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Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Beijing Women's Marathon preview

Can Paula pull off a miracle? Radcliffe prepares for the Marathon. But is it simply too hot?

Can Paula Radcliffe possibly pull off the Olympic Marathon title? The birth of a child, a toe-injury, a stress fracture, a spider bite, the memory of Athens 2004, are just some of the obstacles Radcliffe has cleared leading into Beijing's Marathon in one week from Saturday. Those "obstacles" seem insurmountable, especially when combined with the heat and humidity in Beijing, which certainly do not favour Radcliffe's size (compared to her rivals, that is).

Yet Radcliffe is there, having arrived in Macau, where the UK team is doing their Beijing preparations, this week. She arrived with a full entourage, including physio, husband and daughter, and is committed to running in Beijing. But can she win it?

I really hope so. I think that of any athlete, Radcliffe deserves Olympic success. The world record holder, London, New York and World Championship marathon winner, she is one athlete who (if ever this were true) deserves an Olympic medal (of any colour, though Gold would seem appropriate). However, as much as I'd love for it to happen, I do feel that it's highly unlikely, given what has gone on in the months leading up to this race.

Memories of Athens and a four year battle

Four years ago in Athens, she ended her race on the side of road, in tears, as her Olympic dream (and rivals) disappeared into the distance after 35km of racing. That particular DNF was blamed on a reaction she had to anti-inflammatory medication she took the week before the race to treat a leg injury. (Personally, I suspect that the heat has as much to do with it, but more on that a little later)

Since then, Radcliffe bounced back, winning New York shortly in the same year, but the last four years have been tempered by constant struggles with injury, and the birth of her child, of course, from which she made a huge come-back last year to win New York again.

Injury concerns again and an anti-gravity treadmill

And it's injury that threatens Radcliffe's 2008 Olympics. Earlier this year, she passed up the chance to run London, because of a toe injury. That was only the beginning, because it soon emerged that she had a mild stress fracture of the femur, which, as you can appreciate, is a fairly significant injury for an athlete who would likely be training more than 180 km a week in the build-up to the Beijing Marathon.

Doctors reportedly told her that it would be impossible to put in the required training to run a competitive marathon in Beijing. She went off to her home in the Pyrenees, where she reportedly put in 9 hours a day of rehabilitation and training. Training that included aqua-classes, pool running and the use of an anti-gravity treadmill.

The anti-gravity treadmill

The anti-gravity treadmill is designed to allow the user to run without the impact loading of normal running - recently published evidence suggests that the impact forces on the legs can be reduced by 44% using the treadmill. It works, incidentally, by using positive air pressure around the lower body to support body weight during treadmill running, though I must confess that I've not used one (judging by our SA team "Beljing" kits, you might not be surprised to hear that we probably don't even have these treadmills here yet).

Of course, that's good and well, but one of the biggest limiting factors in running are those very same impact factors - the eccentric loading, where the muscles have to repeatedly decelerate the limb. That "eccentric fatigue" is likely a huge component of the overall inability of athlete's to speed up or maintain pace towards the end of races.

And so while Paula Radcliffe has likely done significant training, and developed the "aerobic" (for want of a better word) fitness capacity that is required for a marathon, whether her legs will stand up beyond 30 km of the race is another question.

Unlucky athlete or too many excuses?

Unfortunately, perhaps as a result of her being so exceptional in the 2001-2002 seasons, when she set the world alight with her brilliant solo-running performances, Radcliffe has taken a lot of criticism in the recent past. Media and followers of the sport tend to throw out words like "choker", "mental meltdown" and "collapse" to describe her Athens performance. And the latest litany of injuries have further entrenched the belief, among some, that she just has one too many excuses before the race. To add to her injury concerns, it was recently reported that she suffered a spider bite that kept her off her feet for a further four days.

It's difficult to know whether she's just really unlucky, or whether the brighter than usual spotlight on her tends to focus our attention on these small (but perhaps common) obstacles that Radcliffe faces. I tend to think it's the latter. I certainly don't agree that Athens was a "meltdown" - it was a physiological impossibility. And unfortunately, Beijing may be headed the same way...

The heat - perhaps the biggest factor of all?

We know that people who are smaller in size perform better in the heat. We discussed this earlier this year in our Fatigue Series, but to sum it up, the smaller you are, the less heat you produce, and you are better able to lose that heat relative to a larger runner. Therefore, a smaller runner will have a lower rate of heat storage running at the same speed as a larger runner. This, in turn, means that a smaller runner can run faster before reaching a very high, potentially limiting body temperature.

In fact, it is mathematically possible to work out what "limiting" speed runners could run, and also how the body size affects this speed. Of course, you can't simply do the math and know who will win - we could just as well scrap the Games and award the medals. But it's important to recognize that all things being equal (which they rarely are), the smaller athlete will win in the heat. There is much more to come on this topic, but we'll save it until the week of the marathon, when we do a specific preview. But let's just say that it's possible to work out how fast it's possible to run in the heat, and the larger runner is at a major disadvantage!

Now, Radcliffe is, by marathon standards, a relatively large runner, at least compared to the Japanese and Chinese women she'll race against. That means that whatever advantage she enjoys performance-wise (an advantage that has been narrowed, if not removed, because of her injuries) is immediately eroded in the heat. I therefore believe that like in Athens, Radcliffe faces what is almost a physiologically impossible task, and only if she were many minutes better than the other women in the race would she maintain an advantage over them. The field in Beijing is strong, however, and I just feel that despite her guts, strength and ability, this won't be her race.

But, then the Olympics throw up a surprise, an inspirational story. Perhaps Paula will be that story. I hope so...but I doubt it.



Owen Anderson said...

What a great blog today! My concern would be that regular use of the anti-gravity treadmill might hurt Paula's running economy, since it would significantly change neural control of gait. It might be a bit like training on Mars (with oxygen piped in, of course) in order to compete on earth. The good news is that the use of the device probably permits higher average training velocities, which could be a good thing. The nervous sysem would learn to do a better job of controlling higher speeds, although again this would be in the context of a rather-strange environment (with drastically reduced gravitational forces). Has there been any other published research on the G-trainer, aside from this study in the Journal of Applied Biomechanics, or is this another "training aid" produced and marketed before its benefits have been demonstrated?

Anonymous said...

Yes it does sound like many things are working against Paula to perform well in Beijing. Having run 15 marathons (and many other races of various distances) myself, I will say this though: anything can happen on race day. Paula could have a great day; while the other favorites could have a bad day. Perhaps, the weather will be unusally cool and overcast. Also, I believe the mark of a true champion is performing at his/her best while overcoming obstacles. Lastly, I would not count her out on the fact that she had not run farther than 30k in training. Recall Alberto Salazar ran 2:09 at New York in his debut, with 15 miles as his longest training distance.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Owen

Thank you for your comments!

I hear you 100% on the neural change of gait. This will be particularly true in a fatigued state, and when combined with the eccentric demand placed on muscles thanks to gravity!

I think the media have zoned in on the "impact reducing" advantage and neglected the specificity angle, which as you know, is absolutely crucial.

As for the research, none that I know of. That study by Kram is the only one I'm aware of, I wasn't able to find any others.

As I'm sure you are intimately aware, the market for these kinds of products doesn't really require that evidence be provided before the product is "pushed and sold" - a lot of people are desperate for an edge, and they pounce on this kind of thing, neglecting the potential downside!

I do know that Galen Rupp, who I think is with Salazar's group, uses it as part of his training, though. Haven't heard of any other runners though.

My suspicion (which is somewhat "bald") is that the anti-gravity device will become just another form of cross-training, but drastically more expensive and inaccessible, and therefore might fade quietly into obscurity...

But hey, if Radcliffe goes out and medals, then we should all buy shares in the company that makes it! That's marketing for you!

Thanks again, Owen, good to hear from you!


Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Anonymous

Yes, indeed. You're absolutely right, the unpredictability of the race is the reason it's run!

However, the argument could work both ways, and I guess a fan of Ndereba/Noguchi/any other rival would be saying the same thing in reverse, that a "good day", a "bad day" there and Radcliffe might disappear completely and their athlete will win!

So it's all up in the air. As for the training distance, you're absolutely right, and maybe Radcliffe will pull it off. I have always gotten the feeling that Radcliffe is a racer who enjoys having many miles in her legs, and many races under her belt. Not sure if that's an accurate perception. Salazar was similar, actually, so maybe it's a skewed memory!

Time will tell!

Mark said...

Hi Ross and Jonathan

I love your site! Just found it on Technorati after looking for blog posts about Paula Radcliffe.

I actually run a sports science site myself - Peak Performance. I'm sure you'd find it really interesting. Take a look and let me know what you think.


Julie said...

Make that:

It is a good site. :)

Anonymous said...

It's going to be very tough for her. I don't think she can do it . . . but I hope she does.

Maybe it's rain!


Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Rain will help!

We'll get our first gauge of the impact of the heat (and the pollution, though I can't see how people will be able to tell the difference) when the road race cycling event happens on Saturday.

That should lay down the benchmark, although again, cycling vs running are quite different because of the speeds and resultant cooling, and also I think many people are going to confuse pollution with heat as the big impact on performance. Radcliffe should be praying for rain for the next week, I'd say...!

Sarah L said...

Really interesting article, thanks. I read it from a friend who forwarded the link on the running website www.fetcheveryone.com

I really hope Paula does win - and if she does it's going to be such an even more brilliant achievement for her - what with everything that she's had to overcome to get here!

Come on Paula!!!

Andrew said...

On running in the heat, Deena Kastor's 2004 Athens strategy comes to mind. Could Radcliffe benefit from a "go out easy, finish hard" pacing strategy, and/or wearing a cooling vest before the race?

Owen Anderson said...

Those are great points, Andrew. Starting more moderately and wearing a cooling vest before the race could delay the attainment of a critical core temperature associated with significant fatigue. If Paula starts fast, her neural governor might put the clamps on her in order to avoid the reaching of a too-high body temp.

Mike T Nelson said...

Good stuff here guys as always!!

The best way in my biased opinion to reduce the pounding from running is to get the mobility up to par in all of your joints, esp the foot and ankle. This has a great benefit of increasing overall body mechanics/efficiency too.

Those joints take a pounding, so they tend to get "gummed" up.

Yeah, I hear your point on the low impact treadmill. We don't need no stinking SAID principle! ha!

rock on
Mike N

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Andrew

Up to a point, yes. The cooling vest is likely relatively insignificant beyond about 30 minutes, maybe even sooner, but I suspect she'll still try it - Radcliffe seems open to pretty much anything - anti-gravity treadmills, compression socks etc. She's always one of the first to jump on innovation, which is a big reason for success, even if some of the ideas are a little "wobbly". I guess if 1 out of 10 comes off, she benefits...

So the cooling vest works because it increases the total heat storage capacity of the body during exercise, by lowering the initial temperature. We know, as you'll recall from our series on fatigue, that fatigue co-incides with the attainment of a critical temperature (about 40 to 41 degrees). But during self-paced exercise (like this race), the brain will begin to force the pace lower before this point is reached.

So, in theory, cooling before delays that "calculation" that would force her slower. In reality, that would work for a shorter event, but given that within about 30 minutes, she'll be just as hot as everyone else (the rate of increase is higher when you start cooler), it kind of wears off in a long race.

As for pacing, yes, I think that's a good physiological strategy. The problem is that it might not be a good racing strategy, for reasons relating to simple numbers.

Let's say Radcliffe is capable of a 2:18 on a great day (even after injuries). In that heat, it comes down to 2:22. There are enough women racing against her who are also capable of a 2:22 that she can't take the chance that ONE of them will hang onto to a slightly faster pace and never come back. So let's say that six women head out and reach the halfway point in 1:10 - that's "too fast" for Radcliffe, and so she might hang back and be more conservative. Of those leading women, maybe 5 out of 6 will come back to her and crack, running 2:23 or slower, but there's a chance that one of them will never come back and go on to run 2:21:30.

So it's a huge risk for someon looking for gold to allow gold to leave you. So while I think "on paper", you're right, in practice, it would require real bravery and a bit of luck to work!

Time will tell!


Anonymous said...

You say size and the heat may affect her, but look at the notoriously hot Chicago last year - Berhane Adere (not short!) famously barrelled past Pirtea to win, *and*, coming in fourth, and less than four minutes behind her, Radcliffe's own bridesmaid, Liz Yelling.

(I grew up in Beds, like Yelling & Radcliffe, and it is cold, wet, horrid and muddy. No heat acclimatisation there...).

Not sure you can tell anything from this but, "When it comes to the marathon - all bets are off!"

May the last woman standing win...

Simon said...

I don't think you need to worry about the Alter-G anti-gravity trainer not being "specific" enough. I got to run on one as part of a University of Colorado PhD study here in Boulder, and what the media doesn't tell you is that it is totally adjustable; if you're injured you can run at a very low bodyweight and precisely increase the pounds as you heal. From a therapeutic point of view that is unique.

My experience was that, for example, the experience of running at a faster cadence at 50% and 75% of my bodyweight immediately transferred to real life. It is much more specific than running in water or using a ski machine (which was Paula's previous cross-trainer when injured).

Other runners who are using them include all of Alberto Salazar's Nike House squad and the Brad Hudson-trained Dathan Ritzenhein. Ritz used it for four weeks when hit with yet another foot injury, lost zero training time (says Hudson), and as a result is in Beijing for the marathon.
Before the advent of the Alter-G, you may remember, Ritz had THREE stress fractures in his foot, culminating in a fracture that forced him out of the 2004 Olympic 10k.

This thing ain't no gimmick :) Whether she wins a medal or not, in my opinion Paula made exactly the right choice.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi there Anonymous

True, but that Chicago race was very slow, and I must say, Adere didn't exactly beat a world class field there. In fact, the women's field was very weak, and the fact that Adere had to barrel past year would worry me as Adere. Pirtea was a bit of a surprise athlete tehre, and while she's obviously a good athlete, Adere was the class of the field.

So the slow time meant she got away with it - as I said, "all things being equal, the smaller athlete wins". Those athletes were never equal to begin with...

Also, while I agree that the marathon is unpredictable, I do think that the marathon has changed in recent years - it is now possible to make estimations with a reasonable degree of certainty - the race has become more like a track race was 15 years ago. So the only "risk" is which athlete will have a bad day? But we can be pretty sure, I believe, that four of the top 6 will have good days, one will be bad, and Radcliffe is a big uncertainty.

Let's hope she's in a good day, but I think the heat will count against her.


Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Simon

Thanks for teh insight. I wasn't saying that Radcliffe didn't make the right choice though - that was never even up for debate. I didn't put that section in to question whetehr she was onto a gimmick. But I have to say that I can't believe it's entirely specific. Of course it helps reduce the load, and that is obviously the best thing to do with a stress fracture like she had.

So yes, she's followed the best possible path to get into the kind of condition she'll need to be in to compete in the marathon. But what I don't think is possible is EXACT simulation of training loads, fatigue and eccentric training that would be obtained out-doors. She had no other option though - it was either this (and be 85% ready, say), or the water running to be 50% ready.

But it is interesting to hear your experience - i thought of you when I saw that the study was done in Boulder - had a feeling you might have been involved!

So thanks for the insight. Let's hope that Radcliffe has come into the right kind of shape. I'm still going to say that the heat will be the deciding factor though!


Simon said...

I trust your assessment of her chances. I've no idea whether Paula is totally fit or not, or whether the heat training she has been doing will work, either. I was just addressing some of the issues kicked off by Owen's comments, and picking up on your comment about her being willing to try ideas that are "a little 'wobbly'".

On cooling...I've often thought that what we need is an ice pack that will sit round the neck/on the scapula, thereby cooling the carotid arteries while we run. I know some ultra guys use a wet bandana for that reason.

BTW, I reported my experiences on the ALter-G study on my blog here:

Sarah L said...

Just came back to this blog to read the rest of the comments... particularly interested after having just run the Chicago marathon myself in 28 degree heat... Target 3.20... went completely to pot and collapsed on the finish line in 3.37 :-( I had hyperthermia (105 degree core temp) and dehydration... cured with 2 ice baths in the finish line medical tent and 2 litres of saline drip... How these women run these times in the heat is amazing! Mind you, summer 2008 was a wash out, so I wasn't acclimatised at all!!

There I am in the red, collapsing!


Great blog! :)

Anonymous said...

Alter-g, where's the science? Lots of anecdotal evidence and pretty wild claims. Since 2005 with a Director of Science and no published studies. Placebo effect?