-activation and concentric-eccentric contraction is that the CONTACT TIME is reduced, and performance is improved. Fatigue during the course of a 5km time-trial has been shown to impair the ability of the muscle to "pre-activate", and the result is that your contact time with the ground goes up. Imagine a ball bouncing off a wall - if it gets softer and softer, it bounces off much more slowly, whereas a very stiff ball returns quickly (golf ball vs squash ball, for example).

How does this relate to running economy and strength?

Well, apart from the obvious theory which is that the muscle is stronger, the theory and evidence is that strength training improves running economy specifically because the contact time and reflexes that control the neuromuscular system are improved.

In particular, there is a type of training, known as PLYOMETRIC training that has been theorized to be very effective as a means for improvement of performance and running economy.

Plyometric training

Plyometric training is an explosive form of strength training, which uses drills like hopping, bounding, jumping, skipping and sprinting. During plyometrics, you are exaggerating the stretch shortening cycle, causing major eccentric and concentric training, and this helps to improve the efficiency of the whole system. The result is that the athlete is better able to store and use energy, and therefore the muscle can produce the same force (and hence running speed) with less energy demand, so VO2 goes down. Also, there is evidence that plyometrics increases the stiffness of joints, and stiffer joints are better able to store and release the energy, again saving the cost of running without sacrificing speed.

There is a very intriguing theory that African runners have a more developed, better functioning stretch shortening cycle that Europeans. Also, a Finnish scientist (Paavoleinen) found that plyometric training improved 5km time-trial performance by 3% (this was in quite good and highly-trained runners, so 3% is no laughing matter), which was associated with reduced contact times and running economy (8% lower).

Having said all this, beware of overdoing plyometrics as the "Secret weapon" for your training! The risk of injury is high, and so this should neither be tried out by novice runners, or done too often. It's a very effective method of training if done properly though. I certainly don't coach athletes without also using this kind of training, though it takes different forms, depending on the athlete - sometimes hill running is sufficient, whereas other times, you can get creative and come up with all sorts of drills, using hurdles, ropes, and your imagination! But again, not something that should be overdone...

Flexibility - you CAN be too flexible

The final component of training we look at is flexibility. There was a time when athletes were being drilled to do as much stretching as possible - failing to do so, we were told, would predispose you to injury. Well, injuries aside, there is evidence the being TOO flexible also negatively affects running economy, and thus possibly performance.

There is confusion about it though (as usual, I guess!). One study, for example, found that improving flexibility of the hip flexors and extensors(to lift the knee) resulted in better running economy. The argument here was that if you are flexible enough, and provided you have balance between left and right, front and back, then you need to do less work to balance and stabilize the body during running.

But then other research has found that being less flexible is better. In fact, more studies show that less flexible runners are more economical than the other way around. For example, from novice runners all the way to elite runners, it's been found that as the flexibility in the trunk (hips, and core muscles) and the legs improves, running economy is lower. Therefore, if you want to be economical, you'd err on the side of being inflexible!

The theory behind this option is far more believable to me. We've discussed how the stiffness and ability of the muscle to store and then release energy helps with running and reduces oxygen cost above. Now, the same goes for flexibility. If you are very flexible in the legs (especially the calf and ankle), then you need to do far more to stablize and store energy, and so it pays to be stiffer, less flexible.

As far as the core muscles and trunk go, the less flexible you are, the more stable the pelvis is, and the less muscle work is required to limit the motion as you run - you're a more 'compact unit' so to speak. To sum it up then - less flexibility means less work required for stability and also more elastic energy return from stiffer muscles and joints. I therefore tend to believe the theory that being less flexible is better for running.

Having said that, it doesn't mean that flexbility is not important. I hope it's quite clear that it's all about BALANCE. In other words, right vs. left, front vs. back balance (in both strength and flexibility) is what determines stability and thus possibly economy. The take home message is therefore to avoid random, indiscriminate stretching, because for all you know, you're messing up your natural balance, increasing injury risk and becoming less economical. But also, don't avoid stretching altogether, because then you might go the other way and get too tight in one important area! Everything in moderation!


So that's it for Part III, and the series. It's been a very interesting one, confirming the words of Carl Foster that running economy is a forgotten aspect of performance! It certainly seems that we have much to learn. The future of running research may be along the lines of the Tadese study that kicked off this series, and perhaps in a year or two, we'll understand much more what causes such remarkable running economy.

My personal feeling is that biomechanics, small calves and long legs aside, there is something critical that we can't quite measure. I am a big believer in the neuromuscular factors affecting performance. I believe that running economy is in fact a symptom of some underlying neuromuscular process or system that confers an advantage of certain runners. When you train, your neuromuscular system improves, you become more co-ordinated and your running economy improves, along with performance. But quite what this neuromuscular adaptation is (apart from the ones we've discussed) is not clear just yet. I feel it will go a long way to explaining the East African dominance in running and will also explain fatigue more comprehensively than any other theory.

So it's quite clear that we're not done with Running Economy! It will be back! We hope that this particular series has been interesting - we certainly haven't had the same debate, but it's a far less controversial topic than the muscle cramps and fluid ones!

Join us over the next few days as we scratch the surface of Baseball's Mitchell report and the report on Pistorius (which we hope is out soon)!


Thursday, December 13, 2007

Oscar Pistorius research

Results on Oscar Pistorius due - but will they provide answers?

As we mentioned above, it's a big couple of days for long-awaited reports. First, there is the Mitchell report, which was mentioned in our other post today, and which we'll analyse over the coming days. Then second, there's a report from the IAAF on whether Oscar Pistorius should be allowed to compete against able bodied athletes.

This has been one of the more controversial topics of discussion in the sports sciences this year, and we had some excellent discussion on it earlier this year when we wrote about the results of their first analysis on Pistorius, and then later when we analyzed all of the available evidence in this case. (You can find all the posts looking him up as a key word in the right hand column of the page). We had some scathing comments and lively discussion, although we haven't yet cut off our own legs to prove the argument, as someone suggested.

Our position is unequivocally that the carbon-fibre blades confer a large advantage. We acknowledge the disadvatanges he has, and recognize his character and determination (but these are separate issues), but we tried to lay out a number of arguments in the lead up to Pistorius' first race against able-bodied athletes in Europe earlier this year. Our prediction, made on the basis of the physiological arguments we had discussed, was that Pistorius would not show the normal decline in running speed as the race progressed. In contrast, if the opposing view was true (that Pistorius has no advantage), then he would show the normal slowing down during the 400 m race, or an even greater slowing down than most runners, because of the supposed loss of energy caused by the prosthetic limbs.

Sure enough, when he ran in Rome, he got faster and faster as the race went on, never showing the progressive reduction in speed that occurs in ALL elite 400 m races. These results that have never been seen before in an elite 400m race, not even from the greatest 400m runners ever - Johnson and Wariner included. So based on that, I felt that the IAAF had sufficient evidence to prevent his taking part. But in their wisdom, they decided they should do more and so came up with I will politely describe as an absolutely bizarre battery of tests. We will discuss these tests in detail once the report is released (assuming the tests are made available and we don't have to rely on the journalists and press releases), but they included:

  1. Running 400m on an outdoor track with maximum effort and VO2 test with K4 mask. Blood lactate was then measured – four times in first 10 minutes, after 30 minutes, 1 hour and four hours.
  2. Body scanning to take anthropometric data
  3. Running sub-max speed in the indoor lab. Data recorded by 12 cameras, 4 force plates and 4 high-speed cameras. Oscar ran 5 repetitions of about 80 metres.
  4. WINGATE test on static bicycle to measure lactate
  5. Max VO2 test also done on static bike
  6. Mechanical testing was also made of both foot modules – swing frequency, pendulum frequency with foot module hanging and attached at the upper connection point

Will the tests show anything?

There are some good tests here, but I'm equally tempted to invite everyone to watch as the IAAF paint themselves into a corner. Because quite frankly, these tests have some potentially serious flaws - the measurement of oxygen consumption during a supra-maximal bout lasting only 45 seconds is one such problem. The interpretation of the data gathered poses a real problem, whichever way it is concluded.

For example, let's say that the testing finds that Pistorius has a lower VO2 during his 400m time-trial, and that his lactate levels are lower. What do they do with that information? Do they ban him because of the lower VO2, which shows less oxygen demand and possible advantage? Or do they let him run because his VO2 is lower, which some might suggest indicates that doesn't have the same ability to use oxygen as a result of having less muscle mass? Is it a disadvantage or an advantage? Depends on your point of view!

Look also at lactate - first of all, they will measure venous lactate, which means the interpretation is limited to begin with. But what do they do if Pistorius has lower lactate levels that the other runners? Do they let him run because there's no evidence lactate is even important (a fundamental, basic assumption that the IAAF scientists have somehow gotten wrong), or do they ban him because he doesn't produce as much lactate and must therefore have an advantage (a flawed argument yet again)?

My point is, no matter what the results, there will be a "valid" scientific argument from both sides, and these tests will conclude little (apart from test 6). The measurement of VO2 is near impossible to interpret for such a short, high intensity running bout. The only tests that might contribute to the definite outcome are the mechanical tests (number 6 in the list). The rest are, to be a little more blunt, a fishing expedition, and may prove useless.

Bottom line - the IAAF had the result they needed - a never seen before 400 m race where he sped up when everyone else was slowing down. He defied physiological possibility, and it was clear that he was unique, and it could have, should have been the end of it.

But, let's see what the testing shows. Whatever happens, it should make for some interesting discussion!

But first, the Mitchell report!

Mitchell Report due today

Former Senator's report promises to be a 'huge story'

Eighteen months ago, former US Senator George Mitchell launched a probe into steroid use in baseball. The probe is the result of an unprecedented shake-up in Major League Baseball that started as far back as 1998, when reporters noticed a tub of androstenedione in aspiring home run champ Mark McGwire's locker. McGwire went on to hit 70 homers that season, smashing the former record of 61. According to San Francisco Chronicle reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams in their book Game of Shadows, this helped spur Barry Bonds to begin using steroids in pursuit of McGwire's new record (and fame).

For the next few years things were relatively quiet in baseball, until all hell broke loose in September 2003 when Victor Conte's BALCO offices were raided. We all know the resulting shockwaves that went through sports, and we still feel it---in October Marion Jones finally confessed to using drugs, and just this week she was finally stripped of her Sydney 2000 medals.

In March 2005 congress invited a number of players, former players, and baseball executives to a hearing to discuss drug use in their sport. Most parties decline, however, leading congress to issue subpoenas, which were fought hard by MLB. Former players like McGwire and Jose Canseco were dragged in front of congress for eleven hours, although most refused to provide any meaningful information. Said McGwire, "My lawyers have advised me that I cannot answer these questions without jeopardizing my friends, my family or myself. I intend to follow their advice." That was unfortunate as McGwire (and others) had a golden opportunity to come clean. He had already retired, and all that was on the line was his records, which were illegitimate anyway.

Fast forward another year to March 2006, when the former Senator Mitchell agrees to lead an investigation into alleged steroid use by players working with Conte's BALCO. However baseball commissioner Bud Selig makes it known that Mitchell has the authority to expand the investigation as he sees fit.

But don't we know they are all juicing anyway?

And now, 1.5 years later, the Mitchell's findings and report will be released. . .but will it just tell us what we already know? We have a feeling that most of The Science of Sport's readers will agree that MLB has an endemic drug problem. Since 2003 and the BALCO bust numerous names have been named, and even since MLB's (weak) testing policy was instituted in 2003 a few players have had multiple violations. But Mitchell's report should go deeper than and perhaps outline for us the depth of the use. To date no big names have tested positive, and sources today promise that Mitchell's work will expose just how high up the drug use goes. Stay tuned for our analysis of the findings as we will be glued to the media outlets and waiting for the release.

Preview of other forthcoming attractions

Apart from the Mitchell Report, there are a few other big "events" on the horizon. First, speaking of release dates, Part III of our series on Running Economy will be "released" tomorrow here at The Science of Sport. We plan to cover training effects on running economy with some practical applications. We are sure all the media outlets will pick it up. . .!

And then also due out tomorrow is the IAAF's report on Oscar Pistorius, which we will analyze in great depth. But there is a preview of the tests that were done and our initial impressions of them above. Those who've been with us since June will have read the controversy regarding Oscar Pistorius, which culminated in a series of tests to determine whether his carbon fibre blades do give him an advantage. Given the tests that they performed, which basically amounted to science's equivalent of a fishing expedition, it might make for interesting dicussion! We'll be sure to bring you as much insight as possible!

In the mean time, check out this complete time line of drug use in baseball since 1998 to refresh your memory and fill in some blanks.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Interesting news from the marathon

The sub 2-hour marathon, London 2008, and Paula gets hot

We're bang in the middle of our series on Running Economy, but thought that for today, we'd take a break from that series and turn our attention to a few interesting news stories that are coming out of the world of marathon running.

The Sub-2 hour marathon: Debate re-opened

The first is a discussion about whether a sub-2:00 marathon will ever be run? This is a topic that hit headlines in September this year, when Haile Gebrselassie broke Paul Tergat's world record in the marathon. The margin? 29 seconds, taking the time down from 2:04:55 (run by Tergat four years before) to 2:04:26. We covered the race, and Geb's splits and pacing in a couple of articles at the time.

As tends to happen whenever a barrier is broken, everyone started talking about the prospects of the sub 2-hour marathon. Even Gebrselassie made his predictions, though he was a little more circumspect, suggesting instead that he would run 2:03 some day. But a lot of people were looking even further into the distance, at the 2-hour barrier. And a recent report from the Herald paper quotes Dave Bedford, London Marathon organizer, as predicting that the 2:02 will be run by 2015, and a sub-2 hour time will come in 20 years!

The problem is that even a basic analysis of the world record in the last twenty to thirty years suggests that this talk is likely a touch premature! For example, in the last 22 years, the marathon record has come down by just under 3 minutes, from 2:07:12 in 1985 (Carlos Lopes) to the current 2:04:26. So for Bedford to be correct, we need the next 22 years to yield 50% more than this - 4:30! But even more than this, since Ronaldo da Costa broke Dinsamo's 10-year old record in 1998, we've moved into an era where the record is coming down by seconds, not minutes, making this highly unlikely!

In otherwords, it's difficult to see how anyone is going to knock more than 30 seconds off this time. When Gebrselassie ran his 2:04:26, we all marvelled at how massively he 'shattered' the record, people calling it a once in a lifetime run! And that was for just 29 seconds - in other words, we "only" need another nine performances just like that, and we'll have our sub-2 hour marathon! Now, how often do we expect a runner to line up and smash 30 seconds off a world record? And then of course, the ceiling effect comes into play as well, and says that once we get to the 2:02 range, it will become even more difficult.

I hear some of you saying "What about a Paula-esque performance? She took it down by 2 minutes!". And of course, this may yet happen. But just looking at Gebrselassie's pacing from this world record, you'll see that he is incredibly consistent. That suggests to me that he's right on the limit, because if he had any reserve, you'd see that through fluctuations in pace especially at the end (this is one possible interpretation, I acknowledge that). But given the fact that he took 29 seconds off the time running this kind of race, it's difficult to see how he's going to get 3 seconds/kilometer to get the time down to 2:02. As it was, he was already right on the limit.

So my feeling is that the 2:02 will eventually come, but it won't be by 2015, and a sub-2 hour time will certainly not happen with anyone from the current crop.

As for who is likely to break the world record next, my money would be on Zersenay Tadese, ahead of Bekele. A lot of people are getting hyped up over Bekele and his chances of running 2:02, but I suspect Tadese will be the dominant marathon runner from the current generation of track stars. Time will tell...

The London 2008 Marathon and some implications for the Olympics

Speaking of Dave Bedford and the London Marathon, his marathon predictions might be a little debatable, but one certainly would not want to argue the quality of the field he puts together for the London Marathon!

You can read some of the names here, but the big one is Martin Lel, defending champion and New York champ. Regular readers will know that I'm a huge fan of Lel's, I think he's the complete package, so it was with mixed feelings that I read that he's signed up for London, and that he's currently leading the lucrative World Marathon Majors series.

Why mixed feelings? Because his presence in London, combined with what must be a growing incentive to win a share of the $1 million prize purse means he is thus less likely to compete in Beijing in peak shape, if at all. No word on that yet, but I had really hoped for a race between him and Gebrselassie for the Olympic title - the best Racer in the world against the fastest marathon runner in history, would have been a great clash!

As for Gebrselassie, he is not on London's books yet, but there was talk that he might yet be signed. I seriously doubt it, because he's already running the Dubai Marathon in mid-January. If he then runs London in April, and is aiming for the Marathon in Beijing, that equals one tough year. I know I'd be advising against it, but stranger things have happened...I certainly would lengthen the odds on Gebrselassie if he runs in all three those races.

But it's a bumper field for London, Olympic and World Champions, racers, fast men, strong men, the works. And so the Marathon year will certainly get off to a great start, first with Geb in Dubai and then this field. Let's hope it is as good as the year that has just gone (we'll do a look back at the science and physiology of the year's marathons next week in our "Year in Review" series).

Paula gets hot - in South Africa

Finally, it was with interest that I read this article on Paula Radcliffe and the UK athletics team coming out to my home country, South Africa, for a training camp in January next year. The purpose of the camp is to help the athletes prepare for the Beijing heat and to help them figure out what to drink in Beijing. There are a couple of reasons why this is interesting.

One, it shows that the UK are serious about preparing for the heat, because the plan is to bring out three physiologists to help the athletes figure out their best hydration strategies. They are talking about measuring the salt and sugar content of the sweat in order to help the athletes figure out the optimal hydration strategies.

Regular readers of The Science of Sport will know that we think the best hydration strategy is to drink when you're thirsty! You can read our rationale for this in our series on fluid intake (link on the right of the page) and our series on Muscle Cramps. And it's a lot cheaper than flying athletes out for a training camp! But dodgy science practices aside, I think that this type of camp has as much a psychological benefit as it does physiological. In my experience, athletes benefit when they believe that they have done everything possible to prepare for their event, regardless of whether what they are doing actually works! And so the camp idea will certainly help, because from the article, the athletes are buying in.

One thing it will not do is help the athletes prepare for the heat - it's too far out, and they are only coming in for 10 days. So having achieved some degree of adaptation to the heat, they'll then fly back to cold and wet England and undo it all by mid-February. So the purpose is a planning, rather than a physiological one.

From a scientific point of view, there some pretty large potential potholes. For one thing, each athlete is coming out to South African for only 10 days. We know that with the body's adaptation to the heat, the sodium content of the sweat changes quite dramatically (sweat becomes more dilute). This adaptation takes about 6 days to be achieved, so let's hope the UK physiologists are at least aware of this, and don't make their "proven" recommendations based on the sweat content in the first few days! The values they get in the last few days will be very different from those in the first few! And so if they do this, the UK athletes will just about be drinking sea-water in Beijing!

Secondly, the venue they have chosen (Potchefstroom - a town close to where I grew up), is hardly comparable to Beijing. It has a typical temperature of 25 degrees, and humidity is next to nothing - think dry, and relatively mild heat. Compare Beijing, which will be like a greenhouse meets a steam bath! So I'm not convinced that they are replicating conditions as well as they might. There are two follow-up camps planned, however, and so they probably have this covered.

The other big issue, of course, is that state of training is a critical determinant of both sweat rate and sodium loss in sweat. And so therefore, one would expect the requirements in August (at the Olympics) to be very different from what they are in January, even without the additional factor of the heat! So I see great complications coming!

Again, it just re-inforces the point that because the body is so well designed, so balanced and "intelligent", it can change the amount of salt lost in the sweat depending on heat adaptation and training. So why introduce a third person (or even a second person physiologist), who simply cannot hope to understand the integration of the physiology during exercise as well as the human body can? It is a case of losing sight of the wood for the trees, and over-complicating matters.

From a practical perspective, what constitutes a successful drinking pattern? Is it the fluid intake routine that keeps the body weight the same? Is it keeping the body's salt content the same? Are you trying to keep the core temperature down? Fluid intake doesn't help this to begin with, and we know that most athletes lose weight during the course of the marathon. One thing that I will predict is that if Paula Radcliffe tries to drink so much that she doesn't lose any weight during the race, she'll never win the Olympic Gold medal - she'll be too busy worrying about stomach cramps and nausea to race properly!

Bottom line - drink to thirst. Of course, the idea to practice drinking before Beijing is a good one, and I think it would be a good exercise to allow athletes to exercise with a range of options - high sodium, low sodium, high glucose, low glucose etc., and then see which they find easiest to drink. Because if it tastes too salty to the athelte, then it probably is! The wonders of the intelligent body...

Join us again tomorrow for Part III in the series on Running Economy!