Welcome to the Science of Sport, where we bring you the second, third, and fourth level of analysis you will not find anywhere else.

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.

Consider a donation if you like what you see here!

Did you know?
We published The Runner's Body in May 2009. With an average 4.4/5 stars on Amazon.com, it has been receiving positive reviews from runners and non-runners alike.

Available for the Kindle and also in the traditional paper back. It will make a great gift for the runners you know, and helps support our work here on The Science of Sport.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Sportswoman of 2010: Chrissie Wellington

Chrissie Wellington: Moving Ironman triathlon forward
and some interesting male-female comparisons of where she lies in history

I almost withheld this particular award.  Let me explain.  My thinking is that in order to win our award as a sports PERSON of the year, that athlete must transcend their sport, they must rewrite history within their own sport.  It's relatively easy to pick the best woman performer in each sport - track and field, you go with Blanka Vlasic; for tennis, it's either Serena Williams or Caroline Wozniacki; for football, Marta of Brazil.

But to be an overall sports person of the year, you can't just win against your rivals, you need to dominate them, move your sport forward a generation, change its history, and become "mainstream".  You can't just be the best in your sport, you have to be one of the best in history  A few years ago, for example, it might have been Annika Sorenstam, and then Lorena Ochoa, who dominated golf so completely that it moved women's golf up a notch.  Tennis players like Steffi Graf, Martina Navratilova did the same for their sport a few generations ago, and Paula Radcliffe (as we'll see below) and Yelena Isinbayeva took women's running and pole vault forward, respectively.  On the men's side, names like Federer, Woods, Nadal, Phelps, Bolt come to mind as athletes who have been so dominant and impressive that they are recognized not merely as tennis players, golfers or swimmers, but as sportspeople.

But women's sport is relatively bare at the moment.  We've spoken about track and field already, how difficult it is for women to stand out in history, when confronted with a doping legacy that makes setting records almost impossible.  Tennis is in a peculiar state, with no one woman dominating, the world number one ranking resembling a carousel over the last three years.  Ochoa and Sorenstam's retirements have left a void yet to be filled in golf. 

But then fortunately for me, one of you (thanks Gus) reminded me of Chrissie Wellington over on our Facebook page.  I guiltily confess to having something of a "blind-spot" for Ironman distance triathlon, because we see so little of it on our TV over here in SA.  Particularly Kona, which is not shown at all on SA television.  However, Wellington's is a name that has shot to prominence in the last few years, as a result of her Kona exploits (among others).  2010 is an anomaly - she didn't even start in Kona this year, withdrawing on race day.  However, that low moment was bookended by some astonishing performances, including a new Ironman event record to wrap up a dominant 2010.

And so Chrissie Wellington is a deserving winner of this award, which is as much an award for 2010 as it is a "lifetime (so far) achievement award".  What's more, she provides a wonderful discussion of human performance and men vs women, and has clearly moved women's ultra-triathlon forward.

Here's why.

Wellington's records - the greatest ever, on the way

Ironman triathlon looked somewhat different before Wellington's instant impact back in Kona in 2007.  Having qualified for the Hawaii World Championships by winning the Ironman Korea event.  She finished 7th overall in that race, something which was to become a regular occurrence in her Ironman career.  In Kona, her impact was instant - a win in 9:08:45, including a sub-3 hour marathon.  That was the second fastest run time in the event's history, and one of the fastest overall times in many years - only Natascha Badmann's 9:07:54 in 2002 had been quicker in the preceding ten years.

2008 and 2009 brought more of the same, and this time included outright records.  There was the fastest run ever in Kona in 2008 (2:57:44), the fastest ever Ironman distance performance in 2009 (an 8:31:59 clocking in a non Ironman event), and a new Kona record in 2009 - 8:54:02, beating the record of Kona legend Paula Newby-Fraser (though second placed Mirinda Carfrae did break Wellington's run record for the course).

Then came 2010.  In July this year, she bettered her own Ironman distance record, this time with an 8:19:13 performance to finish 7th overall in Roth, Germany.   This included records in both the bike leg (4:36:33) and the run leg (2:48:54), in what was possibly her most spectacular performance to date. 

Kona came and went with a DNS as a result of illness, but the training did not go to waste, as Wellington then broke the record for an Ironman event, in the Ironman Arizona race, clocking 8:36:13.  That race was, in her words, "her Kona", and she ended the year with the definitive statement that she is the best Ironman triathlete in the world today, perhaps ever, with a career that may just surpass that of Newby Fraser.  All told, she has six sub-9 hour performances, a record, and remains undefeated over the Ironman distance.

She has also been the catalyst for a new generation of female triathletes - already, Wellington's run record in Kona was broken by Mirinda Carfrae in second place, who then won the Kona event in Wellington's absence earlier this year.  Carfrae's winning time of 8:58:36 puts her within sight of Newby Fraser's previous record, which had stood relatively unchallenged until 2009, and the battle between those two should provide for great entertainment (and profile for the sport) in the years to come.

Challenging the men - where is Wellington in the male vs female distance spectrum?

Wellington's exploits produce the obvious comment that "she's almost beating all the men".  I received a few emails discussing this and it's a really interesting question to try to answer:  Is Wellington unique among female distance/endurance athletes, someone with a real chance of matching the best men?  It's largely an irrelevant question, and Wellington's performances shouldn't really be compared to men's performances.  But whenever the gap is that narrow, one is almost compelled to ask it, and from a performance and physiological analysis point of view, it's too good an invitation to pass up!

Wellington has rarely been outside the top 10 overall of her races - 7th in Roth, 7th in Korea, 8th in Arizona are just some of her performances.  Her marathon times in some of her wins have been beaten by only a few men in those races.  Only at Kona does she find herself outside the top 10 (22nd in 2009, for example).

And let's face it - you don't see this in marathon or track running.  Even Paula Radcliffe's world record places her only 473rd on the 2009 performance lists for men, and 3205th in history.  The elite men are sufficiently "spread out" across the world's top ten or so marathons that the first woman is usually in the top 20, but when comparing 'like to like', the women are well down.

So, is Wellington the greatest endurance athlete in the world?  A woman with a real chance of winning races overall?  Or is "competitive balance" of Ironman events misleading us, much as it does for ultra-distance running events?  By nature, any "niche" event is going to throw up some misleading comparisons, and that may be the case here.

It's a great debate, which I must emphasize takes nothing away from Wellington - when you are breaking records by minutes, setting new records on BOTH the bike and run leg, going undefeated in such long races, winning on debut, you are exceptional.  Judged against women, Wellington, at 33, is on the verge of being the greatest ever.  And her 2010 year deserves that recognition.

However, to fully answer the male-female question, we need a benchmark.  And that benchmark provides an interesting discussion because it must come from men's performances.

Male vs female performance

It's particularly difficult to benchmark female performances in a sport like triathlon.  Three disciplines, differing conditions from one race to the next and within each race (thanks to the length), and the mass participation nature of Ironman events means that simply comparing times doesn't quite work.

You can do this for track and field, however.  The graph below illustrates the comparison between the men's world record and the women's world record for the track events.  You'll note that all women's records are between 9% and 13% slower than the men's times.  Given the long history and the relatively standardized conditions (for world records, which are almost always set in ideal conditions), these numbers show pretty clearly that men outperform women by around 10% (and that is even with the obvious doping by women - the true figure is likely more than this).

Now, let's look at Wellington's performances in the Ironman, as shown by red symbols.  First, what is her place in history compared to other winners?  Below is a graph that compares the winning performances at Kona for women to the men's winning performances since 1995 (three generations of athlete).  This is done so that the varied conditions (and Kona can be very different, with heat and wind) are somewhat controlled for.

The difference, you can see, is pretty much the same as for the track and field events, with a few exceptions, where women are well down on the men (upward of 13%).  Wellington arrives in 2007, and goes from 10.8% to 9.7% to an amazing 6.7% slower than the men in her three wins.  This year, Mirinda Carfrae is only 9.8% off the men's winner.

Clearly, Wellington has been to the Men's Kona winner what most female track and field world record holders are to their male counterparts.  She is, from that point of view, in exactly the right place compared to the best men (admittedly, those track women got there with substantial doping.  I don't know what the doping landscape of Ironman triathlon is - I'd be naive to say it doesn't exist, but if Wellington is as close to the men as track females are while doping, then her performance is doubly impressive)

There are also other exceptional performances - the blue triangle in 2002 is Natascha Badmann's 9:07 performance, which was only 7.5% slower than the men's winner that year (Timothy de Boom in a relatively slow 8:29:56.  This Badmann performance also shows up the flaw in this analysis - year by year is too variable - was that men's performance just very weak that year?  Did race tactics affect it?  The fact that two years later, Badmann wins the race a full 15% slower than the men's winner confirms this - year on year comparisons of winners leaves some variability, and that's why a more "rigid" benchmark is needed.

Wellington - bringing women's triathlon to where it should be

So let's use the men's course record as the benchmark. There are problems with this comparison, too, of course.  For one thing, variable weather from one year to the next can blow out the differences when you compare isolated performances with a 'best ever' performance, but I think the trend will be revealing when combined with what we discussed above. You could do this same exercise with the average of the men's times, incidentally, and subtract about 3% off the difference.

So, in 1996, Luc van Lierde of Belgium won the race in 8:04:08, which still stands as the record today.  Comparing all the women's winning times since 1995 to that performance, Wellington's impact on the sport stands out a little more, as you can see in the graph below.

Now, you can see how women's triathlon may actually be entering a "golden era", where the gap between the fastest ever seems to be coming down.  From 1995 to 2008, women winners were consistently 12% or more slower than the male record.  In fact, in the 1990s, women were on average 16% slower than the men's record.  However, Wellington got closer and closer until in 2009, taking the women's record to 10.3% slower than the men's record with her 8:54 performance.

Note that this is still relatively "normal" - 10.3% is in fact the AVERAGE difference between men's and women's track records (and I don't want to keep harping on about doping and those women's records, but I have to point it out one last time).

The point is that Wellington's amazing performances are not so much bringing women to the point of being able to beat the men, but rather that Wellington has begun to bring women's performances in Ironman events to where they should be, relative to the men!  I know that the magnitude of these improvements are small - 1% here and there.  But bear in mind that if the world marathon record was improved by 1% tomorrow, it would be 1 minute 15 seconds faster.  And we don't expect to see that anytime soon!  So Wellington really has pushed the event forward.

The same comparison for her other Ironman performances is even more impressive.  In the Arizona event earlier this year, she was only 5.9% outside the men's winning time (by Timo Bracht).  However, here again, you have what may be a misleading comparison - as good an athlete as Bracht is, he's not the dominant athlete of his category, like Wellington.  However, it's a special performance nevertheless, and if it continues, then Wellington will be able to stake a claim for being the best ultra-endurance athlete in the world. 

Compared to the men's overall Ironman event record of 7:50:27 (also by van Lierde in 1996, in Ironman Europe), Wellington's fastest Ironman-event performance of 8:36:13 this year is 9.7% slower, so that too is in the right range, compared to what we know of men vs women performances.  It has been pointed out below that Wellington's all-time best of 8:19 came at Roth, as did van Lierde's 7:50, which means the two could be compared - then the difference comes down to 6.1%, which is far and away the closest a women's record comes to a male best performance. 

Certainly, given what we've seen from Wellington - the gradual progression - there's plenty of reason to believe that given the right day, she has a few more minutes left in her and that means the men-women gap may be due for further closing.

Conclusion - dominant female athlete, closing the gap but not unexpectedly close to the men

The conclusion I'd draw then is that Wellington has taken women's Ironman distance triathlon and bounced it forward by virtue of her amazing performances.  However, she's not yet closed the gap beyond what would have been expected given a normal male vs female comparison.  The fact that women were regularly 14% or more behind men in the 1990s, even with Newby Fraser's exploits suggests to me that women's triathlon is only now beginning to grow in competitive depth and quality.

Wellington is at the forefront of that quality.  Her year in 2010 has established a new standard for women's triathlon and I fully expect to see many more sub-9 hour performances in the coming years.  We will even begin to see competitive races at 8:50 pace or faster, within the enormous time-gaps of years gone by, and that's a sure sign of improving competitive quality.

Wellington has therefore slotted in where she should - she's exceptional, but thoughts of her breaking down the male-female performance divide as a little premature.  And she may yet improve more, and then we'll revisit this topic again!


Monday, December 20, 2010

Year in Review: The great showdowns

Duels of 2010:  The best showdowns

We continue our look back on 2010 with a recap of some of the great duels of the year.  It's been a year without an Olympic Games, a year without too many Federer v Nadal matchups (which would normally provide at least one of these "nominees"), but a year of exceptional one-on-one sporting contests, and my top 3 are summed up briefly below.

In reverse order, they are:

3.  Alberto Contador vs Andy Schleck, Tour de France

The Tour de France's final mountain stage, a climb of the Col du Tourmalet from the reverse side, provided the backdrop for one of the year's most memorable duels as Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck raced side by side through the mist and clouds for the yellow jersey.  The Tour had produced a memorable battle between the two as they traded blows in the first two weeks - first Contador went ahead in the Prologue, before Schleck struck back on the cobbles of Stage 3, gaining over a minute on Contador.

Then, on Stage 8 and Stage 12, the two traded 10 second gaps, first for Schleck and then for Contador - this trend of "canceling out" one another's time gains would be a theme in the race from this point on.

The drama kicked up a notch on Stage 15, the now infamous "chain-gate" state, where Schleck, in yellow at the time, attacked and then dropped his chain, only to see Contador continue to ride.  The debate was fierce as to whether Contador should have waited or not.  Amazingly, he gained 39 seconds on the day, which was to be his eventual victory margin, so inseparable were the two riders.

The climb of the Tourmalet also provided what, in my opinion, was the most interesting power output analysis of the Tour so far.  You can recap that analysis here, where we discussed the SRM data of Chris Horner, and used it to estimate what the two leaders were producing on the climb.  Horner provided the perfect barometer on the day, because over the final 5km, he lost only a handful of seconds, so his final 5km performance is a good measure for what the leaders will have produced.

That comparison revealed a power output of around 6 W/kg, in what was the race's decisive stage, and only 5.6 W/kg over the final 5km (where, admittedly, tactical racing slowed Contador and Schleck down).  However, the climb was a fitting end to a debate that created a lot of discussion - whether a sustained power output greater than around 6.2 to 6.3 W/kg was possible without the doping we saw in the 1990s and 2000s.  In my opinion, it is not, and the duel on the Tourmalet provided some great evidence for this.  When the best two cyclists are racing for the yellow, holding little back and still "only" average 6 W/kg for the climb, then it puts into perspective the 6.2, 6.3, 6.7 W/kg performances we saw in the 1990s and 2000s.  Doping still happens, certainly, but the days of "supercharged" riders are over.

Of course, since then, the rivalry has been tainted by the allegations around Contador's clenbuterol positive, and the race's result may well be altered after the fact, which tarnishes the duel substantially.  It may also deny future head-to-head racing like we saw, which will be a great pity for the sport, but such is cycling that this possibility is never far away, sadly.  However, while it lasted, it provided some amazing theatre.

More reading (just in case you missed it, or for the recap):
2.  Game, set and match Isner: He wins by 3 sets to 2.  6–4, 3–6, 6–7(7–9), 7–6(7–3), 70–68!

183 games, 980 points, 138 games in the fifth set alone.  11 hours and 5 minutes.  You cannot dream those numbers up, it's so ridiculous.  The previous record for the longest match ever played was 122 games in a Davis Cup match in 1973 - the Isner v Mahut match beat this in the 5th set alone.  And, that previous record came before the introduction of tie-breaks, of which there were two in the Mahut-Isner epic.

In terms of time, the longest match ever played had been 6 hours, 33 minutes.  Once again, the fifth set of this epic far exceeded that, taking 8 hours 11 minutes.

When a match lasts this long, it produces moments of hilarity.  For example, the scoreboard froze at 47-47, because it had only been programmed to reach 47.  Luckily, bad light stopped play so they could fix it overnight, but then at 50-50, it was reset to 0-0, and viewers were reminded to please "add 50 to the Isner/Mahut score".

It was a remarkable two days in tennis, and as John McEnroe said, it was a great advertisement for the game.  Astonishingly, there were calls afterwards for the introduction of fifth set tie-breaks, to prevent this kind of match from happening.  This is absolutely ridiculous, because this kind of match is exactly what sport needs when it is competing in the entertainment sphere.  It was dramatic, epic and put tennis right on the front pages.

Physiologically, the numbers are staggering.  I did a post with some estimates of what such a match might have meant for the workload of the players, and that was after day 1, when play was suspended with the score at 59-59.  You can read that post here.

I was then contacted by the Washington Post, who used some of those estimates to produce a nice graphic summing up the remarkable physiological performance of the two men:

We are unlikely to ever see that kind of match again, but it was one of the greatest moments in sport in 2010.  In fact, it was a strong challenger for the win, because it's difficult to find such an epic duel in sport.  However, in the end, it was pipped only because our main focus here on The Science of Sport is running, and so we went with a running duel instead.  It's no less worthy, though.

More reading:
1.  Wanjiru vs Kebede in Chicago

As I mentioned above, this probably isn't the most extra-ordinary battle of 2010, Isner v Mahut was.  So by that criteria alone, this shouldn't claim the number 1 spot.  The rankings are nominal anyway, but Wanjiru v Kebede wins because a) it's running related and our focus on this site is running, and b) the stakes were so high - not only was the race on the line but so was the title of world's best marathon runner, winner of $500,000 as World Marathon Majors champion, and for Wanjiru specifically, his status as the world's best marathon racer.

It had been a relatively lean year for Wanjiru - defeat in London, at the hands of Kebede, and a series of DNFs and relatively slow performances on the roads had chipped away at the Olympic champ's "invincible status".  He'd also had injury problems, and it would later emerge that his training had been hampered.

Kebede was on the rise, the win in London his highlight of 2010.  And the race in Chicago threw the two together in what was one of the great finishes in marathon running.  It wasn't the closest finish of the year - 19 seconds separated the men at the end, which doesn't tell the story.  It also wasn't the fastest race of the year - 2:06:24, with a second half 1:03:47.  But it was tactical, and brutal, more like a track race than a road race over the final 5km.  At times, it looked more like a cycling race, with pulls at the front, fast-slow, surges and counter-surges, and all the while, Wanjiru was hanging on, looking dropped on numerous occasions, before fighting back to make one final, decisive surge for victory.

You can watch the final mile of the race below, and relive one of the epic duels, which TV and words can't really capture:

Track and Field Videos on Flotrack

The two are signed up for London 2011, so let's hope for more of the same then!

Still to come

The Year in Review series is nearly complete - only Team of the Year, Sportsman of the Year and Sportswoman of the Year to go.  And as always, we'll try to analyse just what has created that status, the science and insight to the performances of those teams and athletes!  So join us in the coming days for those recaps!


Friday, December 17, 2010

Year in review: Sports website of the year

Sports website of the year:  Zonal Marking

If you are a regular reader of this site, then you probably appreciate analysis and insight more than most.  At least, that's what we try to provide.  You may be one of those people who watches sport with a more dispassionate eye, rather trying to understand why teams score, why space was created, why goals/tried are scored (as opposed to shouting at the referee through the TV set).  I'm certainly in that camp.  So, it should come as no surprise that my pick for sports website of the year is a site that provides analysis and insight quite unlike anything else I have seen before.

The site is Zonal Marking, a football (soccer) analysis site that I discovered during the 2010 World Cup, and which picks and analyses tactical and strategic aspects of various matches.

Performance analysis is incredibly complex.  The secret to effectively analyzing complex sports like football, rugby, American Football (any team game, really) is to tease out from hundreds of potential factors those which are most likely to impact on the result.  This is no easy task - I head up the UCT Performance Analysis Unit and we work with a number of different teams, mostly in rugby, and the biggest challenge is deciding what NOT to analyse.  Thanks to technology, and specifically written software like Sportscode, it is now possible to database just about every single occurrence on the field.

Every tackle, every pass, every error, every decision can be recorded and dissected.  Players can be scored for every single involvement in play.  This creates a data problem - there is too much of it, both for players and coaches.  This creates an interesting dilemma for a coach who is trying to instil a "like-mindedness" in the players by teaching them a system of decision-making, while still relying on their instinctive and honed abilities.  Perhaps the best way to describe what performance analysis is trying to achieve is that it's trying to make sure that 10 (or 14 in the case of rugby players) players can anticipate what will happen six seconds later, while still allowing flexibility for creativity. 

And sifting through the "clutter" is essential, particularly in continuous sports like rugby and football.  American football is comfortably the most advanced sport in the world in terms of play analysis, but the sport lends itself to structured play, whereas rugby and football do not, but still require continuous adjustments in shape/alignment and decision-making.  Good analysis doesn't mean measuring everything, it means identifying the right question to ask, then knowing what to measure to answer it - this is no different to good science, incidentally, where a hypothesis is tested through measurement.

One of our fundamental reasons for writing this site is to provide answers to questions like "HOW" and "WHY" things happen in sport.   Zonal Marking provides those answers for football.  Perhaps you watched the 5-0 demolition job that Barcelona did on Real Madrid (one of the highlights of the year).  The next step is understanding how it happened, and reading this analysis will tell you.

It's simplified, it's accurate, well written and it has immeasurably enhanced my football watching experience.  It's so simply explained that even those who are not followers of the sport will gain insight by reading it - the secret to truly understanding something new is to explain it in a way that makes everyone else feel superior for already knowing it!  Zonal Marking does this, and for that reason, it's the best sports website that I have discovered this year. 

Here are some of the better analyses from this year's Football World Cup in South Africa:

The final: Spain 1 - Holland 0
Spain's 1-0 victory over Germany in the semi-final
Germany 4, Argentina 0
Brazil 3, Chile 0: The tactical contest of the tournament

As always, if there any I've missed, please let me know!


Thursday, December 16, 2010

Sports Videos of the year

The best sports videos of 2010:  Our picks

Moving on from the darker side of sport with our recent doping reviews, we now have the more enjoyable task of picking some of the great sporting videos of the year (if you are reading this as an email, the videos may or may not work, so click through to the site here if there are problems)

The winner - Danny Macaskill again

The competition was stiff, but the winner was clear-cut.  It is the follow up video by Danny Macaskill, a street trials rider from Scotland.  Just over a year ago, we posted his first video (which would have won the award in 2009), which has been viewed by over 22 million people on Youtube.  For comparison (and enjoyment), we've reposted that video beneath this year's winner, which is a breath-taking video, not only for the bicycle skills, but the "choreography", the music and the scenery.  I suspect that even if you aren't a bicycle enthusiast, you'll appreciate this incredible sequence.  It has been described as parcours on a bicycle.  Enjoy!

And here was the original, in the streets of Edinburgh, and to the song "Ready for the funeral" by Band of Horses.

The honorable mentions

The following videos also deserve a mention for their entertainment value:

All Blacks "pick me" campaign

Based on the very clever and very successful "Pick Me" campaign from the NFL, New Zealand rugby produced this clip of some of their stars.

The Brumbies response

Perhaps even more entertaining was the response by an Australian Super 15 team, the Brumbies.  This time, without the trick camera work and clever editing:

World Cup 2010

And finally, it would be an oversight to forget about the biggest sports event of the year, especially since it took place right here in South Africa.  And one advertisement that stood out was Nike's Write the Future campaign.  It's impressive only for the variety of stars it uses (even the Queen and Homer Simpson make an appearance), the editing, the story line and the vast array of different scenes.

Unfortunately, it proved to be something of a "curse" for the players it featured - Ronaldinho didn't even make to the World Cup after losing out on selection for Brazil, and those who did fell one by one, leaving Nike with no "marquee" players by the latter stages of the competition.  They did get a team into the final, and they produced a pretty impressive ad...

Your nominees

As always, it's your site as well as ours, so if there are other good ones, post the links in the discussion thread below, and tomorrow, I'll do a new post with all your nominees!


The Mad Cow award: The UCI, Contador and contaminated beef

Contador, the UCI and the contaminated beef/clenbuterol saga

Yesterday we gave the award for Drug of the Year to methylhexanamine, or DMAA, for its repeat appearances in the latter half of the year, and the interesting debate is stimulates over supplement use.

The unlucky "loser" there was clenbuterol, a drug which rocketed into the news at the end of September when it burst the veneer of a "clean" Tour de France in 2010.  Until that happened, a great Tour de France had seen Alberto Contador triumph over Andy Schleck, and not a sign of a high-profile doping case, at least during the race.  The days of Rasmussen, Ricco, and going further back, Festina, were over...

Until clenbuterol came along.  Or contaminated beef.  Or plasticizers.  Against the backdrop of denial by the UCI.  Whichever you believe.  And for that mass confusion, the Mad Cow award is shared by the UCI, Alberto Contador and the supposedly contaminated beef he put forward as his defence.

Recap of the story

This is actually a story we did cover at the time, and I don't want to rehash all the details here, but rather refer back to the two posts we did on it at the time:
  • Contador tests positive - article includes links to Contador's response (by Douwe de Boer), and the details of the testing and when Contador tested positive.  It describes how the level of Clenbuterol in Contador's blood was so low that very few laboratories in the world would have detected it - as it transpired, the samples were sent to Cologne, which is able to detect levels at least 40 times LOWER than the amount required in order for a test to be declared an "adverse analytical finding". 

    On this note, what is interesting is how few samples were sent to Cologne in the first place.  Most of the Tour samples were sent to Lausanne, except 10 (out of 250).  The Cologne lab is one of the only laboratories able to detect a number of substances at low levels, and so failing to use them when they had the option raises a few interesting questions.  As it transpired, Contador's samples were among the 10 analysed there - this is not surprising given that he'd have been tested as the race leader every day.
  • The transfusion theory, and the possible source of clenbuterol - in the days after the announcement, it was leaked that Contador's blood contained traces of what were called "plasticizers", molecules found in IV bags, and put forward as evidence that a transfusion had been given on the Tour's rest day, immediately preceding the positive samples

The UCI:  Resolving this case internally

The UCI, for their part, once again failed to act in a manner that inspires confidence that they want the sport to be cleaned up.  It transpired that Contador heard of his positive test on August 24, and it took a full month before any result was announced.  Even then, it was announced by Contador's PR team only because the German media were about to break the story, and only then did the UCI announce anything.  Contador was later quoted as saying that he was told to keep quiet about the test:  "The UCI has always asked me not to tell this to anyone".  He was further quoted as saying that "It seemed that everything was in order and that it would be resolved internally".

Given that previous cases of positive results have been announced before the B sample result was even known, this approach smacks of double standards. And I would love to know what "resolved internally" means.  In theory, all cases should be resolved internally, in that both A and B samples should be tested, and then investigated, then sanctions announced if required.  If not, no announcement would ever be made, and the athlete would not be subjected to false accusation.

The "unhealthy attachment" between UCI and its riders
However, that never happens, except for the Tour champion, apparently.  Nor should it, given that the UCI has shown as a willingness to accept money from riders, and what the Independent Observers from WADA identified as an "unhealthy attachment to those competing" in their 2010 Tour report, which you can read here.
The quote is on Page 6: "Indeed, many people on the Tour and even those involved in anti-doping on the Tour have, at times, an unhealthy attachment to those competing, whether it is through personal friendships or just through having been involved in the Tour for a few years".  When that kind of statement comes out in an official report, then it suggests a serious problem.  And, this does not even make mention of money changing hands, but rather personal relationships.  As history has shown many times, money is a far stronger influence than "friendship"...

Given this kind of "internal" relationship, the prospect of the UCI keeping every single case quiet until a final verdict is reached would give me sleepless nights.  Ultimately, it boils down to a complete lack of credibility, and the media have taken on the role of exposing doping.  This is of course the UCI's own doing, courtesy the denials of a doping problem by Pat McQuaid, who is an honorary recipient of this award.  Until sponsors began to jump ship, and the media threatened to stop covering his events, McQuaid ignored the elephant in the room even while it sat on him.  His incentive, of course, is to do create the impression of cleaning up the sport without actually doing it, because to admit the problem means having to fix it, and that's not good for the bottom line.  Especially when its champions are caught.

Or, does "resolved internally" mean the same thing as it has allegedly done for other high profile riders in the past, where backdated therapeutic use exemptions are issued, or recommendations to suspend riders based on biological passport results are allegedly covered up?
The other thing the long delay in announcing the result did is provide Contador with time to prepare the defence, the now infamous contaminated beef theory.  A report by Douwe de Beer, was commissioned by Contador's lawyer the day after he heard the result, and was ready for 'public consumption' by the time the story broke.  It lays out the cases of contamination, which would become Contador's defence.
The battle for perception, and the wait for a verdict
Much of this is a battle for public perception, because the contamination defence is plausible and difficult to disprove in the absence of test results from Contador's Astana team-mates who may have eaten the same meat.  Had this testing been done, the case would be clear cut, either way.

On the opposite side of the 'bench', the prosecution would have to disprove that the beef was contaminated, or find corroborating evidence for either clenbuterol ingestion, or perhaps a transfusion.  The latter possibility emerged when the German media reported on the plasticizers, but that is not an official test and therefore cannot be used in any legal proceedings.  

All this transpired three months ago.  Still, no verdict has been reached, the case remains open, with the Spanish Federation required to reach a decision.
Testing at the 2010 Tour:  Not as comprehensive as you might think

Finally, a word on the testing procedures at the Tour, which you can read in far more detail in this WADA report.  It's important and relevant, because the Contador-Clenbuterol case raises all kinds of questions over the desire of authorities to stamp out doping.

It may therefore amaze you to learn that during the Tour, only 215 blood and 251 urine tests were performed (that's total tests, not riders).  Given that ± 200 riders race over 23 days (including rest days), many riders are not tested even once.  Of the tests, only 70% look for EPO, and only 26 tests for homologous blood transfusions were done (all from page 51 of the report).

Perhaps the most telling paragraph in the entire document is this, from Page 20, which condemns the lack of stringency in analysis type, and calls out the UCI for failing to conduct testing which would significantly tighten the net on dope cheats (emphasis has been added):
With respect to the type of testing conducted it was interesting to note that when the riders were present the UCI did not take full advantage by collecting more sample types. As with any event, there was a variety of analytical screens that could have been identified but the majority of Post-Finish tests were urine tests (usually including EPO analysis) with very few blood samples collected
Based on the nature of the Tour, riders may seek to gain advantage mainly with the use of prohibited substances and/or methods that increase their endurance performance. It was therefore expected by the IO Team that EPO would be the principal substance to look for by the Laboratory. It is noted however that only 70% of the UCI’s analysis were for EPO, and it was outlined that the budget was the main constraint for not doing more EPO testing. Moreover, only a reasonably small number of blood samples were collected for analysis for CERA, HBOC or HBT and it is unknown to the IO Team how many (if any) blood passport samples were later analysed for any of these substances. 
There are also new substances and/or methods that can now be detected or suspected, yet the UCI only sent ten target test samples to the WADA-Accredited Laboratory of the German Sports University, Cologne, for additional analysis for new substances and/or methods. As a way of illustrating this, during the Tour it leaked in the media that the authorities of the country of one of the competing riders had just initiated an investigation against the rider to examine doping allegations. Information which appeared on the media linked the rider with the use of a new drug, which is prohibited in sport. The IO Team did not observe any attempt to target test this rider for the new prohibited substance.
The silver lining

It's not all doom and gloom, of course, and earlier this year, we were very positive about the state of cycling, and wrote of how the reduction in performance in the mountains was a positive sign for doping control efforts.  The 2010 Tour, for the first time in many years, showed signs of improvement, and I have no doubt that doping is now "controlled", greatly reduced from the 1990s and 2000s, where I have even less doubt that it was rampant.

There is a long way to go, of course, but the biological passport, the aggressive scrutiny by the media, the odd cyclist willing to speak out (at the risk of being shunned by the cycling community for violating omerta), and a few honest men in the sport now at least suggest that it can be fixed.  If only the "old boys" would get out of the way, or be removed, we'd have a chance of seeing a clean sport in 2011.  Not likely...but for now, I'll take better.


Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Drug of the Year: Methylhexanamine and the supplement industry

2010 in Review:  The Drug of the Year
and why your supplement might be a 'loaded gun'

It may seem peculiar to have a drug win an award in our Year in Review Series, but this is elite sport, and the only guarantee is that every year, doping will feature heavily in the sports science news.

This year, there were two "nominees" for the Drug of the year category:  Clenbuterol was an option, courtesy Alberto Contador and the Tour de France.  This is certainly a topic we will cover later on in this 2010 recap, but for this category, we go with a stimulant, methylhexanamie, a drug that kept making appearances in 2010, before eventually hitting the news here in South Africa when two SA rugby players tested positive for it.

It is an especially interesting case because it stimulates (pardon the pun) a discussion around liability, "accidental doping" and most pointedly, the supplement industry, and how narrow a tightrope elite athletes sometimes walk with regards to supplement use.

Methylhexanamine - meet the winner

Methylhexanamine (or 4-methylhexan-2-amine for those preferring its IUPAC name) is a stimulant that was only added to the WADA list in 2009.  It was developed as an ingredient of nasal decongestants, and has since become a component of certain supplements (as we'll see later), and was also used as a recreational drug in New Zealand, until it was implicated in a few serious illnesses (strokes, severe headaches and nausea) and banned.

But for our context, it is the role of methylhexanamine in sport that leads to its controversy.  Having been placed on the banned list in 2009, it did not take long to "claim" some fairly high profile athletes.  A group of Jamaican sprinters tested positive, but were cleared after confusion over the status of the drug.  They were later sanctioned because the drug resembles another which is on the banned list (this confusion around the banned status of the drug comes up often, as you'll see).
In 2010, there have been at least 30 cases since the middle of the year.  They include the Commonwealth Games women's 100m champion, Damola Osayemi, who was stripped of her gold medal, as well as a dozen Indian athletes, nine Australian athletes, and most recently, and most high-profile for me in SA, the two Springbok rugby players, Bjorn Basson and Chilliboy Ralepele.

Sifting through the possibilities

The multiple uses of methylhexanamine confuse the issue when an athlete tests positive for it.  Of course, there is the possibility that the athletes were deliberately taking it to gain some advantage, and this being sport, it would be naive not to recognize that this happens (too often).  However, in this particular case, there is just too much to suggest that the positives tests are not a sign of "cheating", but rather of accidental ingestion, especially in the amounts the rugby players were reported to have.  And quite frankly, if a professional athlete is looking for an advantage, there are better ways to do it.  So we look at some other options for how a "non-negative" test might occur, but acknowledge upfront that deliberate doping is still possible.

When the two South African rugby players tested positive after a Test match in Wales in November, the first reaction by many in the media was that they had mistakenly used medicine for a cold.

However, this is unlikely in modern day professional sport, for the simple reason that everyone is so sensitive to the possibility of it happening - there are some very high profile, very damaging cases of this very mistake being made, and so most professional sports teams will be particularly careful about giving out cold and flu medicine to athletes.  When an athlete presents to the doctor complaining of any symptoms, usually the very first check is to make sure that the athlete does not dope - teams now have lists of what they can and cannot take, and most travel with medicines that have already been cleared.  Unless the athlete goes "rouge" and treats themselves, it's exceptionally rare.  And certainly, the Springbok rugby team has a very experienced, very good doctor who would not make this error.

That's not to say that mistakes don't happen - perhaps you will remember the case of Andreea Raducan, a Romanian gymnast who won the all-round title in Sydney in 2000 at the age of 16.  She then tested positive for pseudo-ephedrine, an ingredient of Nurofen, which was given to her by a team physician, and was stripped of her gold medal.

The case went all the way to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), where it was ruled that Raducan should be exonerated of any wrongdoing, but that the medal should still be taken away.  The physician meanwhile, was banned for two Olympic cycles for what really was a catastrophic error for a young athlete.

So while errors to happen, my feeling is that it's not likely that a positive test for methylhexanamine would come from inadvertent use in cold and flu medication.  The next option is that the players took it in a recreational drug.  That's possible, but unlikely, bordering on impossible in the case of the rugby players, since they are tested immediately after a match.  Tests done out of competition, perhaps, but not hours after playing.

The supplement industry: A warning to coaches and athletes

So we arrive at the third possibility - contaminated supplements.  Supplements are now indispensable to elite athletes, whether they are for weight loss, muscle gain, recovery, performance, I would be surprised if any elite athletes do not use some form of supplements.

The problem with supplements is two-fold:
  1. There is very little testing to establish the efficacy (or effectiveness) of supplements.  Creatine is a notable exception, and of course, some supplements provide macro-nutrients (proteins and carbs) that are known to aid recovery and performance.  However, there is still debate over whether a supplement is needed when diet is optimal (the "food first" approach), and just where the "ceiling" exists for how much of these nutrients is needed.  For the rest - the "glamour" supplements that promote massive muscle gain, miracle weight loss, or improved performance, there's not much in the way of well-conducted research, and so the benefits are at best "grey", at worst completely made up.
  2. The safety is never established.  This has two components.  First, there is no guarantee that the dizzying array of ingredients is safe to begin with - many are herbal, thrown in for effect and on a very tenuous link, and many are only a chemical reaction away from being risky. 

    Then second, there is a risk of contamination.  Amazingly, research on the supplement industry has shown that up to 25% of nutritional supplements, including those from companies that do not sell steroids or pro-hormones, may contain undeclared steroids or pro-hormones and stimulants which are banned by WADA.  In other words, if a squad of 30 footballers all take the same supplement, 7 or 8 of them may be taking a banned substance inadvertently.  These substances are not listed on the label, but they find their way into the bottle, as a result of what is non-existent control over the manufacture process of supplements.  The sources of this contamination include the sourcing of the raw materials, the machinery and the packaging plants.

    The end result is that there is no such thing as a guaranteed safe supplement.
Now, in the cases of methylhexanamine, the supplement argument has come up repeatedly.  One high profile case, involving Belgium's amateur cycling champion, Rudy Taelman, saw a reduced one-year ban handed down, after he was able to show that his positive test was the result of a supplement called "Crack".

His quote is interesting:  ""I especially looked for a safe supplement and my pharmacist said that Crack did not contain any doping," said Taelman. "How can I, along with thousands of recreational sportsmen, know that Crack contains Methylhexanamine?"

Interestingly, Taelman's question is not entirely unanswerable - the ingredient is apparently listed on the label, but under a different name - DMAA (thanks to Steve for pointing this out).  The athlete is of course responsible for making sure, and had he done full and detailed homework, he may have discovered that he was in fact taking a banned substance.  I went to a local pharmacy in the aftermach of the SA Rugby cases and within 10 minutes, had found three substances that actually listed methylhexanamine as an ingredient.

In that case, the athlete deserves the full two-year ban, because ignorance is not a defence in doping cases, and so Taelman is a little lucky.  However, one can also sympathize, because given the huge number of possible substances, and the fact that each has a few different names, a young athlete is often at the "mercy" of those whose advice they seek - the moral of the story for them is make sure you get the best advice!

However, even this is subtely different from contamination, but it brings me back to the point above - an athlete has NO WAY OF KNOWING that a supplement is guaranteed to be safe, unless they test that batch for every possible banned substance.  The cost of doing that would be astronomical - it is done by some Olympic federations, but only as "random" checks, which cut the risk but never completely eliminate it.

But this is not what I'm talking about now, and in the case of contamination as I'm using it, it is cases where an athlete takes a supplement after ensuring that it does not contain banned substances, but then tests positive, thanks purely to the completely unregulated nature of the supplement industry.  

In my opinion (the case is still pending), this is the likely cause of the positive tests results of the SA rugby players, and is likely to also be the case in many other methylhexanamine positives.  WADA, having recognized the possibility of positive cases as a result of inadvertent use, have recently reclassified methylhexanamine, placing in the "Specified Category" of stimulants, which means that if an athlete can prove that the source of the drug a supplement taking inadvertently, then the ban can be reduced.  This happened recently in South Africa, to a schoolboy rugby player, and sets a precedent for the Springbok players, who are thus likely to get sanctioned for less than the two years normally given for a doping violation.

Should the list be trimmed?

A final word then is whether the banned list is too broad, too large?  Should this substance, and many others, even be on the list?  This has come up on this site before, when we interviewed Prof Bengt Kayser, who was of the opinion that doping control would be more effective if the number of banned substances was cut right down, leaving only those that have a profound effect on performance and are unsafe.  

Given the probably very marginal effect of a substance like methylhexanamine (it has never been fully tested for sport), and the potentially high risk of inadvertent use (with career ending implications for the player), this argument may well have merit.  In the aftermath of the SA Rugby cases, I was interviewed by a journalist who raised this very question:  Where do we draw the line with regards to how we define doping?  Andreea Raducan has only one gold medal, not two, thanks to a drug that likely did nothing for her performance, and is not even banned anymore.  Basson and Ralepele have been labeled as "drug cheats" by local media, and while this may well turn out to be true, it seems far more likely they are victims of a supplement industry that is rampant, uncontrolled and responsible for more harm that good.

Food for thought...thanks to our drug of the year, methylhexanamine!


More reading:

For those who wish to read more on this topic of supplements and potential positive tests, the following will be of interest:

Boksmart 2010: Supplement recommendations.  This is a guide written by SA Rugby and the dietician at the Sports Science Institute of South Africa, and it outlines the suggested approach to supplements.  If you are a coach of young athletes, I highly recommend it as a source of information

MAUGHAN, R.J. Contamination of dietary supplements and positive drug tests in sport. J Sport Sci. 23:883–889. 2005

Unheralded sportsman of the year: Josphat Menjo

Josphat Menjo:  The unheralded star of 2010

Unless you count yourself a relatively serious follower of athletics (by which I mean you visit athletics-specific websites regularly), you are unlikely to be familiar with the name Josphat Menjo.  He hasn't appeared on television in 2010, at least not in South Africa, where we are fortunate enough to see all the Diamond League meetings.  Nor has he won any major titles.  But, he has just produced one of the iconic running seasons in recent history.

Not "iconic" in the same way that 1995 was for Haile Gebrselassie when he broke multiple world records, and won a world title.  Or that 2008 was for Kenenisa Bekele, winning a double gold in Beijing.

No, Menjo's success came in three tiny races in Finland, in a span of 11 days in August, when he ran 12:55.95 for 5,000m, 26:56.74 for 10,000m, and 3:53.62 for one mile.  The 10,000m time is the fastest of 2010, displacing Chris Solinsky's earlier effort, and most remarkable of all, all three performances were solo, front-running efforts without any competition or pacemakers.

The impact of having "company" is difficult to measure.  We've actually tried to study the effect of competition on performance, but it's near impossible to design the study to do it accurately.  There's no way to gauge how competitive an athlete is to begin with, and then providing the right incentive often proves impossible.  Some athletes probably slow down under pressure of another runner on their shoulder.  So it's anyone's guess how many seconds a rival might be worth over 25 or 12.5 laps, but a bigger stage, better pacing and a race should see Menjo improve by seconds, rather than milliseconds.

Those races came after Menjo could not crack an invitation to a Diamond League race because his times coming into 2010 were too slow - outside 13 minutes for 5,000m.  So, helped by a Finnish manager, he embarked on a solo effort that created for him a cult following of sorts among athletics followers.

By this time next year, he may well be "mainstream".  Since his Finnish exploits, he's beaten Eliud Kipchoge and Said Shaheen in Belgrade, and won the Zatopek 10,000m race in Australia recently.  Perhaps his only obstacle to running truly great times is that he'll over-race in an effort to make up for lost time (and earnings).  But, if he is even in the same kind of condition, then he'll be a name you'll hear much more in 2011.

Menjo is not a complete newcomer to the sport - he has won medals at All-Africa Games events, but those are so low-key they barely register.  And besides, when you are running in Kenya, even a 27:30 barely warrants a mention, so common are those kinds of performances.  It's actually a scary thought that if the resources could support them, the number of Kenyan athletes with the potential to break 27 minutes would probably be at least double what we see now.  However, many are "lost" because the athlete isn't quite successful to make it big, and doesn't have the opportunity to tweak the training enough to get there.  Menjo did, and will hopefully see the prize in 2011.

To read a little more on Josphat Menjo, check out this great write-up by our friend Pat Butcher, on his blog Globerunner.  It has some great quotes, including how Menjo turned down pacemakers for his 10,000m race.

And finally, since it is the fastest 10km time of the year, and because you may never have seen the athlete producing here, here is a video of the last three laps of that performances.  You will see just how small a race it was, how empty the stadium is, and wonder how the addition of 30,000 people and world-class competition would not help Menjo run faster.  Let's hope that 2011 provides the answer.


Tuesday, December 14, 2010

2010 Year in Review ahead

Looking back on 2010:  The Year-in-Review series

Well, 2010 is finally winding down, and while we've had a quiet few months here on the site, it's been anything but quiet in the sports world.  We've missed much of it, while Jonathan welcomed a new addition to his family and the floor fell out from under my feet, but better late than never, we'll use our review to cover the stories we've missed.

The big news of the moment is the latest doping investigation from Spain (Operation Galgo), which threatens to do for athletics (and possibly other sports) what Operation Puertico did for cycling (sadly, there's a good case to say it did "nothing", but that's for another post in this series).

However, 2010 has brought the usual array of highs, lows, celebrations, condemnations, cheating, and world class performances.  And with the year near its end, it's a good time to look back at some of those moments, the sportsmen and women that defined the year.  Unfortunately, much of the news this year has been dominated by controversies, ranging from match-fixing to doping to cheating in sport, and we'll focus on those too.  The year hasn't brought us the kind of drama and controversy that Caster Semenya did in 2009, but nevertheless, there's no shortage of the "darker" side of sports to discuss.

Fortunately, there are some amazing highlights - race of the year, team of the year, moment of 2010, best website, and our sportsman and woman of 2010, all coming up!

It'll be somewhat tongue-in-cheek, this being the festive season, so if you have any good nominations, let us know!  I'm especially thinking of the peculiar side of sport.  And also, if you can think of deserving WOMEN award winners, please let me know - I'm scraping the barrel for women at the moment! We'll kick it off tomorrow!


Sunday, November 28, 2010

Limits to human performance: Lessons from men and women

World Record limits?  What the men's and women's records tell us

Yesterday, I did a post discussing some of the physiology of performance limits, looking at whether we are close to reaching a ceiling of human performance?  As mentioned, it has been a recurring theme since we began this site.

For today though, an interesting approach to the issue dawned on me.  The main argument in yesterday's post was that human performance is limited by maximal capacities in one or more physiological systems.  Perhaps the maximal capacity to use oxygen.  Perhaps the maximal capacity to lose heat, or to store energy, to supply ATP, and so forth.  The physiology thus sets the ceiling, and really, the question everyone is asking when they about performance limits boils down to how close you believe we are to the PHYSIOLOGICAL limits set by these various system's capacities.

Statistical methods reveal some interesting possibilities, and certainly add value.  For one such analysis, check out this post, which concludes that the marathon "limit" exists at 2:01:48.  Given my arguments yesterday, over what is required for a runner to break 2 hours, this doesn't seem too far off the mark, but then what's 1 minute in 120?

However, I'm more interested in whether it's possible to predict a physiological limit based on the physiological capacities, like we did for the Tour de France climbing power output earlier this year.

Comparison of men and women, and what it reveals

It occurred to me that an interesting way of looking at this might be to compare the men's and women's world records, for a simple reason - many of the women's records are "unphysiological".  I'll elaborate more below, but many of the current world records for women date back to an era when doping was the norm, and most have not been challenged in well over 20 years!

Take a look at the table below, which illustrates this for 14 selected athletics events (I chose the events partly randomly, but also to exclude new events like women's steeplechase and pole-vault, and events where specifications have cleared the record books, like javelin).

What you are looking at are the women's world records on the left, men's on the right.  For each, the darker shaded column is the percentage difference between the World Record and the Best Performance in the last 3 years, just to illustrate whether the current group are getting close to breaking that record (you may have to click on the table to enlarge, apologies)

Now, what does this tell us?  A few things:

Women's records - out of sight.  Hard luck for women athletes

First, considering that there are performance bonuses for breaking world records, it's not great to be a woman in athletics.  The average age of the 14 women's records I've looked at is 19 years, 5 months, compared to 10 years, 10 months for men's records (which is skewed a little by the field events). 

Of the 14 women's records, only 3 are "younger" than 10 years, and 9 are older than 20 years!  That is, more than half the women's world records have stood for as long as the athletes now trying to break them have lived!

On the men's side, it's a lot more "fluid" - five of the records were set in the last 3 years (indicated by a difference of 0% in the shaded column), and only the field event records are older than 20 years.  If you rely on prize-money and record bonuses to make a living, being a woman athlete will cost you - you have no chance!  (In fact, the IAAF should scrap the women's performances and turn the record books back to zero, but that's another debate...)

In terms of how close the athletes are getting to the records, the pattern is much the same.  In the last 3 years, women have come within 1% of the world record in only 4 events, and this includes the 5,000m, which was set in 2008.  It also includes the women's 800m event, which, as we've seen in the last 12 months, is shrouded in controversy, first with Jelimo and then Semenya.

On the men's side, it's far more "competitive".  As mentioned, five of the records were set since 2008, and with the exception of the field events, all the events have seen performances come within 2% of the world record.  I do realize that the current crop of women marathon runners, for example, is pretty weak, whereas we're in a golden era of sprinting on the men's side, so this "snapshot" is incomplete, but it makes the point.

And that point is that men are much, much closer to their world records than women are.

The doping effect - shifting the "physiological capacity"

Now, the reason for this is obvious to anyone who follows athletics.  The women's records all date back to the 1980s, and if you go down the list, you will see only tainted performances from a tainted era.

Take the 800m event for women, for example.  If you look at the top 20 performances of All-time in this event, you'll see that:
  • 13 of them come from the 1980s
  • 2 were set by women who have since been suspended for doping
  • 3 come from the early 1990s, which is when EPO made its big impact on sport (as seen by the Tour de France)
So that leaves only two performances not tainted by (or suspected of) doping of some kind - Pamela Jelimo and Caster Semenya.  And a lot has been said about those...

A bar set by physiology plus drugs, and a natural performance limit that can't reach it

The point here is that women have not improved in 20 plus years, and the reason is because the bar has been set by a generation of women who had an unfair advantage as a result of doping.

So what does this have to do with the limits to performance?  Well, if the only thing driving constant improvements in times was the "carrot" of a target, then the women of 2010 would be much closer to those of 1980.  Much like Roger Bannister broke the 4-minute barrier and supposedly showed others that the "impossible" was achievable, the theory has been put forward that the "limit" to performance is psychological.

I'm not belittling the role of psychology and belief, I'm sure it's a significant part of it.  But what women's records show us is that if the physiology can be enhanced, through doping in this case, then it sets the bar at a level that is now seemingly unmatchable, despite better training methods, better equipment, better diet, more advanced performance analysis and the passage of 20 years!  Unless you believe that the woman of 2010 is simply an inferior athlete (in most events, not just one), you should recognize that the performance limit of a non-drug using athlete lies BELOW that of the current records.

My conclusion then, is that women's world records will not improve, because the physiological capacity of the undoped female lies BELOW that of the doped athlete.  And therefore, women are very close to their physiological limit!

By the same token, men must also be close to their physiological limit, because there is nothing to suggest that women will have approached it sooner than the men.  The only way the records will "leap" forward now is if a population of new individuals, whose physiology breaks the "capacity barrier" emerges, like the Africans might have done in the 1980s.

Failing this, I do suspect we are getting ever closer, and in case of women's athletics, the performance limit lies somewhere between what is currently produced, and the records set by doped women in the 1980s.


P.S.  I realise that in the last 3 years, a number of those performances I've used in the table could well be drug-assisted as well.  This makes the argument stronger, because if the current generation are doping, and still falling 2% or more short, then that "limit" is well and truly out of reach.  Hence, the natural physiological limit is very close indeed.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The limit of human performance: How much faster?

Swifter, higher, stronger...up to a point?  Or beyond?  The limit of human performance

Today we revisit a topic that seems to run like carousel, popping up once every few months on the site - how much faster can human beings run?  How close to a "ceiling" in performance are we?

The latest discussion is inspired by a few articles, and a recent round-table discussion between some of the all-time greats of 800m running, and the new world record holder, David Rudisha.  For those who haven't heard, Rudisha was appropriately named the IAAF Male Athlete of the Year for his two world records in 2010.

But preceding that announcement was a panel discussion between Alberto Juantorena, Sebastian Coe, Wilson Kipketer And Rudisha in Monaco.  To watch the discussion and read some commentary on it, check out Letsrun.com here.

One of the topics that came up was how much faster the record would still go.  Rudisha came agonizingly close (1/100th of a second) to dipping under 1:41.00, so it's safe to assume that barrier is in reach.  But how much lower?  Here are three quotes attributed to those legends:

"This record belongs to the future - 1:41.01." and "You never know the limit of a human being." - Alberto Juantorena

"I don't think we're anywhere near them (the limits of the event) ..."Seb Coe

"In 800 it is possible to run under 1:40. It is still coming." - Wilson Kipketer

Then, an interesting piece by the Guardian discussed the same issues around whether we are near the limits, with the conclusion that it will take many years before we know the answer to this question.  I will point out that saying this is not quite the same thing as saying that we are not near the limit, but rather that we just do not know where it is.  There is a ceiling somewhere above us, but we don't know when we will hit our head!  You can read that piece here.

The physiological basis for "limits"

In trying to evaluate these arguments, I think it's important to understand a little bit about the physiological basis for why there may be a limit to performance.  And here, the most important thing to recognize is that we don't fully know what that basis might be.  It certainly varies by event, and is more complex than I want to go into now, but those keen for more might consider reading our series on Fatigue and Performance

For example, in 100m sprinting, some limits are the metabolic changes in the muscle, which affect its force-producing capacity, combined with mechanical factors such as muscle-tendon elasticity, ability to apply force to the ground, the force and torque on joints, and limits to how quickly neural signals can reach the muscle from the brain.

Some really interesting work by a colleague at my university has confirmed that the rate of force production and muscle relaxation drops over time during maximal exercise, even when the electrical signal to activate the muscle doesn't change.  In other words, there is a drop in the force that the muscle can produce, and that's why even events as short as 10 seconds show signs of pacing - if you go too hard early, you fall away at the end.  But, the peripheral factors, like acidosis in the muscle, depletion of ATP, accumulation of calcium and phosphate are only part of the problem, and the Guardian article talks more of the mechanics of sprinting, which affect the force production on the ground.

As you move up in distance, other factors play more of a role.  The rate of energy supply becomes a factor in middle-distance events, oxygen availability is a potential limiter (though whether it is to skeletel muscle or to the brain (more likely) is a debate).  So too, chemical changes such as a drop in pH may be regulated or responsible for a decline in performance.  Then, as you reach marathon distances, fuel availability becomes important (hitting the wall being the obvious sign of not getting this right), and the ability to burn fat to preserve glycogen is part of the elite athlete make-up.  Heat storage is another limiting factor, because fatigue occurs when the body temperature reaches what has been called a critical level of hyperthermia.

The point is that performances are not limited by one thing only, but rather a complex interaction between all the physiological systems, whose weighting depends on the type of event, and the external conditions for the event on the day.

Those interested in a more academic discussion of the topic might consider the following review articles:

Applying this to performance limits

In any event, you may be wondering what this has to with a debate over whether an athlete can run under 1:40 for 800m, sub 9.40s for 100m, or break the 2-hour barrier in the marathon?

Well, in my view, knowing that performance is limited by physiological changes in the muscle, lungs, heart, brain, body temperature, there is an obvious "barrier" that cannot be broken without causing harm to the athlete.  We cannot simply head out and run or cycle ourselves to the limit - our brain controls the degree of muscle activation so that we are protected against, quite literally, exercising ourselves to death.  So the brain will, for example, detect the rate of heat storage early on and then reduce the exercise workrate through adjustments in muscle activation, the result of which is a slowing in pace, but also a drop in heat storage and avoidance of that limiting body temperature.  The same presumably happens with oxygen availability, glucose supply (probably both to the brain), blood flow, cardiac output, osmolality - any number of "homeostats" that have to be defended in order for us to survive

This is the reason, incidentally, that it is possible to predict the maximal sustainable power output by a cyclist during a mountain climb in the Tour de France.  We did this in July during the Tour, to some criticism, but I'm confident in saying that the physiological basis is sound, and so too is the prediction that power outputs of 6.1 W/kg to 6.3 W/kg represent a maximal power output that is possible given human physiology.

In other words, exercise performance is limited by a capacity in oxygen delivery, a capacity in heat storage and body temperature, a capacity in the rate of ATP supply, a capacity in the total energy availability.  Short of finding a human being who exceeds everything we know of physiology, or finding that individual who possesses the maximal combination of every single physiological attribute (this individual doesn't exist except in theory), the records will not "leap" forward, they will inch forward incrementally, and I do believe that we are quite close to the limit, when world records will become more and more infrequent, and eventually no longer be broken, unless we start measuring down to the nearest thousandth of a second.

The sub-2 hour marathon as an example

Let's look at the sub-2 hour marathon as an example.  This came up last week again, when Ed Coyle suggested that he was "confident" it could happen and predicted a 1:58 as the limit.  It won't be in my lifetime, that's for sure, but I'll get onto that shortly.

The 1:58 prediction, incidentally, is based around this paper, which applied much the same process as we did to cycling in the Tour to suggest the 6.2W/kg limit.  It works on the premise that performance in the marathon is limited (I would rather say regulated, but that's debated in our fatigue series) by oxygen delivery, lactate threshold and running economy.  It concludes that 1:57:58 is possible for "a hypothetical subject with a VO2max of 84 ml/kg/min, a lactate threshold of 85% of VO2max, and exceptional running economy".

The word "hypothetical" is important, because performance is not hypothetical.  That study was done in 1991, and knowledge of the limiting factors has evolved a little.  The role of the brain has become recognized, as have the mechanical factors such as energy storage and return in the tendons.  The key for me is that the athlete with a VO2max that high never has an exceptional running economy, so it is much like trying to find a motor vehicle with a 6 liter engine that also gets you 80 miles to the gallon (and those are the kind of unrealistic figures we're talking in combination) 

Another key point is that performance is determined by more than just the VO2 max and lactate threshold.  Athletes regularly "under-perform" given their physiological stats - perhaps it is because they lack racing nous or desire, they don't have the discipline to train, they are too big and thus heat storage becomes a factor for them.  Perhaps they are injury prone and so despite having the highest VO2max and economy in the history of sports science, they can't run 40km a week before breaking down.  The point is that for this "hypothetical athlete" to have a shot at a sub-2 hour marathon, there have to be hundreds of them, because the set of characteristics needed is not limited to three, and is extremely rare.

However, I would be surprised if there was even one such athlete,  let alone hundreds, because he would have been found by now.  An arguable point, certainly, but I believe that kind of physiology to be so rare that this person would stand out instantly and therefore, given the "free-market" that is sport, they would have been seen already. 

The performance spectrum - why one performance doesn't exist in isolation

The other reason the sub-2 hour marathon is, in my opinion, unlikely, is because it has implications for what happens at shorter distances.  I've described this before and would encourage you to read this post if you're interested, but the summary of it is that in order for a marathon to be run in under 2 hours, that athlete must possess a half marathon that lies closer to 57 minutes, and more tellingly, a 10,000m in closer to 25 minutes.  This once again comes back to the issue that all performances in these complementary events are limited by similar physiological "regulators", so that the physiology of a great 10,000m runners is often easily transferred up to the marathon (Haile Gebrselassie, Paul Tergat and Sammy Wanjiru are exhibits A, B and C).

So don't ask whether a sub 2 hour marathon is possible, rather ask whether a 25-xx minute 10km is possible.  Improvements in the 10,000m world record have declined in recent years, to the point that even a sub-26 minute time seems unlikely for a long, long time.  Therefore, even though mathematical predictions for the marathon have suggested that if performance continues to improve at the same rate, we'll see the 2 hour marathon in 2021, it seems unlikely given how improvements in the 10,000m event have dropped off recently.

Also, there are less "scientific" reasons why it will take much longer than predicted, and one is the lack of courses where a 2:03 time is possible, combined with commercial interests.  Right now, only Dubai, Berlin and possibly Chicago have the kind of course and money to drive a world record attempt.  Then it requires perfect conditions - 1 or 2 degrees too hot, a slight headwind, too cold, wet, and the record possibility disappears.  So unlike Ed Coyle, I'm not at all "confident" we'll see a sub-2 hour marathon.  Certainly not in our life-times, if at all.

The sub-4 minute mile response

So the question that comes up many times in response to this kind of opinion is that back in 1953, people suggested that the mile world record was at its limit and that the 4-minute mile would not be broken.  History clearly proves that to have been foolish, as the record is now 17 seconds faster, and many high-school athletes are breaking the barrier.  So therefore, is there not a chance that the same applies to the 2-hour marathon?

Of course there is.  But, there are some fundamental differences between that situation and the current one.  What we know of physiology now says that the 4- minute mile was always going to happen.  So if in 50 years, athletes are running under 2-hours in the marathon, then it will be because we have missed something in our understanding of the physiology today.  What are the chance of that?  Pretty high, of course, it would be arrogant to say that we know everything, we simply cannot.

However, I don't believe there are fundamental physiological principles that have not yet been discovered.  Performance is limited by the physiological regulators, and things like VO2max, running economy, threshhold running pace and thermoregulation are known to be regulators.  So we're either wrong, or we're still waiting for that one-of-a-kind human being who possesses physiological stats never seen before.  That wasn't the case in the 1950s - they were good athletes with exceptional but expected physiology, and it was lack of professionalism and training/diet, along with "vision" of what might be possible that limited them

Today, with money to be made, advancements in training, globalization of the sport (back then, Kenyans may have been running 3:50 for the mile, who knows?  They weren't competing enough), and a shifting of the horizon in terms of limits, we know much more what is possible.  We know what kind of physiological specimens exist, and I believe, we know what doesn't exist.  Genetic engineering may change that, but I really do believe we're approaching those limits.

In the 100m, Bolt came along and blew away the record books, but he hasn't done anything that mathematical models suggested would be impossible - they have the record limit at 9.48s, based on hundreds of years of data.  He just took us closer to it long before anyone thought it might happen.

Similarly, in the 800m, Rudisha has edged us towards 1:40 (only by 1/10th of a second, compared to Kipketer), and it does seem possible that this record will be improved again.  In the marathon, we have to find four minutes, from the same populations we're working with now, with limited opportunities for the record to be broken.  Physiologically, hypothetically, 1:58 is possible, but I don't share the confidence, and I don't believe that the hypothetical athlete exists, and I'd be very surprised if the record dips below 2:03 in the next fifteen years, and perhaps then we'll have a better idea of where the ceiling is, if we haven't hit our heads against it by then!