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Friday, December 30, 2011

Science of Sport awards: Sports science story of the year

Sports science story of the year: Looking into the brain

Looking back on 2011, but through an academic lens, leaves the impossible task of trying to pick a research highlight.  I guess in much the same way as your choice of a Sports Star of the Year would be influenced by your choice of sport (Messi, Djokovic, Cavendish or Wellington), the choice of most exciting or impactful sports science story of the year is heavily influenced by your particular focus within the sciences.

Similarly, within sports science, you may be heavily invested in physical activity and disease, molecular basis for injuries, applied physiology, or performance physiology.

My personal focus, at least during my PhD was fatigue, and specifically the role of the brain in the regulation of performance and pacing strategy.  Therefore, my pick as the sports science story of 2011 is a series of studies out of Switzerland, which have provided the first evidence of how brain structures interact with one another during fatiguing exercise. To quote from the third of the three studies:
To the best of our knowledge, this is the first study to empirically demonstrate that muscle fatigue leads to changes in interaction between structures of a brain's neural network
Background - the brain was clearly involved, but the "how" was missing

As I was finishing my PhD, the problem I encountered is that we were able to observe how performance and specifically pacing strategy was affected by various interventions (heat, high or low oxygen, energy supply, deception or manipulation of distance information), but we didn't have the tools to measure the neural processes that were producing these changes.

Briefly, it was pretty clear that exercise performance was regulated by the brain, and over time, the theory evolved that the brain was monitoring all the physiological systems and ensuring that performance was optimized in the face of potentially limiting (or even harmful) changes in homeostasis.  For example, it had been shown pretty clearly that when we hit a body temperature of around 40 degrees celsius, we stopped - limiting fatigue due to hyperthermia.  Therefore, as soon as exercise was self-paced, the brain would monitor the rate at which the temperature was rising, and then regulate exercise intensity in order to prevent us from hitting this "limit" before the known end of exercise.

The same was true for exercise at altitude, with low glycogen stores, and when you lied to athletes about how much exercise remained - there was an anticipatory component to fatigue, so that fatigue was not merely the failure of physiology, but the process by which that potential failure (in performance, in this case), might be regulated.

The problem is that our ability to measure the neural contributions was limited.  We were able to measure muscle activation levels, albeit crudely during dynamic exercise, but it gave a pretty clear picture of how the degree of muscle recruitment was altered by the brain over the course of exercise and with different situations.  However, much had to be inferred from how power output or running speed changed as a function of changes in various physiological systems.

Therefore, at the conclusion of my PhD back in 2006, we had a theory, sometimes called the "central governor" model, which I believe accurately explained what was observed during exercise, but was in need of a mechanistic component.  The theory began to evolve into the realms of philosophy (sometimes deliberate, other times out of ignorance).  And one of the problems was this lent itself to gross misunderstandings.  A very respected scientist came to me in Denver this year and mocked the theory because it meant there must "be a little man dancing around in your head telling you how to exercise".

Of course, that is not part of any theory I've ever seen, but in the absence of measurements of brain function during exercise, it is, I suppose, the inevitable criticism.  This lack of mechanistic explanation is one of the primary reasons that I looked elsewhere for future research, because we had taken our observations to a point where we had a model, a theory for how fatigue and physiology were inter-related, how pacing and performance were regulated, but we could not move beyond the hypothetical.

And so when, only a few months ago, a series of three studies on fatigue and the brain were published, it was an exciting breakthrough, the first, I suspect, of many, which will push the field of fatigue and exercise into the next phase of understanding.

The three studies: Building the model of fatigue

Science Daily have a really concise summary of the three studies, including some quotes from the scientists involved.  I won't rehash the translation of the science here, but rather direct you to their summary.

For those interested in the papers discussed in that article, they are at the followings links:

  1. Afferent pain information from the muscle contributes to inhibition of the motor cortex during fatiguing muscle contractions
  2. The thalamus and insular cortex are involved in regulating exercise in response to afferent information from the muscle
  3. Communication between brain areas during fatigue exercise

The studies are certainly a breakthrough, but by no means a complete picture.  For example, the first of the three studies produces a similar finding to a body of work by Markus Ammann (not in 2011, but over the last 4 or 5 years), which have shown a similar role of afferent (feedback) information from the muscle to the brain.  The motor output (think muscle activation) is clearly influenced by this information, which should be obvious as soon as one accept that fatigue, and therefore performance, are regulated in the same way that any system is (blood glucose, body temperature etc - there are sensors, there is feedback, there is an effector).

What is needed next is to move this technology on from isolated muscle contractions and onto dynamic exercise.  The above studies all used pretty isolated exercise (handgrips or leg extensions), or they use EEG during cycling (in Study 3).  When we can measure brain activity using fMRI in different regions of the brain during a 10km running time-trial, for example, then we will have some extremely powerful information.

That breakthrough may be coming - at my University, some colleagues have done some great work and are in fairly advanced stages of being able to measure brain activity using fMRI during cycling activity, and that should unlock more secrets - the video is below.

Next step - decoding the "lights" and making sense of data

Once this can be done, then it's a matter of understanding what it all means.  The field of neuroscience has long ago evolved from a "black box" approach to understanding brain function, towards an integrated model.  The danger for sports science is that the same may happen.  Indeed, it already exists - this mindset has been another source of criticism for the central governor, in that people seem to expect it to be a distinct anatomical structure.  Even the approach to studying fatigue has probably been held back by too specific approach to what is clearly a multi-faceted, complex phenomenon.

The reality is that it's far too complex for that, and only many years of research will build the picture of how the brain integrates such vast complexity to regulate performance in the obvious way that it does!

2011 may have provided the first steps, but they are the first of many!


Next time:  Sports stars of the year

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Science of Sport Awards: More controversies

Controversies of 2011: Honorable mentions

Having earlier awarded "Controversy of the Year" to the Oscar Pistorius story, here are some other noteworthy controversies that affected sport in 2011.  

Caster Semenya - back on the stage

Caster Semenya was undoubtedly the big controversy of 2009, when she won the 800m world title amid speculation and tests about her gender.  2010 was a quiet year because the IAAF and various legal teams were ironing out the details of the treatment of whatever medical condition was present before Semenya could return to the sport.  That return happened in 2011, and Semenya once again became a big story at the World Championships.  

Having enjoyed a patchy season in 2011, where one very solid performance was followed by a poor showing, Semenya was always going to be an "all or nothing" performer in Daegu.  It turned out to be "all", at least in terms of the time she was able to produce.   More controversial was the manner of her racing - she looked unbelievably easy and relaxed, even when finishing fifth or sixth, and many speculated that she was losing on purpose to avoid the attention given to the winner.  That mistrust stems directly from the lack of transparency around the whole affair - having announced (unwittingly) to the world that there were problems, nobody took the initiative to inform athletics how those problems were resolved.  So Semenya was destined through that silence to be doubted and mistrusted, and that happened every time she raced, regardless of the outcome.

In Daegu, through the heats and semi-final, she looked dominant, and there was an ominous feeling among athletics followers going into the final.  There, the pace was quick - a 55.86s first lap, with Semenya in fifth and Marina Savinova on her shoulder in 6th.  600m was reached in 1:26:07, and a time matching the 1:55.45 that Semenya produced in Berlin in 2009 was on the cards.  As was the win - Semenya moved to the front with the same effortless style she had produced in 2009 and in some of her European races this year.  But Savinova held on, and the gap didn't grow as it had in Berlin, and with 50m to go, the Russian moved onto Semenya's shoulder and took gold in 1:55.87.  Semenya came in second in 1:56.35, just under a second slower than the winning time in Berlin, but with much stiffer competition, two years of maturity and more experience. 

I am reliably informed that the moment that Savinova took the lead from Semenya with 50m to go, there were loud cheers in the press box in Daegu, further proof of just how negatively the athlete is viewed by the media.  That is partly situational, but hasn't been helped by some extraordinary stupidity by her management team, who at one point in 2011 announced that any media who wished to interview her would have to pay for that privilege.  This, along with sponsor requests, complaints about money and a general veil of secrecy make Semenya one of the most controversial athletes in the world.

Pointedly, in the aftermath of her World Championship silver, Semenya smiled, spoke openly to the media and showed a side of herself that hadn't been seen, but probably should be seen more often.  She could be an incredibly media-friendly personality and it would be a good antidote to the negative perceptions that currently exist.  It will never remove them, of course, but it's a step in the right direction.  2012 will tell whether she embraces her status or continues, through her management, to play the villain.   She recently split with her coach, and has now teamed up with Maria Mutola, which gives another dimension to the story.  

As for what happened in the 18 months between Berlin and Daegu, we are none the wiser.  I am still firmly of the belief that chemical treatment was enforced to lower testosterone levels, though I have no idea how this is being monitored, or even if it is.  As long as that ignorance remains, Semenya's races, regardless of result, will always be accompanied by claims that she "lost on purpose", "threw the race", or wasn't trying hard enough.  I'd suggest that going to the front of the World Championship final with 200m to run, and then losing in the last 50m is MORE attention grabbing that staying in fourth or third the whole way, but the rumor mill will circulate.  Watch this space in 2012.

Cycling and anti-doping

This is always controversial.  2011 started well enough, with three CAS cases being won before April, the first time that the biological passport had been tested in court.  It stood up to the test, a good sign for its future legal credibility.  However, it came at a cost - literally.  The financial burden of having to defend the bans handed down on the basis of the biological passport proved, over the remainder of 2011, to be a huge impediment to the effective implementation of the passport concept.

In August, Gerard Vroomen, co-founder of the Cervelo team, raised questions about the testing being done as part of the passport system.  He wrote:
“I have not heard of a rider being tested for the biological passport between the end of the 2010 Tour and April 2011. After that I am not sure,” he stated. “While it is logical that the frequency of testing might decrease somewhat once profiles are established, the fact remains that the profile in itself is not a deterrent. The deterrent comes from testing current values against those profiles to see if there are clues indicating doping.
And of course, he is quite right.  We posted on this a few times in 2011, most recently when I presented at the UKSEM conference, and presented some of the data showing how doping behavior was changed as a result of the biological passport (it's in the presentation at the link).  However, without the testing, any rational cyclist (who is willing to dope) will change behavior back and resume doping.

The UCI of course reacted to this, making public their stats that 1,577 tests had been conducted during the period in question.   However, Prof Michael Ashenden, one of the leading experts in the fight against doping, also contributed his opinion that "It’s correct that the observation made by Gerard Vroomen matches with my experience. I have noticed a significant gap between tests in some of the profiles I have reviewed. It’s definitely not in every single profile, but enough to have left an impression on me.”

The UCI is certainly not an organization one would call fully transparent.  Or trustworthy (both reputations have been "earned")  And so their statement and statistics were met with more than a hint of skepticism, most commentators jumping not on the actual number, but the fact that it may represent a significant decrease in testing compared to previous years, and certainly to the vision of the passport system.  It was even labelled a "PR exercise".

And make no mistake, the biological passport is expensive.  What may push it over the edge, however, is the legal struggle that inevitably surrounds the cases it brings to light.  The cost of defending the finding may ultimately cripple the entire system.  Even the testing process is expensive, and the result is that the sport may have itself an effective tool that is extremely inefficient.  Contrast this to the idea that a urine test could catch dopers by detecting banned substances in the urine, which was theoretically efficient but utterly ineffective, and you appreciate that if the sport is to stay on top of the doping problem, it needs a whole lot more money.  And a whole lot more transparency.

The false-start rule, courtesy Usain Bolt

You may remember a time when every athlete in a sprint race was allowed a false start.  The result was that you could, in theory, have nine false starts before the first athlete was disqualified.  That made for drawn out races, it affected TV times and it allowed gamesmanship, and so the rule was changed, first to allow one false start for the race in 2003 (the second one, regardless of who it was, was out), and then to disqualify athletes immediately when false-starting.

This rule took effect in 2010, and many wondered how long it would take to claim its first high-profile 'victim'.  In the end, that person could not have been more high-profile - on Sunday August 28th, Usain Bolt went into his blocks for the final of the men's 100m in the IAAF World Championships, and then jumped the gun.

For Bolt to be the victim of a rule that people had warned against fueled a big debate, the "told-you-so" camp against the "those are the rules" camp.  It's a sad situation for those in the stadium who had paid big money to see the world's most recognizable athlete (and indeed, sportsman, so influential is Bolt), and so the analogy that was made at the time is that disqualifying an athlete for a 'mistake' is the same as sending Lionel Messi off in the 2nd minute of a Champions League final for an innocuous foul.

The difference, I suppose, is that a false-start is not an innocuous foul.  It's paramount to the result of the race, and entirely controllable by the athlete.  There is, of course, an issue with the starter, who oftens holds athletes at "get set" and causes the false start, so that's an issue that needs to be controlled by the IAAF.

However, generally, if the rule exists, and the athlete knows it, one can't make exceptions after the fact.  It's an impossible situation for the sport to deal with, because if one false start is allowed as an allowance of "human error", then the second error is punished disproportionately harshly.   Also, allowing one false start gives one athlete the opportunity to play games with the other seven by deliberately jumping the gun. It's also not quite the same as swimming, because the start carries relatively greater importance (the race is shorter and acceleration is faster).

So in the end, it's a rule that won't change.  Bolt was at fault, not the rule, and London 2012 will reveal if he's learned a lesson.  Incidentally, Bolt is not new to false starts in major races.  He jumped in 2009 as well, but because they had the one false start rule then, he got a reprieve and went on to run 9.58s.  So for the world's fastest man, the challenge is to control his desire to match his rivals out the blocks, and that alone will make London interesting.

Then, just as an aside, the plot thickened in the aftermath of Bolt's disqualification.  HD video of the incident showed that Yohan Blake twitched in the lane immediately adjacent to Bolt.  That twitch, theoretically, could constitute a false start, and could also be viewed as the trigger for Bolt's false start.  If that was the case, then it should have been Blake, and not Bolt, who was disqualified.  If you believe that Bolt's false start was entirely unrelated to Blake's twitch, then they could be viewed as unrelated events, and both might have been disqualified.  Or the third option, and the one which proved to be borne out by the start data, is that Blake's twitch, while clear on TV slow-motion replays, was not large enough to trigger the equipment, and therefore can't be called a twitch in the first place.

I guess it raises questions of what threshold the equipment should have, whether it should be trusted more than the eye of the starter and officials.  Ultimately, that's an academic debate.

Rugby's referee debacle

The Rugby World Cup produced South Africa's big controversy of 2011 when Bryce Lawrence was blamed for our team's quarter-final defeat against Australia.  Lawrence, from New Zealand, was accused of being incompetent at best, corrupt at worst, part of a plot to ensure that the South African team did not derail New Zealand's chances of winning the tournament on home soil.

The accusations of corruption came from influential sources, but lacked evidence, fueled largely by emotion.  Admittedly, Lawrence was absolutely terrible in that match, but unfortunately the South African "disease" of blaming everyone but themselves meant that we failed to take the lessons out of the match, adapt to the referee and win it anyway.  Which we should have done.   In short, Lawrence's failures on the day were simply incompetence, or perhaps instruction, in that he clearly erred on the side of the team without the ball, perhaps under orders to allow a free-flowing match.  He allowed far too much to happen in the rucks and the result was that the team defending was given the advantage.  The problem for South Africa is that this team was Australia, who barely had the ball as an attacking force.  The end result is that he appeared biased because he was advantaging the team without the ball.  Fixed?  No.  Incompetent?  Yes.

And this introduced the larger problem faced by rugby.  I wrote a post on this in October, describing how the sport has a credibility problem, because too much is left open to interpretation and therefore post-match criticism of the referee.  The IRB hasn't managed to control the standard or the interpretation of admittedly challenging rules, and so every result is questioned by angry and emotional fans (and sometimes coaches).  This is equally true in Sevens, where I'm involved with the SA Sevens team, and where the IRB just cannot seem to take seriously enough the development of its own referees.  The end result is farcical officiating, which unfortunately exerts too great an influence on the outcome of matches.

Match-fixing in cricket

Cricket is a sport that has been dogged by match-fixing for over a decade.  It was a South African who was the main protagonist when the problem was first thrust into the global limelight, when Hansie Cronje was tried and found guilty of match-fixing.  The problem had of course existed long before he fell prey to it, and 2011 showed that it is still very much alive. Three Pakistani cricketers, Salman Butt, Mohammad Aamer and Mohammad Asif were jailed in November for their part in a 2010 match-fixing conspiracy in London.

Specifically, it was a "spot-fixing" scandal, where betters can place a very specific bet within the context of the match (things like who bowls which over, whether a batsmen will score above or below a certain target, number of boundaries etc).  In this case, the bet was that Aamer, Pakistan's fast bowler, would deliver a no-ball on the first ball of the third over, and another on the sixth delivery of the tenth over, this time by Mohammed Asif.  Sure enough, both were (massive) no balls, and when a video came to light by News of the World showing the player's agent making these predictions, the plot was exposed.  Picking exactly which ball out of 540 in a day of cricket would be a no-ball may seem a ridiculous bet to make, but that's the nature of cricket, and it's why the game lends itself so easily to corruption like this.

Add to this the fact that the money in the game in India is absolutely enormous, and cricket is ripe for corruption.  The governing body for the sport, the ICC, has an anti-corruption unit which has made some impact, but when you consider how easily aspects of cricket can be fixed, it is an impossible battle to win.

Soccer's racism controversy - the extreme manifestation of a deeper problem

A final one, and really just a brief opinion, on the most recent controversy affecting sport, that of racism in football.  Luis Suarez of Liverpool received an 8-match ban for making racist comments to Patrice Evra of Manchester United, and John Terry, Chelsea's England international, faces criminal charges for his accused racist comments towards Anton Ferdinand.

There has been a real uproar about this in the media, not surprisingly.  It was discussed recently on radio in South Africa and got me thinking about the root cause of the problem.  That root cause, I believe, is not racism, but just the plain lack of respect that football seems to facilitate between players.   Racism is the manifestation or application of the problem, it's not the problem in an of itself.

Don't get me wrong - racism is clearly a problem, there's no doubt about it.  But it's one of the extreme expressions of the same thing along a continuum, and if the sport is serious about stamping out the extreme, it has to act on the less severe cases as well.

I have seen footage of Suarez and Evra's exchange, the argument that got Suarez the 8-match ban.  It's disgraceful, and it doesn't matter what he actually said.  Whether he was making racist comments, or attacking Evra's hairstyle, language, family, football ability, should not change the fact that the two of them were clearly way beyond a line of respect and decency and deserve bans.  Proving who started it, or who is more to blame is a trickier proposition, of course, but the point is that the two of them should both be sanctioned for their behavior towards one another.

That there is a racist undertone to it simply shows that it progressed far enough along that extreme that Suarez brought out more personal insults.  Suarez, for his part, has shown his character repeatedly since he became infamous in 2010 for his hand ball against Ghana and subsequent celebrations, and sadly, his character is not condemned nearly enough in football.  Nor is the lack of quality displayed by many footballers, who seem celebrated rather than condemned for what is actually just disgraceful behavior.

For example, when Jose Mourinho flicked Barcelona's assistant on the ear earlier this year, he should have been given a ban of 10 or more matches.  No debate, instant ban.  And when Pinto, the Barcelona reserve goalkeeper, got involved in a skirmish, it should have produced six matches.  Every player who storms a referee screaming for a decision should get a two match ban.  Swearing should be an automatic one match, at the report of the referee.  Football needs to be cleaned up, and focusing on the far extreme behavior and getting worked up over racism is a waste of energy, in my opinion, when the problem exists at the far left, where a basic disrespect for people is facilitated by the "beautiful game".

Football fans will no doubt unite and say it isn't so, but the fact is, football is tarnished by the behavior of its players, and it condones this behavior with inaction.  We shouldn't be debating whether Suarez is a racist or not, we should simply say that he deserves 8 matches for behavior that is undesirable and doesn't belong in the sport.

And I don't want the sport to be sanitized to the point where there is no 'sledging', no hostility.  Players in high pressure situations should express themselves, the sport needs the antagonism.  But a line needs to be drawn and defended.  Football currently has no such line, and then we are surprised that players might be racist?


And in breaking news, Suarez gets an unrelated 1-match ban for a gesture made to opposition fans.  It should be six more matchs, but proves the point...

Next time:  Sports Science stories of 2011!

Science of Sport Awards: Controversy of the year, Oscar Pistorius

2011 Awards: Controversy of the year - Pistorius, go-karts and Formula 1 machines

Controversy is never far from sport, and therefore the science of sport.  Many of the controversies in recent years have been directly related to science - think Caster Semenya in 2009, doping in sport (every year), swimsuits and performance in 2008.

2011 didn't produce a "new" controversy, but rather reruns of the same dramas we've discussed before.  However, one of those was comfortably, for this site anyway, the most relevant and debated story in sports science, and it was the case of Oscar Pistorius, the Controversy of 2011.

Pistorius - the scientific evidence and the PR machine

So much has been written on this topic that I won't devote an entire post to explaining the science...again.  I am sure every one of you knows the story - a South African double-amputee, bursts onto the scene in 2004, declares an intention to run in the Olympic Games in 2007, then goes through two rounds of scientific testing to confirm his claims that the high-tech carbon fiber blades that he runs with (called Cheetahs) do not give him a performance advantage.  

Those two rounds of testing are done first at the request of the IAAF in Germany, and then in Texas as part of Pistorius' appeal against the ban issued based on the results from the Germany tests.  

But what did the tests show?  Somewhere along the journey, the science is hijacked by a massive PR machine that has followed Pistorius since 2007, and which applies pressure to the IAAF to permit his participation, and then ultimately on the process by which the Court of Arbitration ultimately declared that there was insufficient evidence to ban Pistorius.

2011 then was not the year that the Pistorius question was first asked.  Rather, it was the year that it became relevant, for Pistorius qualified for the IAAF World Championships and raced in Daegu in August.  That created a firestorm of media coverage, and the resultant question was asked.  The same will likely be true in 2012, and so this is an issue that will almost certainly be revisited then.

But these are the crucial facts, most of which have been overlooked by the media, or obscured by lies and PR tactics.

The scientific explanation - back to theory, proven by tests

The two rounds of testing revealed fairly conclusively that Pistorius did not "run" in the manner that able-bodied runners do.  Mechanically, it was a totally different locomotion, which Peter Bruggemann, the German biomechanist who did the German testing, described as a "bouncing locomotion at a lower metabolic cost".

The "metabolic cost" statement was important, and was made based on tests that showed that Pistorius used 25% less oxygen during 400m sprinting than able-bodied runners.  That by itself is not a performance advantage, but it is very important when you keep in mind the entire scientific process.  That process must begin with a question and scientific rationale.  That question is "Does Pistorius enjoy a performance advantage?" and the rationale is:
  • More energy return from carbon fiber than human tendon means that metabolic cost would be reduced.  That's important because the ability to run at a given pace for 400m is limited by metabolic changes in the muscle.  These can't be measured directly, but metabolic cost is a proxy for them
  • Lighter mass of carbon fiber limbs means lower cost of accelerating the limbs, allowing quicker limb movement and therefore sprinting
  • Carbon fiber does not fatigue, whereas muscle/tendon is known to be significantly affected by the end of a 400m race
So the metabolic finding by Bruggemann confirmed the first 2 points above.  Directly, using less oxygen has little bearing on sprint performance, but it does point to confirmation of energy return, metabolic and performance advantages. On the note of the energy return, Bruggemann measured energy loss in the human tendon at 41%, compared to only 8% for the carbon fiber blade, so the picture came together pretty clearly.  Hence the ban.  You can read more about the German-testing at this detailed piece I wrote in August

However, there were problems with the research, particularly the measurement of oxygen during sprinting.  There's no doubt the conclusion was made too broadly based on the tests, a mistake that would prove costly in the scientific "debate" at CAS, because it gave Pistorius a fairly easy means to refute the finding.  

That is, Pistorius was able to appeal the decision and perform his own tests, and his team designed a test that would measure oxygen use during slower, low-intensity running.  

Those tests again showed that Pistorius used less oxygen than able-bodied runners, even when running slowly (17% lower, to be precise).  However, by "creatively" adding in data from world class distance runners measured over a period of ten years, the researchers were able to manipulate the data sufficiently to show that he was not statistically different from other runners.  The fact that these runners were not sprinters, but marathon runners, seemed not to matter to either the scientists, or CAS, or the media who have covered the story.  

It's an extra-ordinary comparison to make, particularly when you consider that data do exist for other sprinters.  And most tellingly, when you compare Pistorius to these other sprinters, then suddenly you get a picture that shows that he is 14% and 2.3 SD more economical.  That's a big difference, and had they included those comparisons, as they should have, then the conclusion of the "scientific" paper would have been totally different - it would have had to conclude that Pistorius is metabolically and mechanically different from able-bodied runners, and these differences are consistent with a performance advantage.

The "missing evidence" - never presented at CAS

Then the story got even more remarkable.  Having cleared Pistorius to compete, a research article was published by a team of six scientists.  This is the research described above, where Pistorius was found to be metabolically similar to distance runners.  This is the foundation of the data presented to the CAS.

But 18 months later, an extra-ordinary announcement followed.  It was made by Peter Weyand and Matthew Bundle, TWO of the group of six scientists in the Pistorius research team.  They came out in November 2009 with the statement that "Pistorius enjoys a large advantage", and that "we knew it all along".

This remarkable statement was followed by a point-counterpoint debate in the Journal of Applied Physiology, which revealed a split among those six scientists.  It transpired that on the very first day of testing, Weyand (the world's leading authority on sprint mechanics) and Bundle noted that Pistorius' mechanics were "off the charts".  Specifically, his lighter carbon fiber prosthetic blades enabled him to accelerate his limbs so rapidly that he could do what no other runner could in terms of repositioning his limbs.  

Weyand had previously established that a limit to sprinting, regardless of speed, was the ability to reposition the limbs, and Pistorius "broke" the limit considerably.  That led Weyand to recognize the performance advantage.  Weyand and Bundle describe this in their own words: 
"Reduced limb repositioning times allow Mr. Pistorius to spend less time in the air between steps.  Shorter aerial periods, in turn, substantially reduce how hard Mr. Pistorius must hit the ground during each stance period to lift and move his body forward into the next step.
In this sense, the level of sprinting athleticism required for Mr. Pistorius to achieve world class speeds is dramatically reduced compared to his intact limb competitors.  Mr. Pistorius attains world-class sprinting speeds with the ground forces and foot-ground contact times of a slow and relatively uncompetitive runner.  Mr. Pistorius’ intact-limb competitors, with natural limb weights and swing times, lack this option, and therefore must achieve their speeds via exclusively biological means.  Mr. Pistorius, in contrast, achieves these speeds through the use of technology"
You can read more about this discovery and the basis for the 12-second advantage they calculated (an overestimate in my opinion) in the detailed article on this site written in August.

Weyand and Bundle speak

The above statements come from a piece that was written by Weyand and Bundle in response to articles I wrote on this site in August.  They contacted me to request a one-time post on The Science of Sport, and I was very happy to oblige.  However, for various reasons, the posts didn't happen here, but they were published on the SMU website.  I would highly encourage you to read them - they are lucid, to the point, and they clear up many of the misconceptions that you'd have read in the popular media as a result of lies told by Pistorius, Hugh Herr and co.
The CAS hearing: Evidence not presented, the cover-up of omission

I got the distinct impression that Weyand and Bundle wanted to speak because they had not been given the opportunity to do so, until these posts.

What emerges is the even more remarkable fact that when it came time to present the science to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, the Weyand-Bundle finding on the advantage was NOT even presented.  Neither Weyand nor Bundle even attended the hearing.

In other words, having identified on the very first day that there was an advantage ("we knew all along"), Weyand and Bundle did not have the opportunity to present what they knew, and their colleagues who represented them deemed it unnecessary to present this evidence.

The end result is that the judges at CAS made a decision based on half the scientific evidence (evidence which was, as I've described, flawed to begin with as a result of those creative comparisons), and completely overlooked the half that suggests the advantage.

It was, quite simply, a cover-up of omission.  How can the search for scientific truth be punctuated by:
  1. Failure to make the correct comparison between a sprinter and another sprinter, but rather to include data from other research on distance runners?  This only obscures the truth, by creating a false similarity
  2. Failure to even disclose the evidence that suggests, based on all that we know about the theory of sprinting performance, that the athlete in question has a large performance advantage?
For these reasons, this case should be kept alive, and the media, who have been astonishingly passive in trying to pursue the story, should be roused into answering these questions.  At the very least, the CAS should take heed of the fact that they had a hearing where evidence was not discussed in an objective manner, and their decision is thus an ignorant one.

The end result of this is that Pistorius was "cleared", based not on science, but on a legal process that was manipulated by science and the huge drive to permit Pistorius to run.  And make no mistake, there is inspiration in the story.

In fact, it got to the point where despite the science, I can appreciate the viewpoint of those who say "Sure, there is an advantage, but there's only one such athlete, and he's not running away with the gold medals, and so the good outweighs the bad, so let him compete despite that advantage".

I disagree with that, but I can respect the opinion of those who believe it.  What cannot be accepted, however, is the assertion that there is no advantage.  Everything about the science points to the advantage, from the pacing strategy he uses, to the German-testing that found mechanical and metabolic differences, to the Texas testing which provided evidence of an athletic advantage.

The science was clear, from the point of hypothesis, to the theory behind it, to the evidence.  The deceit in the case, fueled by a willfully ignorant media who would rather portray as villains anyone who dares suggest what the science really says, is equally clear, to me at least.

2012 will bring the discussion around once again.  Perhaps it will even defend its title of "Controversy of the year"!


P.S.  Honorable mentions in the category "Controversy of the Year" get their own post later today!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Merry Christmas from The Science of Sport

Merry Christmas everyone

To all our readers:

Thank you so much for your support and readership over the course of the year.  Christmas is now only days away, and being the time for giving, it's appropriate to give our thanks for all your comments, feedback, discussion and even criticisms!

The Year in Review, aka Science of Sport Awards will continue after a well-deserved Christmas break, sometime before the end of the year!  Have a wonderful time, wherever in the world you are!

Ross & Jonathan

Science of Sport Awards: Website of the year

2011 Awards: The website of the year award

Choosing a best website is an impossible task, because it depends very much what you are looking for.  My criteria for a great website include insight and analysis - I don't wish to simply read about what happened, because chances are, if I'm a sports fan, I've already seen it.  I don't wish to wake up to read that Novak Djokovic beat Rafael Nadal in the US Open Final, because I was awake until 2am watching it!  Rather give insight, analysis and break down why he won, how he did it.

Similarly, when Andy Schleck attacked on the Col d'Izoard in this year's Tour de France, most of the reporting was on who covered which break, how big the time gaps got, and so on.  Nice to know, but I enjoyed watching it myself.  So again, peel away what happened, and tell me why and how.

Of course, that doesn't negate the need for a great news website, and so some of the honorable mentions in this category of Best Website are just that - great sources of news.  They are:
  • Letsrun.com - the best source of athletics news that I know.  It's the first website I visit every morning, because by then (SA time), it's been updated with pretty much every snippet of information from the world of athletics in the last 24 hours.  So within 2 minutes, I have a sense of who is doing what, and where.  It's here that I learned of Wanjiru's death, Bekele's comeback, and a host of doping positives.  Sometimes it's very US-centric, but that's perfectly understandable, and they do a great job of promoting the NCAA competitions.  During major competitions, and in the build-up to major marathons, the Johnson brothers also do some great analysis, and for any athletics follower who wants to be informed, it's a great place to start

  • Supersport.com - one of your nominees, and I'll back it since it's local.  A great collection of news stories, covering the entire spectrum.  The same can be said of Sports Illustrated (particularly for NFL, MLB and NBA coverage)
Now for the insight and analysis...

We'll do this by sport, since different sports lend themselves to a different way of analyzing them"

Football - Zonal Marking

This was my pick as the best website of 2010, and it remains #1 in 2011.  It's part of the Guardian Sports Network of which we are also members (more on this later), and it provides analysis of football tactics.  It's lucid, to the point and so insightful that even a part-time watcher can feel like an expert for understanding the intricacies of the game.  I do quite a bit of work with rugby analysis, and the clarity of analysis of this site is something to aspire to.  For a recent example, here is the analysis of Barcelona's 3-1 victory over Real Madrid from early December.  

Tennis - award withheld, but Jon Wertheim's column gets an honourable mention

Tennis is a sport that is really lacking in quality analysis.  Unless I'm missing something, in which case please let me know.  It just seems that there is no technical analysis of the game, despite the fact that the sport would lend itself to some amazing analysis.  I've tried to do this myself - two years ago, I emailed Hawkeye, the company that do Tennis' Review system, because part of what they collect is a dizzying array of data on things like shot placement, rally hit point, shot speed, shot accuracy and so forth.  To pull some of that data and use it to analysis match-ups and opponents seems, to me anyway, too good to be true.  Yet it doesn't happen.  The Hawkeye people told me that they keep the data for a few weeks, then discard it, and it isn't made publicly available.  Yet this is clearly not true, based on what I've seen over the years.

To give you an example, they show stats and data during the change of end breaks during matches, and will from time to time show how a player (say Rafael Nadal) is returning serve.  They can tell you where he hits the ball relative to his own baseline, and where his return of serve is landing on the other side of the court.  Earlier this year, I think at Wimbledon, they showed a comparison between Nadal in 2010 and Nadal in 2011, basically showing that he was further back when receiving and was dropping his returns around 1 to 2m shorter than the previous year.  Against the same opponent.  This kind of data would have me licking my lips at the range of possible questions one can answer.  Why does Federer struggle against Nadal?  Why has Djokovic not lost to Nadal in 2011?  Is a given player vulnerable to certain shots?  Of course, the answer to these questions is often known intuitively and based on experience, by coaches, players, keen observers.  But a website that turns this data into meaningful insight would be great for tennis.

So tennis doesn't have a website - it's actually very weak.  But for an honorable mention, check out Jon Wertheim's column with Sports Illustrated.  Sometimes it takes the form of a mailbag, with Q & A, others it's just comment on the game.  It's also lucid, to the point and insightful. 

General - the Guardian Sports Network

I mention this mostly because one of our big developments of 2011 was joining the Guardian as a member of a network of blogs they created to cover sport more comprehensively.   You can read about the network and its members here.  There's a heavy focus on football (it's the UK, after all), but some excellent sites covering things like sports law, cricket, sports management and general sport.  Well worth a scan once in a while, and you may find a site that particularly appeals to you (excluding ours of course!)  I am sure that with the London Olympics on the horizon, there'll be some great pieces coming out of this network in 2012.

Cycling - the Inner Ring

Many of you nominated The Inner Ring as your favourite website.  It does, well, pretty much everything.  The sub-heading is "News, Comment, Analysis, Chat", and that's pretty much you get.  Here's their "About" page which pretty much sums up their value.  If you want to stay on top of news, but get some insight, this is a great place to start


Perhaps a surprising choice, but those of you who are active on Twitter will know exactly what I mean.  There is no better way to zone in on your area of interest, and then stay in a permanent state of "eavesdropping" on your sport than Twitter.  We have a Twitter page ourselves (follow now!), but I confess that I don't use it for news as much as to add a little value to what is on the website.  I also don't follow as many people as I should, but I think that if I did, my day would rapidly evaporate as I pursue every intriguing comment and link that is tweeted by journalists and those within the sport.  

During events (the Tour, the IAAF World Championships, doping cases etc), it's the best way to get instant news updates, and as a starting point for further reading.  Of course, the danger is the "clutter", but you'll soon learn who tweets the valuable content and who throws out opinion only (unless of course the opinion is what you're after!)

Overall, Twitter has changed the way we follow sport, and so in terms of broader impact, it's probably the most significant website of the year.

So that's a wrap of the websites that cover some of the sports that I'm interested in.  Apologies for not providing links to other sports, like cricket, rugby, darts and so forth!  Feel free to use the comments section below to throw some of your own favourites out there!

Next time, we'll look at the biggest controversy of the year in sport.  But first, Christmas...!


Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Science of Sport awards: Videos of the year

Videos of the year

The title "Video of the Year" is often a euphemism for one of two things:  1) extreme sports men or women doing outrageous stunts that defy belief (and sanity), or 2) people doing ordinary things, like mountain-biking, before some extra-ordinary event turns them into YouTube sensations.

Both the above categories are catered for in the collection of videos below...

In no particular order, our (and your) favourite videos of 2011 are:

The mountain biker who is T-boned by a red hartebees - MTB, African style

Whitewater kayaking - amazing footage, great soundtrack.  In another life, I'd choose to be one of these guys.  This is definitely one to watch fullscreen  This is my favourite one, thanks for the link!

2011 Whitewater Grand Prix from Tribe Alliance on Vimeo.

Danny Hart wins the downill MTB world title - the ride is spectacular, the commentary is equally wild

Ibrahim Jeilan vs Mo Farah for 10,000m gold in Daegu - we showed this clip yesterday, but it's a great sporting clip worth a watch

Joey's OK...but first he is airborne.  Cyclo-cross in the USA

Danny MacAskill doing just about anything

In 2009, a video of Danny MacAskill did the rounds and we actually chose it as our Video of the Year.  Now there are dozens of similar videos, noteworthy for the amazing composition and MacAskill's ability.  Just search for "Danny MacAskill" on YouTube and you'll fill an hour watching him.  I have to choose one, and since I'm in Cape Town, it's Danny Plays Cape Town.

Skiing videos

For those of you in winter - similarly spectacular scenery is the backdrop for equally amazing skill.  This first is particularly inspirational.  The second is the skiing equivalent of Danny MacAskill.


Science of Sport awards: Comeback of 2011

The best sports comeback of 2011

The third of our 2011 Awards is for the best comeback of the year.  We'll do this one in reverse order - winner first, and then a list of "honorable mentions".  

South Africa vs Australia, IRB Sevens World Series, Edinburgh

I admit, I am unashamedly biased on this one, but it's the one that I was part of, and it was the most amazing three minute stretch I've experienced.  The equivalent of three touchdowns, two with recovered onside kicks, in three minutes.  At half-time, just to give some background, we were 21-7 down, then fell 28-7 behind, but scored twice to make it 28-19 with 6 minutes to play.  At that point, the next score would win the game, and the momentum was with us.  But it was Australia who scored, and they went 35-19 ahead with 2:54 to go.  We also had a "skeleton" team with three players out to injury, and a few others playing despite injury.  We really had no business winning from the position we were in, but for the next 3 minutes, all the hard work of the players and the management paid off.  The video starts with Australia going 35-19 clear.  As for that dive at the end, we didn't see it from the sidelines, we were too busy celebrating, but that was a heart-stopping moment.  I asked him about it after the match, he said he had it "under control, no worries".  It was three minutes of being in the zone, and I suspect that Sibu Sithole was experiencing life in slow-motion by that point!

On that note, this is a great advertisement for Sevens, a game where anything can happen and the result is almost always unknown until the final play of the match.  That's the essence of valuable sport - compare this to some sports where only three or four teams can ever win, and the result is a ground out procession.  So if the world's rugby bodies would get out of their own way (IRB at the top, and all the national federations below), then this sport, which will make its debut in the Olympic Games in 2016 in Rio, can become one of the most popular in the world.  And most commercially lucrative.  We are in Las Vegas on February 11 and 12 next year, for those who fancy a weekend of great sport and entertainment.

Honorable mentions

First, the comebacks to the sport after retirements and injuries, followed by single match comebacks:
  • Liu Xiang - as we approach London 2012, remember back to Beijing 2008.  Difficult to think of an athlete who carried as much expectation as Xiang did for China.  He was "spared" some pressure by virtue of the fact that China was collecting gold medals almost hourly, but as their only real medal chance for a track gold, the pressure on Xiang was enormous.  He was also the defending champion in the men's 110m hurdles, but failed to get out of the blocks, leaving the Bird's Nest stadium in tears and stunned silence.  The injury was an Achilles tendon one, and it forced a 13-month layoff before Liu Xiang returned in 2009.  Strictly speaking then, his "comeback" is not a 2011 event, but it was 2011 that saw his return to the medals in Daegu, when he won silver (upgraded from bronze after Robles' controversial disqualification).  But for Robles, people argue that Xiang may have won gold, signaling a return to the summit of the sport.  That may have to wait for London 2012, where Xiang will once again mark an Olympic cycle with expectation, and perhaps, delivery.  It will be one of the best races of the Games.

  • Swimmers - it's probably inevitable that with the Olympic Games one year away, a number of athletes who had previously retired would return for one last 'dance'.  It seems most common in swimming, where perhaps the highest profile return was that of Ian Thorpe, Australia's swimming legend.  To a lesser extent, Michael Phelps is on something of a comeback trail, at least in terms of winning global medals, though he was slightly overshadowed by Ryan Lochte at the World Champs in Shanghai.  Their duels will be a highlight of London.  One most relevant to South African Olympic followers who are banking on a medal from Cameron van der Burgh, was that of Brendan Hansen.  The former world record holder retired in 2008, but returned to win the US Nationals in 2011, posting a time that would have placed him fifth in the World Championships.  It will be interesting to follow the progress of the comebacks in 2012.

  • Novak Djokovic and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who came back from 2 sets down to win matches against Roger Federer.  Amazingly, the Swiss champion had never lost a professional match when leading 2-0, but then did it in consecutive Grand Slam tournaments.  The first, at Wimbledon, saw Tsonga's raw power and serving overwhelm Federer to win 6-4 in the fifth.  Then in the US Open, it was Djokovic who came back from the dead to win an epic, which featured a point that Federer would later label a "lucky shot".  It happened on match-point, with Federer serving, and Djokovic coiled and unwound a winning return with apparently no fear.  I guess a season like he was having would create a perception of being bullet-proof.  That point, and the comeback, helped Djokovic into the final, where he won his third Slam of the year, leaving Federer without one for the first time in many years.

  • The St Louis Cardinals, 2011 MLB World Series champions.  Baseball is not a sport I follow much from SA, but the Cardinals completed a historic World Series triumph in 2011, twice facing down defeat to come from two runs down to beat the Texas Rangers in Game 6 of the 7-match series.  They went on to win Game 7 6-2, but it was the Game 6 comebacks that grabbed the attention.  The nature of baseball (much like tennis, in fact) is that a game is often one strike from being won, and that was the case in Game 6, where the Texas Rangers were a strike away from a first World Series on two occasions.  They couldn't close the deal, the Cardinals resisted and history records them as champions.  
In the last two comebacks, spare a thought for the loser, who by definition, has had victory snatched away at the last possible moment.  Having won the Edinburgh tournament in such a dramatic comeback fashion, for example, we found ourselves in the opposite position in Port Elizabeth only two weeks ago, when New Zealand came from behind to beat us in the World Series final.  It really is a dark place to be! So for Australia, Roger Federer and the Texas Rangers, a word of consolation - they're the unwilling participants in the drama of sport!

Next time, a collection of the best sports videos of 2011!


Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Science of Sport Awards: The Villain of 2011

The villain of the year

Let's jump right to it - sport tends to create heroes and villains, hence its appeal (or part of it).  But we're less interested in the parochial rivalries and specific players who fans love to hate simply because of rivalries (though we are not immune to these, of course), and more in the management of the sport, the behind the scenes action that affects play.

For that reason, most of the nominees in the category of villain of the year come from "outside the lines/ropes", and are administrators or sports officials of some kind.   We didn't get too many nominees for this category (a good sign, perhaps), but we'll narrow it down progressively.  There were nominations for Sepp Blatter (honestly, I don't even know what he was nominated for specifically, there seems to be a wide range of possibilities), for Jonathan Vaughters (for neutralizing Paris-Roubaix this year), and I'll throw in two of my own: 1)  The International Rugby Board, for their continued failure to manage and improve their referees properly, particularly in 7s, but also in 15s, which undermines the credibility of the sport.  2)  Jose Mourinho, for dragging the Barcelona vs Real Madrid matches down with 'trench warfare' tactics and snide behavior off-field, which is actually only fitting for a man who calls himself "the special one" (the most special people don't name themselves...).  Oh, and then there was the driver of the car that put Johnny Hoogerland into a barbed-wire fence during the Tour de France.

But the big nominees (total of three) are:

  • Oscar Pistorius, South Africa's controversial blade runner.  I don't think I'd go so far as to say that Pistorius is the "villain", though my thoughts on his participation are very clear and I'm happy to repeat over and over why.  And there was the whole issue of a cover-up, the denial of the science etc.  But I am not sure that he is the "villain" in this piece.  What he is is a hugely controversial figure, if you believe in sports science and facts.  If you don't, then he's an inspiration (and I am the villain, thanks to what has been pushed by the PR machine who back him).  So I'm going to amend this slightly, and say that if I were to nominate anyone linked to this whole story, it would be Pistorius, plus his team of scientists who failed to present all the scientific evidence to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, plus the team of PR guys who attack anyone not buying the fairytale.  But, there'll be a lot more on this story later in our awards round-up, including first-time comments from the scientists who were actually involved in the case, so I'll pick up this discussion then.

  • The IAAF for reaching the conclusion that women's world records set in mixed races should no longer be recognized as world records.  The result was that for a time, Paula Radcliffe's performance of 2:15:25 was suddenly "scratched" and replaced by her 2:17:42 from London in 2005, when the women started 45 minutes before the men.  The decision was roundly criticized, mostly because it showed up a double-standard when compared to men's races, where a herd of pacemakers usually accompanies the top three of four men to at least 32 km.  One photograph from Berlin this year showed about six pacemakers surrounding Makau and Gebrselassie.

    The other issue is that anyone who follows athletics even tangentially can see that women's records on the track, from 100m all the way to 10,000m are seriously tainted not by having male pace-makers, but by doping.  Nobody has come within 5% of some of the records since the 1980s, and if the IAAF are serious about "unfair advantages", I'd suggest they look there, rather than at marathons, for which there is certainly some advantage from pacing, but it's marginal when compared to the men, who get much the same benefit.

    Fortunately, the IAAF backtracked on the decision...sort of.  They now plan to enforce the rule in 2011, but will still allow Radcliffe's record to stand.  If that's confusing, then it introduces the other problem with this kind of unnecessary policy making - it sows confusion.  A big part of the appeal of running is its simplicity.  To those outside the sport (who should really be a target of the governing body's marketing plans), the introduction of "ifs" and "buts" to records does little to improve the appeal of the sport.  One can appreciate the desire of the IAAF to control records, because there does need to be some regulation (a 10,000m record of 25 minutes is possible if the whole route is 10% downhill), but this was clumsy, impossible to enforce and unfortunately detracted from the performances of great marathon runners (Radcliffe was not alone in seeing her efforts invalidated, for a time).  Backtracking (sort of) means the IAAF remain a nominee rather than the award winner!

  • Bryce Lawrence, the New Zealand referee who was in charge of South Africa's Rugby World Cup Quarter-final loss to Australia.  If a poll were conducted in South Africa to wrap up 2011, and a "villain" category was included, Lawrence would win 80% of the votes.  He is reviled in South Africa, blamed for the fact that we did not defend our World title (despite the fact that we would have had to win two more matches after Aus), and is probably the least popular sportsperson in the country.  In fact, at every sporting event in SA since the World Cup, a banner or poster will mock either Lawrence, or throw out an insult that usually invokes his name.  All in all, he is the big South African villain.

    And make no mistake, he was poor.  It was a dreadful performance by a referee, and criticism is justified.  However, the reaction here in SA is neither justified nor constructive.  There were accusations of deliberate match-fixing, there were death threats, and there has been whining that has persisted long after it should have subsided.  The issue of match-fixing will come up again later in our Awards round-up, when we discuss the biggest controversies of 2011, but the reality is that in rugby, the problem is far more likely incompetence than corruption, and the problem for Lawrence is that his poor performance came in a match where one side was completely dominant, and he made "errors of omission".  That is, his mistakes tended to favor the defensive team, because he gave allowed too much to happen.  The result is that the dominant team (SA) seemed discriminated against.  I wrote a little on this back in October when the fallout began, for those who would like to read more.  Again, it was a poor performance, but the real villain in this whole story is the South African public, I'm afraid to say, for pointing the finger in the wrong direction.  It's just too easy to blame the referee and overlook your own failures.  And believe me, I've been there, done that, with a professional team at the international level of rugby.  The referee may have been poor, but did we do enough to win the match?  Answer is yes, and so the villain may not be where we are quick to point.
The winner is...The Contador case - all involved, though all are probably not guilty

But those three villains are no match for our winner.  In fact, our winner is so convoluted that I'm not even 100% sure who to give the award to.  But I'll bundle it all into one category and go with the UCI, the Spanish Anti-Doping Authorities, WADA, CAS and Alberto Contador's lawyers, for the prolonged drama that is the clenbuterol case of the 2010 Tour de France champion. 

I don't even recall where the case began and ended, and if I tried to sum it up, I'd misrepresent one or more of the parties involved.  Going all the way back to 2010, when the case first broke, it was clear that the UCI had known about the test result long before the German media eventually "forced" the announcement.  That prompted Contador's admission that the UCI had informed him that they'd "take care of it", whatever that is supposed to mean.

Carrying this into 2011, the confusion kicked off in January, when the Spanish federation "proposed" a one year ban for Contador.  A few weeks later, in mid-February, the same committee cleared Contador of doping, something that happened, it seems, as a result of a politician's pressure and turning the concept of "strict liability" inside out.  That is, rather than accepting the normal approach which says that the athlete is responsible for any substances in their body, the decision now seemed to be "Prove that it's NOT doping or he is innocent".  At the time, I wrote a post that inspired some good discussion on this issue, for those wishing to revisit it.

The case was always destined for the CAS, of course, except the Spanish Federation decision meant that the UCI and then WADA would be making the appeal, rather than Contador.  Meanwhile, Contador continued to race, his first big stage race being the Giro, because there was so much doubt as to whether he'd be able to compete in the Tour de France, given that the CAS hearing was set for before the race (it was supposed to be June 6 to 8).  The case was however postponed, this time to August 1st, soon after the Tour.

So Contador raced the Tour, finishing fifth after winning the Giro.  The CAS hearing was delayed again, this time because WADA requests more time to prepare its response, and it would take until November 21 for the case to finally be heard.  The hearing ended on the 24th, and then it was announced that a decision may be ready by "early next year".

Make no mistake, this is a complicated case.  The drug in question is clenbuterol, and the Contador defense is accidental ingestion from contaminated meat.  This is possible - there have been a few such cases.  There is also the matter of alleged plasticizers in Contador's blood, the result of blood doping but only detectable using a test that is not yet approved.  So that adds a dimension to the WADA case, but may not hold up legally.  And apparently Contador's lawyers have absolutely buried the case in paperwork and technical details, testimonies, lie detector tests, case studies and so forth, which was the reason for at least one of the delays in having the hearing (when WADA was forced to ask for more time).

All in all, it's a very, very messy legal situation.  And probably a little harsh to single out any one party for the lengthy delay.  After all, what are they to do?  Each acting independently is doing what they feel they need to in order to win a case, but their actions produce reactions that force delays.  

The end result however has dragged on, and of the dozens of responses to my call for nominations, this was almost ubiquitous.  There seems a universal frustration at the delay, understandably, and so while I apologize for not knowing exactly who the "villain" is (if he doped, then it's clearly Contador, of course), the award goes to all involved.

As for what happens next, I'd bet strongly that Contador will be cleared.  That's partly because I have zero faith in the CAS (who after all missed gaping holes in the Pistorius case) and I have only revulsion for lawyers who play the system from inside.  And those factors together, along with the mountain of technical information they have thrown at this, will, I strongly suspect, see the verdict go in favour of Contador.  That will in turn have ramifications for anti-doping.  For one thing, it will mean that they may as well take clenbuterol off the banned list, but it will also challenge the concept of strict liability.  Whether it would create a legal precedent, I don't know (the specific details of the case would determine this), but it certainly would leave a bad taste.  It already has, thanks to the delays.


Next time: Comeback of the year

Science of Sport Awards: Surprise of 2011

Science of Sport awards 2011: Biggest surprise of 2011

Thank you all for your suggestions/nominations for the Science of Sport awards.  I'm really glad I asked, because I'd completely overlooked some of the suggestions you made.  I'd have felt foolish leaving them out!  There was, as expected, quite a lot of overlap, but some "fringe" nominations as well, which is great because it is a useful way to get news out and introduce athletes and performances to people who might otherwise have missed them. 

So first up, biggest Surprise of 2011.

Let's begin with some of your nominees:
  • The collapse of so many professional cycling teams.  While arguably true, the cynic in me says that this is more an indictment of the times than a huge surprise.  What is surprising perhaps is which teams have vanished (and which teams have replaced them).  But cycling's "carousel" was in overdrive this year as big names found themselves, temporarily, without rides.  The economic times, perhaps?  A reluctance to be associated with a potentially risky sport?  Certainly a few years ago, the latter was a big driving factor, but I suspect more global factors are in play now.
  • The Kenyans taking the whole top 20 in marathon times this year.  This was a surprise only because of the extent of the Kenyan dominance.  I covered this in a post in November, shortly after the New York Marathon.  The Kenyan dominance didn't end at times, however.  They also won every single major marathon, the World Championship title (men and women), and generally moved marathon running into a new era.  But this is a topic for discussion when we give out another award later this week...
  • The passing of Sammy Wanjiru.  On May 16 this year, the world woke to news that perhaps the greatest marathoner who ever lived, Kenya's Olympic champion Sammy Wanjiru, had died after a fall from his balcony after a domestic dispute.  Wanjiru, who was Kenya's first gold medalist in the Olympic marathon, was one of the great competitive marathon runners, and that winning performance from Beijing may well have been the catalyst for a new attitude towards the distance.  Wanjiru raced without fear, he was aggressive and courageous.  Sadly, his life off the roads was slowly unravelling, which made his death, while shocking, the saddest end to a sadly inevitable spiral.  An incident at the end of 2010 with an AK-47 machine gun and his wife was a precursor.  No one could have forecast the way it would end, of course, but the warning signs were there. Less of a surprise, perhaps, than a tragic shock.
  • Cadel Evans winning the Tour de France.  Australians everywhere, rejoice.  Cadel Evans had long been a contender without being a serious challenger.  There had always been an air of inevitability about Evans' Tour de France - solid riding, competitive, stubborn, but unable to produce the five or six high quality climbs to win and then defend yellow.  This year was different.  Evans was the race's strongest man - he rode assertively, if not in the aggressive manner of Contador before him (though other factors may have influenced this), and he defended when he needed to, most notably when attacked by Andy Schleck on the Col d'Izoard and pulled everyone back on the final climb of the Galibier.  Evans consolidated the Tour that day, and then emphatically underlined it in the final time-trial.  Given the 2012 route, Evans looks a good bet to defend the title, and this time, it wouldn't be a surprise.
  • Vernon Philander.  This is a South African-centric suggestion, but worth a mention.  Philander is South Africa's newest bowing Test cricketer, and has exploded onto the international cricket scene, taking 5 wickets in an innings in his first three matches (only the fifth player in history to do so).  He won Man of the Match twice (MVP equivalent), and Man of the Series in the Australia series.  Few would have predicted that success, and it'll be interesting to see how soon he regresses to the mean (as he must do, unless he's on route to becoming the greatest bowler in history)
And the winner is...Ibrahim Jeilan winning the 10,000m title in Daegu

There's been a lot that has surprised me in 2011.  Apart from the list above, even the "expected" can sometimes be surprising.  For example, I'm surprised that Novak Djokovic was as dominant as he was.  I was surprised by Chrissie Wellington's remarkable run performance in the Roth Ironman, though she has clearly been building to that for some time.  It's still a "surprise" of sorts.  I'm still surprised by how South Africans reacted to losing to Australia in the Rugby World Cup...

But my criteria for "surprise" is something that I absolutely could not have seen coming.  Something that even in hindsight is remarkable.

And no single moment has been as surprising as the final of the men's 10,000 m in the IAAF World Championships.  And not just because the winner, Ibrahim Jeilan of Ethiopia, was largely unheralded before the race.  Sure he was a talented youth/junior, but he hadn't even raced in Europe, training instead in Japan.

Rather, it's because of the way the final lap unfolded.  Mo Farah of Great Britain was the overwhelming favourite - he'd been outkicking rivals all year, over 5,000m and 10,000m, and so when the race was unspectacularly slow, it was all set up.

Farah then "took" the race on with 500m to go, and opened up what was a winning lead.  Or so I thought.  With 300m to go, it was going according to script.  No surprise at all.  Then, with 200m to go, a slight problem - the gap that had been opening suddenly held at about 5 or 6m.  With 150m to go, I was officially surprised.  The final 100m have to be seen, so watch it below:

So that was a race, or more specifically, a final 53 seconds, that had me saying "Wow, I could not have seen that coming".  And so for that reason, it's my surprise of the year.

Feel free to make more suggestions below!

Later today...Villain of the year and Comeback of the year.


And to wrap up this post, a moment to remember Sammy Wanjiru.  This is a clip of the final few minutes of the 2010 Chicago Marathon, where he raced head to head against Tsegay Kebede of Ethiopia.  It was classic Wanjiru - he didn't have his greatest form (his personal problems perhaps had begun to chip away at his quality), but he fought, attacked, surged, in what was one of the most brutal finishes to a marathon I've ever seen.  It was also the last we saw of Sammy Wanjiru.  Strictly, this clip belongs in 2010, but 2011 is the year that took Sammy Wanjiru, so worth remembering now.

Monday, December 19, 2011

2011 Review: Science of Sport call for nominees

2011 Wrap-up: Your nominees for Science of Sport awards

2011 is winding its way down, or, as the case may be, plummeting to its death, which leaves us just enough time to wrap up 2011 with a look back on the year to hand out our now annual Science of Sport awards for 2011.

So I'm inviting your nominations for the following categories, in no particular order:
  • Sportsman of the year
  • Sportswoman of the year
  • Team of the year
  • Performance of the year
  • Sports science story of the year (calling on all the academics among you - what sports science research has grabbed the headlines this year?)
  • Controversy of the year (because controversy is never far from the science of sport...)
  • Comeback of the year
  • Best sports website
  • Sports video of the year
  • Villain of the year (this one depends entirely on your point of view)
  • Biggest surprise of 2011
Remember to give them a sports science spin - it's not only about the athlete, team, or event, but the "hidden side", the "how" and "why" behind the news.  In most cases, I'll try to link back to an article I wrote during the year. 

I have a pretty good idea of who wins the awards - in that sense, giving awards out is merely an excuse to summarize the stories that struck me this year!  But would love to hear your suggestions and thoughts!  Feel free to add categories that I may have missed as well!  Use the comments section to the post below to give your nominees (or click here to go to the site to throw a name or two into the ring if you're reading this on email).

Bear in mind our focus here is on endurance sport, particularly running and cycling, so I do apologize, but the awards will reflect that bias.  

The first awards are made tomorrow!


Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Barefoot running round-table discussion from UKSEM: Thoughts from "inside"

Thoughts from the Barefoot running round-table discussion at UKSEM: An inside view

Many of you will probably know by now that at the recent UKSEM conference in London, I chaired a session called "Natural Running – advantages and disadvantages. A Round Table Discussion".

The protagonists in the debate were:
  • Prof Daniel Howell, an anatomy professor from Liberty (USA), known as the "barefoot professor"
  • Simon Barthold, who formerly worked as a podiatrist but who now works in biomechanics and is Asics global research consultant
  • Prof Benno Nigg, one of the world's leading biomechanists
  • Dr Mathias Marquard, a clinician and running coach (who would go on to become the voice of reason in many of the more hostile aspects of the debate, as I'll describe!)
  • Prof Daniel Lieberman, evolutionary biologist from Harvard, who as you may know, recently published the Nature studies looking at how habitually shod and barefoot runners differ, and who wrote a key paper on how humans are adapted (skeletally and physiologically) to run long distances
The debate concept

That's a pretty high-profile "cast", including some of the world leaders in their fields.  Then there was me, chairing a debate which everyone knew could easily become an argument!  To begin with, academics don't enjoy this method of getting theories out.  I know this because three of the five on the panel said as much before and after, and I suspect it's mostly because scientists like to work according to a linear 'template' that says you first introduce the question, then you describe the gaps in the literature, then you systematically plug those gaps using your experiments, then you present data and move towards understanding.

A debate, however, is not linear, but circular, or more like a "vortex", in that different threads are whirling around together, and I think it can be an uncomfortable way to discuss data.  The risk is always that every statement made by one person contradicts another's views, and they want to respond to it, so we would basically get sucked down and never move forward.  

I can appreciate this, but I think it's also an excellent way to accelerate understanding for the audience (but then you'll have to tell me this if you were there), because it super-condenses a big topic into a discussion and for that reason, I think it works rather well.

Controlling it, however, was a nerve-jangling prospect.  Before the debate, Asics (who sponsored the UKSEM conference, which included naming rights to this debate, which is commendable) had worked with PR teams to try to manage it, because they were understandably concerned about excessive hostilities (lively debate is good, outright hostility is not!) and also about one or two of the members dominating the discussion.  "Everyone must get a say".  So I had to ensure that neither happened, and with this being such a polarized topic, and knowing that there were pro- and against- academics on stage, I confess to being quite anxious about it.  My approach to this of course is to joke and try to entertain (why be dull when you can liven it up?), but that didn't stop me from almost forgetting the names of the first two speakers as I introduced them!  

Buy or sell?  The first provocative question

Nevertheless, I got past that first little hurdle, and then the debate kicked off with a simple question, based on the media portrayal of the barefoot debate.  The question was: "If a runner picks up a magazine or newspaper, they are seeing the following statement: 'Shoes are evil.  They do not help, they may even cause injury.  Barefoot running is natural, and will help prevent injury, and therefore everyone should be encouraged to run barefoot'.  Do you buy or sell this concept?"

That's a very provocative question, and as mentioned, I hate how this issue has been polarized.  In fact, if there's anything you take out of this website, it's that when people polarize a debate into one of two extremes, they're both wrong.  In science, there's always middle-ground, and a significant "but", whether it's related to barefoot vs shod running, training vs talent, dehydration vs overhydration, doping control, carbs vs fat in diet.  But an extreme question was necessary to get the ball rolling.

So from my vantage point, this is what I saw from the five responses:

Only Daniel Howell outright bought the concept.  He explained that he has been LIVING barefoot for 6 years, spending 95% of his time without shoes.  He is an advocate not only for barefoot running, but for barefoot living.  His main argument, which I'll get to shortly, is that barefoot running is the "natural state"

All the other speakers were relatively non-committal.  Prof Benno Nigg was most neutral, saying that every year, he asks his students this question in a final exam: "Does barefoot running prevent injuries?", and the only answer he accepts for a good grade is "I don't know because we don't know".  

It became clear right away that Prof Nigg was not about opinions.  At all.  He is perhaps the world's leading biomechanist, and has had in excess of 300 publications on the subject, plus dozens of books, and is really all about the evidence.  Which is a bit of a problem in a round-table discussion, but his absolutely neutral answer did two things a) it highlighted that this is a debate that really does lack evidence, and b) that he was going to be the "go to guy" for scientific fact, not opinion!  If I wanted to kill the debate, ask Prof Nigg for his opinion!  

Professor Daniel Lieberman said the same thing - we don't have the evidence yet, but there is enough theory there, as well as the 'birth' of a line of evidence that may begin to steer us towards it.  At this point, they mostly agreed with one another.

"Buy, but keep the receipt for a refund"

Let me digress and state my view on that question, since I didn't get to state it at UKSEM!  I believe that EVERYONE can benefit from some barefoot running.  That is, I think that barefoot running is, at worst, a good training modality that may have benefit for running performance, even when wearing shoes.  We know from research and simple experience that there are significant differences in muscle activation and loading patterns when running barefoot, and these are all potentially favourable, even if barefoot running is used only as a training method.  In fact, I'd go so far as to encourage all runners to try barefoot running, even if it is only during a warm-up or cool-down, or once a week for a short time.

For some people, I do believe that barefoot running may be the answer to their injury problems.  I think there is enough there to suggest that some individuals who struggle in shoes will fare much better without them.  However, here's the catch - we don't fully know who they are, and more importantly, why they benefit.  We can surmise that it has to do with the change in loading on different joints (as shown by Lieberman and countless others), the proprioception, the strengthening of joints, and so forth.  But we simply don't know.

By extension then, there may well be people who simply cannot adapt to barefoot running.  In fact, I'm certain this will be the case.  They break down and get new injuries, usually of the ankle, calf, Achilles tendon or foot.  And these individuals may never take fully to barefoot running.  I still think that the fact that they do pick up these injuries indicates the 'stress' and if the body adapts positively to stress, then they too can benefit from barefoot training, if not fully immersing themselves in it.  However, for them, it must be recognized that shoes may be the only thing enabling them to run (regardless of whether it is "natural" or not). 

And the one thing I would implore the "barefoot evangelists" to recognize is that just because it works for them, does NOT mean it will work for everyone, and so don't make the same mistake we often  accuse shoe companies of making when they gave everyone motion-control and stability devices.

The key thing, I believe, is that barefoot running allows us to study shod running better.  It invites the realization that perhaps it is running form/technique that is crucial, and by comparing and contrasting the two, we might understand why people run the way they do, and where the risks may originate.

So in short, my answer to that question is "Buy barefoot running as a concept, try it out as a training modality, but keep the receipt so that you can return it if you don't find the "fit" right for you.  At worst, you'll discover a new muscle activation pattern, a new and effective training method, and potentially, changes to running form that will help you run better, in shoes"

Back to the debate...

The tale of two Daniels, and confusing a hypothesis with evidence

The first real point of disagreement in the debate came with a theoretical discussion of "natural running".  That's a vague, all-encompassing term, and we could have debated it for an hour, all by itself.

But let's just go with it at a superficial level, for now!

Prof Daniel Howell, the barefoot professor, was asked to elaborate on the evidence for barefoot running.  Remember, the panel had all agreed that evidence was lacking, so the next question I put is "what evidence do you need, and what do you have?"

Howell's response was that "barefoot running is natural".  We are not born with shoes, our ancestors did not run in shoes, and it is therefore natural for us to run barefoot too. To live barefoot, in fact.  What is not always as clear is that somewhere along this logic, "natural" becomes a synonym for "better".  Howell at one point challenged Simon Barthold, asking him to justify why he said that people need shoes (I agree with Barthold on this one, by the way.  At least for some people). 

Howell believes that we don't, because it's natural to be barefoot, and that this must be better.  I'm paraphrasing of course (I'm sure I'm open to criticism about context here, but that's basically his position, as anyone who heard it will say, I'm sure).

There are fundamental problems with this idea.  First, he makes a big error of confusing the hypothesis with the evidence.  All he has at this early stage is a theory that can lead to a hypothesis.  Prof Lieberman (the other Daniel in the discussion) has a better understanding of this.  I had a long lunch with Lieberman the day before, and we discussed the entire debate, and this came up.  My point is that we didn't have anti-biotics until recently either, and the result was that many people died as a result of "natural" causes, and the invention of these medicines was clearly a positive step.  To equate "natural" with "better" is a very basic mistake to make.

Second, the problem that I think Howell has is that he has not recognized that being barefoot as a runner exists in a larger context, and that context includes about 100 things that make us different from our ancestors.  For example, we sit at desks for 8 hours a day, we sleep on comfortable mattresses, we drive, and we "hunt" our food in supermarkets and not in bushlands, we play in shoes (when we're not playing on computer games), and we grow up in them and then at 30, we are faced with a possible change (as a result of this debate).  Not one of those things happened before, but every one of them COULD be a contributing factor to injury risk.  In other words, weakness of supporting muscles and tendons as a result of years of disuse and TV-watching might mean that being "natural" is a more risky option that being in shoes.  There is a real possibility, as stated earlier, that some people need shoes in order to run.  The notion that being barefoot works for everyone today because it may have worked for everyone a long time ago is a leap of faith.

Lieberman recognizes this, and it means that he can appreciate that the anthropological finding about what we had on our feet many years ago is not proof of what we should wear today, it's only a starting point for a hypothesis that can be tested.

The skill aspect of running

The consequences of making the over-simplification of "natural = better" are significant.  For example, I presented on barefoot running last week, and suggested that barefoot running is a skill that has to be learned.  If, like Howell, you believe that natural barefoot running is better, then you don't need to recognize the skill aspect of running.  In fact, we know this because he called this skill idea "bull" in a Twitter post recently.  The problem is this: The scientific evidence produced by Lieberman shows very clearly that people who have run in shoes for many years do NOT run barefoot the same way as people who have been barefoot for a long period.  Thus, there is some learning, some adaptation that takes place, and whether we can all achieve this adaptation remains to be seen.

That is, take the shoes off and you get a pretty dire picture - these individuals continue to heel-strike, at least for a short time, which predisposes them to very high ground reaction forces and a huge vertical loading rate, both of which are surmised to be linked to injury risk.  Also, the muscles and tendons are unconditioned for barefoot running, and are then suddenly loaded differently, which further increases the injury risk.

Anecdotally, and from my own coaching (and Lieberman's observations which he shared with me over lunch), new barefoot runners make some fundamental errors because they don't adopt what seems to be the optimal barefoot running gait right away.

If they are running "naturally", however, and we buy into the theory that it's how it was intended by nature, then I fear that we're missing a huge piece of the puzzle, because it is quite clear that not all barefoot running is equal either.  And so when people "fail" when barefoot and are surprised, it's probably (this is opinion at this stage - evidence will come) because of faults in the gait, the most obvious of which seems to be over-striding and deliberately forcing a forefoot landing by plantar-flexing at the ankle (pointing the toe down).

This is a recipe for disaster, since it loads the ankle joint on a contracted muscle, and probably led to so many Pose runners breaking down when we monitored a group who'd just learned this technique.  I suspect the same risk exists for barefoot running, but it happens "naturally" and if you adopt the historical hypothesis as "proof", then you are blind to this possibility.  On the whole, I think that Howell does a disservice to his own advocacy by being blind to the evidence.

But very importantly, if making the transition to barefoot running should be viewed as a skill that has to be learned, then why not view all running as a skill?  This is an interesting question and kind of leads into where this debate will go in the future, I think, but more on this later.

The cushioning debate

The biggest point of difference came around a discussion on cushioning and impact forces.  Lieberman had the day before presented his Nature study findings, where the impact transient was absent when running barefoot with a forefoot landing, and explained this using an effective mass model.  Basically, what he is saying is that when you run in this way, and land forefoot, a lower effective mass decelerates on ground contact, than when you land on the heel.  To illustrate this, he used the analogy of a pen falling vertically to the ground compared to a pen falling at an angle of 45 degrees.  A greater effective mass "stops" when the pen lands vertically.

This is sound logic, of course.  But it led to an argument, because I think Simon Berthold misunderstood the point of the analogy.  He had printed off Lieberman's website explaining barefoot running and adamantly criticised Lieberman's explanation.  I think it's fairly clear what the analogy was meant to illustrate, and I think there is no doubt that landing on the heel does involve a significantly higher impact transient (just look at the difference in magnitude - it's 700% higher for heel-striking than forefoot landing).

There are some very theoretical questions about the use of this model, and Benno Nigg commented on this, but overall, this was an argument that didn't help the debate, because it obscured the point about impact forces.  I think an analogy was mistaken for a literal explanation and Lieberman's website became the focus of argument when we might have been discussing the mechanics a little better.  I eventually had to dismiss this discussion and move on, because nothing good was going to come out of it, because Berthold had pursued it down a blind alley to a point where Lieberman couldn't defend the analogy anymore, and Lieberman was getting flustered as a result.  End of discussion.

There was some disagreement over cushioning as well.  Lieberman's "model" is that part of the benefit of being barefoot is that it reduces the loading rate and effectively removes the impact transient.  For this to be beneficial, as opposed to having purely academic value, it has to be shown that these forces on landing are linked to injury. There is some evidence of this from Irene Davis' work, and Lieberman mentioned in the debate that the higher impact forces and loading rates have been linked to injuries like shin-splints and potentially knee problems.  

Benno Nigg was of the opinion that it wasn't the impact forces, but rather the forces in mid-stance that were more important.  His work suggests that the active forces may be more important, and these are very similar for shod vs barefoot running.  One of his big lines of evidence, of course, is to show that the degree of cushioning in the shoe (or running surface) actually doesn't change the impact forces.  His explanation for this was perhaps a little rushed, but has to do with the idea that muscle can be "tuned" by activation levels to make it optimal for a given surface.  The end result is that whether you run on hard or soft surfaces, the impact is relatively "benign".  This became a fairly high-brow biomechanical discussion, which definitely doesn't work in a round-table debate, and so wasn't explored as well as it perhaps needed to be.

Voice of reason: What do shoes really need?

The voice of reason in this debate, as I mentioned, was Mathias Marquard.  A highly acclaimed German author of running/coaching books, and a clinician, he adopted a very neutral and sensible view in the debate.  His experiences as a runner and a coach had brought him full circle, from going fully barefoot 15 years ago, to now recognizing the value of barefoot running, but not prescribing it.  He seems to have found the practical balance, and complemented the scientific discussion very well.  He made this point very eloquently on many occasions, and as a result, when I felt the debate was getting off track, he was the "go to guy" to bring it back with pragmatic viewpoint.  He was very valuable, mostly because of his pragmatism (and humour!)

It was Marquard who brought up a really interesting question when he said that we need to ask very seriously what shoes actually need to have for running?  Do they need massive cushioning?  Do they need stability devices?  Do they need motion control gadgets and built-up medial arch supports?  Do they need rigidity?  The answer to all these questions, in his opinion, was "No", and that was one of the most important points to come out of the discussion.  It was a point that the whole panel agreed on. There is a perception of needing all these aspects, but no evidence for them, and a real possibility that we're better off without them.

On the cushioning, Nigg and Lieberman both agreed, for their different reasons, and I think on the side of massive motion-control, it's become increasingly clear that we don't need all the devices that used to be common.  The shoe industry has already picked up on this, incidentally, and the number of heavy, bulky shoes available has, at least in my estimation, come down enormously compared to a decade ago.

The practical approach

The final point of debate was the practical approach to transitioning barefoot.  It was a thread throughout the debate, and right upfront, Simon Barthold asked me the question "If I were to design an experiment to test barefoot running, where a group of runners will do 45 minutes of barefoot running, would my University's Ethics Committee approve that research?".

The answer of course, is no, unless they didn't know any better, because we know that 45 minutes of barefoot running in a population of shod runners is guaranteed to cause injury!   This was put forward to Barthold, presumably to illustrate the risks of barefoot running, which is quite true.  However, it doesn't say anything about whether barefoot running is good or bad - that's a separate question.  For example, if I wrote a proposal saying that I would be putting a group of overweight heart-attack victims on exercise programmes consisting of 30 min a day, that study would also be rejected, but we know that exercise is excellent and even prescribed for this group!

So the point is that it's not bad just because it's risky.  It's that it's risky.  Simple as that.  There is risk and reward, and the practical implication of this is "How do I make the transition?"

This is where, once again, I believe it's vital to recognize the skill aspect, or at least the learning process, and to understand that we don't all learn the same way (and nor should we).  Daniel Howell was of the impression that going barefoot first is the best approach.  Others, like Barthold, would advocate that you run in minimalist shoes first, lightweight trainers perhaps, then racing flats, to manage the transition.  There is really no right or wrong answer here.  I think it can work either way, as long as one is very cautious.  

You could, for example, build up to say 40 minutes over 3 months, but basically viewing yourself as a beginner runner, starting out with something as basic as 1 min run, 1 min walk for 10 minutes.  And then systematically increase as you adapt.  Or, like Lieberman did, you can do your normal run, but within sight of home, just take off your shoes and finish the last few minutes barefoot.  Do this every second run, each time from slightly further out, and you'll be up to a full run in about the same time.

Change management and running form

I think the key is that while there is no prescribed way, there is a concept, and the concept is that you have to manage the change as though you were doing a training regime for the very first time.  It's almost impossible to tell a guy who is running 70km a week to go back down to 10km for a few weeks.  He won't do it - he might try, but he'll still err on the high side, and then I think many runners will become injured as a result.  So again, it takes recognition that barefoot running is not the solution simply because it's natural, but rather that it has to be learned and adapted to, and then not to simply run barefoot because it's natural and assume that it'll work itself out.

For example, I think it's important to condition the calf muscles before even running.  I also think you have to be aware of over-striding and avoid the temptation to actively force the landing onto the forefoot.  Let gravity handle the landing.  In fact, I think the worst thing to do is to cognitively tinker with running technique, particularly how the foot strikes the ground.  I think incremental change will work for most people, whereas wholesale changes that work at a cognitive level equal disaster for most (which is the problem I have with Pose).

There are many other points about running form, and this is probably where this debate will go in future.  Nobody knows what "perfect running form" is just yet, and the problem is that it may be individualized based on a set of say 50 different inputs.  So what is perfect for me is unlikely to work for you, and this is the reason that some runners are injury free and others are not, I suspect.  A runner with glut. medius weakness for example, might succeed with one form, but will fail using "perfect" or better running form, and so on.  Injuries are multi-factorial (flexiblity, imbalances, strength etc) and so running form to prevent them will certainly be multi-factorial too.

However, I do think it is wise to at least consider HOW you run.  As mentioned, barefoot running is not by itself the answer.  It's a means to discover the answer, perhaps, and for some people, it may go on to become the solution.  But for most, it's a good way to accelerate the discovery of better running, to strengthen and condition differently, and then to benefit from that later on.

Conclusion - evidence to fill the space between what is known and needs to be known

To wrap up the debate, I said something along the lines of that at that moment, there is a great debate going on, but with many gaps.  There is a space between what we know and what we hypothesize, and that gap will be filled by future research.  Some of that is on the go already - my lunch with Lieberman was heavily focused on research that he is now doing, and the research that I will soon be doing to get to the bottom of the 'skill' aspect of barefoot running (and thus running as a whole) and also on the long-term injury prospects of barefoot running.  That research is coming!

In the meantime, this kind of debate is very valuable, if anyone was there and has some feedback or comments, I'd welcome them.  I'm sure my perspective from the round-table will differ from yours in the audience.  So as always, thoughts welcome!

UKSEM wrap

The next thing to do is to discuss UKSEM Day 2, which is the day that featured some of the highlights of the conference.  Prof Yorck Olaf Schumacher presented on the biological passport, Daniel Coyle presented on better ways to practice and learn, and so I need to summarize those.  And of course, there was David Millar's excellent talk on his doping.

But that will come in due course!


For those not yet saturated by the barefoot topic (which I'll leave alone for now!), check out the following articles from this site:

This is actually quite a cool concept, the Facebook Q & A, so look out for more of those in the future!