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Friday, May 07, 2010

The sub-27 10km limit: An exclusive club

An exclusive club of sub-27 minute 10km runners

So it turns out that over 3,000 people have summitted Mount Everest.  Only 31 have broken 27 minutes for 10,000m.

Admittedly, no-one has died ever trying to break the 27-minute barrier (at least, not directly during the attempt), whereas more than 100 people have died trying to reach the earth's highest point.  But it's amazing to think that this exclusive club, consisting of only 31 men, had never had a non-African in it, until last weekend.

Now, Chris Solinsky is a member, the first man from outside of African to break the barrier.  The other day, we also reported on LetsRun.com's analysis that Solinsky is the heaviest athlete ever to break the barrier, and by some margin.  Just to repeat, below is a very basic graph of the sub-27 club members, showing the mass of the runners by rank, and you'll see the obvious outlier that is Solinsky in red.

It turns out that the average mass of the men in this list, without Solinsky, is only 55.6kg.  The heaviest, as mentioned the other day, were 64kg.  In other words, only small men need apply!

There was some quite good discussion in response to that post.  Size in distance runners has received quite a lot of attention in the literature - about 10 years ago, Frank Marino did research showing that smaller men had a performance advantage over larger men during 8km time-trials in hot, but not cold environments (Marino et al. Pflugers Arch, 2000).  That is, they performed similarly in cool conditions, but as soon as it got a little warmer, the smaller men outperformed the bigger men.

What was most interesting is that the bigger athletes started the trial at a slower pace, probably an anticipatory reduction in speed so that they wouldn't overheat.  Why?  Because the bigger you are, the more heat you produce during exercise, and even though it is possible to lose more heat, it doesn't quite make up for the extra heat gain.  As a result, the larger athlete stores more heat, sees a more rapid rise in body temperature, and thus selects a lower speed in anticipation of this "thermoregulatory failure", and is thus outperformed by the smaller athlete.

This is not the sole reason why smaller men have the advantage - there is the obvious advantage of carrying additional weight, a power-to-weight ratio, that gives the smaller men at advantage.  Particularly in cooler environments, where heat storage and the attainment of a critically high core temperature are unlikely, thermoregulation is much less of a factor (hence the reason that the two groups in Marino's study performed similarly in the cool condition).

A first-of-his-kind member - a non-African joins the club

But in terms of size, the other thing that jumps out from Frank Marino's study on size, is that he could just as easily have analyzed his results by ethnicity.  It turns out that the smaller men in his study were African, whereas the larger men were European/white. And so, he duly did this - produced a second paper showing what he called "Superior performance of African runners in warm humid but not in cool environmental conditions" (Marino et al., J Appl Physiol, 2004).

So the African runners tended to be smaller, and this was postulated to be part of the reason for their advantage.  Note that I'm saying "part of", because of course there are many, many factors that contribute to their advantage - training, culture, diet, altitude, lifestyle, genetics, biomechanics, metabolism, and then thermoregulation.

But it is striking, and the other notable observation of Solinsky's performance is that not only is he the largest runner every to make it into the sub-27 club, he's also the first man from outside Africa to do.  Of the 31 members, 20 are Kenyan (including a few who happened to be running in Qatar vests), 6 are Ethiopian, 2 are Moroccan (one of whom ran for Belgium and then got caught doping), and one each for Uganda and Eritrea, and now America.

I could go on for hours and hours about why this might be, but I haven't the time right now, unfortunately.  The African dominance in running is well-known by anyone who follows the sport - I dare say that in some respects, it's a problem for the sport because the sheer depth and quality of the Kenyan and Ethiopian athletes makes in much more difficult to follow the sport with a passing interest - you're either a full fan and know the characters, or it is almost overwhelming how much talent comes through year after year if you don't follow it closely enough.  I think it's fantastic to watch the races which are less predictable, and I find this a source of strength, but to the "marginals" with only a passing interest, the continued dominance does present a challenge to marketing the sport.

There is a lot to be said for the value of "stability" of athletes in sport - in tennis, you know that Federer, Nadal and Djokovic will build a great rivalry over many years.  In distance running, it's much more transient, partly because of the depth.

I am reliably informed by colleagues in sports science in Nairobi, that many Kenyan athletics meetings feature no hurdles events, no field events, and few sprint events, but they do have ten 10,000m races, each with 30 runners, and every single one breaks 30 minutes!  At altitude.  There are a lot of "myths" about the sport in Kenya - this may be another where the truth expands every time it's told!  But one thing that is without question is that for sheer depth of talent, they are unmatched, and hence for quality, with the right management and coaching support, they produce two-thirds of the world's great runners.  They may have relatively short-spans at the top (this would make for a fascinating analysis), but they certainly dominate.

So it's a breakthrough, and again, that sub-27 minute club is unbelievably exclusive.  By way of comparison, there are 72 men who have broken 13-minutes for 5km, which is the other barrier often spoken of for track distance runners.  Admittedly, 10,000m is raced much less frequently than 10,000m, but it highlights how special a sub-27 minute time is.

Coming soon - more on hGH

We haven't forgotten about the Growth Hormone paper, which has now been published.  We have it (thanks, Andrew) and we'll have a look at it.  Both been incredibly busy though, so that in-depth reading will have to wait, hence these shorter, "filler" posts.

But watch this space!

Also, the FIFA 2010 World Cup is now just over a month away.  Being in South Africa, it would seem wasteful to not use the opportunity to do some posts on the science of soccer.  I'm actually about to give a talk on this within the department, so I'll be offloading some of that here in the coming weeks!  Much to look forward to!



Anonymous said...

You discuss the atheletes' height and mass. What about their ages? How old is Chris and how does his age compare with the other sub-27 runners?

Adriano said...

I think you wanted to say: "Admittedly, 10,000m is raced much less frequently than 5,000m" (not 10,000m). Just a typo.

aluchko said...

It would be fascinating to see what happens to the African runners advantage in general when you control for weight.

Mark Boen said...

Ross, any stats on who has run under 27 minutes the most? My guess is Kenenisa Bekele who has run under 27 at least a half dozen times and has run the fastest 10K on American soil.

Anonymous said...

It's Haile

Gebrselassie 9 times,
Bekele 8,
Sihine 5;
Tergat 3, Paul Koech 3, Hassan Abdullah 3

Tadese 2 (+ 27:00.30 once)

... according to the IAAF stats

Anonymous said...

It's Haile

Gebrselassie 9 times,
Bekele 8,
Sihine 5,
Tergat, Paul Koech and Hassan Abdullah 3 each

Tadese 2 (+ a time of 27:00.30)

(according to the grats IAAF stats site)

Michelle Simmons said...

Off topic here... but I'm wondering if you guys have heard about what Rich Roll and Jason Lester are doing right now in Hawaii... EPIC5... 5 Ironmans in 5 days on 5 different islands. www.epic5.com. Not sure if they're gonna make it. Logistically its as much of a challenge as it is physically. Anyway, would love to hear your thoughts!

Shaun said...

Im rather surprised that noone has looked at the BMI values for all these runners. I had a look through and interestingly Bekele and Geb had rather "high" values. Infact, Solinsky and Bekele have almost identical values. What also becomes apparent is that the vast majority of these runners are on the border of healthy-weight and under-weight by BMI classifications. Not unexpected, but does underline the importance of power to weight ratio.

Anonymous said...

He's 75kg, not 73kg. He did an interview after the race and said he's 164-166 lbs. Stop being lazy and parroting letsrun's errors.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

To Anonymous.

Had I seen that interview (which I clearly did not), I would have used 75kg.

However, more to the point, I made it very clear in the post that I was using the numbers produced by Letsrun. I even linked to their numbers. And in defence of Letsrun, I'd like to suggest that you weigh yourself every day for the next month and get back to me on the natural range in your mass. I'd be willing to bet that your mass goes up and down to the tune of 3 to 4kg over the course of the month. Therefore, while Solinsky may have reported his mass at 75kg, and therefore is the most accurate source for the mass on the day of the race, there is no reason to suggest that 73 kg is wrong.

So I'd suggest you be less cavalier about accusing people of laziness, because in fact, the error in the measurement, and its natural variation, is larger than the "error" you accuse Letsrun of making.

I stand by 73kg, just as I'd have stood by 75kg, because they're the best source of information and it doesn't change the meaning or concept of the post.


Anonymous said...

I apologize for accusing you of being lazy, and agree with you that 75kg is the more accurate number. However, I can't defend Letsrun. I do weigh myself daily and it varies by 2.5 lbs. I would suggest that the reason he gave a range and not an exact number is that he does weigh himself frequently and that's how much it varies!

I know I'm nitpicking and the point of your post remains the same.

BCC said...

So much for the "yeah, but I'm too heavy to be an elite runner" excuse (I'm 168cm / 68 kg).

I attended a couple XC meets in Nairobi in 1993 (to watch). I think the Kenyan XC championships and some pan-African race. The depth of talent was insane.

My memory is faulty, but I seem to remember William Sigei winning, racing 10-20m ahead of a decent-sized pack the whole time. I forget the times, but I remember that they were fast for altitude! Similarly, the junior boys and girls (many barefoot) were pretty darn fast, as well.

What a performance by Solinsky!

Anonymous said...

Hi Ross,

Another great blog post and some good commentary also.

Just to chime in on Shaun's question/thought - there is a Weyland and Davis paper that deals with these body size issues for elite track athletes not just for the 10 K but all the Oly distances.

They came up with ideal sizes for all events based on a large pool of elites.

The paper concludes there is an ideal BMI for every distance and allows for a mass prediction if height is known.

I think it was in the Journal of Experimental Biology in 2005.


BCC said...

Did you mean:

Journal of Experimental Biology 208, 2625-2631 (2005)

Running performance has a structural basis

Peter G. Weyand and J. Adam Davis

I once was an experimental subject for Dr. Weyand... nice guy.

Anonymous said...


Yes, thank you - yes, that is the right paper. It's worth reading, especially for considering Solinsky.

The paper shows what the "optimal" or ideal body sizes are for different Oly track events for men and women.

Basically, the ideal body sizes are determined by how hard the different specialists need to hit the ground to race at their different speeds and it all comes down to a certain BMI.

I'm not sure of Ross and Jonathan are familiar with the paper or not, but it seems like the best reference for evaluating how weird Solinsky is sizewise. His numbers for BMI line up about with the 800 meter guys and a good bit higher than the the 10 K elites.

Thanks again for providing the right reference.


DrTim said...

You guys covering Manchester tomorrow? Haile is going for the road WR ... sub 27!