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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Sub-2 Hour Marathon? Who and when?

The two-hour marathon:  Who and when?  If at all...

This morning, I came across what has been a very topical point of debate for the last couple of years - will the two-hour marathon be run, when will it be run, and by whom?

The paper is featured in the Journal of Applied Physiology, and it asks these questions, and presents certain physiological concepts and questions that would need to be addressed in order for this performance to be possible.  Ultimately, the paper provides more questions than answers (because frankly, there are none), but it's interesting as a piece of a debate that comes around fairly regularly.  So today, I'll look at only one of the aspects used in the debate - previous performance.  The physiology of what a 2-hour marathon involves is for another time (otherwise this would be a mammoth post)

Back to 2008 - the barrier comes into view

Way back in October 2008, the debate began when Haile Gebrselassie ran 2:03:59.  As we are prone to do, when a barrier gets broken, we look ahead to the next one.  Gebrselassie himself was saying that he'd run 2:02 soon, which seemed a little optimistic given that he'd just taken 26 seconds off - so even another 2 performances of the same magnitude wouldn't have seen this happen.

In this case, we jumped four barriers ahead and asked whether it was possible for a human to run under 2-hours.  You can read my thoughts on this topic here.  David Bedford, race director of the London Marathon, was quoted as saying Without doubt I will see a two-hour marathon in my lifetime. It might be towards the end of my life. It might be another 20 years. But, yes, it will definitely happen."

Well, unless Bedford has figured out a way to live to at least 120, = it was suggested he would be wrong.

The paper - different approaches to the question

So looking a bit more closely at the paper, the first approach adopted was to analyse the progression of the marathon world record over the last fifty years and then to predict forward when it will dip below 2 hours.  This is of course a hazardous estimate - it was once predicted that women would outrun men in the marathon because women's times were dropping faster than men's times - past performance can be a very unreliable as a predictor of future performance!

Nevertheless, the paper makes the following observations, based on the graph below, which looks at world record times since about 1930:

So the drop in the 1950s and 1960s was pretty rapid (attributed to changes in training to a high volume, year round change, and African runners entry into the marathon event), followed by a much more consistent period of decline.  So on average, the record has fallen by 20 seconds per year since 1960, and so there are two scenarios:
  • If this rate continues, then the sub-2 hour marathon will be achieved by 2021
  • If the rate declines to say 10 seconds per year (based on the projection from 1980), then it will be achieved by 2035, 25 years from now
The third possibility, not mentioned in the paper, is that the decline drops right off, and settles at say one world record every five years, with each one taking 15 seconds off the time.  If this happens, then it takes 80 years to achieve, if at all.

You can make up your own mind over which of these projections are likely to be realistic.  It depends, of course, on whether you think the ceiling is being approached or not. 

One thing I will point out is that between 1988 and 1998, the record didn't move - it got "stuck" at 2:06:50 by Dinsamo of Ethiopia.  Then the unlikely source of Ronaldo da Costa broke it, and there was a spate of records.  So at the risk of stating the obvious, there may well be an average decline, but the real story is told by the "stagnations" and the "steps", and when asking whether a sub 2 hour is possible, you have to ask whether they will continue or not?  And then there is the obvious issue of whether 10 seconds per year is realistic?

For example, let's do the same exercise for the men's 10,000m world record (the reason for the choice of event should become clear later).

Below is a graph showing the drop in World records since 1950.

So, from 1950 to 2010, the average decline in the record is 2.8 seconds per year.  But, from 1977 (the first African WR over 10km, incidentally), it's only 2 seconds per year.

But then, very interestingly, it increases from 1993 again - you may decide what drove that (EPO, perhaps?  Better training?  More prize money?  Greater athletes like Tergat, Gebrselassie?) - to 2.4 seconds per year.  Then, since the current record was set in 2005, it's remained largely unchallenged.  And with the dearth of high quality 10,000m races on the circuit these days (outside of major championships), it would seem likely to remain that way.

In any event, apply the same method to the 10,000m record and let's ask whether we will ever see a sub-26 minute 10,000m?

If you take the overall average of 2.8 seconds improvement per year, then it predicts that we will see a 25:59 in 2011.  Ok, so that's not going to happen.

If we take the average progression since 1977, then the prediction is that we'll see a sub-26 time in 2013.  Again, I feel pretty confident in saying this is not going to happen.  The record has been improved by only six seconds in the last 12 years, and I can't see much happening from here on.  The point is that this kind of projection almost always under-estimates the likely progression.

Why 10,000m times are so vital:  Predicting UP

So now, why is the relative stagnation of 10,000m times important to this debate about the marathon? 

The reason is that the golden-era of 10,000m running in the 1990s, where the records fell so regularly from 1993 to 1998, is one of the main factors responsible for driving the drop in marathon performances in the 1990s and 2000s.  Regardless of the factors that drove that spate of records in the 1990s, it was the conversion of these runners to the longer distance that helped to lower the marathon world record and raise the standard to a point where a 2:05 now longer even guarantees a win.

The reality is that there is a strong correlation between the speed an athlete possesses over 10,000m and their ability to run a fast marathon.  It's not perfect, otherwise the best 10,000m runners would win marathons all the time (Zersenay Tadese, for example, has not converted his amazing 10,000m and half-marathon achievements yet).

And of course, there are exceptional marathon runners who have not had quite the same success over 10,000m (often due to circumstances and choice).  However, the basic premise is this - to run a sub-2 hour marathon, there is a cut-off limit to how SLOWLY you can afford to run over 10,000m.  And right now, there is no athlete with the 10,000m performance ability necessary to run at 2:50/km for a marathon.

The question is, if a 2:03:59 marathon is the result of a ± 26:30 to 26:45 10,000m runner (and this range is not that large), what kind of speed over 10km will be required for an athlete to run a 1:59:59?  And this is a vital question, for while I appreciate that there are many considerations that affect how shorter distance speed is translated UP to longer distances (the best 1500m runner is not the best 10,000m runner, of course), we do know that 10km and 21km performance do very closely predict marathon performance.  There are a number of reasons for this, mainly related to the relative speed sustained and the physiological/energetic processes for the two distances.  These issues are covered in the Joyner paper, which I will look at in due course.

So, if we apply this same logic to a half-marathon - the very best runners in the world are presently able to run a half marathon in 59 minutes.  They go through half-way of a marathon in 62 minutes, a 3 minute difference.  To run a 2 hour marathon requires 60 minute halves, and that athlete thus probably needs a half marathon best in the range of 57 minutes.  Is that achievable?  Certainly not now, but if you want to know when a sub-2 hour marathon is possible, the answer is "when an athlete can run a half marathon in 57 minutes".  And that is a lot further away than 13 or even 25 years.

A highly unlikely scenario of 10 seconds per year

My point here is that predicting marathon performance based on past performances may not be the best way to go - it's certainly incomplete, and what is missing is the recognition that shorter distance performance may be an even better predictor of marathon performance than previous marathon performance!

So, based purely on performance analysis, I would have to say that the projection that the record will continue to decline by 10 seconds per year is highly unlikely. 

Instead, I would be surprised if the world record is broken by more than 15 seconds once every five years.  Why?  Because that record is now so strong that the very best runner needs the very best conditions, pacemakers, race situation and course in order to challenge it.  So, 15 seconds every 5 years is, in my opinion, a best-case, and that gives us 80 years to wait for the 2-hour marathon.

And there is a problem in that the supply of great courses is now dropping below the demand.  For now, Berlin remains the prime hunting ground for records.  Dubai has established itself as super fast, and Rotterdam has re-emerged as a super fast course.  But I do believe that as that record gets closer and closer to the limit of what is physiologically possible, courses like London (surface, wind, competition and turns), Chicago (weather) and possibly even Berlin and Dubai eventually will require too many chips to be in place. 

Too strong a field (as in London) and the pace in the middle is likely to be erratic as guys watch each other and not the clock.  And remember how rain in Dubai scuppered a record attempt?  Or a wind in Berlin?  It's now too precise, the margins for error too small.  So the notion of every race being a record-attempt will cease, and we'll see viable attempts (where "viable" is a guy on 2:04 pace at 35km) only once every 5 or 6 years. 

Of course, there is physiology too, and a large part of the Joyner paper is devoted to talk of running economy required for a sub-2 hour marathon.  This is maybe the most interesting part of the discussion, much like it was for the cycling analysis we did recently.  We'll dig out the analysis done on Zersenay Tadese, one of the most interesting things we've looked at on this site. But this post is already long enough looking only at historical performances, so I'll leave economy alone for now and return to it later this week!


P.S.  A copy of the PDF of the Joyner paper is available on LetsRun.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Kayaking wrap from Poznan

From Poznan to London.  Sports science:  Process vs outcome?

The 2010 ICF Sprint World championships in Poznan are now over, and the focus now shifts to Olympic qualification next year, and then hopefully onto London 2012.  Apart from pacing strategy insights (which offended a lot of fans, it would seem), the week in Poland was very informative and helpful for our ambitions moving forward.

For kayaking enthusiasts, the high speed video below shows Ed Cox of Britain paddling the final leg of a great K1 relay in which Spain, who you will also see in the video, held off the GBR challenge to win the gold medal.  It was one of the highlights of the regatta, and I'm sure you'll appreciate the video, which I took from the 100m to go mark.

Sports science - the plumbers of the sports world?

Now, having got the video out the way, a brief discussion point of the role of sports science in high performance sport.  This is admittedly aimed at a fairly narrow bracket of our readership, but indulge me as I share something that struck me (not for the first time) in Poland.

Sports science seems simultaneously the most valued and the most criticized component of a high performance system.  Few athletes or teams achieve success without some form of scientific intervention - ranging from altitude training, to proper nutrition, strength and conditioning, to doping, sports science prepares world class athletes for world class competition, and these days, when you talk of a high performance model, it invariably is centred around sports science services.  The same is true in Sevens rugby, in rowing, and in triathlon, but it struck home last week, mainly because there is, as always, an uneasy tension between science and coaches.  This was typified by a comment received on my last kayaking post, where sports scientists (me, specifically) were relegated to failed sports people trying to wangle their way into the Olympics in order to bump up their CVs.

And the only reason I bring this up is because it is a perception shared by many coaches, and dare I say, administrators.  I was fortunate enough to chat with a few coaches and sports science support staff at the Poznan regatta, and in South Africa, we have this problem, which I now realize is not unique (though it may be more extreme - we're a little far behind the rest of the world).

And the problem is this:  People view sports science as the plumber who must show up to unblock the drain.  In other words, when things go wrong, when things begin to smell a little off, then a sports scientist must be called, and in an hour or two, they must sort out the problem, leaving athlete and coach half a second faster.  In the aftermath of Beijing, South Africa did this - every federation recognized that the lack of expertise was a problem, and they sought to fix it by getting the contribution of scientists, doctors and successful coaches.  So far, so good.

Intellectual immersion:  Don't just talk, get married

The problem is that they didn't commit to a "marriage".  Call it "intellectual immersion", call it full-time involvement.  The key is that sports science only works because the process is more valuable than the outcome.  It is only the day-to-day, systematic application of scientific principles that sports science can begin to chip away at time or distance advantages.  And the scientific principle is nothing more than asking the right question.  Could Tim Brabants have gone faster in his K1 1000m final?  The answer is yes, and scientific understanding of pacing strategy tells you how.  Can the French men be beaten in the K2 200m event?  The answer is yes (it has to be, otherwise we'll all just stop paddling now and award that gold medal).  Can David Rudisha break 1:41 for 800m?  Yes.

The road-map is science, measurement and analysis

But that by itself is meaningless, it's not the right question.  If you accept that there are gains to be made, half a second here, half a second there, then at least you have a purpose.  You still have no road-map.  That road map comes from science, measurement, and analysis - this is how you know what you need to do, and how you need to do it in order to move forward.  You have to analyse the race, the start, the acceleration, the top-speed phase, the deceleration, and only then do you understand what it will take to match a competitor over say 200m in a boat. 

Then, you know the literature, you compare what you did to what others have done.  You notice discrepancies, you challenge them, you change things.  You recognize that your pacing strategy was not optimal, and then you interrogate why not?  You ask whether you can be better (and hopefully, you don't get offended by it).  But when you make changes, you have to study the effect of the change - you are indulging in a scientific study, whether you like it or not.  If you adapt the training, say to focus more on peak power, then you must monitor the athlete very closely or you are effectively navigating in the dark.  Good coaches do this naturally, but most rely on intuition which can sometimes lead down blind alleys.  All the while, sports science is the map against which you compare.

And here in Poznan, there are teams measuring everything - start sequences, mid-race, GPS data on boat speeds, body mass, recovery, blood values.  Everything.  Does the coach receive immediate gratification?  No.  Often, there is not one thing that is going to tell the coach or the athlete, that they should "do X in order to produce Y".  Applied sports science does not work that way - there are too many experts and too many knowledgeable people for that kind of thinking to provide the competitive advantage.

The question is far more valuable than the answer

The competitive advantage comes from immersing the expertise in the PROCESS of improving performance.  For every one thing you study, you learn two new things.  For every answer, you produce two questions, and if the coach and the science are working well, then these questions are what drives performance, NOT the answers.  I've said this before, but it bears repeating - the value of sports science is NOT limited to its content.

In other words, it's not what you know, it's how you know it.  It is the process of seeking answers, of testing interventions, of failing and then adjusting, that makes the difference.  This requires enormous manpower, of course, and time, because at best, you're probably only 20% efficient - 4 out of 5 things you do won't make a tangible difference.  But they're there, adding up in the background.  And if you understand this, then you can appreciate that even the things you DON'T know are valuable means for improving performance.

And on this note, I have to emphasize that I have met accountants, marketers, and business consultants who could do a better job of high performance sport than some sports scientists, myself included.  Their value is the ability to step back, assess the system, assess the coach and the athlete and then ask objective (and difficult) questions that can be answered through measurement and analysis.  And somewhere, on the way to answering that question, performance improvements begin to add up, 0.1% here, 0.3% there, and suddenly, you have a squad of world-class athletes.

Great Britain have done this better than anyone, and that's why, despite all the tensions and faults, their Olympic performance in 2012 will meet expectations.  The rest of the world will have to catch up.  But they will fail (and this is autobiographical, because in SA, we fall into this category) because they don't recognize that knowledge doesn't unblock drains.  It takes years to set up a culture of scientific thinking, and generations for this to improve athletics, bottom up.


Monday, August 23, 2010

David Rudisha 800m WR and Semenya returns

Video of Rudisha's 800m World Record

As mentioned in yesterday's post, David Rudisha of Kenya has broken the 800m World Record.  And as promised, here is a video for those who might have missed it!

So yesterday I wrote about the importance of that first lap being around 49 seconds, based on the pacing of the event.  I'll look at that in more detail as soon as I can - right now, I'm heading back from Poznan to Munich and then spending a week in the Alps, so bear with me but we'll look at pacing in the 800m in due course!

Caster Semenya returns to Berlin

In other 800m news, Caster Semenya returned to the blue track of Berlin where she first came to prominence last year by winning the world title.  As everyone is by now aware, that win catalysed an inquest into her sex with the IAAF performing sex verification testing on her.  It later transpired that Athletics South Africa had in fact done similar tests before the World Champs, but decided that she should run anyway.

Then, 11 months later, and for any number of reasons, the IAAF eventually reached a decision that she was cleared to compete as a woman.  Did this mean that they'd reviewed those tests from August 2009 and concluded that nothing was wrong?  Did it mean that her legal team and the IAAF had been locked in an arm-wrestle over human rights which ultimately saw the IAAF concede that they could not prevent her from running?  Or did it mean that medical intervention had taken place over the preceding 9 months (in 2010) to clear her to compete, potentially with a reduced advantage?

Of course, no one knows and so we're left speculating, and of course, every performance will add to this speculation.  Yesterday, she won in Berlin, against a relatively weak field, in a time of 1:59.90.

Quite what to make of this time, I'm not sure.  Given the three options above (nothing wrong, a legal battle, or medical treatment), we're none the wiser.  I will say that an elite athlete should be able to approach their best racing form within about 3 months of starting training, even after a very long layoff, as she is alleged to have taken.  On that note, it's worth pointing out that up until about May, her coach was saying that her training was going "very well", that she was close to ready for the European season.  Then in May and June, it changed, and suddenly she'd lost conditioning.

Now she's back and no one really knows whether that time, a full four seconds off her best, is reflective of a lack of training, or some kind of intervention which would, in theory slow her down.  She is getting faster, of course - three outings this year, three seasons bests and so perhaps by October and Commonwealth Games, she'll be back to mid 1:50 performances.

Competitor reactions - public vs non-public views, and human rights

The other sub-plot here is her competition, and their perception of it.  And I read an article this morning with some interesting quotes from Jemma Simpson of England.  Here are some:
Jemma Simpson of Britain, who finished fourth Sunday in 2:00.57, said that although she felt sorry for Semenya because of the scrutiny she had endured in the last year, other competitors had been slighted in the search for justice for Semenya.

“It’s obviously a human rights issue, but human rights affect everyone in the race, not just one person,” Simpson said. “And for the rest of the field, it gets ignored.”

When asked what the fair solution would be, Simpson said: “I think every competitor has got to be considered in this kind of thing, and it’s just like, maybe for the spectators it’s fair, but we spend our whole lives trying to do this. We train hard, and it can just be taken away from you.”

Simpson conceded that the issue was “really tough” and that Semenya had a right to privacy, but she said it would be easier to accept the I.A.A.F.’s decision to allow Semenya to compete if there had been some public explanation for the ruling’s rationale. When the I.A.A.F. cleared Semenya to compete as a woman in July, it did not release test results or provide details of its methodology.
And that last paragraph is the whole point - some transparency, not a violation of medical confidentiality, but just some brief explanation, would have managed much of the speculation and once that first leak occurred, it was always going to come down to this kind of perception.  There are more interesting quotes in this article, expressing much the same view, including some very pointed statements by Diane Cummins.  Where I disagree is Cummins' final contention that Semenya is guaranteed to be dominant - she may well be, but I'll wait a little while longer before confirming that, given the doubt over training versus some kind of medical treatment.  She may find a ceiling at 1:57 this year, 1:58 next and so forth.  Only time will reveal that.

Simpson also says the following: "Publicly, everyone's happy. Non-publicly, people have their own personal issues with it. You're not going to say in the media what you feel deep down."

And therein lies the illusion.  And frankly, I have to agree with the guys at Letsrun.com, who today said "We must say that while we feel bad for Semenya, we feel worse for her competitors."  The debate will rage on, and time will tell, in more ways than one!


Sunday, August 22, 2010

David Rudisha - 1:41.09 World Record!

David Rudisha breaks the world record over 800m:  1:41.09!

Breaking news, not much to say yet, and sadly, I didn't even see this race, but David Rudisha has delivered on his exceptional promise and broken the 800m world record in Berlin today!

His time of 1:41.09 took the narrowest 0.02s margin off legend Wilson Kipketer's previous best, set back in 1997.

The splits from the race had the pacemaker hitting 400m in 48.65s, and then Rudisha led to 600m in 1:14.54.

Rudisha was reportedly about 4m behind the rabbit at the bell, so an estimated time of about 49.1 s at the bell seems reasonable.  This was followed by a third 200m that would have taken approximately 25.3s, with a final quarter in 26.64 seconds.

Estimates for Rudisha's lap times would be around 49.1 seconds followed by 52 seconds.

That's about the optimal way to run it.  Wilson Kipketer, for those who are wondering, set two world records (and equaled Seb Coe's world record before that), and his halves for all three runs are shown below:

1:41.73 (equal WR):  49.61 s + 52.12 s
1:41.24:  48.3 s + 52.9 s
1:41.11:  49.3 s + 51.8 s

Brief comment on pacing - 49s for the first lap is essential

Difficult to read too much into the times, other than to say that the first lap certainly wasn't too fast - you have to run the first lap in close to 49 seconds to have a chance.  In fact, of interest is that the fastest ever SECOND lap in a World record performance came way back in 1972, when Dave Wottle ran a second lap of 51.4 seconds on route to a 1:44.3s in Eugene, Oregon, to break the record.

The reason this is of interest is because the world record has been improved by over 3 seconds since then, and the improvement has come entirely by running the first lap faster!  Therefore, anyone with aspirations of beating 1:41.09 (as of today!) has to accept that it may not be possible to run the second lap in under 51 seconds on route to that kind of performance.  So, if you are on the start line contemplating a 1:41, you really need to work backwards from as close to 52s for the second as your physiology will allow, and then you find that you must hit the bell at 49 seconds.  Rudisha did just that.

In any event, enough analysis for now, perhaps more can come later.  For now, let's celebrate a rare event - a World Record in a middle distance event!  Usain Bolt has given us records in the sprints, but the middle distance record books have been gathering dust for a few years, and so this is a fabulous performance, from a young athlete (still only 21) who may yet go faster.

Video to come as soon as I find it!


Saturday, August 21, 2010

Delays and canoe sprint world champs from Poland

The Sprint Canoe World Championships in Poland - poor pacing costs golds

Well, it's been a long time between posts, please accept my apologies.  I will blame:
a) burn-out (leading to writer's block!) after the Tour de France and FIFA World Cup,
b) A backlog of work after the Tour de France and FIFA World Cup,
c) a relatively quiet period for global sport, at least in terms of insights and analysis

and not necessarily in that order...

Canoe Sprint World Championships

Then most recently, and as I type this, I am in Poland, specifically a town called Poznan, where I am attending the International Canoe Federation (ICF) Canoe Sprint World Championships.  I've been fortunate enough to be assisting a small group of our SA sprinters, first to help set up at high performance system, then helping where I can with physiological preparation and overall high performance strategy, and I've come over here to get a feel for the regatta in the lead-up to the main goal, the London Olympic Games of 2012.

So far, so good - an A final in the K2 500m tomorrow, and the heats and semi-finals in the K2 200m later today.  For those interested in reading more, the coach, Marcus Melck's site can be found here, and our two top sprinters, Shaun Rubenstein and Mike Arthur, have their own websites, which you can read here (Shaun) and here (Mike), respectively.

A great deal has been done for these guys in the last 12 months, from the laboratory, onto the water, back into the labs, and much still has to be done between now and the Games.  Perhaps when it is over (with a medal the result, I hope!), it will make a great case study for high performance sporting systems in an environment (South Africa) where support and HP expertise from the top is minimal, and in a sport where resources are scarce.

Also, sprint kayaking offers plenty of fascinating sports science applications, ranging from hydrodynamics to technique, biomechanics, pacing strategies, strength and conditioning and performance analysis, so it has been a very stimulating year, culminating here in Poznan on route to London!

Insights from Poznan - kayaking off the pace as a commercial entity

I've gained some really important insights over the last week, and have a number of thoughts on topics ranging from marketing and commercialization of the sport of kayaking, all the way to physiological preparation. 

Sprint kayaking has a personality crisis, because it has never succeeded at making its stars accessible to sports followers outside of a small circle of enthusiasts.  For example, if you are reading this in South Africa, you either now Shaun and Mike as Olympic medal hopefuls, or you've never heard their names.  The only factor that determines which camp you fall into is whether you yourself are a paddler - those who paddle, know, those who do not have probably stopped reading! 

And this is a failure of marketing.  Now, having experienced a regatta, and one which is supposedly at the very highest level (it is the World Championships, after all), it's clear that the problems are related to a myopic approach from within the sport.  There are barriers, certainly - 80% of a 1000m race is virtually impossible to watch as a spectator, so the competition doesn't come alive nearly enough.  The distances between fans and athletes makes identification and interaction with paddlers difficult.

However, I've been very fortunate to have attended other big events, and experienced them from both 'inside the ropes' and 'outside the ropes', and the ICF would do well to learn from events like the Tour de France, and most notably in my experience, Sevens Rugby, in terms of how the competition provides a platform for a bigger entertainment event and for its athletes.  The TV coverage is narrow and poor, and resembles what other sports were doing in the late 1980s, and this restricts media coverage, sponsorship potential, and spectator interest.  But enough of that, that is a topic for marketing discussions some day.

Pacing strategy - how good pacing wins gold medals

Of more interest scientifically is an observation on the pacing strategy adopted by the very best paddlers in the world.  This is a topic "straight out of the oven", because I've just watched the final of the Men's K1 1000m event, one of the premier events at the regatta.

Take a look at the graph below, and then we'll chat about the very, very different strategies employed by the eventual gold medalist, Max Hoff (the blue line), and the silver medalist, Tim Brabants, of the UK, shown in red.  Bronze medalist Aleh Yurenia is shown in green.

So the race was won by Max Hoff of Germany, in a time of 3:29.544, only 0.5s ahead of Tim Brabants.  But the real story was Hoff's comeback over the final quarter of the race.  I was standing more or less 100m from the finish line, and I can assure you that Brabants was still in the lead at that point.  The light blue text boxes show the gap between Brabants and Hoff for each 250m interval. 

Brabants led at 250m, a full 0.88 seconds ahead of Hoff.  The fast start is typical of the event, and recent research backs this strategy as optimal for events lasting about 3 minutes.  The Belarussian was in 9th at that point, over 2 seconds down. 

Then, Brabants' lead grew by 0.32s up to halfway, which he hit in 1:42.19, compared to 1:43.39 for Hoff (1.2 seconds down).  From 500m to 750m, Brabants continued to pull away, adding a further 0.78s to his lead.  By now, with 250m left to race, he is 2 seconds clear of Hoff, more than a boat length (see video later).

Hoff's finish, Brabants is finished - pacing pays at the end

All the while, paddlers I'm standing with are saying that this is typical of Brabants, who always goes out very hard and then hangs on.  In terms of pacing, however, it is foolish.  The problem is not necessarily a fast start.  In fact, a recent study by Andrew Jones found that in events lasting 3 minutes, a fast start optimizes performance, possibly through its effects on oxidative energy contributions, which spares glycolytic energy supplies for the end-spurt.

Rather, the problem is the interval from 250m to 750m, where Brabants pushed on, opening a lead over all the rivals - watch the video below and you'll see this.

Now, we know that in virtually every single type of sport, as soon as the event lasts between 3 and 5 minutes, the optimal pacing strategy is a fast start, then a slowing in the middle and an increase at the end, so that the two halves are close to even, but there is an "inverted U-shape" (which you see Hoff and Yurenia achieve in this race above, whereas Brabants gets slower and slower.  You may not think it's much, but he loses by just 0.5 seconds - it's plenty).  This is why the first and final laps of mile and 1500m world records are significantly faster than the middle two laps.

When races are short, like a men's 400m or 800m run, or the men's 200m or 500m kayaking event, then it's different - the best strategy then is to go out hard and accept some kind of deterioration at the end of a race.  Longer races, like men's 5000m and 10000m running events, the marathon, the Tour, all benefit from even pace, or even a slower start, with an 'endspurt' in the final kilometer.  It's not co-incidence, for example, that in 24 of 25 World Records over 10,000m, the fastest kilometer has come at the very end of the race! 

But for an event lasting 3 to 4 minutes, like the 4000m cycling pursuit, a 1500m run, or this K1 1000m kayak event, the optimal way to race is to hold reserve over the first half and then finish almost as fast as you begin.

Brabants did not - his first 250m was 4 seconds faster than he was able to achieve at the end of the race.  The eventual result was a first half that took 1:42, a second half that took 1:48 (six seconds positive).  Hoff, meanwhile, cut the race into a 1:43 and a 1:46 (3 second positive split).

These are tiny margins for error, of course - 1 second over 500m, but I have little doubt that had Brabants conserved even 1 second on the second or third 250m split, he would have greater reserve capacity that would have allowed him to hold on over a fast finishing Hoff.  The strategy above is simply not the way that physiology says one should race.  Why then would it happen?  Because individuals have preferences for how they race for psychological reasons, they like to "front-run", or they prefer to chase. 

But at this level, errors in pacing are so costly that this has to almost be trained out of the athlete.  Brabants did not need a boat-and-a-half lead over Hoff with 250m to go.  He perhaps needed (or wanted) one boat length, and the energy conserved by that second might have made the difference to the colour of the medal he received only 30 minutes ago.

Hoff, meanwhile, did it exactly right.  And here's the thing - the Germans are all racing this way.  Every single race featuring a German paddler sees them move through the field, while seemingly everyone else is producing enormous positive splits.  Are they the only ones who have figured out how to pace a race?  From what I've seen here, it would seem so...And we are not so different that each individual has an optimal pacing strategy.  Yes, some are better at sustaining faster starts than others, some are better at kicking later in races.  Much of this is psychological, I feel, but there are likely physiological reasons too.  But these physiological differences are not so large that anyone can get away with vastly different strategies.  For some reason, Germany have figured this out and are winning races that physiologically, they might otherwise have lost.

The video of the race is below - apologies for the language, I can't find an english one.  But note the gaps that Brabants builds from 250m to 750m, and then at about 3:00 into the race, watch how the stroke rates change, as Hoff builds and kicks, Brabants begins a slow decline that almost sees the Belarussian take silver.

Pacing pays...ask Max Hoff.

More to come in the next few days!