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Friday, November 28, 2008

Swimming vs athletics debate

The debate continues: Some of your comments on swimming and athletics world records

Yesterday's and Monday's posts have certainly inspired some really great comments. Thank you to all of you who have thrown your opinion into the 'ring' and added to the debate on the athletics and swimming world records.

The limit to world records: Yet another predictive model

Speaking of world records, a very interesting study was announced today - it is a (yet another) model that looks at the limits to human athletic performance. This is about the fourth one this year, some have said we've almost arrived at the human limit, others have somehow suggested that man should run 100m in 6 seconds!

This particular study predicts, among other things, that the Men's 100m world record will one day hit a limit at 9.48 seconds, and that the marathon record could improve by 4 minutes 23 seconds.

It also suggests that the WOMEN's 100m world record could drop as low as 10.19 seconds. Now, I'm open enough to give the first few predictions a chance, but when I consider that final prediction, that women will run a full 0.30 seconds FASTER than a record which has stood for 20 years and is seriously suspect with regards to doping, then I lose a great deal of confidence in the validity of the predictions.

I haven't had the time to look through the study and its predictions in great detail, but I am aware of it, and I will certainly post in more detail on it during the next few days, perhaps early next week. My first reaction is that it's another case of "can't see the wood for the trees", much like the ridiculous statement by Prof Peter Weyand that humans should run 100m in 6 seconds because Cheetahs can (the same Prof got involved with cheetahs of a different kind when he lent his "expert" opinion to the defence of Oscar Pistorius)...!

The debate on athletics world records

The debate on world records is appropriate, given our last few posts, and so I'll keep the theme alive next week when I look at that latest round of predictions. For today, however, because many people don't read the comments to the posts (they either receive the post by email or just read once and don't return often), I thought it would be an interesting change to actually post some of the comments, in the name of facilitating a bit of "two-way" conversation (as much as is possible through a post-comment format!). And, I have to confess, it gives me an easy post on a lazy Friday afternoon!

So here are some the excellent posts and comments we've received, with my brief comments in maroon. Thanks again!

From Scott:

That strength in swimming is important should be obvious when looking at an elite swimmer’s body. The ability to move efficiency through the water is, by expert consensus, even more important. A case in point would be Janet Evans, all forty odd kilograms of her when she raced, and the long standing records she set. Another example would be Michael Phelps’ extraordinary kick which comes about because the extreme hyper flexibility in his ankles and knees are unmatched by his peers (Mark Spitz, incidentally, enjoyed hyper flexible knees).

My personal theoretical model of efficiency has efficiency playing a relatively minor role in the lower power output ranges (I’m thinking here of a higher power to displacement ratio along the lines of gymnasts) but growing steadily as power output increases (and power/displacement drops). At some point, however, perhaps at the point where water resistance starts creating turbulence and the related drag, a significant drop in the benefits realized from additional power is seen and efficiency jumps to become the overwhelming dominant factor in determining ultimate speed. Admittedly my only justification for this rests on the fact that doping has proven far more efficient for women compared to men, and the fact our closely related genetic cousins the great apes, far more powerful than we could ever be, can’t swim at all. It may well be weak but it is a model that parallels some of the facts, including why strength doping seemingly has a lesser impact on swimming than athletics (at least for males).

This all leads to the statements I’d like to make (again just my own opinion):

  1. I don’t think pool technology has advanced in any significant manner since 2004 Athens;
  2. Inge de Bruijn’s records are considered by many to be a product of doping;
  3. The new swimsuits are acknowledged by virtually every expert not under contract as a Speedo “consultant” to be the cause of the recent avalanche of world records;
  4. The current debate is whether the new swimsuits are, in fact, devices and therefore illegal under pre-existing rules (not unlike IAAF’s banning of “stored energy” running shoes);
  5. It has been submitted by many the one thing which can indicate a device is at play is seeing certain individuals benefit more from the item in question than others (i.e. a tool which compensates for a specific deficiency). Increasingly elite coaches are identifying the impact of the new suits is not evenly spread as certain swimmers have clearly gained an advantage, and that those swimmers can be identified by body type and known weaknesses; and
  6. If this is true (and this opinion is growing by leaps and bounds amongst the swimming community) then any record set using these suits would be illegal under the rules existing at the time and therefore would be struck from the record books.
One can see why this controversy is getting very close to the boiling point.

From mcgrathe: A sobering look at the records in women's athletics

I especially got drawn in by the question of the credibility of the athletics records. Clearly (in my opinion) Dibaba should be the record holder over 5 and 10K on the track, but the 10K record is so far fetched, nobody even thinks about it anymore. It's difficult to know what to do in cases such as this though. Can you just decide to throw out all the dodgy records in the sport? Unfortunately, in Women's track & field, there wouldn't be much left.
Having a trawl through the records, it looks very very bad.
100m - FloJo - dodgy record
200m - FloJo - dodgy record
400m - Marita Koch - 1980s eastern bloc & well documented
800m - Jarmila Kratochvilova - always in the shadow of Marita Koch - enough said..
1500 - Qu Yunxia - 1993 turtle blood performance set in Beijing...
5000m - Dibaba - probably wouldn't have got near the record except that up to the mid '90s the 3K was the championship event and Wang Junxia set that in Beijing as well
10000m - Wang Junxia, 5 days before her 3K record and 42s faster than the old record. Still 23s faster than anyone else ever.
S'Chase - Gulnara Samitova. Similar to the 5K, new enough to probably be clean
100H - Yordanka Donkova, 1980s eastern bloc
400H - Yulia Pechonkina - could this be a clean record?
Shot - Natalya Livovskaya, 1980s eastern bloc - 4 furthest throws ever?
Discus - Gabriele Reinsch, 1980s eastern bloc
Javelin - Barbora Spotakova - same as 5K and S'chase as a new javelin was introduced in '99. The old record was Petra Felke (E Germany in the '80s)
Hammer - Tatyana Lysenko - her furthest ever throw doesn't count because she was caught on drugs.

Maybe this is why so much is made of Isinbayeva in the Pole Vault - it is a long time since a woman has come along capable of delivering WR or near WR performances on a regular basis at Grand Prix meetings.

It's an impossible problem to fix though. Even if you wipe all records older than say 15 years, you still end up with a few dodgy records. The 2nd fastest time over 100m belongs to Marion Jones for example. None of the top 10 shot putters are believable. Yet it would be great if records were returned to where athletes truly believe they have a shot at breaking them. At the moment, only a handful of women can have any notion about getting close to a WR in any event.

And a final one from Derek, providing an interesting (and certainly very valid) counterpoint to the swimming debate.

I think swimming is enjoying much more popularity today, because of the suits. People who never cared about the sport before ( like me) are now paying attention (like me) and people who never have watched Olympic swimming in the past (like me) are all of a sudden became very interested in watching the sport (like me). The way I see it, is that comparing athletics records to swimming records is a little like comparing apples to oranges. When a world record is broken in a sport, it is good for the sport, because it brings more media attention, and possibly opens the “pool” of perspective athletes. It’s impressive when a world record in athletics falls, because we know, like you’ve mentioned, that many are tainted. This is also one of the reasons why, in many cases we automatically (and blindly) suspect that the person who broke the record is doping. The human logic, correct or incorrect, thinks that, if the previous record was set with dope, then the athlete who broke it must also be doping.

On the other hand, in swimming, it’s a slightly different story. We know that the records are broken because of “the suit”, assuming that doping isn’t a factor of course, and as we discussed, maybe the playing field isn’t too level at the moment because of the price of the suit and sponsor contracts. My argument is that in the case of swimming, we are talking about technology. The price of technology always falls with time. What was once too expensive for small nations will be completely accessible before the next Olympics. Sponsorship shouldn’t be a problem, because they (companies besides Speedo) will try harder to develop something that will give it competition. I may have the names mixed up, but I understand Arena came out with a suit called the LZR, but it couldn’t match the Speedo suit. They were under pressure to come out with a suit quickly. They didn’t have time to develop to their capability because they were losing sales. I wouldn’t be surprised that they were unaware that Speedo was developing their suit. Now that the Olympics are over, they have more time to do research and come out with a better suit that will (hopefully) give some competition to Speedo.

Another reason why I think the swim suit is good is because no one can deny that it is good that the drug influenced records from the ‘80’s are gone. I would much rather have “swim suit” induced records than a drug induced record! That being said, I’m waiting for a huge break through in shoes so that we can cleanse the athletics record books!

That being said, I think FINA needs to take a better look at their rules so that something like this doesn’t happen again. I don’t think they should take ALL of the blame though; it’s pretty hard to guess the future. I am aware that they had the chance to do something about it when they met back in the spring I thing It was.

On a different subject, you said “…Usain Bolt in Beijing, and the east African runners (whether these are drug-assisted is another story entirely!)” I would sure like to hear your opinion on this subject!

As for that final request, well, let's leave that one for a rainy day! We did discuss Usain Bolt's performance in the context of doping at the time, you can read that article here (it got some hostile debate going - here's to opening that up again!). As for the east Africans, I may be naive, but I know that most of them train in areas without electricity, and without electricity, you don't have fridges and technology to store drugs, and so I suspect (without proof, entirely based on the people I know within Kenya and Ethiopia who are involved with their best athletes) that they are clean. But that debate is for another time!


Thursday, November 27, 2008

Swimming vs athletics

World records in swimming compared to records in athletics - interesting observations

Two days ago, I did a post looking at the absolute "cleansing" of the record books in the sport of swimming this year. 70 records in 2008, 66 Olympic records in the recent Beijing Olympics, and swimmers who began the year as world record holders (think Alexander Popov) suddenly find themselves outside the top 10 in that same event by the end of August! It has been an unprecedent explosion in the sport, one which I do believe is bad for the credibility of swimming.

That post got some good feedback and questions, and hopefully prompted some thought about the causes. There are some who have claimed that this astonishing "record-rush" is the result of better training and better athletes. Yet that implies that swimming legends like Alexander Popov, Pieter van den Hoogenband, Ian Thorpe, Janet Evans, were "inferior" only a few years ago. The problem is the timing, not necessarily the concept - evolution in training, generation of better athletes, only works when you look back over many years.

For example, we can compare the current marathon world record holder, Haile Gebrselassie, to Jim Peters, who held it in the 1950s, and then it's appropriate to say "better athletes and better training". The fact is that great swimmers who were world record holders at the start of 2008 (like Alex Popov) are now not even in the top 10 in their events! Better training, which by nature tends to evolve slowly, especially in a mature sport like swimming (this is not BMX racing with rapid growth opportunities), doesn't demote you from best EVER to outside the top 10 in a few months.

So I firmly believe that the suit is a large part of the "problem", whether it's a placebo effect or a real one (I believe it to be real) is another debate. But the latest news is that the USA are pressing FINA into banning the full body suits, and as mentioned the other day, the big swimming nations might yet step in to 'save the day' for swimming.

The influence of doping: Swimming flies under the radar

One interesting aspect of this debate is that little mention is made of the possible impact of doping in swimming's record-explosion. If it was cycling or athletics, the noise would be far louder, the accusations far more frequent and much more intense.

I have no doubt that doping happens in swimming, just as it does in all sports. But massive doping scandals are conspicuous by their absence - the Chinese swimmers of the 1990's are perhaps the most recent large scandal. Jessica Hardy missed the Olympic Games for a positive test, Ian Thorpe defended himself for an alleged EPO positive, but other than this, I can recall few high profile cases.

I suspect that a big part of the reason for this is that doping is far less beneficial for swimmers than it seems to be for track and field athletes. This is not simply a bald assertion, it is a conclusion drawn from the analysis of world records, which I discuss below. So before leaping onto the attack, consider the follow story, told by numbers:

World record evolution and what it means for doping

The table below shows the average age of the world records in men's and women's swimming events at the closing of the Beijing Olympic Games. They are the same tables I showed in the previous post:

  • In men's events, the average age of world records was 1 year, 1 month.
  • For the women, it was 8 months. That was thanks to the incredible events of Beijing, where a total of 21 world records were broken.
  • The result is that when the 32 events are combined, only 4 of them have records that are older than three years.
Now look at the same analysis for athletics (both track and field):

  • For men (a total of 21 events) , the average age of track and field records was 8 years and 11 months
  • Of the 21 records, 16 are older than three years. The age has actually been greatly reduced by Usain Bolt's Beijing performances, because he took out a 12-year old record (MJ in the 200m) and also helped the relay team break a 16-year old record.
On the women's side, it's even more pronounced:

  • The average age of world records is 14 years and 9 months. That is an incredible 22 times older than the swimming records (14 yrs 9 mths compared to 8 mths)!
  • 18 of the 21 records are older than three years
The graph below shows this comparison:

So what does this mean? Some observations and ideas

The more astute among you (and we know that all of you are particularly astute!) have by now scanned those athletics tables, and you will have noticed the number of records that date back to the late 1980s and early 1990s - men's and women's field events in particular are dominated by records set in this period. I think it is unquestionably known that athletes of the 1980's, especially in women's athletics, were quite "reliant" on anabolic doping products!

In fact, across both men's and women's athletics, it is only really the men's track events where any world records have been set in the last ten years, and those are courtesy first of Usain Bolt in Beijing, and the east African runners (whether these are drug-assisted is another story entirely!)

Implications for swimming

So what does this have to do with swimming? Well, you've by now already come to the conclusion that athletics records are so "old" because they are influenced heavily by doping that was undoubtedly pervasive in the 1980s and early 1990s.

But, the question you might ask, is "Why do the swimming records not reflect the same pattern?" It is again difficult to argue that the swimmers of the 1980's and early 1990s were NOT doped. We know that the eastern Bloc nations, in particular East German athletes, were heavily into drugs at this time - this applies to both swimmers and athletes. Yet the drug-induced records from the pool are now long gone, ancient history, replaced by the records set in the "new era", thanks to newly designed swimming pools, training methods and, in particular, swim suits.

There are many possible implications and arguments about this. I believe it suggests that the impact of technology in swimming dwarfs that of doping. This is clearly not the case in athletics, because records exist that may survive forever - can we ever expect to see a woman run under 47.60 seconds for 400m, for example? Perhaps "forever" is too strong a word, but what is certain is that the track and field records have withstood all the improvements in equipment and training since the 1980s.

Swimming, on the other hand, has leapt forward, and I do believe that this is an indication that doping is far less significant to swimming performance, which is the statement I began this analysis with. The reason for this, I believe, is that swimming is such an "inefficient" activity (even the world's best swimmers are only 7 to 9% efficient, I'm reliably informed), that any technology that reduces drag in the water has an enormous effect on performance. On the other hand, drugs which improve strength and power (as the drugs of the 1980s would have done) may have a far smaller effect, with so much of the gains being lost to the inefficient swimming stroke.

This is an oversimplification, and the obvious argument is that doping may be very effective, but is "masked" by the added introduction of technology. If they've been doping for years, technology would still move the event forward when it is introduced. I'd be keen (as always) to hear your views and opinions on that statement.

Is track and field lacking credibility in a different way?

The final point, an extension from the previous post, is that if swimming lacks credibility because its records are broken almost at will, then does athletics lack credibility when some records are so superior that it may take two or three generations to come close?

One might argue that in the case of women's athletics in particular, world records are equally meaningless, just as they are for swimming, though for a very different reason. If I was a female 100m runner, I'd certainly be more than disgruntled that the world record in my event is almost 0.5 seconds faster than most women will ever run. That is perhaps just as bad.

I have a feeling that IF FINA does ban the suits, we may, in 20 years time, find that swimming is in the same situation as athletics is today - its world records are "meaningless", simply because they are so out of reach that rather than being a trivial subtitle to the race (as they are now), they are a remnant of a previous time, where doping (technological or pharmaceutical, depending on the sport) was rife.


Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Swimsuit controversy

Swimming's credibility crisis: How FINA's blind eye is affecting the purity of the sport

The Beijing Olympic Games have come and gone. And with them, aided by technology including a uniformly deeper pool, improved wash-off areas, and high-tech swimsuits, so have 70 world swimming records this year.

In fact, swimming now suffers from such a dramatic credibility crisis that a race in which a world record is NOT broken is a disappointment. I dare suggest that you will be able to recall such a race in Beijing (though you may have to try hard, because there were not many). If an Olympic Gold was one without a world record being broken, it was met with rather disappointed silence.

Olympic fever - how bad was it?

The table below demonstrates just how easily records were broken in Beijing.

Out of a total of 32 events (16 men's and 16 women's), an incredible 21 events had world records broken a total of 25 times, and 66 Olympic records were set. Only ONE SINGLE Olympic record managed to survive for men and women. It was a complete clearing out of the Olympic (and World) record books.

That is, in my opinion, a problem for the sport of swimming - 70 world records in one year, and 66 Olympic records in one Games is not a symptom of a credible sport. I'm sure that some will disagree, but bear in mind that these 70 records are only the times of the WINNERS. There were races in Beijing where the first 5 finishers were swimming faster than the old world record! The South Africa 4 x 100m relay team, for example, swam almost a second faster than they swam only four years earlier to win gold in Athens, and they finished seventh!

Swimming records - an endangered species

Admittedly, there are other factors involved, and people will argue that this is a positive sign of progress. But consider the following:

The 100m freestyle record first went under 48-seconds in 2000. And then for eight years, 48-seconds was the magical "barrier" which only one man could break (Peter van den Hoogenband). Since the start of 2008, ELEVEN men have swum faster than 48-seconds. The result is that legends of the sport, whose position in all-time lists was secure, are suddenly line items in the swimming record books, forgotten and displaced almost overnight thanks not to improved swimmers, but improved technology.

That this should happen is not the problem - Paavo Nurmi and Jim Peters, two great long-distance runners from the past, can hardly expect to remain in the record books given the advances in technology over the last 50 years in their sport. The problem is the pace with which it has happened. Within one year, records have been forgotten, and the swimming world record is now an endangered species. And that is not good for the sport.

The lifespan of a swimming record

To look at this a little more objectively, I looked at the AVERAGE AGE (in days) of world records in the swimming events. The tables below show the age of men's and women's world records on the day that the Olympic Swimming events began. The arrows on the left hand side show which events had their records broken in Beijing (these records are then "aged" zero days old for this analysis), while the red arrows on the right show the records that had stood for longer than 2 years going into the Beijing Olympics.

For the men's analysis, the average age of the swimming world records BEFORE the Beijing Games was 680 days. As a result of the carnage in Beijing's Water Cube, it fell to 382 days (because 11 events had their records reset to zero days). There are now only THREE records older than 2 years - the 100m Butterfly (Ian Crocker), the 400m Freestyle (Ian Thorpe) and the 1500m Freestyle (Grant Hackett).

On the women's side, it's even worse. The average age BEFORE Beijing was 921 days, though that was massively skewed by one record - that of Janet Evans in the 800m freestyle. That record was broken in Beijing (by Rebecca Adlington), and the result is that a female swimming record now has an average age of only 247 days. In other words, women's swimming records have on average been set in the last year. Only one record is older than 2 years - the 8 year old record of Inge de Bruijn in the women's 100m butterfly.

You may still believe this is not a problem, and that is, I guess, personal choice. The essence of the sport is the competition - the race - and so the times are the fineprint, you may argue. Does it matter that a gold is won in a time that does not rewrite the record books? Perhaps not. But as someone who comes from a track and field background, where world records are special and meaningful, swimming really does face a crisis of credibility. It can certainly not boast about a meeting in which 66 records are set - that's not progress. Rather, it makes a mockery of the past, or the present (depending on your point of view).

Who is to blame? FINA, quite simply

So the obvious question is who do we put this down to? And the answer, as we have actually been saying this whole year (this is a topic we covered extensively in the build-up to Beijing), is FINA, swimming's governing body.

FINA showed very weak leadership when first presented with the issue of the Speedo Swimsuit, and they have followed this up with even worse leadership on subsequent suits. You can read one such example here - it talks about the Rocketsuit, which very openly promises to make swimmers more buoyant. The article is well written and direct, and I agree entirely with its conclusion: "the sensible thing for FINA to have done would have been to call for a moratorium on suit approval so that sensible debate can ensue..."

The founder of the company that makes the Rocketsuit is quoted as saying "The Rocket Skin has already been used in triathlons for non-wetsuit legal races and we have seen performance advantages of up to 6 seconds per 100 meters and 1500 meter races done in 87 degree water with no issues of overheating". I feel safe in suggesting that this is probably marketing hype speaking, and we won't see a 42 second 100m freestyle in this suit!

But the point is, the technology exists, and FINA failed miserably to impose its admittedly weak laws on suit design back in April when they met about the suit. Now they must face the consequences. The trouble is, they don't seem to care.

Fortunately for swimming, some people do. The big nations, notably Australia and the USA, are actually pushing to have these suits banned, and hopefully, they'll carry enough clout to do something. Otherwise, every single time a big meeting is held, we'll see a repeat of the Beijing result, and swimming's world records will move from one meeting to the next with little chance of survival. Again, that may be fine with some. I find it hard to swallow...


P.S. Looking at those lifespans of the swimming world records raises some interesting thoughts, and perhaps you've already begun wondering how swimming compares to track and field? Never fear, I've done that analysis too, and I'll post on that next! And it throws up a few very interesting implications! So join us then!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

No need to swallow?

Rinse your mouth out with sports drinks - it beats water...!

Once again, apologies for the absence - our posting frequency has fallen right off the charts, and we're down to an embarassing one per week! The end of the year tends to bring with it a log-jam of work, as all the outstanding work from the previous 10 months is suddenly squeezed into the final two months of the year! Combined with "post-fatigue", I'm tempted to say that like Olympic athletes, we're in the off-season period!

Also, very little seems to be happening in the world of sport, unless you count cricket and rugby, but there are already about a billion blogs and articles being written about those "small" sports, so I thought it best to leave them alone!

Instead, I came across a very interesting study this past week, which is actually a repeat of a study that was first published in 2004, in which simply rinsing the mouth with a glucose-containing drink (like Gatorade for those in the USA, Powerade/Energade for SA) improved performance during a time-trial lasting about one hour. You can see the abstract for the orginal 2004 study here, and the latest one here.

The 2004 study - rinse with a carbohydrate drink, not water

In the 2004 study, cyclists had to complete a given amount of work in as fast a time as possible. This is important to note, because as we've discussed previously in our series on fatigue, the MODE of performance trial can influence the conclusions drawn quite substantially. In both these studies, the cyclists were able to freely select their work-rate and slow down or speed up in response to the swishing around of the carbohydrate drink or the water.

The figure below shows the performance part of the research study, and summarises its results:

So, the rinsing with the malto-dextrin solution improvement performance by almost 3%, quite independently of the usual metabolic effects of glucose on performance. That is, our usual thinking would be that glucose is superior because it is rapidly metabolised, converted to energy, and delays the onset of fatigue. This study clearly challenges that, for a number of reasons.

First, the performance trial is quite short - the theory that glucose ingestion has a profound effect on performance is particularly true for long-duration exercise, where the depletion of liver or muscle glycogen may be possible. That said, there is some evidence that glucose ingestion improves performance even during much shorter exercise trials, which is difficult to explain because only a small part of your energy comes from that ingested glucose when you do shorter, high intensity training - that was one of the reasons this study was done in the first place.

Also, in this study, the performance of the cyclists was better on CHO from the very first quarter of the trial. So when performance is broken down, it turns out that you go faster within the first few seconds, and that clearly has nothing to do with metabolic effects.

Another important point is that the malto-dextrin solution was chosen because it is colourless and non-sweet, which means it's less likely to be obvious to the subjects when they're on it - this would otherwise introduce the possibility of a large placebo effect. It turns out that some subjects did pick up the difference: Four of the nine cyclists guessed they were on the CHO-trial, based on taste and viscosity. Of these four, three improved, one did worse. I guess the placebo effect can never be ruled out, but it does seem to have been controlled as much as possible in the study.

Increased central drive - feedback from the mouth, output to the muscles?

So what then is the explanation? Before that, a couple of cautionary words. Firstly, this study did NOT show that rinsing the mouth is better than swallowing the solution. It simply compared rinsing with CHO to rinsing with H2O. It is not, therefore, an excuse not to drink glucose-containing drinks during exercise! (the second study discusses this a bit more).

However, what it does do is help us understand how shorter exercise might be improved by carbohydrates. The authors of this study speculated that there are receptors in the mouth, which are stimulated by the CHO-drink (but not by water), and then trigger centres in the brain that then increase the central drive for exercise.

Those who've followed our site for a while now will recall our Fatigue Series, in which we described how it is the brain that regulates performance, by controlling muscle activation in response to various cues (like heat, oxygen availability etc.). This CHO-finding would fit in with that kind of thinking - the brain receives information from the mouth that glucose is available, and it allows an increase in muscle activation.

The ultimate outcome of this is that the perceived exertion is regulated, and performance is a function of that regulation. In other words, athletes pace themselves according to how they feel (this is obvious, I'm sure), and the rinsing with CHO changes that perception, which allows them to cycle faster, and thus achieve the same perception at a higher power output (again, read the Fatigue Series for more discussion on this)

If you think about it, this is really the ONLY way to explain how power output and hence performance are improved when you swish a drink around in your mouth. It cannot be metabolic, only sensory. And sensation (or perception) is, as you may recall, the key component of this regulatory system where the brain monitors perceived exertion and performance. Think also of the last time you went for a run or ride in very hot conditions, and what the first drink you had afterwards felt like - it's instantly pleasurable, and that's because of feedback to the brain, a different kind of physiology from the classic thinking that something in the body has gone "wrong".

The second study: Repeating the finding

This one study could be dismissed as a spurious finding, but it has just been repeated, in a study that has yet to be published but is available online. It followed an almost identical method to the first, so we won't bore you with the details, but will point out that it differs in that this second study also looked at ingestion of CHO and H2O.

The figure below summarizes the design and main finding:

So, a repeat of the finding that rinsing with the CHO-solution improves performance compared to rinsing with water (this time by almost 4%). There was not, however, a difference between ingesting the same CHO-mixture and drinking it, and nor was there a difference between rinsing and ingesting.

A couple of interesting points about this study - they did not use a malto-dextrin solution, but rather a commercially available sports drink, which means the sweetness/taste issue could be a factor. Quite why drinking the solution did not have an effect is difficult to know - it would have to pass the mouth and presumably trigger the same sensations as if it was rinsed. That remains an unknown.

However, the key point, a repeat of study 1, is that the subjects rode at the same Perception of Effort (or RPE), for a higher power output in the CHO-rinsing trial. Once again, this would suggest that the brain picks up the "reduction" in effort as a result of the glucose in the mouth, and the cyclist rides harder, with the result that the perception increases to the desired level at a higher overall performance level. It supports the notion that the sensation and perception are the regulators of performance.

A third study in the "sandwich" - no effect in runners

Finally, I must make mention that a study in 2007, between these two, did the same thing in runners and found NO DIFFERENCE - that is, rinsing with malto-dextrin did not improve performance in a 45-minute running trial. Is it a running vs. cycling difference? Or something related to habitual diet, a placebo effect? I suspect it may be related to the intensity, and the "cluster" of signals that determine how the athlete paces themselves. Running and cycling differ with regards to the eccentric loading on the muscles and joints, and I suspect this might be a key difference, negating the effect of the signals from the mouth. Difficult to know.

Perhaps a discussion for another day!

We'll hopefully post sooner than next weekend!


Sunday, November 16, 2008

The doping dilemma

Doping in sport: Impossible to control, time for a new mindset

The issue of doping in sport is (unfortunately) never too far away from the headlines, and as the year winds down, with little in the way of elite sport taking place around the world, it's a chance to reflect on this controversial topic.

That was stimulated by this article, which details the extreme lengths that athletes will go to gain an advantage. The article, published in The Telegraph, explains how Professor Lee Sweeney, an expert in gene-transfer technology, has gained notoriety in the world of sport as a result of the possible application of his research to athletes. Sweeney was one of the scientists responsible for producing the "mighty mice" which are now famous as having super strength and size. In short, read "gene-doping", and you understand why Sweeney is in such high demand.

It's a fascinating article for a number of reasons. It gives a few examples of the lengths coaches and athletes will go to in order to gain a performance advantage, regardless of the risks. One coach offers $100,000 for the mouse-treatment, while another coach requests that his ENTIRE football team be genetically-modified. The fact that this is "only" at high school level is an indication of the extreme lengths that people will go to - how much more so for elite athletes?

These requests apparently come from all around the world, but none are from "big-name sports stars", but usually come from up-and-coming athletes who want to make the big time. In response to this demand, Sweeney is now part of a gene-doping panel on the World Anti-Doping Agency, and will be conducting research to help WADA remain a step ahead of the drug cheats.

Can anti-doping really stay ahead of doping?

That is likely an over-ambitious goal, and elite sport has shown time and again that for the doping authorities to remain AHEAD of the dopers is a near-impossible mission. This year, the world of doping control celebrated when cyclists tested positive for CERA, a third-generation form of EPO, which cyclists were using under the impression that it was undetectable.

We covered that story, and saw how the test was developed thanks to collaboration between WADA and Roche, the pharmaceutical company that produced CERA. A convenenient modification to the compound, in the form of a polyethylene glycol molecule, was the basis of the test. Ricardo Ricco, Emmanuelle Sella, Leonardo Piepoli, Stefan Schumacher, and Bernard Kohl have all tested positive for CERA in recent months, either during the Giro d'Italia, or the Tour de France. CERA was only available in Europe from the beginning of the year, and made its way quickly into the pro-peloton, where that afore-mentioned polyethylene-glycol molecule was thought to make it undetectable.

For once, however, the testers were a step ahead and had managed to develop a test for the drug, which threw up the surprises. More are expected, though one would think that as soon as the cyclists knew the test existed, they'd be off the drug. The point is that the window of opportunity is open for a short time only, and a more "strategic" (read sneaky) approach may be considered in future to catch more athletes!

Perhaps the larger question worth asking, however, is that if CERA is a drug that was used with the wrong impression that it was undetectable, how many more might exist where the athlete is actually right, and the drug is undetectable? The anti-doping authorities were quick to pat themselves on the back and hail this as a victory and a giant leap forward. They'd do well to remember that for every one drug they can test for, there may well be many others they cannot.

The premature celebrations don't serve any purpose in the long run. Let's not forget that had it not been for a jealous coach and an anonymously handed-in syringe, we might still be celebrating Dwain Chambers and Marion Jones' sprinting exploits...THG was only discovered "by accident" and thanks to coach-jealousy, and it blew open a can of worms so vast that it still seems to throw up revelations today. This should serve as a reminder to the authorities that they are nowhere near to winning the war, despite winning this particular battle.

The Telegraph article has some interesting insights in this regard. It leaves behind Professor Sweeney and his gene-doping requests, and talks about French scientists who have received similar visits and requests from athletes. Professor Philippe Moullier is currently working on gene-therapy to help patients with anemia (currently he works with monkeys), and he received a visit from ex-Tour de France cyclists who said they represented an anti-doping agency and wished to find out about his research.

Upon telling them that the research was only in its infancy, they said that the riders would not care, and that "there are kids in the Tour de France who would do anything just to have the most advanced technology." That again highlights the intensity of the battle that anti-doping agencies are fighting.

The battleground is too vast to police using "classic" methods

But perhaps the most telling point, which is really my opinion, and is not really covered in the article, is that the battleground is too vast for agencies like WADA to try to police using "classical" means. The concept that one can appoint a small group of scientists to a doping panel, and have a very narrow hierarchy where a few experts are responsible for overseeing the strategy and tactics of WADA is a very outdated one.

Whether it's a Professor Sweeney in Pennsylvania, or Professor Moullier in Nantes, or any one of the countless other scientists who are doing work on doping (either gene-doping or classical), it is simply impossible to monitor and manage all of them. For every Prof Sweeney who is drafted onto a doping panel, there could well be thousands of scientists who are not. Trying to control this simply cannot work in an archaic, pyramid structure which awards research funding to the select few who have the right contacts and obtain the right profile.

Flawed testing, but WADA's blind eye fails to advance progress

This is a job for everyone, and WADA and every anti-doping agency would do well to remember this. Unfortunately, they rarely do. This is best demonstrated by the example from earlier this year, when a Danish research group, working independently, decided to "test the testers" and evaluate how effective WADA's testing labs were in detecting EPO use. The results of that research are summarised in the figure below.

The study, in case you missed it, gave research volunteers EPO and then sent collected samples to two different WADA laboratories for testing. The result was that the labs did OK on the first round (during the period of "boosting") with Lab A producing a 100% positive record, and Lab B getting 7 "suspicious" samples, but one negative. But during the maintenance phase, only two out of 24 samples tested positive for Lab A, while Lab B failed to find a single positive or suspicious sample.

In response to this result, which was actually published in a scientific journal, the Scientific Director of WADA said "I have never seen such a drastic situation as the one reported in this article".

Well, Dr Rabin and WADA, you have now. Because the paper is there for all to see. Yet WADA came out and defended their testing process, despite having been dramatically shown-up by an independent research group. Given the stakes in the battle and the enormity of the fight against doping, the Danish research helped show that the current anti-doping process is not foolproof (in fact, it's seriously flawed), and dismissing it serves little purpose, other than to signal to athletes that your chances of getting caught are not as high as they should be. Therefore, use drugs, you might just get away with it.

Wada does, incidentally, do its own evaluation of the labs, but the results are never published, and no "data-sharing" policy exists. The organization is set up very much like the classic "business", where a select few make all the decisions, control all the funding and pull all the strings, as they see fit. What this does (apologies for the management speak) is reduce the rest of the world (all 99.999%) to onlookers, rather than fostering what has been called a "knowledge economy", where everyone shares in data and expertise is maximized. Tall, narrow pyramids are not the way to fight the anti-doping battle, because the "opposition", the dopers, are diffuse, spread out and impossible to control.

The Wikinomics of anti-doping

Rather, the work of EVERYONE should be embraced, in a kind of "wikinomics" fashion, where the sharing of information, in a fully-transparent system should be promoted. The "wikinomic" concept, incidentally, holds that "mass collaboration" may hold the answer to solving the kinds of problems faced by anti-doping authorities. It is the title of an excellent book, well worth reading, and a particularly interesting website.

I really do beleive that an astronomical collaboration approach to the fight against doping is required - the details will be difficult to work out, but only when thousands come together to pull in the same direction, can we expect the testers to catch the dopers. The first step should be to make fully transparent the blood profiles of riders, the processes followed and the funding process. Of course, people will gasp and balk at this notion, just as they would for any other example of mass collaboration (read the book "Wikinomics" for some of them).

But the fight against doping will only be won when far more people are involved on the side of the testers. Currently, no incentive exists for those people to collaborate, but the incentive to cheat is huge - $100,000 for experimental methods, for example.


Friday, November 07, 2008

Weekend snippet

Haile Gebrselassie's debut marathon story

The end of the first week of November, a historic week for the world and especially those reading this in the USA. But instead of a long science post today, I thought I'd be different and give you a little bit of weekend reading, from an article that was published in Newsweek. It is written by none other than Haile Gebrselassie, the world-record holder in the marathon.

The article is definitely the result of some team-work, but it's a wonderful story, and well written, speaking of how Gebrselassie raced in his first marathon at the age of 16, finishing in 2:48.

So for a bit of weekend inspiration, until next week, check out Geb's article in Newsweek!


Thursday, November 06, 2008

Doping in sport: how to go forward?

Agency for Cycling Ethics (ACE) goes under

With the marathon season over and the year coming to an end, only Fukuoka remains as a a big race to cover, and in the interim we will bring you some more series on varied topics, from cycling cadence to sports nutrition. In the mean time you can surf over to our new Facebook group and join if you have not already done so!

But today there is news from the anti-doping front. The Agency for Cycling Ethics, or ACE, has closed. Folded. Gone out of business, apparently due to financial problems. They were a company set up to take independent samples from athletes and report the results back to the coaches and teams. Their website has been shut down, so we do not know all the teams they were providing services for, but ACE had such big clients as Team Columbia, Garmin-Chipotle, and BMC racing, to name a few.

The problem: how to check your athletes?

Since organizations like WADA and national federations administer doping control, you might be asking why an independent agency like this is important for sport. To understand this you have to think back to the late 1990s and the Festina Scandal at the 1998 Tour de France. In that era the teams were able to successfully dodge doping allegations by pleading ignorance. Athletes were not even fired immediately like they are now, as the teams just deflected the onus back to the organizing bodies and let their guys keep competing. In addition there was never any real threat that sponsors would leave the sport because a few riders tested positive for something. Therefore it was not necessary for the teams to take any responsibility for their athletes.

Currently, however, things are different. Now when an athlete tests positive he/she is almost immediately released by the team, lest the sponsors pull their support. This happened to Barloworld at the tour this year, when Moises Duenas tested positive and was found with doping products. The team canned him right away, but Barloworld still threatened to pull its support and was rumored to have done so although it appears now they will stay on. So now the teams and coaches at least must be seen to be taking a much harder line and assuming some of the responsibility. This does not mean that they (the coaches) will be sanctioned in the same way the athletes are, and maybe that will be part of the solution, but for now the ramifications of having a positive athlete on your team are more far-reaching than even before.

So instead of letting WADA catch the cheats, some teams now have realized that being proactive might be better for the general "health" of their team. The idea is that you test your athletes regularly for banned substances and also to establish a bit of a physiological profile. Then, if you ever notice that their profile is changing in a way that might imply doping, you can better manage the situation by pulling him from competition. Or if you know they are doping, in theory you could terminate their contract. Now you have prevented an official positive test on your team, and even better it makes the team look squeaky clean as it gives the appearance that they are keeping a close eye on their athletes.

The need for independent agencies

Enter companies like ACE who will, for probably a not-so-small fee, sample and test your athletes on a regular basis and provide you with the data. On paper this is great as we assume the agency operates independently of any politics in the sport like the grand-standing that often occurs between the UCI and the IOC and the UCI and Tour de France organizers ASO. So there can be no accusations of witchhunts or bias like one athlete being tested a disproportionate number of times.

This was hailed as the way forward by teams like Garmin-Chipotle and Team Columbia and CSC-Saxobank. They bragged that they are watching their athletes and using agencies like ACE in the battle against doping. The problem however is that the teams still control the information, and while most of the time they will make those results available to the public and WADA and the UCI, they are not obligated to do so, and we can guarantee that eventually the circumstances will be right for a team to cover up results and withhold information or report false information.

Think about it. . .a cycling team has been testing their riders regularly and shows everyone is clean for the whole year leading up to the tour. They are contenders but also at the end of their sponsorship contract. Therefore performing on the big stage is imperative. Suddenly their team leader and yellow jersey hope has a blip on his profile that indicates the use of a banned substance only one week before the start of the race. We would all be naiive to think that the team directors and athletes will always operate in a truthful and transparent manner, as they have proven to us so far that they will not.

But who is policing whom?

So it is plausible that the team falsifies the data to make it appear that all is well. And who can do anything about it? Not the testing agency as they are independent and just run the tests. Not WADA or the UCI as the teams are not obligated to share those results and are not really breaking any rules if they provide false results. So the team goes forward and the doped athlete competes unbeknown to the rest of us.

These kinds of companies surely will play a role in the bigger picture of the fight against doping, but somehow their role must be formalized. The ultimate test of transparency would be for the teams to volunteer to send a copy of all results to WADA and the UCI for their own records, although some kind of agreement must be reached about if that sample is "legal" in terms of the UCI or WADA sanctioning the athlete or team. It is quite tricky because if the sample can be used to ban an athlete, then there is even more incentive to manipulate the system, this time the sampling process within the team, and then companies like ACE must be working together with WADA which in turn means they compromise some of their independence.

For now the teams will use these companies as a means to demonstrate their commitment to anti-doping practices, and it is not a bad thing that now the teams are playing a larger role. What is surprising is that not more teams are doing it. If I am the team director or coach, I want every assurance that no one is doping. Like it or not, a positive test will have implications for me as a member of that team, so the team must take full responsibility and at least be seen to be trying to prevent their athletes from doping. It must be costly, but that must be seen as an essential part of the budget of any professional sports team.

But if ACE went bust, then what does that say about the financial viability of the business? We can only hope that they folded due to mismanagement and not because this type of business is not viable. Maybe more details will filter out, and in the mean time teams like Garmin-Chipotle, who use their anti-doping stance as a centerpiece for their team, will need to find someone else who can provide these services. It is a complicated problem, to be sure, and even the suggestions made here may or not be good for anything, but I suspect that we are in the middle of a changing landscape in the fight against doping and that over the next few years things are going to continue to morph until all the involved parties (hopefully) arrive at the best solution.


Monday, November 03, 2008

Science of Sport diary

Dear diary...musings and networking at The Science of Sport

Some admin and house-keeping

Today is a "Dear Diary"-type of post, where I have some musings and thoughts on the some "house-keeping" issues for the site, and some ideas about future posts. So bear with me...

Recap of the World Marathon Major outcomes

Hope you all enjoyed yesterday's New York City Marathon, the last of the big city marathons of 2008. It brought $500,000 paydays for Martin Lel and Irina Mikitenko. Lel, of Kenya, won because he won three marathons in the cycle (London, New York, London), and then came 5th in the Beijing Olympic marathon, whereas Mikitenko won thanks to tie-breaking vote!

She was tied with Gete Wami and the first (and apparently only official) tie-breaker used is to look at head to head results. Turns out that Wami and Mikitenko raced twice, and they each had one win, so it remained a tie. It then went to a vote. In the end, I believe the vote went the way of the more deserving athlete, but still, it seems odd to me that such a prestigious (and large) prize gets given on the basis of a subjective vote. The "electorate" (an appropriate word at the moment, in the USA!) will argue that the vote was not subjective because Mikitenko was more deserving because she earned her points in FEWER races and also had a faster average time than Wami.

I agree on the points per race argument, but to give the award based on average times is shaky, because as one can see immediately just by glancing at the times from the top 6 marathons, you can't compare Berlin, Chicago and London to Beijing, New York or Boston. So the choice of marathons determines that particular outcome. However, the fact that Mikitenko earned her points in fewer races is a strong argument that she's been the best marathon runner. It would just have been nice to have a formal method for making that decision - doesn't seem too difficult to do. If it's still not possible to separate them after that, then split the money like they do for the Golden League.

Looking ahead - what is in store in the embers of 2008?

That race pretty much wraps up the marathon season - there are still some big races, Fukuoka among them, but the world's elite are now "in hibernation" for a while, as most of the sporting world winds down. That means less news coverage and maybe a focus more on some series here at The Science of Sport. Last week, we looked at heatstroke, and it would be good to get into a few more similar topics in the coming weeks.

Join the Facebook tribe

One thing that we have done recently is create a Facebook group for The Science of Sport. If you haven't already joined, you can do so here.

The idea behind this group is to create a networking opportunity for people who read the site and also spend some time on Facebook. It also will help to hopefully grow our own reach and expand the readership. I read the other day that there are now 110 million people on Facebook (and it's creator is supposedly worth $1.5 billion, which makes me wish I'd invented it!), and so I imagine many of you are regulars.

One thing that we (The Science of Sport, that is) are incredibly grateful for is our regular readership "network" - the email subscribers and frequent visitors, who vindicate the work we do. However, because we're both full-time employed elsewhere, we haven't had the time or opportunity to capitalize on that network and write more often and in more detail on the topics we cover. Getting involved in discussion threads is also often very difficult, squeezed in an afterthought. We're also limited with regards to IT capabilities, and so creating discussion threads and forums on the site has not been possible.

Facebook will hopefully provide that opportunity, and it's an existing, powerful, far-reaching network tool, so why re-invent the wheel? So feel free to make use of the Facebook site to bomb off thoughts and perceptions and to join a community that hopefully shares your insight and desire for informed opinion on sport (which is, after all, what we're all about here!).

We'll also use the site for "spillover" type discussion and content that doesn't quite fit with the blog and to get a more "informal" word or two out. We can't promise that we'll always be able to get involved in discussion, and so we don't want to create a demand that we can't supply! But hopefully, it will be a means to build an expanding network and get the word out a little more. So feel free to join up and fire away!

Your suggestions

Speaking of "firing away", we get loads of emails from readers with questions or specific requests for topics. To date, I must confess that our "conversion" from request to post must be about 30% (I'm embarrassed!). We've tried as much as possible to answer those requests, but unfortunately, the age-old reason of lack of time prevents it in many instances. It's not for lack of appreciation - I have an email folder labelled "Ideas" where every single one of those suggestions is filed! But, I noticed the other day that we have just gone past 400 articles since this site started about 18 months ago, and so covering every topic has been impossible!

But we're trying to change that, and one idea we've had recently is to invite specific topic requests and then spend some time covering them. This might even take the form of a video file in which either Jonathan or I speak on the topic - figure it would be more personal that way! Think of it as "customized Science of Sport!"

So that's on the horizon, we'll certainly keep you posted and hopefully come up with innovative ways of presenting what we hope is innovative thinking!

So stay tuned, just because the running season is winding down doesn't mean we are! As always, thanks for the support and readership, and let's hope that we hit 800 articles by 2010, going even stronger!


Sunday, November 02, 2008

New York Marathon 2008 men analysis

Analysis of the 2008 New York City Marathon

Welcome to our analysis of the men's and women's races in New York. You can find the men's analysis in this post, and the women's in a separate post, just below that (or just click here...). Enjoy!

Marilson dos Santos claims title number 2, as Goumri takes second (again)

It was a great finish in the men's 2008 New York City Marathon, as Marilson Gomes dos Santos took his second title on the streets of New York, winning in 2:08:43. Until the final kilometer, however, the race was Abderrahim Goumri's, as he opened up a nine second lead with 3km to go. But the elastic was stretched, but never broken, and the Brazilian dos Santos hung on and then closed Goumri down before moving ahead inside the final kilometer.

It was a dramatic turn-around, because at the 35km mark, Goumri had moved into the lead, and gradually opened up a lead, first to three seconds, and then to nine seconds. It looked for all the money in the world that Goumri was going to put an end to his run of second-place finishes in Major city marathons. I had almost written the headline to this post, proclaiming Goumri's first Major title!

But dos Santos clearly didn't get the memo! He held on, kept the lead at 9 seconds, and the reeled in the Moroccan inside the final mile. Truth be told, once dos Santos had bridged the gap, the race was over in a flash - having been held at about 7 to 9 seconds, dos Santos opened a big leap and eventually won by 24 seconds, Goumri's resistance well and truly broken. The size of the final victory margin was deceptive - it was far closer to that.

How the race unfolded

The table and graph below show our usual post-marathon analysis (check out our women's analysis here).

As for the women's race, the early pace was slow - 16:20 through 5km and projected 2:17:50 was never going to last! In the graph above, the grey line shows the splits from last year's race, and you can see how the first half was much slower. Halfway was reached in 1:06:06, and a large group with all the main contenders was still present.

That's where it got interesting - a progressive increase in pace, as seen in the graph, saw the pace drop below 3:00/km for the first time, and by a huge margin. Between 25 and 30km, the pace was incredibly fast - 14:24 (2:53/km), driven by attack and counter-attack, primarily by Goumri, Rono, Kirui and dos Santos. All the while, Paul Tergat, at 39, the elder statesman of the race, shadowed the move and the chances of a dream return after 18 months out were alive.

However, eventually the intensity of the surging told on the two Kenyans, Rono and Tergat. The 10km interval between 25km and 35km was run in 29:12, and that split the race wide open. Only Goumri and dos Santos remained. First it was dos Santos who pressed, and opened up a small lead of about 6 m on Goumri. But that was just sparring, the real move was to come, and it would be by Goumri, who surged just before 35km to open up his nine second lead.

That lead held, as mentioned, for the next 5 or so kilometers, until eventually, in Central Park, he faltered. The splits in the table are those of Dos Santos, but if you were to look at Goumri's, you would see that he covered the 5km from 35km to 40km FIVE SECOND FASTER than dos Santos (15:02 vs. 15:07). His final 2.2 km were run in 7:08, 32 seconds SLOWER than dos Santos, though once passed, he certainly threw in the towel.

So Goumri, then, edged again, and his run of second-place finishes continues. He must have thought (as did we), that with Martin Lel out and the race relatively open, this was his great chance to claim that first title. But it ended in heart-break, and perhaps he got carried away with 7km to run and pressed too soon? Given his much vaunted speed (a sub-13 minute 5000m PB), he might have backed his finish over the final kilometer. Then again, having been dusted twice by Lel in the final 400m, one can hardly blame him for wanting to finish alone! Still, he'll look back on NYC 2008 with fair regret.

Take nothing away from Dos Santos though, he ran a brilliant race - the first half was 1:06:06. His second half was 1:02:37, and that's brilliant running in New York. So he bags his second New York title, proving that the first was no fluke, and confirms him as a major marathon name, especially in competitive races (as opposed to paced time-trials like Berlin)

As for Tergat, he came in fourth, behind Daniel Rono in third, and probably doesn't quite have the speed he needs to challenge seriously in these big races. Then again, Petrova held Radcliffe for 35km, maybe he'll be back? I can't see it happening, however, and maybe New York is the curtain call on his magnificent career.

So that brings and end to the Marathon season for 2008. Your champions are Martin Lel and Irina Mikitenko. But in our opinion, the "real" world number ones are Sammy Wanjiru and Paula Radcliffe (see below).

2009 should be a great year - will we see another world record? And who will break it? Wanjiru? Lel, if he can return from malaria and a broken foot? And most importantly, how will Sammy Wanjiru fare wearing his Olympic crown?

Join us for all that analysis! Thanks for reading this year race analyses!


New York Marathon 2008 women analysis

For analysis of the men's race, click here

Paula puts on a show
of front-running

Paula Radcliffe is the undisputed number one marathon runner in the world, and so it should not be all that surprising to us when she shows up and pulls out a performance like she did in New York today. However, her "legacy" has been unfairly punctuated by one failure every four years - the Olympic Games, where she failed to finish (in 2004) and came 23rd (in Beijing). However, on any other stage, she has been so superior, so dominant that we should all be thankful that we have enjoyed her for the last 8 years.

Today, taking on what is arguably the strongest field ever assembled for a women's marathon, she hit the front after about 10 meters, and stayed there. She didn't exactly set the field alight with the early pace, which was actually slow, in large part due to the strong winds, but in the post-race interview she revealed that her strategy was to keep the pace in the first half comfortable and run a negative split. But the sight of Radcliffe in the lead right from the gun is always a sign that she is supremely confident, and when she is confident, it means she is in great condition. And that means everyone else is pretty much running for second place.

And so it proved. She never faltered, leading from start to finish and crossing the line in a relatively slow 2:23:56 to claim her third New York title. The analysis is below.

How it unfolded

The table and graph below shows the pacing strategy during the race. It is very much a Paula-pacing chart, since she did all the work setting the pace. For comparative purposes, I've also shown the splits from last year's race (the faded grey line), because it shows you how differently this year's race unfolded.

What is most noticeable is that the early pace was incredibly slow - 18:05 through 5km is very slow, largely as a result of the strong wind. How slow? Well, last year, the first 5km was covered in 16:45, and 10km in 33:25. This year, they hit 5km in 18:05 and 10km in 35:33, over 2 minutes slower for the first quarter of the race (that wind would force the men into an incredibly slow early pace as well, as we show in our men's analysis post).

The pace got progressively quicker and quicker, and they hit the halfway mark in 1:13:23. At that point, there were six women in the lead group, and surprisingly, Catherine Ndereba was NOT one of them, having dropped off by about 100m a few kilometers earlier. Gete Wami was there, looking to finish in the top 2 to claim the World Majors title. So was Kara Goucher, the marathon debutant from the USA, who was shadowing Radcliffe. Her debut half-marathon last year (66:57) was a big part of her confidence, particularly given that she beat Radcliffe with that performance. Whenever anyone with a super-fast half marathon steps up to the marathon, look out! (think Wanjiru, and Evans Cheruiyot last month in Chicago).

Just after 30km, the relentless pace began to tell. The 5km interval between 25km and 30km were covered in 16:36, a pace of 3:19/km and it did a great deal of damage. First, Goucher went off the back. Then it was Wami, who watched as $500,000 disappeared into the distance. Then, at about 32km, Dire Tune of Ethiopia fell off, leaving only Ludmilla Petrova of Russia to keep Radcliffe company. Meanwhile, Goucher held strong and having been dropped, was fighting to stay in touch. She'd moved ahead of Wami and Tune into third.

Then at 34km, the final Russian resistance was broken. Radcliffe opened up 10 m in no time at all, and Petrova's challenge was over. It was an incredibly brave effort from a 40-year old, whose race then became a challenge to see if she could crack the veterans world record. But Radcliffe was clear - there was to be no repeat of last year's race through the Park against Wami. This year, the race was over with 20 minutes to run. Still, she got faster and faster, as the graph above shows, and won in glorious isolation to stamp her name on 2008, at the final time of asking.

Behind her, Goucher had fought a great race to claw her way back into third place, a great debut performance and she'll be a name to look out for in the future. She was in sight of Petrova for second, but in the end, the 40-year old Russian in a new world record of 2:25:42.

Gete Wami, meanwhile, had a day to forget, finishing in 2:29:25 and losing out on the world Majors title, which goes instead to London and Berlin Champion, Irina Mikitenko.

But the undisputed number 1, when healthy, is Paula Radcliffe, and she confirmed that today.

Check out the men's analysis above!