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Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Greatest athlete in the world?

Is Roman Sebrle the greatest athlete in the world? So say some experts...

I'm not one of them; I will declare all my cards up front on this one. But this was the verdict delivered by the Wall Street Journal in their survey last week, based on the performance achievements and physiological characteristics of some of the world's greatest athletes.

You can read the news article here, but I thought that since our last post looked at the debate of who the FASTEST man in the world was, the logical extension would be to look at who the best all-round athlete in the world is.

The process followed was to identify some 79 of the world's greatest athletes and then rank them in terms of their standing in six criteria deemed important for athletic performance. The judging was carried out by five experts, including exercise physiologists, medical specialists and former athletes, and high-profile coaches.

So, here are the top 10, according to the Wall Street Journal:

  1. Roman Sebrle - Czech decathlete, current World and Olympic champ and world record holder
  2. LeBron James - Cleveland Cavalier basketball superstar. And, I must declare, my pick at the moment, though that's based purely on his astonishing physical attributes. He plays in a relatively weak team, which has not yet won major titles, which would have counted against him. But as I wrote some two months ago, James stands out in a sport with some exceptional athletes, and I think he is one of the most impressive physical athletes around.
  3. Floyd Mayweather - boxing world champion, now retired. Mayweather went 39 fights unbeaten, and retired as the widely-recognized best fighter in the world.
  4. LaDainian Tomlinson - a running back from the San Diego Chargers. According to the judges, he can "sprint like crazy", and is unmatched for acceleration from a standing start and ability to change direction. This is a "bald assertion", made purely on the basis of their impressions, because I don't know who that was compared to. I know some rugby players with equally impressive sprint ability, though they were of course not considered (it's a very US-centric list). However, I must acknowledge that the NFL has some pretty incredible athletes, and I'd love to know their capabilities in track athletics
  5. Roger Federer - the Swiss world number 1 has dominated tennis for about 7 years now, and is currently bidding for his sixth consecutive Wimbledon title. His strength will have been his achievements (see criteria below), though he was recently humbled by Rafael Nadal on clay in France.
  6. Sidney Crosby - NHL superstar from the Pittsburgh Penguins (we did say it was a US-centric list!). Ice hockey, apparently, combines stamina, power and co-ordination like few other sports. They would "put golfers to shame", according to the article...I know little of ice-hockey physiology, I can appreciate how tough it is. But this inclusion demonstrates the inherent bias in any such debate, and the difficulty in comparing athletes across sports.
  7. Liu Xiang - track and field, 110m hurdle athlete. Well, if there was a prize for mental strength under pressure, then come August, Liu might win it. We have written often of the enormous pressure he finds himself under ahead of the Beijing Olympics, where only a billion people want him to win gold! But it's his speed and co-ordination that gets him into seventh on this list. His world record was broken recently, adding to the pressure he's under.
  8. Jeremy Wariner - Olympic and World 400m champion. Gunning for Michael Johnson's world record, and still a huge favourite for the Beijing Gold, though he was beaten recently by LaShawn Merrit. Merritt is closing, but probably not enough to dethrone the current king. Again, how a 400m athlete beats out an 800m or 400m hurdle athlete is anyone's guess - he's a great athlete, make no mistake, but it reveals the "dangers" in such analyses.
  9. Ronaldinho - Barcelona and Brazil's soccer superstar. I must confess, a very bizarre pick, considering that few would even put him in a list of top 20 players on CURRENT form. Two years ago, he was incredible, a sensation, but injury and apparent attitude problems have contributed to something of a fall from grace, and he's no longer the feared player he was. Ronaldo of Manchester United has probably taken his crown for now, but next year, it could well be someone else. Perhaps we should just say that ninth is held by the world's best soccer player, or you could just as well pull a name out of a hat
  10. Alex Rodriguez - New York Yankees baseballer. Again, I'm not in the USA, and so I immediately question these inclusions out of some ignorance of never having played the sport myself. Rodriguez earns one of the highest ON-FIELD salaries in all of sport (reported at $26 million per year), but then being highly-paid was not a criteria for inclusion! Eye hand co-ordination and power were, and it's on this basis that he makes the list. I'm not convinced, however..
The process: Six criteria and category winners

Very briefly, the six criteria and the "winners" in each category were:

Vision and reflex: Lewis Hamilton
Stamina and recovery: Alberto Contador (not an East African runner in site, I'm afraid)
Power, strength and size: World heavyweight champ Vladimir Klitschko came out top
Speed: Asafa Powell, who was the record-holder at the time of the survey. Presumably, if done today it would be Usain Bolt
Success and competitiveness at sport: Perhaps the most important category if you want to evaluate the simple criteria of "greatness", because this one probably packages all the required criteria into one outcome per sport. The winner here was Tiger Woods
Co-ordination and flexibility: Yang Wei, Chinese gymnast, won this category.

Summing up: The debate will continue, but some personal thoughts

Since it's a weekend, many of you will only be reading this on Monday, two days later, and so I expect much debate around the list. Therefore, we'll pick it up with more of a detailed analysis in the next week.

But very briefly, my opinion is that this kind of survey is good fun, and great bar-room conversation - it's the kind of discussion you'd have with with ten friends watching a game on TV or over drinks, but to do a "scientific" survey is clearly fraught with danger.

As you read this, you probably already have an idea of who you'd put in your top five. So do I, and I make no claims that this is even vaguely objective - it would be the vote of a fan, not a scientist, but then it is weekend, after all! But that's for today. In the week, we'll be much more objective and look at the criteria and how they were weighted (and assessed, since many were not - bald assertions, as I said earlier)!

Until then, have a great weekend!

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Fastest man in the world?

Who is the fastest man in the world?

It's seems an age ago, but it has only been just over three weeks since Usain Bolt of Jamaica broke the world 100m record. He was duly dubbed the "fastest man in the world", a title that is given to the record holder over 100m. Or, in some cases, the world champion, as was the case last year when the record holder Asafa Powell was soundly beaten by Tyson Gay over 100m in Osaka.

An illegitimate title?

However, the debate rages over whether that title is actually deserved or not. People, including exercise scientists, raise the question whether it should not be the 200m event that throws out the real fastest man, because the final 100m of that event are covered in much less time than a 100m race ever is. For example, the 200m record of Michael Johnson stands at 19.32 seconds, with a final 100m covered in 9.20 seconds (Johnson's first 100 split of 10.12 seconds is pretty quick too, considering it's on a bend - it would have placed him sixth in the 1996 100m final, incidentally).

However, most people can appreciate that this comparison is hardly fair - the second 100m of a 200m race benefits from a running start, so it should be faster. However, a more subtle version of the argument comes from the English Institute of Sport website, where their Professor Greg Whyte argues that because Johnson had to run for longer at the same speed, he's the owner of the "fastest man" title. In his words:

"Therefore the average running velocity is higher in a 200m runner as they will run for approximately 160m at peak velocity compared to a 100m runner who will run for only around 60m at the same rate."
The article (which is actually quite shaky) goes on to make the afore-mentioned error, saying:
"For those still unconvinced, a cursory glance at the record books reveals a simple truth; Michael Johnson’s 200m world record of 19.32 - which he set in 1996 and which has yet to be beaten - equates to 9.66 for each 100 metres, significantly quicker than Asafa Powell’s 100m world record of 9.77 set in early 2005."
Two things: First, this argument is based on the assumption that the 100m runner and 200m runner do in fact hold the same speed - this needn't be the case, as we shall see shortly, and the 100m runner may well be much faster once into his running. Secondly, to suggest that the FASTEST man should be so crowned because he runs at a certain speed for LONGER seems to be confusing the whole meaning of FASTEST. In other words, fastest should imply peak speed - speed is absolute. Or is it? When we wrote about Usain Bolt's performance, people commented that reaction time should be corrected for, and that one should look only at the peak speeds attained. That too defines "fastest" in a unique way.

So as if often the case in science, it all depends on how you ask the question, and how you define the outcome!

A statistical comparison

For answers (or perhaps more debate) we turn to a really interesting comparison between Michael Johson's and Donovan Bailey's 200m and 100m world records from the Atlanta Olympic Games. To take you back 12 years, both records fell in the space of a week - Bailey won gold in 9.84secs (Bolt's recent time was 9.72s, so quite a lot faster) and Johnson won gold in 19.32 secs. Because of the occasion, and proximity, the debate was particularly hot. It even led to the creation of a marketing exercise where the two raced over 150m (which we pick up below).

The study was written by a Robert Tibshirani, Professor in Biostatistics at the University of Toronto, and was published in a journal called The American Statistician. As you might infer, it's heavy on the stats, so we won't go into massive detail on the methods and the various analyses performed, but pull out the most relevant information - split times and speeds!

The problem with the study is that split times were not proactively recorded, and so Tibshirani had to go back and estimate some of the times at 10m intervals during the races. He did this off the TV screen, manually, and the result is some very dodgy splits - for example, his estimates give Johnson's second 50m split as 3.82 seconds, which is far too fast to be accurate. His estimation also gives a third split that is too slow, and so likely the 150m estimate is false. However, his overall model is still revealing, though we're not going to tackle the exact times, but rather the principle - I just don't believe the estimates are accurate enough to base any conclusion on.

So the graph below shows a curve that he fitted to his data. This curve is "fitted" using statistical methods, which take care of some of the error in the measurement, but it's the shape and peaks that are of most interest:

Two things to note:

First, what has been done is to move Bailey's race along the x-axis so that it corresponds to Johnson's second 100m interval. When done this way, it's clear how big the effect of a running start is - Johnson is already moving at over 10m/s while Bailey is accelerating. Bailey takes about four seconds to get up to Johnson's speed, but you can appreciate that by then, he's well behind in the hypothetical "race".

Second, the peak speed achieved by Bailey is faster than Johnson's. He gets up to 13.2 m/s (47.5 km/hour), compared to Johnson's 11.8 m/s (42.5 km/hour). Here again, you can see the effect of "estimations", because the margin for error (about 0.5 seconds) means that the maximum speeds might actually go up to 51.5 km/hour (or it could come down to 42 km/hour). For example, Bailey was clocked with a radar gun in the race, and then the speed was 43.6 km/hour. So the exact numbers are difficult to know outside of exact measurements. But it is clear that Bailey, on the grounds of Peak Speed, is faster than Johnson. For many, case closed...!

For comparison purposes, Bailey's top speed in this race was HIGHER than the top speed achieved by BEN Johnson in his famous 1988 Seoul Olympic victory - he was later disqualified, but nevertheless, in running 9.79 seconds. But his peak speed, according to Tibshirani, was "only" about 12m/s (43.2 km/hour). His performance was achieved thanks to a faster start than Bailey, which would have seen him a stride clear after about 60 m, which would never quite have been closed. The graph below shows those speeds.
So who is the fastest then?

Well, on the basis of these kinds of results, one suspects that the 100m man, who seems likely to hit a higher top speed than the 200m runner, is likely the rightful "Fastest man" in the world. However, because the data is never really measured accurately, it is still not 100% clear. And so having discovered that research paper courtesy of Jen (thanks very much), we must confess that it doesn't fully answer the question! However, we will not close the book on this issue just yet, and promise to look up another study or two, where data was more accurately measured as part of a proper study (rather than a retrospective look back on the race).

A promotional opportunity for the sport?

On that note, wouldn't it be great for the sport if the "powers-that-be" (the IAAF) made an effort to measure these kinds of things properly? Can you imagine if the post-race discussion of the Olympic 100m and 200m finals included an analysis of who was fastest, who accelerated the quickest, who slowed down the most? A bit more detail, in "real-time". It could only be good for the sport, and make it more attractive to watch for people hungry for information. Those who are not, simply ignore the info while waiting for the next event. If anyone from the IAAF is reading, take us up and use the analysis and information to promote the sport! We'd certainly be interested.


P.S. We mentioned that this debate about the Bailey-Johnson WR led to the creation of a 150m race between the two. You can watch a video of that 150m Bailey vs. Johnson race here, courtesy YouTube, and Jen, who brought it to our attention. I'm sure many know, but it turned into something of an anticlimax! Anyway, enjoy the race!

Monday, June 23, 2008

UEFA 2008 opinions

Soccer stereotypes win through, as UEFA 2008 hits the semi-final stage

About a week ago, I promised that we'd eventually cast an eye over the UEFA 2008 tournament taking place in Austria and Switzerland. True, soccer is not something we've covered (at all) in our year and three month existence to date, but outside of the Olympic Games, this is one of the big showpiece events of the year, and so we felt it important to have a brief look at the tournament.

Those who've followed it will by now know that we're into the semi-final stage of the tournament, and the line up consists of:

  • Germany vs. Turkey
  • Russia vs. Spain
While it's hardly a huge surprise to see Germany and Spain there, the presence of Turkey and Russia is a little more unusual, particularly given the teams they knocked out to make it there. But most of all, it's the absence of Holland, Italy, France and Portugal that is a little more of a turn up. At the outset of the tournament, you'd surely have put money on at least two of those teams making the last four, and to be in a situation where not one has progressed is typical of a championships that has thrown up some surprises, including Denmark and Greece as two of its recent winners!

The stereotypes of football and a lack of supportive data

But last night, as I was torturing myself by watching Spain against Italy, it occurred to me that with the exception of surprise teams like Russia, soccer tournaments like this are often almost scripted long before the first ball is kicked, as a result of stereotypes that tend to persist in the complete lack of evidence to support them (and herewith the science part of this post!).

For example, consider the following teams, and the associations you automatically make in terms of their playing style. Germany will be efficient, workman-like, ruthless, effective under pressure, and disciplined. Portugal, on the other hand, are skillful, but unable to deliver when the pressure is greatest, and tend to be temperamental and volatile. Holland meanwhile, play "total football", with a focus on the skill level of every player, emphasizing a passing game which is often entertaining to watch, but lack a hard edge. So, in a tournament like this, expect Germany to find a way to win, expect Portugal and Holland to promise much, but fail to deliver...

Note that these three generalizations come from BEFORE the tournament began, but you could just as well write them now that the semi-final lineup has been decided. In other words, Germany were disciplined, efficient, ruthless and effective when under pressure, as they knocked out Portugal, who did falter under pressure with some careless errors.

Holland meanwhile, did play the most attractive football in the tournament, scoring nine goals in three matches, and eventually got dumped out the tournament by Russia! The stereotypes don't stop there - Italy are known for grinding out results, playing dull football and adopting negative tactics which are often effective in these tournaments (they certainly enhanced this reputation last night against Spain, barring a penalty shoot-out loss!).

Point is, the stereotypes that the teams enter the tournament with often end up proving to be self-fulfilling prophecies in terms of the eventual result! But if one thinks analytically about it, there's very little data (at least, none that I can see) that proves these stereotypes to even be accurate. For example, it's not as though Holland do pass the ball more than any other team - the only statistic that has been shown on the TV coverage of the tournament is a passing stat, and the Dutch team are similar to any other in this regard - the same number of attempted passes, and the same completion rate. And how does one quantify the efficiency of the Germans? Is it in fewer mistakes? Well, first we must define mistakes. Missed passes? Missed tackles? Allowing opposition time on the ball? We haven't seen these stats, though I'd love to know what "hard" proof there is to suggest that the German way of playing is different.

The point is, there is a lack of evidence on which to base an outsider opinion of the game. And all this reminds me of the book Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, in which he talks of a concept called "Thin slicing", where an expert in a topic is often able to make extremely accurate judgements on very little hard information. I suspect a similar thing happens for soccer. Both Jonathan and I played soccer, albeit to a relatively low level, and so we would not consider ourselves experts. However, the experts tend to line up and predict the patterns of play and strategies that will be adopted by teams, and these predictions often turn out to be quite accurate.

The scientist in me would however love to get hold of information that "proves" (or at the very least suggests) that this instictive, "thin-slicing" opinion is correct. Or is it a case where informed insight is based on "intangible" science and information? Any data would be most welcome - an exercise in clever data interpretation to prove what experts and performances suggest to be the case...

Back to the soccer

But, back to the actual on-field action. The biggest pity in the tournament is that Russia played The Netherlands in a quarterfinal matchup, which means that one of the two most entertaining teams was eliminated. Having watched the 3-1 extra time thriller between Russia and The Netherlands, followed by the drab and painful Italy-Spain matchup, it's indeed a pity that the Dutch are no longer involved.

Italy-Spain was a war of attrition. To modify the old saying: "It's a shame somebody had to WIN the match", and for the neutral, the most pleasing result would have been to eliminate both teams and let The Netherlands play Russia again in the semi-final! Italy were dreadful - I've never seen a team drop all 11 players back behind the ball instantly when the opposition win it! It was more like watching a rugby match, where the two teams were completely separated, so defensive were the Italians. So from a neutral, it's Ciao to Italy, with a smile and fond farewell, and let's hope Spain have more attacking flair than they showed last night.

Team of the tournament though is Russia, who have, apart from their opening game against Spain, been spectacular. They have "no name" players who play with freedom, pace and a sense of adventure that is rare and thrilling to watch. It comes back to preconceived ideas and stereotypes about countries, but if the Russian Number 10 (a guy called Arshivin) was playing in a red jersey of Portugal, he'd be praised as one the world's great players right now, the most skillful and the most exciting, because he's been absolutely spectacular. Instead, he plays for Russia, not a glamour team, and those titles are given instead to Ronaldo, who was completely neutralized against Germany in their 3-2 defeat. If Arshivin can even play half as well for a season as he did last night, then Real Madrid would quickly forget their pursuit of Ronaldo and spend that money on the Russian instead!

As for Holland, unlucky again, though outplayed by Russia, who thoroughly deserved to win. The Russians now meet Spain, who will carry more confidence into that game than they did against Italy, and therefore should attack a little more (please let them attack more!). I hope Russia win the game, because I think they'll be invigorating for the final, where I'd pick them to play Germany.

Germany have been patchy, losing to Croatia and grinding out a win against Austria. But against Portugal, they were anything but efficient and workman-like, they were actually exciting and aggressive, and I expect they'll have too much for Turkey, for whom just overcoming Croatia may prove to be a high point. So Germany-Russia for the final, and then who knows - we need an expert to "thin-slice" the possible result for us!


P.S. Before I hear from people for criticising their teams (soccer fever tends to run high!), let me admit right now that my own nation, South Africa, played against the Mighty Sierra Leone, ranked number 163 in the world, in NOT ONE, BUT TWO MATCHES, and couldn't score a single goal. That's right, 180 minutes against a team ranked 163rd , and we couldn't score a goal...

Bring on the 2010 World Cup and the best in the world. We'll be ready....

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Running injuries expanded

Expanding on running injuries (and some admin)

Yesterday, Jonathan did a post looking at running injuries and specifically the common training error made by runners who tend to move from one injury to the next in their training! He raised the the guideline that a 10% increase in distance from one week to the next is probably about the limit of what most people can aim for before they start running (literally) into injury territory.

And the post got some pretty good comments and discussion going, and it struck me that the whole concept of injuries in runners (and in other sports, cycling and swimming especially, since our focus is on endurance) is a topic that we have never really tackled here.

And since it's so prevalent - studies suggest that about 2 in 3 runners will be injured every year - it seems like a topic worth delving into in a bit more detail in the coming months!

Of course, it's a vast, enormous topic, and much like our Fatigue Series, it's probably too big to be discussed adequately in a nice, packaged series of three or four posts. So rather than introduce it as a series, I think I'll put forward that we will start giving a lot more thought to some posts that follow on from yesterday's post and the resultant suggestions, and then roll those posts out a little less frequently than we would in a dedicated series. But just be assured, it's on the radar screen!

So just a couple of ideas around injuries in running:

1) Running technique and injury

First, a couple of people raised the issue of running technique and injuries, which is a pretty common thought these days. I honestly don't believe that running technique, at least in the form that it's been "packaged" and then sold to runners, has a great deal of importance for injuries. I'd go with the theory that if a runner is injured, look first at training, second at training, third at training, fourth at strength and flexibility imbalances, and fifth at training. Maybe at number six, you can consider running technique.

All this is obviously within reason, and as one reader (Cassio) pointed out, there are obvious technique related things that can easily be addressed, like very obvious overstriding. So sure, in that case. But the case that is made for subtle changes is really overdone and overmarketed, in our opinion.

The issue of technique is however one that we have covered in great detail, and so this is not a debate we need to have right now - it's been had! You can read our series on running technique here for all the discussion of those ideas.

2. The inter-relatedness of it all

Of course, at this point, we must make a very very (very) important point. Nothing in your running (or cycling or any sport) can ever be looked at in perfect isolation. In otherwords, training may well be the cause of most injuries, as we've said, but there is a substantial interaction between the training you do and other variables which act externally to affect your unique response to that training. A 55 kg Kenyan might go from no running to 120 km in a matter of months, and be racing competitively in less time than that. Another person will be bed-ridden in weeks with stress fractures! Why? Because their unique physiology, anatomy and response to training means that "not all training is created equal".

So I am firmly of the belief that if correct training principles are adhered to, then any athlete can train without injury - the level they reach and their success as a runner is of course dependent on numerous other factors. But the problem that we land ourselves in is that we "train by numbers", and try to fit all athletes into the same mould. So the concept that training is simply run from a template doesn't work, precisely because we are not all average.

So the truth is, training might make up the first three areas of concern for an injured athlete (in my opinion), but you can't look at the athlete's training without considering things like flexibility and strength balance (as Sean has pointed out) because they MODERATE the athlete's response to training. That's why I'm in agreement that the athlete must address strength, flexibility and balance.

Now, if we want things to get really tricky, then we start talking about flexibility - can you be TOO flexible? I think when asked in that way, the answer is quite obviously "Yes". But what if it's asked a little differently: Should runners be stretching? Because now all of a sudden, the answer is "Maybe". And once again, we have a case where "one size does NOT fit all". There is, in other words, evidence that stretching can CAUSE injury, not prevent it. And excessive strength too. The key then is balance, and that's a topic worth getting into in the future as well

3. The influence of intensity - critical

Then lastly, the other variable in your training programme is the intensity. Yesterday, Jonathan touched primarily on VOLUME, and raised that guideline (not a rule, remember) that 10% increases are usually the limit. What that doesn't deal with is intensity, so we have to discuss the impact of increasing intensity.

What often happens is that a runner will very patiently and methodically build up VOLUME, because it's much easier to measure - time or distance. What they neglect, and it's more difficult to quantify, is intensity. Because my experience, and theory, suggests that a 5% increase in intensity is NOT the same as a 5% increase in volume.

In other words, if you increase the intensity very slightly, the volume has to drop quite a lot more in order to keep the OVERALL load the same. And so what often catches runners out is that they ramp up the volume by 5 to 10%, but the intensity goes up by 5% too, as they get fitter, or push a little harder. The net result is that the overall training quality increases too much, and they break down.

This is also why the biggest danger period for any runner is that moment when they start to add in the high intensity training to the programme. They finish base training, and suddenly start to do the odd track workout, some fartleks, or the like. But if they don't manage a reduction in volume, the combined effect can be damaging.

So that's another topic worth discussing

One final point - no research available

One thing that we must make clear right up front, is that as we tackle this topic on and off over the coming months, there is very little scientific evidence on this, and so we rely instead on theoretical insights, experience and "bald assertions". Studies often look backwards at injury, and work out after the fact that X, Y and Z are the likely predictors for injury. For example, we know that if you've had a previous hamstring injury, then you have a many-fold greater chance of a hamstring injury! (hardly rocket science...)

But scientific studies that look at the long term effects of different volumes and intensities of training are, for many reasons, just about impossible to do effectively, so it's looking backwards that reveals the evidence.

But, that's no reason not to discuss it, and we'll welcome any comment or feedback. So keep an eye out for those injury posts!


Wednesday, June 18, 2008

How to prevent a running injury

The "Training Error:" The root of most injuries

In a recent post on the Comrades Marathon we posted on the shear dearth of training some runners race on. Incredibly there are runners out there who do hardly any training at all, and still run Comrades year in and year out. To be certain, they are not breaking any records, but yet they still finish withing the cut-off time and walk away with another medal to add to their collection.

Earlier this week we received a newsletter from the folks at Total Immersion, a swimming site. It was unremarkable except for the story of a runner who became a swimmer:

At 36, I was a self coached runner; I believed that if I kept running faster and farther on a regular basis I could eventually run a sub 4-hour marathon. I would run fast, recover from injury, run fast and recover from injury, in an increasingly fruitless cycle.
He actually went on to take up swimming before eventually returning to running, but this snippet illustrates the approach many runners take, and they of course experience the same results.

What is a training error?

A training error is what we use to describe any sudden change, mostly an increase, in training load that results in either acute or chronic injury. In more simple terms it is the "zero to hero" concept---a runner takes up running or returns from an injury or hiatus, guns blazing. . .and starts running right away and increasing intensity and volume each a day and week. This is all good and well, and in fact our athlete sees steady improvements for 4-8 weeks. They feel better all the time, and this reinforces to them that they must be doing something correct. Eventually, however, a running injury rears its ugly head. Be it shin splints, a strain, back pain, or something else, it becomes inevitable on this schedule, and soon our runner is again reduced to no running.

A training error can also be related to "out-racing" one's training. For example, we have often spoken to runners who train for a 3:30 marathon, but on the day get swept up and decide to run three-hour pace because they are feeling so good in the beginning. Of course they can do this for 20+ miles, but then fall into a crumpled heap on the side of the road with five km to go, battered and bruised and with a sure prescription to stop running for some weeks while they heal.

These are two examples of training errors, and it is our belief that the vast majority of running injuries are the result of a training error, and not because of biomechanical problems, shoe problems, leg length discrepancies, or any other static variable.

P.S. - Running is hard on your body

Many will agree that running is tough on your body. The impact can really wear you down, but the really amazing thing about our bodies is that we can adapt to these kinds of stresses. However we must allow our bodies sufficient time to make these adaptations, else something has to give and an injury is the result.

Therefore when consulting a novice runner who has just entered the Chicago Marathon, for example, the easy advice is not to race the event. Take it easy, build up your mileage progressively for the next 12-14 weeks, and then simply complete the distance at an easy pace. If you want to run hard(er), then you must give your body the time it needs to make all kinds of chronic adaptations on a number of different levels. This requires a strong commitment to running regularly for the next year, as the the time it takes to make all the necessary adaptations might be 12 or more months.

The problem is that many of us are impatient, and life can be unpredictable. We might have the time now to train for a fast marathon in October, but next year the circumstances might be different. It is a seemingly difficult decision, although if you place a high value on your ability to keep running for most of your life, then it should become much easier task.

Charity runners: classic zeros to heroes

These days running marathons for charity is big business, and of course it makes us feel good to support charitable or non-profit organizations. But these programs are fraught with problems as they often take previously sedentary individuals and "train them up" for a marathon with volunteer coaches who have little to no formal training. In fact at this year's annual meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine there was much discussion about injury rates among charity runners, and whether or not the rates are higher compared to more experienced runners. The saving grace for this population is that hardly any of them are racing, and instead most run just for completion. As a result they run/walk their way safely to five hour marathons.

Avoiding training errors

Perhaps the best way to reduce your risk of a training error is to consult a coach, either as a once off or regularly. Following what we refer to as "progressive overload" is crucial, and this means that you must increase the stress on your body in a very incremental manner so that it can always keep up with the stress(es) by making the necessary physiological and other adaptations. Generally speaking, weekly increases in volume should be 10% or less. This seems to be a rate with which most people can readily cope and avoid problems. Such a progressive approach does not necessarily appeal to our sense of urgency, but it is likely to keep you healthy and injury free!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Comrades 2008 Postmortem

Hail Comrade Shvetsov: Two years, two records for the King of Comrades

We have two posts today. The first (this one) is just a recap of the race, and some of the physiology behind it. The second (which you can find below) is a little more "South African-centric", and focuses on the very weak display of the SA runners, and some of the financial reasons why this may be the case. As I say, it's quite SA-focused, but should hopefully stimulate thought no matter where in the world you are!

Leonid Shvetsov: A new breed of Comrades champion

Leonid Shvetsov is a name few in SA took notice of before last year. He'd run Comrades before - a second place in 2001, where he pushed SA's Andrew Kelehe all the way in one of the great races. But then he kind of disappeared, and was remembered as one of many Russians to run the race, nothing spectacular.

Well, his last two outings have hardly been "races". More like solo 35 km time trials off the back of a steady 50km warm-up! He stands out so dominantly from the rest of the field that one shudders to think how routine the race is going to be for the next few years. Having won by 14 minutes, and set two records in two years, he has the race in his care for the next few years. The only consolation (for the race and neutral spectator) is that he is 40 years old, and so will eventually run out power.

He is a new breed of runner for the Comrades Marathon - a sensationally fast marathon runner and an incredibly strong athlete. Certainly, fast marathon runners have tackled Comrades before - think Alberto Salazar, winner in 1996, and Zithulele Sinqe, who came close, but never conquered the race.

But in Shvetsov, we're seeing a guy who has a dozen sub 2:12 marathons in him, and a 2:09. And yes, they're not within the last few months either, but he's young enough and strong enough to carry that speed and power into the ultra distance. I don't think that Comrades has ever seen a runner with that much power and strength at the end of the race. Last year, after he obliterated the "Down" run record (which had stood for 21 years), I remarked that of the entire field, all 11,000 of them, nobody had the same degree of "bounce" in their legs as he did at the finish line.

And that was running a 5:20 Comrades! Well, the same happened yesterday. As early as the 60km mark, when he pulled clear and began his solo time-trial, he was moving differently to everyone else in the race. The leg drive, and in particular, the heel "flick" at the back was so obviously different to everyone else's (If you ever want to see the pedigree of a runner, look at the way their heel leaves the ground).

As the cameras shifted to his "rivals" (for what the word was worth yesterday), the difference in running style was obvious. Now, that is perhaps the most interesting thing about him - is that a neurological adaptation, a performance advantage he enjoys as a result of some kind of training - speed or distance, or hill work?

There is something there, and I suspect that it is neurological, or related to the muscle tendon unit. Specifically what it is, I don't know. It's certainly not cardiovascular, and considering that the elites are "only" running 3:45/km, an adaptation in the heart and lungs is unlikely the reason for such dominance.

The greatest margin of victory

His margin of victory on Sunday was almost 14 minutes - that is without doubt the largest margin recorded in my lifetime, and if I had more time, I'd look into the race stats and find out when last a victory was recorded by such a margin.

It's actually inconceivable that in this day and age, of professionalism and high competition, that one athlete can win so destructively over the rest of the field. But before the sceptics jump onto the case (we admire your scepticism, nonetheless), it must be pointed out the apart from Shvetsov, yesterday's race was actually incredibly weak. A 5:39 for second place is almost as unheard of as a 5:25 to win, and so the dominance was the result of two factors: Shvetsov's brilliance, and everyone else's mediocrity (more on that in the post below).

"Down" or "Up"? Is Shvetsov equally strong?

Back to the race physiology though, and a couple of comments on the physiology and science of it. We received a very good question from George (who always stimulates good posts) on the whole "up" vs. "down" run issue. It's without doubt true that some runners are more suited to either the up or the down version of the race. You don't have to be a Comrades runner to know that - just think of your preferred running terrain, even in a 10km training run. Some people just handle downhill running better than others, and vice versa for the ups.

Comrades, of course, amplifies that difference enormously. Think of Vladimir Kotov, the now former course record holder for the "up" run, but who was many minutes slower on the down run and never featured as a strong challenger.

And I think it certainly is true that every runner prefers one or the other, though of course, the degree of preference will vary. I also believe that Shvetsov is not a preferred "Up" runner - his strength is the "Down" run. His only other Comrades appearance (apart from that second in 2001) was a blow-out on the 2002 "Up" run, where he finished in over 7 hours! But I think he's certainly a better "Down" runner. This also lends some credence to the idea that his advantage is neuromuscular, because the "Down" run poses a far greater challenge to the muscles as a result of the massive eccentric loading on them during the race.

Briefly, running downhill involves far more "eccentric" contraction where the muscle lengthens as it contracts (an oxymoron of sorts!), and that damages the muscle more. So I think the ability to tolerate that eccentric contraction is a key factor that determines whether a runner prefers downhill running. Shvetsov's apparent "bounce" and elasticity, which suggests some kind of neuromuscular advantage, would also predict his down running ability to be a little better.

This is of course conjecture. And science doesn't know the answer, and so George is quite right, it's something for the whole field to look at!

Regardless, I reckon no matter which way you make the road point - up, down, level - Shvetsov is so superior that even if he hates the "Up" run, he'd win it 9 times out of 10. Of course, it doesn't help that his South African rivals are running more slowly now in 2008 than they were in 1978! But that's covered in the post below!


Comrades 2008 and SA athletics

The Comrades 2008 Post-mortem: Russia's ticket to wealth, and the economy of running success

I have no idea what the average salary is in Russia. I'm "reliably" informed by Wikipedia that it's $640 per year. I don't know much about the tyipcal Russian's financial position, other than what I read in the news and Time magazine, and I won't claim to be an expert in Russian-South African relations.

But one thing I do know is that every year in June, a group of Russian athletes come to South Africa, to take on the greatest ultra-marathon in the world, and every year, they leave with their pockets lined with Rands and gold, until the next year. This year, Leonid Shvetsov, courtesy of his second consecutive title and race record, walked away with just a shade under R500,000 ($60,000) for his efforts. That's seven times what the average Russian is earning, and by my calculation, certainly not money to be sneezed at.

It's hard money, sure, because 87 km of racing over that course is no mean feat, but it makes Comrade Shvetsov pretty close to a millionaire thanks to the race.

And that's great - what a pleasure it is to see such a fabulous athlete plying his trade in SA. He's the most majestic, utterly dominant runner the Comrades has seen. He's so dominant, in fact, that unless someone emerges in the next two years, I can see the race losing quite a big following as a result of the predictability of it all.

On the women's side, that happened long ago - the Nurgalieva twins, Olesya and Elena, have also made themselves a fair fortune in SA. Every year they come out here, and invariably, come first and second (usually, Elena is first), and must have made a few million out of the South African ultra-running scene in the last few years.

Where are the SA runners? Gone back to 1970

But this post is not about the contribution South Africa makes to Russia's GDP every June. Rather, it's about the fact that South African runners are not standing in their way. There have, admittedly, been some great triumphs on the "down" run - first Kelehe, then Nhlapo and then Ngomane, who all won the down run, to choruses of praise about the "South African renaissance". Unfortunately, these athletes would never again scale those lofty heights, and much like a gunshot, they eventually dissipate into the night as an ever-softening echo.

But on the whole, ever since the Russians first identified the goldmine that is Comrades, they've plundered the race with little opposition. Part of that is that they bring some magnificent athletes out here - Shvetsov is without doubt the best we've seen, a magnificent runner who has yanked the race into a new level. But a big part is also that South African running is in a steady and uninterrupted state of decline, and the occasional success of a talented runner happens in-spite of, rather than because of, the running system in this country. Sadly, that success provides the excuse to let things slide ("It can't be so bad", they say), and we'll eventually realise that we've slid too far to ever recover.

A cursory glance of the Comrades results since the race began reveals a few startling statistics. Perhaps the worst of these is the following:

In 1977, the race was won by Alan Robb, in a time of 5:47:00. Since that race, the winning time has very, very rarely been slower than 5:40. Perhaps most amazingly, most of those winning times were by South African men!

In other words, between 1977 and 2008, 30 years worth of South African runners have been capable of running 5:40 or faster. One year was an anomaly, when Jetman Msutu won the race in 5:46, but we must remind ourselves that he actually finished second to Charl Mattheus who was later DQ'd for drug use. But on the whole, South Africa's best finisher has run around 5:30 to 5:35, be it Mattheus and Bester in the 1990's, or Fordyce in the 1980's. That time, had it been run yesterday, would have been enough to finish second, and actually make a race out of it. Remember, the second place finisher was Jaroslaw Janicki, fully 14 minutes behind Shvetsov.

Instead, we got a best SA athlete who finished in just under 5:47, the slowest time by an SA runner since 1977, and on a day where the record fell (no excuses from the conditions, then).

How South African athletics pays for mediocrity

The reasons for this startling demise (which is, I might add, present across all running events in SA, not just the ultras) are vast, complex and probably require that we set up a blog all of its own to discuss. But consider for a moment that in the 1980's, SA had faster 10km runners than we do now - the world record is a full minute faster, but we're stuck. We might call it "Why South African running is failing", and spend the next two years discussing it. However, we won't do that to you, but I do just want to make two quick points here.

First of all, there has been a growing trend in recent times to incentivize local athletes by offering a special prize to the first SA runner to finish the race. This gesture, applauded by many as an effective tactic to boost local running and to stimulate interest in the event, is actually, in my opinion, a long term failure strategy, which actually undermines long term growth.

Why? Because it incentivizes mediocrity. It says the following to the typical South African runner: "Don't worry about Leonid Shvetsov and his 5:24 record performances. Don't worry about winning and being excellent, because we'll pay you to run 5:47 and finish 5th".

Any rational athlete, given the choice between an extra 30 minutes of training per day and the option to run a few more races each year is going to respond by saying "Sure, no problem. In 2009, my goal is to run about 5:40, because I've now seen that if I do, I might win a lot of money". Note that they are not aiming for 5:21, or even 5:25, because that is difficult - more training, more suffering. The prize money actually dis-incentivizes excellence.

In this same category are prizes that are awarded to runners who reach landmarks on the course first - the so-called "Hotspot prizes" otherwise known as primes elsewhere. On Sunday, money was awarded, for example, to the first runner to reach halfway and then finish the race. The result was that two athletes broke away and raced each other up to the halfway mark. The "winner", Charles Tjiane, celebrated at the halfway mark, and then soon started walking. One commentator says he wasn't running for that prize, but seriously, how do you go from running 3:00/km, to celebrating, to walking, in the space of kilometers, unless your mental approach is to plunder the "hotspots" and save your energy?

Now, he still walked away with a nice pay-day for their efforts. And best of all, these runners get to race again sooner, because rather than racing 87km, they raced perhaps 50km and then merely finished the race. But they represent two athletes, both with the possible potential to win the race, who have instead sacrificed that possibility in favour of a smaller, but more assured, pay-day (it's assured because Shvetsov and the big guns don't care about it, so don't race for it).

It was then pointed out to me that an athlete who wins three "hotspot" prizes in the race can earn himself R33 000. That is the same prize money as the 5th place finisher in the whole race!

Now, is there not something flawed in that model...?

Wrap-up: More on SA running to come

There's a lot more to be said about SA athletics, but because I know we have an international audience, these kinds of posts will be used sparingly (so don't worry!). But, for those who want to know the key problem in SA running, read this post (SA athletics on Trial), written about a year ago.

But we'll leave it for now, and turn instead to matters of "global importance", like weight loss!

Until next time!


Sunday, June 15, 2008

Comrades Marathon 2008 Result

Magnificent, majestic Leonid: A thoroughbred runner makes Comrades history

Leonid Shvetsov has broken the "Up" run record in winning the 2008 Comrades title in 5:24:47. The 39-year old Russian, who won last year's "Down" run in a new record time, was again untouchable, breaking Kotov's old record of 5:25:33 by 46 seconds. He is completely in a class of his own, and the rest of the world, South Africa included, will wake up tomorrow to the realization that Shvetsov has moved the race into a new era. Their response will be interesting - failure to respond will guarantee that the race, already a Russian running procession, remains so for another generation.

At the risk of dismissing a group of highly talented runners as "also-rans", Shvetsov is a thoroughbred race horse in a world of Comrades carthorses, so dominant was his performance today. Of course, the runners he beat are fantastic athletes in their own right, so it's a little unfair on them. But if it's victory we're talking, the gulf between Shvetsov and the rest is alarmingly large. He won by 14 minutes - Jaroslaw Janicki of Poland walked up the final climb of the day, Polly Shorts, but hung on to finish second in 5:38:29, while Zimbabwe's Stephen Muzhingi was third, a further minute or so behind.

Just a comment - to finish second in a time of 5:39 is telling, because it suggests that Shvetsov's dominance is only partly due to his own super ability. 5:39 is a very weak second-place time, and this suggests that a big part of Shvetsov's dominance is that the competition is just incredibly weak, and unable to even run to the levels of ten years ago. Of course, some of that is down to the pressure applied to the field by Shvetsov's front-running, which pushes athletes well over their normal pacing limit. But it's noteworthy, for example, that South African runners have not improved in 20 years. The natural progression of the race has left us behind, not one athlete!

A front-running, destructive effort

The real story however is the manner in which he won. Much like last year, he hit the front early, and no one was able to survive with him, even for a short while. This year, it was after precisely 3:11:48 that he went into first place, when he overtook the early race leader Tjiane.

From that point on, he was unchallenged. The commentators got excited about a South African Mabule Rapotle (who'd go on to finish an unlucky but credible 11th), who managed to hang onto his shoelaces for about 5 minutes. "He's not having it all his own way this year", and "Shvetsov won't win this race without a challenge", we were told*. Barely two minutes later, the SA challenge was over, and Rapotle was dropped. Never mind the fact that at this stage, there were over 2 hours to go, and not a single challenger was left with Shvetsov!

From that point on, it was a race against the clock, the only "race" interest remaining was to see whether Shvetsov would crack. Jaroslaw Janicki of Poland was in second, about 2 minutes back, and lying in wait to pick up the pieces IF Shvetsov cracked. But it was not to be, and Shvetsov got quicker and quicker, while the rest just got slower and slower.

Shvetsov makes history, then, as the first international runner to win both "Up" and "Down" runs, and he is also the first man to hold both records since Bruce Fordyce. His cumulative time for "Up" and "Down" races is incredible - over 6 minutes faster than anyone else in history. Quite amazing, and we'll look in more detail at the reasons for this in our Insight-Comrades post on Tuesday.

Women's race - another Nurgalieva victory

On the women's side, it was (surprise, surprise) another Nurgalieva victory. The Nurgalieva twins (Elena and Olesya) have dominated Comrades completely in the last 5 years. In fact, their dominance extends to SA ultra-running in general, having won five Comrades titles and two Two Oceans titles between them. It's usually Elena Nurgalieva who comes out on top in the ultras, making up six of those seven victories (Olesya Nurgalieva, here twin sister, is the more accomplished standard marathon runner). And the 2008 race was again won by Elena Nurgalieva, her fourth title, and a repeat of her 2006 victory.

Their dominance is part of the reason we didn't preview the women's race - it is, to be blunt, usually pretty boring, much like watching the Williams sisters playing each other in the final of tennis tournaments a few years ago. This year, however, the women's race ended up providing a little more drama than usual, and that's only because Elena fell twice in the first two hours of the race. She was apparently tripped up by men who tend to gather around the women (to get onto TV and benefit from their normally steady pace-setting). She ran for a long while with quite a limp, and blood streaming down her shin bone from a gash in her left knee.

But even that was not enough to break her race, and she ran with her sister Olesya and another Russian, Tatiana Zhirkova, until about 15 km from the finish, when she moved clear and created what would be the decisive gap.

Her winning time in the end was 6:14:36, not spectacularly fast, but hers was a courageous win, after the fall. Second went to her twin, Olesya, just over a minute behind, with third going to Zhirkova in 6:17:44.

Sadly, the first South African was about thirty minutes further back - all in all, not a great day for SA ultra running, but at least we've done a great deal to help give the Russian economy a boost.

Looking ahead - Analysis and insights into the race: Coming soon...

So that's a very short report on the race result. Because I've now done three Comrades posts over the weekend, I'll probably give it a day before doing a full analysis of the race - I don't want to jam up any inboxes with posts come the work week! Also, it will be good to digest some of the race action before doing some insight.

There's a lot more to be said, however - why SA men are so poor at the moment, how Shvetsov can win a race by 14 minutes. So the full race-report happens on TUESDAY, when I'll look at Shvetsov, and go into a little more detail into just why SA and the rest of the world need to take drastic measures to close a gap that is now absolutely enormous.

So do join us then, for the more in-depth opinion and analysis!


* I can't post on TV coverage without mentioning commentary (my pet peeve). However, on the whole, the commentary for this year's race was good - Mike Finch, Helen Lucre and Norrie Williamson were particularly deserving of credit: knowledgeable, interesting, and well-spoken/eloquent. You'd have thought those three criteria would be non-negotiable for the selection of ALL commentators, but apparently not! Still, it was better than some of the drivel served up by Supersport for athletics (and other sports) events. Hopefully, someone was paying attention...

Saturday, June 14, 2008

The "Real" Comrades Marathon

The "Real" Comrades Marathon: A "human race" and a lesson in survivorship

Yesterday we did a post previewing the elite men's race in tomorrow's Comrades Ultra-Marathon, an 87km haul from Durban in Pietermaritzburg. And while the elite men and women will garner most of the media attention and focus on race day, they represent only a very tiny, perhaps "insignificant" part of what the Comrades is really all about. So I thought that today, I'd do a more "human"-aspect preview of the race, and for that I'll borrow a section from a post I did a full year ago, just after the race (back then, I think only our friends and families were reading the site (under duress, sometimes), so I'm going to get away with a partial "re-run" for today!)

History of the race - a tribute to war heroes

he Comrades Marathon was first run in 1921 to commemorate South African soldiers killed during World War I - the brainchild of Victor Clapham (after whom the "copper" medal for a finish time between 11 and 12 hours is now named). The race was therefore dedicated to war heroes, which lends a certain irony to the statement made to me last year by a research scientist from Austria who was at Comrades in the medical tent working with us on a study.

Our medical passes got us into the medical tent and 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, as is the drama that builds progressively in the medical tent, where, by about 10 hours, beds are in short supply! If I dropped you into the middle of the chute and medical area, you'd wonder why all the "soldiers" were wearing running clothing!

His words were (read in your best German accent) "Zis race is more the survival, no? People are training for 4 hours a week, zis is impossible in Austria!" He was absolutely amazed at how many people (11,000 tomorrow) run an event so long and arduous on what he perceived to be so little training. Apparently (I'll take his word for it) in Austria, few people even do exericse without a proper plan and approach to it - apparently, six hours a week of training is about the average for a marathon runner in Austria (he did research on this, so I'll believe him!) Welcome to the Comrades Marathon!

The race is certainly a test of survival - 12 hours on your feet, for those who finish at the back, is no mean feat. And those who will watch the race on TV tomorrow (I'm not sure if there is an international broadcast) will probably find the last hour the most riveting, for the fact that people are streaming across the line - probably half the field finish in the final 10% of the available time.

And yes, some of them are very undertrained. There are of course many (a majority, in fact) who prepare really well, and run the Comrades strong, doing more than simply surviving. But in South Africa, it's not unheard of for a runner to do three marathons a year - one to qualify for the race (you have to complete a marathon to enter the race), and then two more marathons on race day, when they run a back-to-back marathon, with 5km easy to finish! And often, that's about the extent of the running they do. I can list at least five runners who probably do a TOTAL of 60km of training for the race, between January and June! They then double their yearly distance in 11 hours between Durban and Pietermaritzburg!

Yet they make it, through a combination of considered walking and mental stubborness. I wouldn't advise it, but it's part of the race and its unique spirit.

That spirit is perhaps best demonstrated by the examples of three runners I met last year while working in the medical tent. All finished the race, all ended up needing medical treatment. Their stories are below (this is the part adapted from last year's post, incidentally!)

The racer: Reduced to 30 min/km by the race

The first is an experienced marathon runner from England, with a fast 2:36 to his credit. He finished the race in 7:09, and so was 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. I met him at the line, and 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, every single person we walked passed on the way to the tent chuckled at him and made jokes about his pain! To his credit, 30 minutes in the medical tent, a cold beer, a massage and he was talking about trying the "Up-run" in 2008, and so I expect he'll be running again tomorrow!

The persistent survivor - back for more

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.

The legendary blow - pacing gone wrong, but Comrades runners hang in

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 (for a sub 9 hour clocking). But then the wheels came off...he ran the second half in 7:30 and he finished just under the overall cutoff of 12 hours! His expected "end-point" moved further and further away, and he must have felt that he was walking/jogging towards a mirage, the finish line became like a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow!

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.

10,997 more stories will be written tomorrow

That's just three stories from 2007's race. You can be sure that another 11,000 will be written tomorrow, some good, some bad. If you are one of those runners, and you happen to read this post before, good luck! Remember, slow and steady, and if you think you're running the right speed at halfway, slow down! You can ruin your day with aggressive pacing!

For those reading it afterwards, congratulations, I trust your legs have forgiven you!

Our race report is next, after the race tomorrow! Join us then!


Friday, June 13, 2008

World Record 110m Hurdles

Note: This is our second post today - the first was a preview of Sunday's Comrades Marathon for all our "ultra-marathon" fans...you can scroll down to check out that post if you're receving our daily email.

Dayron Robles ups the ante: Liu Xiang is definitely losing sleep now!

We're a little slow on the uptake on this one, but I guess better late than never...

Dayron Robles of Cuba, out of nowhere, has broken the 110m hurdles world record!

His time - 12.87 seconds, which shaves 0.01 seconds off the previous best, held by Liu Xiang of China. It caps a pretty bad week for the Chinese superstar - he has been battling with a hamstring injury, and he then false started to get disqualified at the Prefontaine Meeting, leading to wide speculation that he'd done it on purpose to avoid the pressure of race defeat. Now, Robles of Cuba, aged just 21, has upped the pressure on the Beijing poster boy even more.

Everyone has been looking at Robles for the last two seasons, saying that if anyone was going to knock Liu of the top step of the podium, it would be the talented Cuban. Earlier this year, he was unbeatable indoors, until he got himself disqualified at the World Championships. That was a major blow, because had he gone through with the deal, he should have beaten Liu for the gold there, gaining another notch in the psychological battle that is bound to peak in Beijing in August.

But, now, at the Ostrava meeting last night, he's finally delivered on his promise, and announced to the world that come Beijing, Liu is going to have to be 100% perfection to fulfil the expectations of a billion people - the margin for error, already tiny in the high hurdles event, just got a lot smaller!

Who would want to be Liu Xiang?

A week ago, when we gave a brief summary of the Prefontaine meeting, we mentioned the enormous pressure that Xiang finds himself under.

Late last year, we did a post giving out our own Science of Sport Awards to the best achievers of 2007. It was somewhat tongue-in-cheek (Marion Jones received the Undo-A-Lifetime-Achievement Award, for example), but we did mention then that Liu Xiang should be the recipient of the "Losing Sleep Over the Future Award". The pressure he must find himself under is immense. I can't think of another athlete who has ever been under the kind of scrutiny that Liu will find himself under in Beijing, if he's not already! A billion people have looked at him, an individual competing in one the most technical events arounds, as their great hope for a track and field medal.

And to date, he has handled himself admirably. He took the world record in 2007 in Lausanne, he won the World title in Osaka, he's delivered on every major stage so far, and so it's not so much a case of Liu folding under the pressure as it is of the other narrowing the gap on him over time. The Olympic Games may (and it's early days yet) be a few months too late for Liu, if his rivals can continue their progress - already this year, there have been two sub-13 second clockings (David Oliver was the other athlete, running is Qatar), and so Liu's buffer is slowly being eroded.

So what of Beijing? Perhaps Robles and Liu both crack under pressure, and a third party steals it

That said, I'd still make him the favourite for Beijing, purely because his rivals are just about as untested as he is under that kind of pressure. The 110m hurdles event, to repeat, has the smallest margin for error at the best of times. A millisecond too early or too late, or a millimeter too low or too high, and the race rhythm can be lost and so any tension or over-arousal out the blocks can serious undermine the best efforts.

And in a perverse way, this world record by Robles has ensured that he too will go to Beijing under intense pressure. Had he kept his great form "hidden" and gone there as one of seven men who "might" dethrone Liu, then he could slip under the blanket of pressure the 110m hurdles athletes will face. However, the attention of a global audience is now squarely on his shoulders, as much as it is on Liu's. What are the chances that neither of these two wins gold, and some as yet-unknown or unfancied athlete running in lane 2 or lane 7 sneaks through to win? Stranger things have happened, and the situation just seems to me to be developing to the point where that may indeed happen. Were I a betting man, I'd pick the American champion, whoever that may be (after the US Olympic trials, that is).

Regardless, a great performance by Robles, and time will tell if he can get even faster and repeat this kind of form. Liu knows he can - he's run sub-12.90 twice. Quite how both handle Beijing's cauldron remains to be seen. Yet another Olympic event building nicely to a crescendo!


Comrades Marathon 2008

It's Comrades' time: The 2008 "Up" run preview

If it's mid-June, then it must be Comrades! Our overseas readers may not be familiar with Comrades concept (and lifestyle, for many SA runners), so I thought it would be interesting to give a brief run-down of the race, and then look at some of the "behind the scenes" aspects of what goes into running the race.

What's the big deal, you ask? Well, the race profile for the 2008 race is shown below.

This year's race is what is called the "Up-run", which means the runners cover the not-too-insignificant distance of 87 km between Durban and Pietermaritzburg. Next year (and last year, of course), the route is reversed, and they do the "Down-run", from Pietermaritzburg to Durban, meaning that the race effectively runs on a two year cycle, which makes predicting winners even more tricky than it would normally be for a race consisting of back-to-back marathons and 5km time-trial!

A brief discussion of the route - ups and downs (but far more "ups"!)

The route, as you can see from the image above, is perhaps one of the most demanding of any 'mass event' around. By way of comparison, the Boston Marathon, which we covered earlier this year, features a sequence of hills called the Newton Hills, shortly after the halfway mark. The most famous of those, "Heartbreak Hill", is an 800m long climb that rises about 30m. On Sunday, the Comrades runners will encounter the following:

  • Cowies Hill - starts at 14km, and then climbs up 137m in 1.5km (9.1%)
  • Fields Hill - begins after 22km and rises 213m over 3km (7.1%)
  • Botha's Hill - a 2.4km climb that rises 150m (6.3%)
  • Inchanga - just after halfway (only a full marathon and then some!), a 2.5km climb that also rises 150m (6%)
  • Polly Shorts - the make-or-break moment of the elite race, a shortish climb of 1.8km that climbs perhaps 100m, but it's here that the elite race is often decided, simply because runners have two full marathons in their legs, having run 80km to this point.

The elite race - Russia vs. South Africa, impossible to call with certainty

Actually picking winners and favourites for Comrades is a lottery that even we are not going to tackle with any certainty! We're not shy to call a winner here, and even a race time in the marathons (we got London and Boston fairly close earlier this year), but for a race that is double the distance, it's a little more tricky.

What complicates the prediction is that previous form is almost irrelevant, because:

  • There's no real guide to performance over 87km throughout the year! It's not as though the elite are doing a series of "tune-up" ultra-races. Marathon performance, while a good indication, is by no means foolproof when you consider the increase in distance. Picking the favourites for a 42km race is simplified by the fact that the previous "reference point" is often only 3 or 4 months ago, and there's more certainty in translating a 21km performance to the marathon. No such priviledge over an 87km race.
  • The race changes direction each year, and there are without doubt runners who are favoured one way or the other. The South African men, for example, are traditionally a little better on the "Down-run", whereas the Russians have basically owned the "Up-run". It's been 16 years since an SA runner won the "Up-run" - don't expect that trend to reverse this year. The surest bet (if there is such a thing) is that a Russian will win. Who it will be, that's another question...!
  • Last year's winner, Leonid Shvetsov of Russia, who smashed the "Down-run" record is by no means a certainty this year, since the whole nature of the race changes. That said, you'd be a brave person to bet against someone with that kind of performance history.

The other big Russian name to look for are the defending Up-run champion, Oleg Kharitanov, who has five top ten finishes in six attempts, and should feature.

South African men - raw talent, but will they deliver?

Among the South African men, it's a real lottery. Two names I will throw into the ring are Sipho Ngomane and Leboka Noto.

Sipho Ngomane

Ngomane was, in 2005, a revelation. He won the down run in spectacular fashion, capping off an incredible season that saw him finish in the top 10 of just about every race he ran in. Unfortunately for him, it was a case of "killing the goose that laid the golden egg", because his managers and team exploited his talent to the point where he was effectively racing a marathon every month. There was a sequence of six months where he ran three ultra-marathons (50km or more) and three marathons, and then to cap it all off, he raced in the SA Half Marathon championships! It may not surprise you that he broke down injured soon after, and has never quite captured that same form. He's still competitive, and should feature, but the different between winning and losing is the difference between his 2005 and a sensible approach.

He is a sad example of the wealth of talent possessed by South Africa, but that is never fully realised because of the perverse economic incentives created for people to exploit that talent and cash in on the abundant supply. It's a case of "Let's bleed this one dry, because we know there are a hundred others like him". Very sad, and frustrating, and little wonder it's been 16 years since an SA man won this particular race.

Leboka Noto

Leboka Noto is another example of the way of SA running. He is employed full-time in a platinum mine - hardly conducive to training three or fours hours a day for a big race. I actually met Noto earlier this year - he came into the Sports Science Institute of SA and sat for a morning with Prof Tim Noakes discussing some aspects of the race that may help his performance. He was 10th in 2006, and 5th last year, and so is a candidate for race winner status. Remarkably, what emerged from his meeting with Noakes is that his training is done entirely alone, and consists of 70km training runs in the Lesotho mountains, with NO food, no water and no assistance! That's 4 to 5 hours, a couple of times a week, no diet strategy to assist.

Last year, he ran in the company of the Russians, and remarked that he was "surprised at how much the Russians drank and ate" - that is another demonstration of his raw talent, which hopefully, he can improve on this year. The simple act of eating and drinking on the run, if he gets it right, might make him a challenger. Then again, the simple change in lifestyle that would see a talented runner not have to spend the day on his feet in an underground mine might be the secret to unlocking a title for an SA man!

Our prediction - we're going conservative

OK, so here's our head on the block, and we'll be conservative, and "run with the herd" on this one. We pick Leonid Shvetsov to win, and to challenge the "up-run" record, which currently stands at 5:25.33 by his comrade (pardon the pun) Vladimir Kotov in 2000.

Shvetsov himself has said he's in the kind of shape to do it, but then so do all the main contenders - they're hardly going to admit to a month of lost training and poor preparations! So it's all based on self-reported training, which makes Sunday's race so fascinating!

As for the real "Comrades" - the race begins at 7 hours

However, the real story of Comrades is the non-elite runner - the men and women who slog it out for up to 11 hours on the roads of Natal. We'll do a post tomorrow on the "behind-the-scenes" aspects of the race, including the medical tent.

On a personal note, this is the first race in four years where I (Ross) won't be at the Comrades, in the medical tent at the finish line. The last three years have seen us there, doing research on the runners who end up requiring medical tent. It certainly adds an interesting perspective on the race, and that's what I'll talk about a little more in the next race - Comrades survivorship!

So do join us then!


Thursday, June 12, 2008

Success in a pill?

As athletes are we really so gullible. . .?

Just a short post today prior to our Comrades Marathon previews and coverage. One of our readers alerted us to a short blog post on the Runner's World website. It was so ludicrous that it was begging for us to take a look at this and clarify the points.

Marketing works

In a recent New York Times article by Gina Kolata, British physiologist Michael Rennie was quoted as saying that “It does seem to me that as a group, athletes are particularly gullible.” Unfortunately Dr. Rennie has pretty much nailed it with this statement, as products making outrageous claims of performance enhancement and success continue to do well, and new products are being introduced all the time. The fact that there is such a market for these things must indicate that people are buying them.

We have often spoken about the outrageous claims these manufacturers make, and how more often than not these claims have no scientific backing. We have also spoken about how science can be warped and bought to make these claims. In the end, though, when faced with strong marketing techniques that appeal to us on a number of different levels, humans as a bunch cave to these tactics and open our wallets, even when deep down we probably know that the claims are bogus. We will leave it to the psychologists to explain why we do this, but it is a known phenomena in marketing research.

Success in a pill

So when Derek sent us this link, we jumped at the opportunity to dissect this one. "Sports Legs" is a product claiming to. . .claiming to. . .well, actually they themselves do not make claims outright on their website, but instead have embedded the claims into athlete testimonials and product reviews in print media---a great marketing move on their part as it will appear that people other than the (biased) manufacturer is making the claims. There are too many to list here, but the one claim is that it "pre-loads your bloodstream with lactate and tricks your mucles into thinking they don't need to make more--a sneaky way to raise your lactate threshold and boost performance." The claims go on and on and all of them are equally outlandish.

The problem, as we have so many times stated here and hope our readers have learned by now, is that lactate does not cause fatigue. And no, the burn in your legs is not the result of the dreaded "lactic acid" as products like these claim.

The Sports Legs Muscle Trick

Even more fearsome than the Jedi Mind Trick, Sports Legs tricks the muscles into producing less lactate. Problem is that lactate is a product of carbohydrate metabolism, and as our exercise intensity increases we tend to rely more on carbohydrate and less on fat. In fact for most of us this shift from fat to carbohydrate occurs at relatively low intensities, and when when exercising at what many of us would call "tempo" pace, we are in all likelihood using exclusively carbohydrate as a fuel. So if the product actually does what it claims, then it is modulating your exercise metabolism so that you burn more fat at very high intensities. . .and if that is the case, then we must do a study and publish it in Nature as that would be a remarkable physiological feat!

It should be no surprise that as we exercise harder and harder the lactate concentration in our blood rises, because we are utilizing carbohydrates at higher and higher rates. Again, however, the lacate is not a cause of fatigue, and so their claim is senseless, as they say that the product actually increases the lactate concentration in the blood. Well, if lactate is the cause of fatigue as they claim, then how does that work?

Don't be a gullible athlete

Visit their website if you must read the claims for yourself, but we are surprised that they do not claim their product will also help men with erectile dysfunction, as the pills seem to be a cure for so many other things, including low bone density in cyclists. The main problem with the testimonials is that the athletes taking the product ingest it with massive expectations that it will produce all the effects it claims to. Therefore it is no surprise to us that users report experiencing these effects. . .this is otherwise known as the placebo effect.

To really test products like these, we must perform a double-blind and placebo controlled study. In doing so we hope to diminish or eliminate any bias from the participants or the researchers. Then let's evaluate the effects of the product, because then we have controlled for any placebo effect, and what we might find is that taking the placebo pills are no better than taking the actual product.

This is a bogus product, like so many that have come before it and so many that will come after it. It is probably not harming anyone who ingests it, although no long term studies have investigated this. However we find it highly improbable that it actually does any of the things it claims to do. Yet if an athlete truly believes that taking these pills will enhance their performance, then they probably will, and again this is the placebo effect, but an effect nonetheless.

Stay tuned for our Comrades Marathon coverage in the meantime. The race is this Sunday and will be over by the time the east coast of America wakes up, but we will have all the results and analysis right here!

Monday, June 09, 2008

2008 Prefontaine Results

No record for Bekele, but Sweet 16 for Mutola

In spite of all the hype about a potential world record on the books for the 2008 Prefontaine Classic, including moving the start time to 9:30 local time as apparently that is when the wind conditions were most favorable, it was not to be, and Kenenisa Bekele instead ran a strong 26:25.97 to clock the fastest ever time on US soil.

A strong start, but legs enough only to cane the field

At four km Bekele was just three seconds off pace at 10:33, and hit halfway in a cool 13:10. He ran away from the field, but slowed down the stretch to finish just eight seconds too slow for the record. It was a valiant attempt as he ran in true Bekele style---solo and in front of everyone, including his two teammates Ibrahim Jeilan and Maregu Zewdie. Although they were nearly a minute back (27:13.85 and 27:14.13, respectively), they completed an Ethiopian sweep of the race.

It is probably just where Bekele wants to be, actually. Hitting world-record form 8-10 weeks prior to Beijing would signify an early peak, and one that would be extremely difficult to maintain over so many races. Instead, this will likely give Bekele crucial feedback about his form and training to date, just in time to implement some final tweaks over the summer to hit (even better) form in August. It is apparently Bekele's last 10,000 m race prior to Beijing, and given his performance today he looks to be in a perfect position to take gold come August.

Worse than the "Chinese Water Torture"---Chinese Hurdler Mind Games?

After pulling out last week in New York, Liu Xiang false started in his race (the second one in the race and therefore an automatic DQ), leaving questions about his current form. Said Xiang, "My speed is so fast I did not realise I had the false start." However, on the boards over at LetsRun.com many suspect that
it was a ploy to relieve Xiang of the pressure of competing as his countryman was the first to false start in that race.

Generally we are not a fan of conspiracy theories, but this one sounds plausible! The pressure on Xiang is incredible, and surely he must feel it in some way, shape, or form. Given such intense pressure it is not surprising the antics that people can get up to. Ploy or not, though, we must now await his next race to see how he stacks up against the field.

Mutola completes her 16 year string of wins

Incredibly, even after showing some weakness in the past 12 months in the twilight of her career, Maria Mutola went on to finish the job she started in Eugene, Oregon, 16 years ago. That was when she first won at the Prefontaine Classic, although it was over 1500 m. Yet victory for her was a recurring theme of this meeting every year since, save 2002 when she did not compete. Her string of wins includes 12 over 800 m, three wins over 1000 m, and one win at 1500 m. An astounding 16 straight victories for Mutola caps an amazing career in the women's 800 m.

Her 1:59.24 was a far cry from her best of 1:55.19, but to demonstrate such consistency is truly remarkable. Mutola will compete in Beijing to make it her sixth straight Olympic appearance. We do not fancy her chances for gold, but nevertheless she is a remarkable athlete and we hope she does well in her final Olympic Games.

A look ahead to Beijing - Where should they be?

The interesting thing about these races and any subsequent ones in the next two weeks is that they represent the last tune up for athletes hoping to peak in Beijing. This is because any training they complete in the run up to August will not produce results in June or July as it takes some weeks to make all the physiological adaptations.

Bekele looks to be in a good position, as does Allyson Felix who finished a distance fourth in the women's 100 m in 11.06. Admittedly the 200 m and 400 m are more of Felix's events, but her foray into the 100 m at the Pre meet this year was surely a chance to check her speed and form. The feedback these athletes take away from their races this weekend (including those who ran in Oslo---Jeremy Wariner broke 44 s) is invaluable. Athlete and coach now sit down identify what exactly they must improve prior to Beijing, and will go on to complete very specific training over the next 8-10 weeks which they and their coaches think will provide them that winning advantage come crunch time in August.

So watch your favorite athletes now, as the form they produce in the next 1-2 weeks will be telling down the stretch.

A look ahead - Dauphine Libere and a wrap on Fatigue

We have not focused much on cycling this year at The Science of Sport, and in fact the Giro d'Italia came and went without a peep from The Sports Scientists! However the Dauphine Libere kicked off today in France, and this race is known for predicting performance in le Tour which starts on 5 July this year. Levi Leipheimer took the prologue on the opening day, but lots of racing lies ahead in this tough eight-stage race.

We will also try to put a wrap on our Fatigue series. This was an incredibly challenging one to write as the topic is complex and wide, hence the length of the posts and the series in general. However we hope to cap the series with an "executive summary," watch out for that soon!