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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!


Thursday, November 24, 2011

Sports Science 2011: Talent vs training and Oscar P

Sports science in the media in 2011: Training, talent, doping and Oscar Pistorius

So yesterday was Day 1 of the fantastic UKSEM conference in London.  I gave a presentation on Sports Science in 2011, and that presentation is embedded in the post below.  I am a terrible judge of my own presentations, so I'll just say that mine went OK and hope that it did.  I always know instantly all the things I haven't explained clearly, when I was clumsy, when I repeated myself and when the point I was trying to make didn't quite come off!  But hopefully you can read quietly what I spoke about and it is better than the "live performance"!

I covered some of the more topical stories of the year, but given that I only had 30 minutes, I had to pick three, and they were:
  1. The Kenyan dominance of the marathon, which provided a nice lead in to the training vs talent debate
  2. Doping in cycling, in the context of how doping control changes doping behaviour
  3. Oscar Pistorius, and the scientific cover-up and hatchet job he and his band of "scientists" got away with

The presentation again lacks my voice-over - I may at some stage do a "voice-over" when I have more time, but for now, it should suffice as a read through.  Below, I elaborate on part of the talk (the talent vs training part.  I may, in the future, do the same for the Pistorius section).

Email subscribers click here to be taken to site to view presentation. All others, click on the grey button, wait for loading, then hover over "More" and click "Fullscreen"

The 10,000 hour concept

The biggest talking point, at least in the discussion I had with delegates afterwards, was the Training vs Talent debate (the first part of the talk).  Here, the only reason I included this was because I saw that Matthew Syed who wrote the book "Bounce" was on the programme after me, and his talk was called "The Science of Success".  So I decided that it would be good to have a little bit of science on the topic, because he doesn't provide it in support of his "training-sufficiency" position.

Effectively, Syed's thesis is this:  Genes and talent are over-rated, and great performers, whether they are sportsmen, doctors, musicians or businessmen, achieve expert performance not because of genetic factors or "talent", but because they accumulate enormous volumes of deliberate practice.  He has a few examples of this, and makes a compelling case, at least on the surface.

But when you really interrogate what he is saying, then you realise that the reality is that he is saying that in order to succeed at something at the highest level, to become an expert performer, you need to practice.  OK then... nobody should be surprised at this, and nor would they be.  The problem is that his (and Gladwell's) position seems to exist outside of a world where genetic factors also have an influence, and it's this exclusivity in his thinking that forces a closer look.

Unnecessarily polarizing the complexity of performance by ignoring genes and talent

So the issue is not that they advocate hard work and a lot of training, it is that they downplay the importance of talent or innate ability.  I emphasized this in my own talk, but it bears repeating - if Syed is correct, and the secret to success is training and accumulating many years and hours of practice, then Talent ID is a waste of time and money.  We should rather spend that money on getting 100 more children to train, because they should all (or most) become champions, provided they get through the required hours.

Note that this also completely overlooks the fact that children tend to do what they are good at, and that simply running a child through a "10,000 hour factory" is an imagined concept only.  I guess the real question is why are some children good at something almost within the first moments that they start it, thereby encouraging them to do it more?  It seems to me that this could be an innate difference too...

In a competitive sport, training is obviously a crucial determinant of success

But the theory that practice is important is so obvious it doesn't need emphasis.  As soon as you have competition, then within a narrow range of individuals (the top 10 tennis players, or the Olympic finalists, for example), training will become a crucial determinant of who wins and loses.

In "a small pond", where there is no competition, it's possible to succeed with talent alone.  Just think back to school level athletics, when there's no competition, a young athlete can show up on the day and dominate to win.  But the higher the level, the better the competition, the more important training becomes.  And those individuals who get attempt to by on talent alone are washed away in this more competitive landscape.  Syed made this point, and of course he's correct.  But the key is that the athlete who succeeds all the way to the Olympic podium is the one who dominated without training (that is, he's talented or genetically gifted), but then also trained incredibly hard to stay a champion as the competition intensified.  In otherwords, he has BOTH talent and training. 

In fact, I challenged him on this after his talk, and basically made the point that if he had walked into that venue today, with 200 people in the audience, and asked them to please raise their hands if they thought that sporting success was ENTIRELY genetic, he would have been the only person with his hand in the air.  He may have been laughed out the room had he tried to propose that the current belief is that success is all genetic.  Everyone knows that it is not.

Yet he seems to have arrived at this belief that someone out there believes that expert performance is achieved solely on the basis of genes and natural talent. Now, maybe I missed this in my studies, but I have not once heard this theory.  The established theory in sports science is that many, many years of training are required to hone and refine skills and physiology in order to become a world or Olympic champion.  The reality is that sports science does NOT believe that it's ALL in the genes, and nor do they believe that it's all about training.  So the first problem with the 10,000 hour concept is that it attacks a straw man that need not exist.

To polarize the debate the way that he (and others, most notably Malcolm Gladwell) have done is unnecessary, and it has quite important financial and policy implications for where money should be spent by sports federations and coaches to help improve performance.  Their books and emphasis are not without merit, certainly - they have emphasized how important it is that we recognize that not all young aspirant athletes develop equally, and that we may need to consider how coaching is provided to more children to prevent some from falling through the cracks.  But sports science already knew this.  What these books have done is spawn a theory that now says that practice is sufficient for expert performance, which it clearly is not.

The work of Elferink-Gemser, who presented today after Syed, confirmed this, because she has been studying the progress of young sportspeople for 10 years, and has found large differences between children in terms of how they respond to training sessions and coaching.  But more important, she finds that it is possible to predict which children will become professional within the first few years of them entering the sports academy.  In other words, by the time children are 15 or 16, there are already differences between those who will become "great" and those who are merely "good".  It has little to do with accumulating the "magical 10,000 hours".   The mere fact that these young athletes have such different responses to training tells you that you can't generalize potential performance to a group, and that the outcome of training will also differ between individuals.

The three 'failings' of the 10,000 hour, "practice is sufficient" model

I think there are three key points about this 10,000 hour concept:

Firstly, if you can find ONE case of an exception, then you have disproved the "rule".  That is, if you can find a guy who trains 10,000 hours but doesn't succeed, then you have shown that it's not sufficient.  Or, if you can find a guy who trains only 5,000 hours, but who does succeed, then you have shown that it is not necessary.

And the truth is that both of these cases exist, everywhere.  Baker has shown it in triathlon, it has been found in chess (so it's not only "physiological" sports where innate ability seems to matter), and it has been found in football, wrestling, field hockey, skeleton.  Every single sport has examples of athletes who have shot to the top within a few years of starting the sport, and it is littered with athletes who fail despite doing 20,000 hours.  Today I spoke with a woman whose husband taught music for a school for gifted musicians in New York, and they discover children who within months of starting are playing at near-professional expert levels.  Now, unless those children have managed to get 10,000 hours of training in in one hour (by discovering how to slow down time), they have achieved expertise well before the theoretical minimum.

There's no question that talent, or innate ability, or genetics, play a role.

The second point is that there is no good evidence at all to suggest that 10,000 hours is required for expert performance.  The study that is always cited is a violin study, which found that expert violinists had accumulated an AVERAGE of 10,000 hours by the time they went to music school, whereas those who were merely good had done 8,000 hours.  Two problems.  First, you can't infer cause from this kind of retrospective study.  Who is to say that the talented, genetically gifted violinists didn't train more BECAUSE they had more talent from the age of 8?  Perhaps their innate ability was the catalyst to get them more practice (mom sends them for lessons, and they enjoy it).  And secondly, the study showed absolutely no indication of ranges or variance.  So we don't know whether there are some people who became experts with less training, and nor do we know whether some failed despite doing their 10,000 hours, because the author did not show that data.  I hope I don't have to emphasize that if either of these people exist, then the theory is wrong.

Which brings me to the third point about this theory - it is entirely unfalsifiable.  To the "evangelists" who proclaim that anyone can become an expert if they just practice enough, it's too easy and too convenient to simply dismiss the exceptions because they clearly didn't practice in the right way.  So if someone has done 25,000 hours and has not succeeded, then they simply say "He obviously didn't practice the right way".  Or if someone becomes an expert in only 3,000 hours (which happens, all the time), they say "He must have compressed his 10,000 hours into a third of the time".

So it's a completely unfalsifiable theory.  It cannot be proven, and it cannot be disproven.  Therefore, it does not belong in science.

What the science does say - "responders" and "non-responders"

What does belong in science are studies that look at how different individuals have been shown to adapt to training.  And sure enough, those studies exist, though Gladwell and Syed would never admit to them.  The Heritage study, for example, took hundreds of unrelated people and gave them standardized training programmes, and then measured the responses.

The result?  A complete spectrum, ranging from those who show absolutely no response to training, all the way to those who improve by more than 40% as a result of training.  And as expected by the scientific theory, the difference between these people can very reliably be linked to genetic factors.  Specifically, there are Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms (SNPs) which account for half this training resopnse.  Individuals who have 9 or fewer of the identified 21 SNPs are the "low-responders", whereas people who have 19 or more of these SNPs are "high responders".

The answer therefore is that it's not about having different genes, it could also be about having different variants of the same gene, the result being that you and I show completely different responses to training.  And you have to ask yourself, if you are a coach, would you rather have an individual who is a "high responder" or a "low responder"?  And more importantly, if you have $100,000 to invest in a sport, where do you spend it to find a champion?  On talent ID, to find those "high responders", or do you believe that anyone can succeed if you just spend the money to help them all do 10,000 hours of training?  In terms of policy, it's clear that the science, at least for this physiological variable, points you in the direction of finding the right people to spend the money on.  And that means understanding the value of genetic factors to performance.

And just to dispel the idea that skill-based activities benefit more from training, when you look at studies in chess, you find that there is a massive difference in the time taken to reach Master level - some do it in 3,000 hours, some have been at it for 25,000 hours and counting.  In darts, 15 years of practice (almost 15,000 hours) only accounts for 28% of the variability in performance.  In otherwords, 72% of the difference in performance between two players cannot be explained by the hours spent training.  In darts...

In sport, countless studies show that elite athletes get to the top within 6,000 hours of starting their sport, and the success of Talent ID programmes proves that talent transfer (something that is impossible if the 10,000 hour theory is correct) exists. 

Conclusion - training is the realization of genetic potential

The bottom line is that a theory of deliberate practice gives us one important message - if you want to succeed, practice.  Coaches around the world breathe a sigh of relief, you're not redundant.  But this is so obvious, I guess the reminder is always good though.

But the application of this theory, and the dismissal of genes that it somehow seems associated with, is a huge oversimplication and wrong, at least for sports.  Syed today argued about school performance, and about how teachers should downplay the idea that some children are more "talented" with numbers or better at mathematics than others.  And that's fine, because whatever helps people improve is great.  But if we're in the business of finding Olympic champions, then this theory has no place in its polarized form.

Not only this, but it could be extremely damaging.  If you take it literally, and you buy into a 10,000 hour concept, then you'll be obliged to start training a child at the age of about 10, because you need them to become world-class in their early-20s.  All good and well, except the evidence shows quite clearly that the earlier you start intensive training, the LESS likely you are to succeed.  And so there are all kinds of implications for how we manage children's sport participation.

The ultimate conclusion, in my opinion (and as always, I welcome your views), is that training is nothing more than the realization of genetic potential.  Without both, you will not become an Olympic champion (in a competitive sport, that is).  Training will improve everyone, and so everyone should be encouraged to train.  But genetic factors determine where we start, how we respond to training (trainability), how much training we can tolerate before burnout or injury (because let's face it, chess players rarely get injuries that force 6-week layoffs, like stress fractures), and finally, where the "performance ceiling" exists.

Training will get you to your ceiling, you'll realize your genetic potential.  But will it win you a medal?  Only if you chose your parents right!


P.S.  For a more detailed discussion of these issues, please do read the previous two articles I wrote on the subject:
  1. A look at the 10,000 hour concept.  What does it say, and why it fails to pass the test of validity
  2. The evidence for how genes influence elite sporting performance

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Barefoot running: An overview

Barefoot running presentation: Overview of the science 

So last night, at the Sports Science Institute of South Africa where I'm based, I gave a presentation on barefoot running, aimed at the public.  A big topic, obviously, always guaranteed to pull a good crowd and generate lively debate.  Which it did.

It's a topic I've covered in great detail before on this site, with approaches ranging from a look at the evidence for shoes, to the findings of the latest barefoot running research.  I fly to London tonight for the UKSEM conference, where I'll be chairing a debate on running injuries (among other talks), and which will probably be one of the highlights of the meeting, since it includes Daniel Lieberman and Benno Nigg, both of whom have done research on this subject.  So there'll be more to come from that, no doubt.

But for today, I just wanted to share with you the presentation that I did last night.  It will lack the sound and my explanations, of course, but most of it should be fairly self-explanatory.  For those who want to read through a more detailed description, you can read the article I wrote after the ACSM meeting earlier this year - most of the concepts covered in the presentation below are also described in that article.

I would say that the three key points about this whole debate are:

Evidence linking the mechanics to the injury outcome still lacking

There is as yet no conclusive evidence that either proves or disproves the benefits of shoes or barefoot running, or links the mechanical characteristics of barefoot running to a reduced risk of injury.  That is, for all the work showing how impact forces and loading rates are reduced when barefoot, it remains to be proven that this leads to lower injury rates.  I began last night's talk by saying that this was the first time a "scientific" presentation would be given with so little conclusive scientific evidence!  There are plenty of theories, of course, and some are sound, but we await the real evidence for the injury and performance side of the debate, which will come from long-term, prospective studies.

Recognize that running barefoot may be a skill and that people acquire skills at different rates (or not at all)

The evidence so far suggests that barefoot running produces some potentially beneficial changes, mostly related to how running form and kinetics are altered without shoes.  However, it also points to a potentially large group of people who, when running barefoot, may have increased risk of injury, especially early on - these are the people who continue to heel-strike when barefoot, and who may "force" a forefoot landing, leading to huge strain on the calf muscle and Achilles tendons.

The key point is that barefoot running (and thus running in general) should be recognized as a SKILL, and it is clear that we do not all have the ability to acquire skills equally.  Those who do not may be substantially worse off, and require much longer to make the adjustments.  Whether they should even try is a good question.

The issue however is not necessarily whether barefoot running is "good for you", but rather whether barefoot running helps us understand anything about how we run that might help us reduce injury risk.  If barefoot running provides these answers for a given runner, then of course it would be enormously beneficial.  But it may be that simply learning about barefoot running helps runners in shoes just as much!

It's also vital to recognize that huge differences may exist between individuals:  some adapt very quickly to minimalist shoes or barefoot running - these people are the "responders" and they tend to go on to become "evangelists" who tell everyone to throw away their shoes!  At the other extreme, however, are non-responders, who, for reasons unknown, will battle to run without "traditional shoes".  In both cases, we have to be careful about generalizing the "extreme" observation to the general population.  That's the mistake shoe companies made when telling everyone they needed all manner of gadgets in their shoe, and it's a mistake that people now make when advocating barefoot running.

We do not fully understand why some people adapt faster than others.  The studies required in the future need to assess how biomechanical and neuromuscular changes are learned and relearned when running barefoot, and then to establish whether this impacts on injury risk.  Those will come, in time.

Worth a try, or inclusion into training. But respect the length of the investment: Change management

In terms of advocacy, I believe that barefoot running will help most runners.  It may be as part of a training programme where barefoot running helps with adaptation because it loads the joints differently, activates muscles in different patterns and therefore provides a good training impulse. For some, barefoot running (or minimalist shoes) will go on to become the "only way".  For others, it will remain a training technique, and that's fine too.  But I'd certainly look at incorporating it, just for the training adaptations it provides.

The key, as mentioned in #2 above, is to recognize that going from shoes to either minimalist shoes or barefoot is a skill and involves a significant change.  Therefore, it's essential to respect the time that it will take to fully adapt to the different loading stresses associated with running either barefoot or in minimalist shoes.  I've given an illustration of a programme in the presentation, where I've 'budgeted' 12 weeks to build up to 40 minutes of solid running (plus 2 to 4 weeks of preparation).  Some people may take even longer than this - the question that has to be asked then is whether it's worth it?  Is a 6-month intervention worth the benefit, when the benefit hasn't yet been clearly established?  I doubt it.

Nevertheless, if you're sold on the idea of giving it a try, recognize that you're making a long-term investment, and that if you simply continue your normal training barefoot, you're pretty much guaranteed to get injured!

More to come in the future, I am sure.  Looking forward to meeting Lieberman for a few runs along the Thames, and we will be discussing the future research that needs to be done!

Until then, enjoy the presentation below!  Again, click the grey arrow, hover over "More" and click "Fullscreen".  Email subscribers click here to visit the site to view presentation


Monday, November 21, 2011

UCT Research in 2011: Wrap-up

Wrapping up the 2011 academic year: UCT/ESSM research cocktail party conversation topics

Such a busy time recently, hence the big gap between posts!  I am off to London tomorrow for the UKSEM Conference, where I will be presenting three talks.  The first is on Sports Science in the media in 2011, where I'll tackle the topical stories of the year (Oscar Pistorius, doping in cycling and the Kenyan marathon dominance and the genetics vs training debate).

The second is on the fallacy and oversimplification of the 10,000 hour concept, because I saw from the conference programme that Matthew Syed of "Bounce" fame would be presenting a talk called "The Science of Success", and I feel it's important to at least counter this with some science....

That is, to present the proper scientific view of the role of genes in performance, because unlike Syed has said, genes do not play little to no role in performance, and it is definitely not "all about the training" (for more on this, you can read the posts I wrote back in August this year).

And then the third talk will be on doping and the limits to performance.  I guess it's topical again now, with the "sub-2 hour marathon debate" once again opening up, albeit very prematurely.  If you followed the Tour de France coverage on site these last few years, you'll also be aware of the idea that there is a physiologically believable performance limit, and that's the topic of the third talk at UKSEM.

Then I'm also going to chair a round-table discussion on running injuries, which features Daniel Lieberman (of barefoot running fame) and Benno Nigg (biomechanics guru), among others.  As a matter of fact, I'm giving a presentation tonight at the Sports Science Institute of SA on barefoot running, which I'll share with you as soon as it is done.

So all in all, UKSEM should provide plenty of fodder for the site in weeks to come.  Assuming I can find the time to post!

ESSM 2011: The academic year ends

But for today, I just wanted to do a recap of the year in research at the University of Cape Town, where I am jointly employed.  The unit is the Exercise Science and Sports Medicine research unit (ESSM for short), and last week, we held our annual year-end function.  This is a function where all those eager and interested "guinea-pigs" who have volunteered to be studied as part of our research get to come for a finger-dinner and listen to a few presentations on our research.  It's just feedback and information, mostly to say thank you for their time (and blood, sweat, tears and occasional muscle sample), but also to get sports science out, to translate it in a way that makes it more accessible.

My mission from the evening has always been to give each person one item of "cocktail party conversation".  That is, next time they're at a social event, whatever it is, they need to be able to say "Hey, I heard about this really interesting stuff being studied at Sports Science, where they're looking at..."

So my presentation on the evening was to summarize what the ESSM Unit had been doing in 2011.  Consider that we have about 40 people involved in research at a time, and that's no easy task - it means effectively trying to summarize 40 years of research, assuming each person has had a productive year, into a 30 min presentation!

But below is that presentation.  I created a mock-up newspaper, with "articles" featuring some of the research areas, and then I did a short interview with the relevant scientist responsible.  Each "interview" was 2 to 3 minutes long, where they elaborated on their work, a few questions, and then moved on as I took the audience through the "newspaper".

There's no sound, unfortunately, so the detail is absent.  But this is really just a filler and to showcase some fo the work that the unit is responsible for.  It doesn't get nearly enough air-time, in most instances.

Enjoy, and speak to you again from London!


P.S. Presentation may take a while to load.  Just click the grey "play" arrow, hover your cursor over "More" and click "Full-screen".

Oh, and if you get this in an email, please CLICK HERE to be taken to the site where you can watch the presentation

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

The marathon era: A seismic shift and commercial influence

The (r)evolution of the marathon: An unprecedented era

The marathon is in the midst of a quite extra-ordinary and unprecedented era.  This was encapsulated on the weekend by an incredible performance from Geoffrey Mutai in winning the New York Marathon in 2:05:05, breaking the difficult New York course record by an astonishing 2:38.

Only a week earlier, Wilson Kipsang, until then an unheralded name in marathon running, gave Patrick Makau's six-week old world record a real fright by running 2:03:42 in the Frankfurt Marathon.  

Kenyan dominance

But then again, perhaps we should not be surprised at what Kenyan marathon runners are producing this year.  Mutai's victory in New York wraps up the 2011 Major Marathon season, and it means, quite incredibly, Kenyans have won every single major marathon this year.  No exceptions.  They took London, Boston, Paris, Chicago, Berlin, Rotterdam, Amsterdam, New York and the IAAF World Championships in Daegu, Korea.  Even more amazingly, the course records in every single one of the World Marathon Majors has been broken THIS YEAR (all by Kenyans, of course).  The London record fell to Emmanuel Mutai (2:04:40), Moses Mosop won Chicago in 2:05:37, and then Geoffrey Mutai bagged two, first in Boston in that amazing 2:03:02 (admittedly, wind-aided), and then New York this past weekend.

And of course, there was Makau, who took Gebrselassie's world record in Berlin with his 2:03:38.  The world is used to Kenyan dominance in distance events, but not like this.  Looking back, Kenyans have consistently made up more than half of the world's top 20, so it's not too surprising.  However, their "monopoly" has always been broken by the odd Ethiopian, a Moroccan.  They have, to date, been absent in 2011 - Kenyans occupy every one of the top 20 places in the world-rankings, and the highest ranked non-Kenyan this year is Marilson dos Santos of Brazil in 21st place.  The best placed Ethiopian is Bekana Daba, down in 26th (he is also the first non-Kenyan to win a marathon of any significance this year - Houston in 2:07:04).

But in the larger scheme of things, Kenyan dominance aside, the marathon is currently in the midst of a quite remarkable "paradigm shift".  It was less than a decade ago that the world record stood at 2:05:42 (Khannouchi).  Jump ahead, and the average time of the top 10 in the world has been FASTER than this since 2009.  And consider this: having been the fastest time in history until 2002, FIVE men bettered it in 2008, 7 in 2009, 8 in 2010 and 9 in 2011.  The world record from a decade ago would now only just scrape into the top 10.  It is an incredible surge in both quality and depth, the likes of which have not been seen in any event before.

Putting the marathon evolution into context - the stats

To put this into context (and a graphical form), I looked back over the last eleven years of marathon running.  And below is a graph that is pretty heavy on data, but it shows four key stats:
  1. The bars represent the AVERAGE time of the top 10 athletes per year
  2. The blue diamond shows the world record time coming into the year (as it stood on Jan 1 of that year)
  3. The black circle shows the fastest time in each year
  4. Below the graph, two numbers - the top one is the number of runners who broke 2:07 and the lower number (in maroon) is the number of Kenyan athletes in the Top 20 of the world rankings

What you are looking at here is a shift in performances, particularly over the last three years.  For example, look at the black circles, showing the fastest time in the world each year - since 2007, the fastest time in the world has been better than the world record as it stood in 2007.  In other words, the performance that would have broken the world record in 2007 is now beaten yearly.  The average time of the top 10 men since 2009 has been at least 20 seconds faster than Khalid Khannouchi's 2003 world record of 2:05:38! 

This exceptional increase in quality has been accompanied by a huge growth in depth - the cumulative number of sub-2:07 performers in 2009, 2010 and 2011 is greater than the preceding eight years.  A typical year used to see between 5 and 10 sub-2:07 performers.  This year, it's 25 already, with 20 and 19 in the preceding years.

And finally, the Kenyan dominance has become, if anything, more dominant.  Marathon running has always been the domain of the east Africans.  The only year in the above graph when east Africans did not dominate was 2001 - back then, five out of the top 10 were Europeans.  However, every year since, Kenya have produced more than half of the top 20, with the bulk of the remaining places filled by Ethiopians.

Interestingly, the Ethiopians are now absent from the top lists.  Three will race in New York this week (Gebremariam, Kebede and Lelisa), but their absence has cleared the way for near-complete monopolization at the top by Kenya.

The progress of the evolution

That dominance aside, and looking at the larger picture, it is interesting to track the seismic shift in marathon running.  Back in 2003, when Paul Tergat broke 2:05 for the first time, it was a taste of what was to come, but interestingly, it didn't produce an immediate change in the way the marathon was raced, as we are seeing now.  Instead, the times in 2004, 2005 and 2006 went back to pre-Tergat days - the number of sub-2:07s declined, average time got slower and nobody came close to threatening 2:05 again.

This first drop then, was the "Tergat-effect", but it would take a few more years for the next kick to happen.  It was inevitably going to come, however, because in the 1990s, the world records on the track were being broken in astonishing amounts by the athletes who would soon move up in distance.  When Tergat and Gebrselassie, the two champions of that track-generation, eventually moved up to the marathon, it was inevitably going to break barriers.

Tergat was the first to succeed, whereas Gebrselassie took longer.  Not that he was unsuccessful, and he topped the yearly lists with amazing consistency.  But the big breakthrough took until 2007, when he ran 2:04:26 to win in Berlin.  That, in hindsight (and one must be careful to find patterns where there are none) was the performance that broke open the flood-gates.

2008 ushers in the "brave new world" with Wanjiru and Geb showing the way

The following year was 2008, and Gebrselassie went even better, breaking the sub-2:04 barrier, and all of a sudden, a host of other runners were breaking 2:06 - call this the "Gebrselassie-effect".  It's not shown on the graph, but in 2007, Gebrselassie was the only man under 2:06 (so the "Tergat-effect" had still not caught on).  In 2008, however, it's a different story - five men broke 2:06, the first time since 2003 that anyone other than Gebrselassie had done it.  Of course 2008 was notable for the breaking of another barrier - 2:04, when Haile Gebrselassie ran his 2:03:59 world record in Berlin.

That Berlin performance was perhaps not even the most significant marathon of 2008.  As long-time friend Jim Ferstle points out in his comment below, it was Sammy Wanjiru's performance in Beijing that may have been the real catalyst for the attitude of marathon runners today.  For it was his courage and fearlessness, on a hot, humid day in Beijing that transformed the marathon from an event that demanded caution to one where aggression would be rewarded.  Jim wrote about this recently, ahead of the Chicago Marathon, and he sums up the "Wanjiru-effect" very nicely.

Remember, no Kenyan had ever won gold in the marathon - it was a glaring omission from the world's dominant distance nation, and Wanjiru responded to that pressure in a manner rarely seen.  Tactics?  Fast and hard early, conditions be damned.  Many would have warned against a suicidal pace early on - Wanjiru seemed to interpret this as a means to kill off any pretenders to gold.  It was, and remains, one of the great dominant marathon performances ever seen.  And so the next time you watch a major city marathon and a Kenyan man is surging at 30km while on world record pace, think of Sammy Wanjiru...

And so perhaps it was the combination of Wanjiru showing the world a new attitude towards marathon running, and Gebrselassie showing it a new target, a 2:03:xx, that lit the way into the era we now find ourselves.  In 2009, we saw two men race head-to-head and run 2:04:27 in Rotterdam, and another six would break 2:06 that year.  So in total, that's EIGHT sub-2:06 performances, and now the floodgates were open and runners, most of the Kenyan, were pouring through it.

Commercial forces: Driving marathon at the expense of track

Kenyan dominance is however nothing new, so something else must be in play to explain why the last three of four years have seen such a shift in the event.  It's still too early to tell if this is just a golden patch (and if we're being fooled into seeing a pattern where there isn't one), or if something real is driving it, but there are some good debates about it.  There's always a good discussion of genetics, training, opportunity and culture when it comes to Kenyan distance running, and that's a debate I will save for another time.  For those who want a taste of what the talent vs training discussion involves, you can read Part 1 and Part 2 of my series on this from a few months ago.

But one of the key factors driving the current shift, I believe, is the growing commercial value of the marathon (for the event organizers, that is). In the past, there was a pretty well-established "pipeline" that led a great runner onto the track for a few years before he turned to the marathon later.  The exception was the athlete who never quite possessed the speed to compete over 10,000m, and who would turn to marathons early.  But this runner had a capacity of maybe 28-min for 10km, and so was always going to battle to run much faster than 2:08.  However, as a result of being in this pathway, the best track runners often stepped up to the marathon when they were 5% beyond their very best, in the twilight of their careers.  The result is that the "experiment" of taking an athlete with 26:30 potential (ala Terget and Geb) and exposing them to marathon training and racing had never really happened.

However, this seems to have changed, and runners with tremendous pedigree are racing marathons much sooner than was the case a decade ago (it would be very interesting to compare the average age of the winners and top 10 of the big six marathons now and in 2000).  The late, great Sammy Wanjiru was perhaps the first to make this move, racing marathons at 20.  He pulled along a host of others, again, mostly from Kenya, who are racing marathons having by-passed that track pipeline.

From a commercial point of view, it's really interesting to consider why the marathon attracts so much money compared to track.  It's mostly dictated by sponsorships and very importantly, who owns the rights to the event.  For potential sponsors, the ability to engage with many thousands of runners (New York had 47,000 for example, who succeeded in a lottery that attracted a staggering 140,000) is superior to taking out what is effectively a billboard at an athletics meeting made of up 100 athletes and 25,000 fans for one night only.

The total exposure and awareness is much higher for a marathon, because the event is self-standing, the focal point of all sponsor advertising, and usually involves much more television coverage and a week-long expo to allow what is called experiential marketing.  Being seen is not enough given the clutter in the 'marketplace' - what sponsors want is to be experienced, and the marathon affords more opportunity to leverage the sponsorship to potential customers.

Allied to this, there may be more focus on health and participation, and also a reduction in the sponsorship spend in general as a result of the economic climate, and the net result is that an event for the masses may appear far more valuable to a potential sponsor than an elite spectator event.  What money is available is funneled to those 'products', and therefore, a relatively smallish event like the Frankfurt Marathon can attract valuable sponsorships.  

It is not for nothing that the sponsorship value of the New York marathon rose 30% in the last year, despite the economic conditions that are negatively affecting sponsorships in many other sports (including athletics).  The marathon, at least at that large scale, remains 'recession-proof'.  The impact all this will have on track and field is another matter entirely.  In the words of one agent, "Track is Usain Bolt and clapping hands", and it has a fight on its hands to sustain interest.

These marathon sponsorships in turn find their way down to athletes in the form of appearance fees (essential, because guaranteed income always trumps potential income, it's a valuable premium) and prize money for successful athletes.

And athletes are not exactly in short supply - the demand to race from within Kenya is extra-ordinary, and for every Kipsang, Mutai or Makau, there could be ten more who COULD produce similar performances given the right support and circumstances.  The end result is that there are now dozens of lucrative opportunities, extreme competition to secure those opportunities, and performance is being driven ever faster as a result.  The culture of the sport in Kenya further tears down barriers, and so more and more athletes are recognizing a) how fast they can run, inspired by others, and b) what riches and rewards await them when they do.

All in all, it's a perfect melting pot, and a possible (and brief) explanation of what may be driving the graph above.  Of course, there's much more to it than this, and the genetic discussion is too good to miss, especially for a sports science point of view.  Perhaps for another time!

Until then, enjoy Kipsang's pursuit of the World Record from Frankfurt, and a really great marathon finish - I agree with the Letsrun.com guys, this is what the sport needs to get even more commercial value!