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Wednesday, June 20, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you soon!


Ian said...

This is fascinating stuff. Thanks.