Wednesday 27 January 2010

Un-Blinding Us With Science?

I have been known to aver that running is a very simple sport. And I remain convinced that, notwithstanding the odd optional gadget, it is. In my post from a couple of weeks ago, I argued that running's relative simplicity had left it more or less untouched by technological change, at least when compared with other sports. But this raised a broader question concerning the role of science-based knowledge in the sport of running: What has science actually taught us about running; what, in other words do we know about running based on sound scientific research, as opposed, say, to less formalized modes of knowledge production? One early researcher in the then emerging field of exercise physiology was known to have offered that object of his investigations would be, to paraphrase: To discover the scientific basis of what the best coaches already knew based on trial and error; in other words, to verify a body of knowledge that had been accumulated and transmitted by means of actual practice rather than through the formal application of scientific method. This may have been a bit of false modesty on the part of the researcher-- surely he also believed he would discover new principles that would perhaps contradict, but at the very least improve on, what the best coaches knew, or thought they knew. The statement did, however, represent a clear acknowledgment of the centrality of experiential knowledge in the sport of running-- and on the part of a professional scientist, no less. Now more than 40 years on, we might wonder about the actual fruits of this still very fledgling but fast-growing field of research: Has exercise science only confirmed truths known by the best coaches?; Or, has it perhaps corrected misunderstandings and misconceptions embedded in everyday coaching practice, and even uncovered wholly new principles and the means for exploiting them in pursuit of better performance?

But first, a qualification: I have no formal scientific training myself (natural scientific training, that is; I have an unfortunate surplus of social scientific training!) I have, however, tried to make a point of keeping abreast of the science of racing and training as best I can. If you'd like to read about the science of running and exercise from an actual scientist-- and one with a high-level running background to boot-- check out journalist Alex Hutchinson's informative and highly readable blog Sweat Science

To begin, we might consider the state of knowledge about racing and training in the days before the advent of what would become today's "exercise science". What, exactly, was the content of the informal knowledge that the above mentioned researcher aimed to substantiate?

The first, most basic, and ultimately most consequential practical discovery in sports like running-- i.e. sports based on the testing of basic physiological limits-- was simply that of the "overcompensation" principle. Now utterly commonsensical, the idea that a basic physiological system-- e.g. a pattern of muscular contraction, short term and explosive or long term and continuous-- could be induced by means of systematic repetition, sometimes to exhaustion, to become more rather than less adequate to the original challenge (i.e. stronger rather than tired out and weaker), had first to be discovered through actual practice. This discovery would become the very basis of what we now refer to as "training" in simple strength and endurance sports (i.e. sports with a relatively small technical skill dimension). Before the discovery that exposing the organism to systematic stress could actually make it more rather than less capable, coaches and athletes operated according to the theory of energy conservation; or, the idea that the body possessed finite amount of vital energy that must be carefully preserved and marshaled in order to be powerfully released on the field of play. (For a brief and illuminating discussion of the discovery of "training", see Beamish and Ritchie Fastest, Highest, Strongest [2006]).

"Training" based on the overcompensation principle supplanted the older practice of "energy conservation" when athletes who exposed their bodies to controlled stress and recovery regimes began to seriously out-compete those who didn't (I leave it to Beamish and Ritchie to explain the social and political forces driving the new interest in winning that led to the discovery of this paradigm-shifting physiological principle.) But, in running in particular, coaches would very shortly thereafter begin a process of refinement of the basic principle of systematic "training" that would last up until the advent of exercise science in the late post-WWII period.

From the 1920s until the early post-WWII period, most runners trained by directly replicating the demands of their racing distances-- i.e. by running repeated bouts at or faster than their goal race pace, sometimes up to 5 times a week. (Today's runners might try imagining what it would feel like to run 10-20x400m at mile/1500m race pace five days in a row!) Far more effective than simply conserving energy for its cathartic release on race day, this kind of training nevertheless had it limits. As one can imagine, it was very psychologically stressful. For this reason, and because it probably over-stressed certain basic adaptive processes (but who really knew in scientific terms?), athletes often failed to improve after a couple of years on this kind of regime.

As a result, this kind of intense, daily, race-specific training would eventually give way to the practice of "periodization", in which runners trained at different speeds and over different terrains, depending on the time of year (which, as with the invention of "fartlek" and hill training, was also a concession to the vagaries of climate, geography and scarce resourses-- namely, the absence of groomed running tracks). The older method would survive in a limited way in contexts where facilities existed, and, more specifically, where rapid, short term gains were sought-- for instance, the U.S. college system and, to some extent the North American high school system which fed it. But, by the 1970s, most runners trained according to the principle of periodization. The most celebrated developer and proponent of this variegated approach would become the now legendary New Zealand coach Arthur Lydiard, famed for his uncanny success rate in turning athletes found ready-to-hand, some in his own neighborhood(!), into Olympic medalists and world record holders.

The periodization approach would lead to the development of the basic distinction between so-called "aerobic" and "anaerobic" running (really, just longer, slower running versus shorter, faster running). Out of this basic distinction would arise the techniques of the meduim length, intermediate paced run (the "tempo" or "aerobic threshold" run) and the Farlek session (see my November 17th post). And Lydiard himself would also place special importance on uphill running and "bounding" (a product of the particular environment of New Zealand, no doubt). Over time, coaches from every continent would create their own variations on the "periodized" training system, but it would remain the same in its essence up until the advent of "exercise physiology"-- and, many would argue, beyond to the present. And, while there had been rudimentary scientific investigations into the physiological mainsprings of the system (many in the context of USA-USSR Cold War military/scientific rivalry) "periodized" training remained the rather pristine product of simple trial and error on the part of coaches and athletes in the field. In the 40 or 50 years since the advent of systematic training, athletes had repeatedly opened up vast new frontiers of performance strictly on the basis of intuition, casual experimentation, and the informal dissemination of best practice within a remarkably open community of enthusiasts and competitors (hostile political establishments notwithstanding). (For an interesting glimpse into this world, see Bob Phillips short biography of Czechoslovakian distance running legend Emile Zatopek entitled Za-to-pek!).

It was precisely this "best practice" that the above-mentioned early exercise physiologist set out to investigate by means of the scientific method and modern diagnostic technology. To proceed directly to the question at hand, what can we say have been fruits of his and others' investigations over the past 30-40 years? What has been confirmed, what falsified, and what, perhaps, newly discovered? The record, I would suggests, is mixed, and the precise value of exercise physiology-- or more broadly now, "exercise science"-- for the practice of run-training remains questionable.

Of the contributions that science has made to our understanding of how to improve distance running performance, I would include the following five in the category of "unquestionable":

1. The simple confirmation that distance running proficiency is rooted in "aerobic capacity". Lab analysis confirming that distance runners typically have higher maximum volume of oxygen per kilogram uptake capacities (MV02) than non-runners, and that the best runners tend to have greater capacities still, clearly established the physiological basis of the sport, and pointed the way towards future improvements. And the discovery through longitudinal studies that MV02 could be improved through run-training only confirmed what the best athletes and coaches already new. Today, there are debates about the role of so-called "running economy" (the speed of a runner relative to his/her MVO2, which is an aspect of an athletes overall "aerobic power") and how to improve it, but the broader role of MV02, or aerobic capacity, in explaining distance running success is now beyond question.

2. The discovery of the role of the spectrum of muscle fibre composition (so-called slow and fast-twitch fibers) in determining relative success in running events of different distances. "Muscle fiber" theory revealed that there were probably immutable physiological determinants of running success at the different extremes of the running distance spectrum; that, notwithstanding some cross-trainability of these different fibres, distance runners and sprinters were likely born into their respective event groups. Scientific confirmation of this basic reality, while it has been more useful at the extremes than at the margins of the spectrum, has helped to inform the event choice, and even the specific training, of thousands of athletes.

3. Clarification of the physiological effects of training at the cellular level. Basic research in exercise physiology has gone a long way in specifying what happens to our muscle and blood cells when we train for running at different intensities. The simple discovery that our muscles, including our heart, become stronger and better able to store and make use of different energy sources, and that our blood volumes increase over time in response to our muscles' training-induced demand for more oxygen to ignite energy metabolism, has been a powerful support for the idea that training improves performance, and that it can likely do so over many years. Now, athletes have a scientific basis for continuing to pursue their sport competitively for years beyond what would have been considered "peak age" 50 or 60 years ago. One result is that we have now seen runners in their mid and late 30s win Olympic medals in running events where precisely these kinds of long term training adaptations would seem to be most relevant-- the 10,000m and Marathon.

4.The theory of "lactic acid". The discovery that exercising muscles produce this substance the nearer the point of failure they reach-- even though the reasons why they produce it, and even its role in muscle physiology, have recently been shown to be unclear-- represents a breakthrough that has enabled many coaches to more carefully regulate the intensity of training on a day-to-day basis. For whatever the reason, and to whatever longer term effect, the presence of high levels of lactate in an athlete's body is a clear marker of training stress. And while the measurement of blood lactate levels is still a somewhat expensive and invasive procedure, it is now within the grasp of at least the club-level athlete, if not the recreational age-group athlete.

5. The discovery of the role of dietary carbohydrates in the physiology of distance running. While knowledge about the optimal ratios of carbohydrates to fats and protein in the diets of runners continues to be revised, all runners are now aware of the primacy of carbohydrates in fueling performance in endurance events, putting paid to the "steak and eggs breakfast" theory of yesteryear!

Beyond these five very broad contributions-- which vary in terms of the extent to which they add to, supplant, or only confirm elements of already existing practical knowledge in the field-- we find a welter of narrower discoveries and claims (many of which are ably documented and vetted in Alex Hutchinson's blog referenced above).

Among these are studies that confirm the performance enhancing properties of various drugs not intended for such use, and form the basis for their banning. In these instances, the contribution of science to the sport is unquestionable. Other recent studies have examined things like the effectiveness of long established conventional training modalities such as static stretching and post-workout massage (both found to ineffective in reducing injury, and perhaps even counter-productive), and the benefits of barefoot versus shod running (still very inconclusive). With more funding for this kind of targeted research, we can no doubt expect to see conventional coaching wisdom turned on its head. We can also no doubt expect to see more scientific validation for emerging and established training practices, such as various kinds of strength and flexibility training.

Notwithstanding the light that science has been able to shine on the accumulated practical knowledge of run-training-- and, I would predict, in spite of future scientific discoveries-- running looks set to remain the very technically simple (if practically VERY difficult!) sport it has always been. If it manages to retain what's left of its sporting integrity in the face of the inevitable spate of new doping technologies (with "gene-doping" being by far the most threatening), running is likely to remain the very simple challenge of athlete vs. himself and the elements that it has always been, even at the highest levels. Our sport is, after all, the only one besides soccer in which athletes from some of the poorest nations on earth compete on more than even terms with athletes from the richest nations. If science and technology had ever played more than a secondary role in running, this could never have happened. Moreover, runners should take great heart in the simplicity of their sport. Its homely charm is what preserves it as a respite in a world increasingly dominated by technological inter-mediation. We can likely rest assured that machines and chemicals will never fully colonize it. It is likely to persist in its more or less pure form (buffet belts notwithstanding!) as long as we're able to preserve congenial, natural spaces in which to do it; which is the greater challenge of technology faced by all the world.

Wednesday 20 January 2010

Feeling Groupy and P-K Performance of the Year

Approximately half of the 60-odd athletes-- ages 14 to 50ish-- under my tutelage carry out all, or very nearly all, of their training alone, while the other half trains mostly in sub-groups made up of runners of similar speed (albeit frequently of different ages). I, personally, have spend virtually my entire career training completely alone, easy runs included. Which kind of athlete, you might ask, is better off when it comes reaping the full benefits of their training efforts-- the grouper or the loner?

And the answer is...wait for it...: It depends. That's right, "it depends", which is no less true an answer for being boringly hedged. It depends on the athlete and it depends on the dynamics of the group in question. And, it depends on the kind of training being undertaken.

When it comes to athletes, you might be tempted to think that those who prefer to train in groups do better if they're able to do so. The truth, however, is that those who strongly prefer group training are often those most dependent on it to get their workouts done, and at the right pace. The athlete who has come to rely on a group to train properly, or at all, is probably best advised to spend some time learning the discipline of training alone. This is a problem that many younger and exclusively school-based athletes must confront; if they want to continue their careers into adulthood, they must often learn the discipline of working out alone. For some this comes more easily than for others. But all athletes who choose to train exclusively in groups should learn to do some training alone; first, because they may occasionally find that a group is not available to them; and second, because learning to train alone can actually help improve their racing skills. Learning to pace without the aid of a group, and developing the ability to push hard without the familiarity of regular training partners to act as cues, can make one a more well-rounded athlete, able to thrive in a wider range of racing situations. I'm also convinced that a stint of training alone can make an athlete mentally stronger. Learning to train alone when we've never done it before, and are perhaps afraid to try, can reveal heretofore unknown depths of resolve and inner strength from which to draw in difficult race situations.

Likewise, athletes who prefer to train alone exclusively can benefit from going against their personal grain once in a while. Since racing is almost always a group activity-- albeit one in which the members are not necessarily inclined to act supportively(!)-- it is necessary for all athletes, and particularly those inclined to be loners and/or control freaks when it comes to their workouts, to learn to run with others around, and to do it in spite of-- indeed partly because of-- the chaos that sometimes ensues when five or more fired-up runners all attempt to negotiate a given training pace. As a lifetime loner (albeit less by choice than by the simple necessity of very rarely having more than a couple of athletes of similar speed ready to hand), I always felt a little awkward and generally more tired at a given pace when training in a group than when going it alone-- that is, unless I was leading the repeat. I couldn't help but think that I might have been a more effective racer had I been able to do more group training.

As a general principle, and for the vast majority of athletes, group training is a very powerful tool. The vast majority of the world's top runners, and an even greater percentage of the best runners at lower levels, are the products of group training. In practice, however, the effectiveness of group training will vary according to the "culture" and performance profile of the group in question. Simply put, when the members of a training group are cooperative and mutually supportive, when they understand that a workout is a means to becoming fitter for racing and not itself a competition, and when the range of abilities within a group is very narrow, group training is at its most effective. This is why the best coaches will tend to avoid the "one big group" approach to workouts-- i.e. in which the entire group, regardless of ability, storms off into the session at the same time, sorting themselves as they go along, and usually after most of them have already undermined the purpose of the session by starting too fast. Effective use of group training starts with a clear understanding that the best way for athletes to improve is NOT by trying to go as fast as possible in every session, or by futilely chasing a faster athlete week in and out. With this principle clearly understood, the knowledgeable coach will separate his/her larger group into sub-groups based on both ability and personal compatibility, disregarding both age and gender if necessary.

Finally, the effectiveness of group training varies with the kind of work being done. I find that group training works most effectively at either end of the intensity spectrum.

For longer, easy runs, a group dynamic can be very useful, even when a group is not all that evenly matched in terms of speed. On easy days, faster runners can often run with slower runners if faster runners are willing to go at the slower end of their easy pace range, and vice-versa; or, if their pace ranges don't overlap, the faster runner is prepared to run some extra time to make up for the slower pace. Given that the most important thing about easy days is simply getting them done consistently, the ability of a group to provide company and a little welcome distraction once in a while makes it a very useful support for this kind of training.

For the fastest kinds of training we do-- i.e. intervals at 1500/mile or 800m race pace-- the group dynamic can be highly effective not for its capacity to facilitate disassociation and enable us to simply "get through the session"; but rather, for the way it encourages us to focus and relax. When trying to run at middle distance race speeds, the premium is on the ability to relax and "float", so as to forestall the inevitable moment of muscular failure. In my experience, there is something about having others around going at similar speeds that facilitates this kind of relaxation; in particular, having another body in front, and thus not having the responsibility for establishing the correct pace for the work-bout, seems to make running at close to tops speeds for prolonged periods of time just a little bit easier. Then, of course, for those who actually plan to race middle distance events, some familiarity with what to do when there are other bodies in very close proximity-- all vying for space along the shortest line around the track-- and changing speeds as they either falter or forge ahead, is essential for top performance. And, the greater ratio between stress and recovery times involved in faster training makes it easy to regroup before each repetition without compromising the session for the slightly faster members of the group.

It is when attempting to train at intermediate paces that working in a group can become sub-optimal in the longer term for individual members. At these intermediate speeds-- in particular, max V02 paces and tempo run paces, which make up the vast bulk of the faster running that most runners do, and which involve the very careful combining of volume and pace-- group dynamics can sometimes undermine the training of individual members, even when the group is fairly evenly matched. In this kind of running, where the difference between controlled running-- training-proper, if you will-- and time-trialling is a very fine, and where sessions are typically frequent and very demanding, the group-driven competitive inducement to run even a little bit faster than is optimal can slowly degrade an athlete's performance over time, even when the additional intensity stimulates some rapid short term gains. This risk is particularly acute for the slowest member of any group, who must sometimes run a little faster than might be optimal in a given session in order to remain in touch with the group. The reverse might be said for the faster members of a group-- that they must sometimes run slower than might be optimal for them in a given session in order to remain in the group. This is certainly true, but the effects of running workouts perhaps a little too slowly on a regular basis are far less destructive than the effects of trying to run even a little too fast every week.

With these qualifications duly registered, my advice to all runners is to avail themselves of the group training option where possible, and assuming all other factors are equal. The trouble, of course, is that all relevant factors-- such as the convenient availability of a good group, combined with adequate coaching expertise-- are rarely equal. The majority of the "solo" athletes with whom I work train this way by necessity-- either because their work and family demands compel them to train at irregular times, or because the available group options do not come with sufficiently expert coaching guidance. These athletes have contacted me in order to make the best of their training options, subject to the constraints of their daily routines. In situations where the group option, combined with good coaching, is available, however, athletes hoping to maximize their performance are well advised to take it. And even athletes who can't make the group option work for them are advised to find a cooperative and equally endowed training partner or two at least once in a while, in order to experience, if only in a small way, some of the benefits of the group experience. Until now, I have said nothing about the social benefits of group training. The question of performance aside, running with a regular partner or group can be the basis for deep and abiding personal bonds. (My local group has become a group of lifelong friends, who socialize together on a regular basis). And when these social benefits are combined with those of performance, the result is a powerful synergy that can propel individual athletes to levels that they would not have imagined possible. Happy athletes training alongside athletically compatible partners are a potent force for success at any level.

In the best training groups, success feeds on itself until it becomes almost routine and to be expected. Witness, for example, the exploits of Guelph's Speed River Track Club, which combines senior elite with university and junior level athletes. Individual members of this group have tended to perform far above the levels they achieved as individuals, or as members of other groups. Now that this group has achieved "critical mass" in terms of its size, cohesion, quality of coaching, and professionalism of administrative support, the process of achieving national carding, winning national championships, or qualifing for national teams, has become utterly demystified for its individual members, who only have to look at the person beside them to know what success at this level looks like and precisely how it is attained.

The P-K Performance of the Year

After much deliberation-- including going back over the record of the group for the months of Jan to September-- I have decided on the winner of the 2009 P-K Performance of the Year, who will receive that promised Mizuno prize package!

But first, the nominees and winners for the months of January to September (and apologies to anyone with a worthy performance that I may have overlooked-- I didn't get much, if any, input from the membership on this, and I don't think I missed any of the potential winning ones):

January: Emily Tallen's fine 1:16:40 HM run in Naples, FLA at the end of the month. This was a P.B. for Emily, and was good for 5th place in a strong field.

February: Then rookie and 49 year old Myra McDonald's 20:29 5k, set in the customary bone-chilling cold of Kingston Road Runner's Association's annual "twosome" race. Myra also went on to be nominated for her performance at the provincial X-C championships in November.

March: Then new member Troy Cox's very fine 2nd place finish in the master's division of the Around the Bay Road race,in difficult conditions, and while in the the early stages of preparing for the Ottawa Marathon... in mid Northern Ontario. Troy would also go on to be nominated for his outstanding 1:12HM masters win in Toronto last fall.

April: Rejean Chiasson's P.B. and prize money-winning performance in the Vancouver Sun Run-- his first big out of province road race, and one of the first big races, period, for this very fast improving athlete. Rejean would also recieve a second nomination for his breakout 2nd place P.B. performance (by 3mins!) in Niagara Falls in October.

May: In the spirit of relentless objectivity, my own winning and Canadian age group record-setting performance on the slowish Nordion 10k course in Ottawa. Battling a chronic hip injury, and coming off a near lifetime personal worst time a month earlier in Victoria, this would rank as one of the better performances of my master's career.

June: High school senior Charly Allan's 1500m in the heats at the provincial high school championships. Making the final in a near personal best, Charly completed his remarkable run from grade 9 back-of-the-packer to one of the best in the province. As a consequence of this result, and his peerless record of academic achievement and community service, Charly went on to receive the Brian Maxwell Scholarship, worth $5,000 and awarded yearly to Canadian university-bound provincial distance runner who best combines athletic achievement with high-level scholarship and conscientious citizenship.

July: Dylan Wykes very strong runner-up 48:31 performance in the Nissan 10 Miler in Toronto, while in full preparation for the Berlin Marathon in August.

August: Dylan's 33rd place finish in the marathon in the 2009 World Championships. The difficulty of competing in the marathon at this level, overseas, and in complex weather conditions, can never been underestimated, even in the case of an athlete of Dylan's calibre. Dylan did not run a personal best (almost no one in the race did); but, he wasn't far off, and he held it together brilliantly after a bold move at the halfway point in this, his first major championship marathon.

September: New high school junior member Clara Langely's dominating win in the Trinity High School Cross Country Invitational. Having been out of the country and away from training the entire summer, Clara rounded into shape with remarkable speed, and won this event going away. Clara's run was all the more notable considering she had won a cross country race only once in her high school career. She followed up her Trinity performance with a a similarly impressive run in Brockville later in the month, this time easily dispatching the senior girl's field.

For the monthly winners for October to December, see previous postings in the blog.

And without further ado, the winner of the 2009 P-K Performance of the Year is on-line member Michael Gill, for a mind-boggling run of improvement that culminated in his 2nd place performance in the master's race at the national X-C championships. Mike's performance received the nod narrowly over Dylan's Berlin performance, with deciding factor being the sheer scale and rapidity of improvement involved in putting Mike into position to achieve the performance he did in November. Mike had been a decent university level athlete, but had left the sport years ago, and had accumulated significant excess weight on his 6', 3" frame in the meantime-- which, all the more remarkably, he was still in the process of trying to shed when he began training with me in May of the year! Simply put, I have never seen such a rate of improvement in any athlete at any age. This probably means that Mike will have a hard time topping his achievement in 2010, but one never knows!

Watch this space throughout the year for the names of the monthly P-K performance winners for 2010. The early front runner for January 2010 is junior member Dylan O'Sullivan, who won an indoor 3000m race in a personal best of 8:53, a lifetime improvement of 23 seconds-- and this after having missed most of 2009 with health problems.

Tuesday 12 January 2010

10 Changes that Shook the Runner's World

Recent reflections on the first decade of the new millennium have been filled, as these kinds of reflections almost always are, with references to technology-- how fast it has been moving, and how, once again, it has Changed Everything. The truth is, sometimes technology creates fundamental change of one kind or another; but, more often, it doesn't change much that's fundamental about the way we all go about our business. Most technological change amounts to variations on an established theme-- quantity rather than quality, if you will. But what if we break things down a bit and consider the effects of technology at the micro-level. Surely, in some small areas of life-- those of our various leisure pursuits for example-- technological change has had transformative impacts. Or has it? What, for instance, has been the impact of technology on the sport of running in the past few decades? This week, I propose to consider this question in terms of my own experience with the running-related technological innovations that have appeared over the course of my own 30 year career. In what follows, I present my ranking of the 10 most consequential running technologies to appear since I laced up my first pair of trainers, along with a few words on the total impact of these innovations. I also offer a couple of dishonorable mentions in the technology department-- so called innovations that are nothing of the sort.

Here, in reverse order of consequentiality, are my choices:

10. Changes in footwear. Ironically, given the amount of general hoopla surrounding running shoes since the advent of the first running boom, innovations in this area seem to have had very little impact on the activity itself-- at least where the proverbial rubber hits the road. In my own experience, some models of shoes from the early 1980s were actually superior to most of the models on offer today, in terms of basic performance and injury prevention. And, there was definitely a period in the last 3 decades when shoes seemed to be getting worse-- over-engineered and too encumbered with new technologies. Recent innovations in the paring down and simplifying running shoes are welcome, but they don't really represent a net gain when the whole era of running shoe innovation is considered. In my view, we need only only concern ourselves with running shoes from the point of view of avoiding those that are bad for us. The best shoes today, as always, are those ones that simply stay our of our way; that enable us to run as long and fast as our own bodies will allow us. That said, the shoes of the past 30 years really do represent a net gain on what came before. The are, by and large, much lighter, more flexible, and more responsive than anything worn in the late 1970s. Its still worth while taking some time to examine the claims, and the performance, of different brands or running shoes. Just don't expect them to do more than their basic job.

9. Satellite-based measurement modalities. Things like Google Mapping, MapMyRun, or the portable wrist-worn GPS certainly represent innovations; but again, their high profile is probably out of proportion to their net value-added. A technological innovation is important only in relation to what it is attempting to improve on or replace. In the case of these technologies, what is being replaced is our own ability to estimate distance for the purposes of assessing our training paces, and we can learn to do this quite accurately with no more technology than a wrist watch. In my case, these modalities have done little more than confirm the accuracy of my own estimations from as long ago as 25 years. I wouldn't go as far as to agree with those curmudgeons who argue that these tools are more trouble than they're worth, however. But I do think their suddenly high profile is way out of proportion to their net benefit. They certainly have their uses, particularly for beginning runners, and those who do a lot of running in strange areas. However, if they don't already own a good set of winter running clothes, a treadmill, or an elliptical trainer (see below), most runners would be better off spending their money on these items first.

8. Heart rate monitors. Much of the above also goes for HRMs. These devices provide another good measure of training intensity, to go along with the established ones-- the wrist watch and our own brains-- but their value-added is not on the level with their pervasiveness, or, I think, with the claims made on their behalf. I completely disagree, for instance, with the premise of a whole training system built around heart rate levels. I simply don't think HR alone is a fine-grained enough measure of training effort to support this kind of burden. I have always taken flack from HR aficionados for this stance, but it's a flack I'm more than willing to take.

7. Flexibility training. This one may have ranked slightly higher, except for the fact that there is as yet no clear evidence that flexibility training really increases performance or reduces injury in runners! Then why count it as an innovation at all, you might ask. In spite of the ongoing lack of supporting research, millions of runners remain sold on an intuitive level on the benefits of stretching, and on new types of stretching, including A.I. (Active Isolated), Yoga, and various kinds of dynamic flexibility exercises that aim to increase functional range of motion. Although I hedge my bets by the not making a religion of stretching, I count myself among those millions who are convinced on the pure level of "feel" that flexibility work enables them to run further and faster, and cope with injuries better. And I think one day science will discover the secret of what many runners "know" deep in their fibers. Anything that has lasted as long as stretching has among runners must be working on some level. Runners, after all, tend to be busy people, and busy people will tend over time to give up doing things that they feel are not of direct benefit to them.

6. Clothing. While advances in running shoe technology have not amounted to all that much in 30 years, innovation in the area of basic running apparel-- from the hi-tech "wicking" t-shirt, to the spandex tight, to and the vast array of super-lightweight winter garments-- has been nothing short of breathtaking. In fact, advancements in running clothing would rank even higher in my mind if we were only considering running in Canada. In most of the rest of the world, one's choice of running apparel is not all that significant one way or another. But for those who have to face four months or more of winter running, and who are old enough to remember the cotton sweatshirts and baggy, heavy, crotch-dragging gym pants that used to pass for cold weather gear 30 years ago, the advent of wafer-thin, breathable and genuinely warm winter running fabrics has been nothing short of miraculous. I would even go so far as to say that the invention of decent winter running clothing has single-handedly increased the total number of year-round active runners in places like Canada.

5. "Active Release" therapy. As with stretching, the jury is still largely out regarding the proven benefits of this form of injury treatment. But again, millions of injured runners desperate to return to the fray will swear by the bang-for-buck value of this therapy, which combines the use of pressure points with the active bending and stretching of the affected limb. My own experience with the technique-- which I first encountered in my mid to late 30s, when my body was beginning to lose the last of its youthful resilience in the face of hard training -- was that I could reduce my injury down time by 50% or more over simply resting and cross training through timely application of ART. Such was the effectiveness of this technique that what might have been stubborn problems, costing me days or even weeks of training in bygone days, could be eliminated in as little as two treatments at the hands of a skilled practitioner. I owe a good deal of my success as a master runner to ART, combined with innovation #4 below.

4. Pilates-based "core" strength training for runners. Originally developed as a therapy for injured dancers, core training was gradually adapted for runners looking for ways to address the underlying causes of so-called "overuse" injuries, and perhaps get a little faster in the process. Elites runners have probably always had decent natural strength in the areas covered by core strength training-- the lower and deep abdominals, the low-back, and the glutes-- good natural core strength being no doubt a part of the secret of their elite-ness in the first place. The real value of core strengthening has therefore been in enabling later-starting, previously inactive, and older runners to reduce pain and injury associated with weakness and lack of stability in these nexus regions of the body. A relatively late-breaking innovation, core strength will no doubt continue to have an impact in keeping more aging runners in the game longer, as well as help late-comers get started without succumbing quickly to common overuse injuries.

3. Expertly made custom orthotics. This one is bound to provoke some sharp disagreement, but not because the custom shoe insert is not a major running innovation; rather, because orthotics tend to be over-prescribed, and are too often poorly made, at least for the purposes of serious running. For the millions-- including many of the sports top performers-- who have relied on them to make the difference between repeated, chronic injury and success, they are almost as vital as oxygen itself. The minimalist fervour notwithstanding, the fact is that not everyone's feet are suited for the mile upon mile of running on pavement and track that success in running requires, and we will never live in a world where more than a few of us can get away with running barefoot. Properly prescribed, expertly made, and carefully readjusted by the hand of a craftsman or woman who knows the biomechanics of running, the contemporary orthotic insert, made of state of the art materials, has become as important a basic running innovation as the running shoe itself.

2. Tie: The lightweight and affordable home/club treadmill and the elliptical trainer. Ubiquitous because they have now become so relatively cheap, the home/club treadmill has quietly revolutionized running by making it far more accessible to inhabitants of environments unfriendly to outdoor, winter, or after dark outings. Male runners; runners who live in temperate, runner-friendly communities; runners who can run in daylight whenever they choose; and runners who are not and have never been the parents of small children may scoff at the suggestion that the affordable treadmill represents an important innovation. But, runners for whom getting outside poses special challenges will know that easy access to the 'mill can make the difference between being a serious runner and not bothering at all. As for the elliptical trainer, it is almost everything the treadmill is, with the added benefit that it can also be used as a cross-training modality while rehabbing injuries. For most runners, in fact, the purchase of a home elliptical trainer is probably better value for money than a home treadmill. And perhaps better value than either for most runners is the purchase of a gym membership, which provides cheap access to both types of machine, plus a great place to do some core strength exercises!

1. The internet. The internet? Indeed. Before you dismiss this as an easy catch-all (what activities, after all, has the internet NOT at least indirectly transformed?), consider the following: In the past 30 years running has gone from being a sport regularly covered in the national media to an fringe sport with no more mainstream media profile than-- to take one of many possible examples-- "mixed martial arts", a sport that remains illegal in many jurisdictions! Thus, as a sport, running now been forced to take up residence almost exclusively on the internet. More than this, however, it currently thrives on-line. Running now seems to depend on the new technology more heavily than most other sports, and seems to be growing in spite of this, or perhaps because of it. Runners seem to be a uniquely computer friendly lot. They have adjusted readily, even happily, to the reality of having to watch even the biggest events on their sporting calendar exclusively via live-stream webcasts. (In fact, many of us now prefer it this way, considering how fragmentary and ill-informed mainstream coverage has become, when the conventional media do deign to cover our sport.) Add to this the rapid growth of running related websites, message boards, blogs, and on-line coaching outfits, and it is clear that the internet has significantly enabled the remaking of running as competitive sport, along with its continued expansion as a mass fitness pastime. The internet now contains a vast and easily accessible storehouse of all things running, as well as a global community of enthusiasts, fans, and experts. Outside of local training groups and races themselves, the net is now almost exclusively where we as a sport community come together to share our knowledge and experience, and as well as recognize one another's achievements-- from world records to age-class wins and personal bests. Some-- myself included-- have even credited the internet with being instrumental the recent resurgence of American elite distance running. No doubt, websites like the famous-- some would say infamous-- have become important vehicles for the promotion of "best practice" in coaching and training, as well as all-important arenas for the attainment of stardom in the sport-- that is, in a world where only aficionados seem any longer to care.

But what do these various innovations really amount to when compared with the impact of technological change in other areas of life? Compared simply with other sports, I would argue: relatively little. Think, for instance, of the impact of changes in equipment on the way hockey is played. Here, changes in stick and skate technology alone have increased the tempo of the game considerably in 30 years; whereas, in running, the best runners of 30 years ago would not look out of place at all in today's elite fields, and the same could easily be said for recreational runners. Or take golf, where equipment changes, new training regimes, and the introduction of cheap digital video have actually forced the redesign of courses themselves. Running never has been, and likely never will be, transformed by technologies to this extent. To quote one of my favourite runners-- all-time top three Canadian marathoner and sage, Arthur Boileau-- "running is a simple sport". Art was referring to our ability to understand and rate our performance in running when he said this, but it remains true in a general sense. Most of what is meaningful in running occurs under the skin of athletes themselves. Technological innovation notwithstanding, our ability to do well in this sport still depends, as it always has, on our capacity to run long and fast as often as possible for as many years as possible. The above innovations no doubt help to support this basic endeavour, but they do relatively little to change its essence. It may be, in fact, that running has already undergone all the meaningful technological innovation it can absorb. Further "breakthroughs" may have even less real impact than the ones mentioned.

Finally, what about technological innovations that have taken running a step backwards, or that have been generally more trouble than they're worth? In this category of "dishonourable mention", I would include two things, which run the gamut from the sinister to the ridiculous: The "blood-boosting" agent EPO, a banned substance intended for use by cancer patients; and, the infamous "buffet belt", that now ubiquitous strap-on, personal feeding, hydration and entertainment centre.

It might seem counter-intuitive to list EPO has a step backward for running, since it has no doubt contributed to the assault on the record books that took place immediately following its introduction in the early/mid 1990s. In a strictly technical sense, couldn't we list EPO as the greatest of all running-related technological innovations? If running were akin to rocket science, or other kinds of engineering, the answer would be "yes". But running is fundamentally not like rocket science: it is a sport, and sports are games. And games are-- in contrast with activities where the best possible technical means for achieving an objective are sought-- fundamentally based on the establishment and negotiation of gratuitous obstacles. The fastest means to get from point A to point B is, after all, not running at all! What makes running a game is that is has rules which shape the behaviour of participants in ways that encourage them to display characteristics that we humanly value-- courage, determination, honour, etc. The introduction of a means of, in effect, "beating the game", such as EPO represents, threatens to destroys the game itself. The invention of EPO certainly represents a kind of achievement, and the skill that went into its development is something that we value in a general sense. But, its introduction into endurance sport undermines our ability to appreciate the human qualities that endurance sport, as a game, was invented in order to encourage and showcase. The introduction of EPO and other performance enhancing drugs threatens to turn endurance sport into a contest between pharmaceutical researchers and not athletes, strictly speaking (and, EPOs effect on sport aside, pharmaceutical researchers ought to have better things to do!). EPO and other performance enhancing drugs may represent an innovation in terms of finding ways to enable the human body to go further, faster. But the sport of running is not about finding ways to go faster by any technical means necessary, but rather, within a clearly established and mutually agreed upon set of rules. As such, the introduction of EPO into distance running represents a clear step backward for the sport.

More hilariously, the "buffet belt" is a technological step backward for the sport in that it represents an innovation in response to a fictitious and manufactured need. And, because it actually makes you slower! Runners who use these contraptions spends hours training their bodies to run faster-- including reducing the actual weight of said bodies-- only to strap on several ounces, or even pounds, of extra weight, simply in order to have water and other sustenance more ready to hand. The trouble is, most runners don't go far enough, or run in such remote areas, that the necessary water and food are not readily available by other means. (I, for instance, plan my summer runs around access to municipal water supplies, or run 20min loops, so that I can return to my stashed water bottle every 3 miles or so.) And the use of buffet belt in races is doubly counterproductive and mystifying. Why carry all that extra weight when most races supply water and other fluids for free, and at 3-5k intervals, and when a gel or two can easily be stowed in the pocket of one's shorts!? The buffet belt is certainly innovative, but in the field of retail marketing, not running science.

Next week, I review and P-K Performance of the Year nominees for January to September last year, and pick Performance of the Year for 2009, the owner of which will receive a small Mizuno prize package.

Wednesday 6 January 2010

Waging the Winter Campaign: Some Retreat, No Surrender!

Reading the many front-line reports from my athletes in the trenches of this still very young winter training campaign, I would conclude that, for the moment, winter has the upper hand. Conditions have varied across the country-- from the bitter cold and snows of Northern Ontario and Alberta, to the unseasonably mild conditions of Quebec City and, to my astonishment, St. John's NFLD-- but no region has been completely spared by winter's assault (except Victoria B.C., but that hardly counts). Despite the promise of a milder El Nino winter north of the 49th, it's been weather business as usual-- perhaps even a little worse than usual in some places-- for Canadian runners. And the casualties are already beginning to mount.

Attempting to train through the Canadian winter is not really a war, of course (we have REAL wars ongoing to remind us of that!); but, attempting to do the sport we love in this climate does present some real challenges in terms of strategy and tactics, and it requires establishing a very clear set of objectives. In other words, it requires and understanding of the special nature of the problem, good planning, and a degree of flexibility on the ground. After more than 30 consecutive years of battling it, the vast majority of them without access to today's arsenal of technologies-- your lightweight, wicking fabrics, your treadmills and your elliptical trainers-- I have determined that, for the most part, winter cannot be beaten; it can only be neutralized via an intelligent strategy and a series of well timed tactical retreats. If we want to exit the winter season no worse off than when we entered it-- and that is really the only realistic goal-- then we have to accept that it will challenge us, and be prepared to retreat from its worst advances when necessary.

Here are my hard-won training tips for battling even the worst winter to a standstill:

1. Always assume the worst. Forget environment Canada's long term forecasts and accept the fact that winter will attack, and that it will require you to respond in the form of adapting your training. If it turns out that we all get lucky, great; but, being psychologically prepared costs us nothing, and enables us to respond quickly when the all but inevitable comes to pass.

2. Accept that you will quite probably lose some overall fitness over the winter, and that you will likely be in no position to challenge any P.B.s in March and April. But, at the same time, don't panic. It's quite possible to regain lost shape, and then some, very quickly once the better weather returns-- provided you're not already injured when that time comes. Again, winter is usually for surviving, not conquering.

3. Don't attempt to run your highest mileage totals of the year during the winter months. In the old days, it was commonplace for runners to attempt to do their "base" training during the non-competitive winter months. This did not apply well to the Canadian context then and it still doesn't, climate change notwithstanding. Runners in more northerly climes are better advised to do their highest mileage in March and April, and again in August, September and October, leaving the worst winter months for their speed and power work. Faster running, hill running, and plyometrics are actually easier to do in winter, with the help of treadmills and indoor tracks. And, there is good reason to believe that doing this kind of work as immediate preparation for longer, harder training is the best way to proceed in any case (see, e.g. Daniels' Running Formula, Ch. 4). Fast hill repeats with longer recoveries and intervals at mile race pace improve balance, strength and overall biomechanical efficiency, thus reducing our risk of injury when it comes time to do do our longest and hardest training of the year. In any case, those who attempt to hit high mileage targets during the winter will likely become frustrated, risk-prone and, in all probability, injured before it's all over. (Been there, done that, as they say.)

4. Don't be a hero! Real runners should be interested in building their aerobic capacity and not their character through their training. There are no awards for eschewing the indoor track, elliptical, or treadmill and running outside in all conditions as a matter of principle, or for wearing shorts in sub-zero temperatures-- no awards worth winning, at least. No one will care how "tough" you were in facing down winter in these ways if you end up running slower than you should in the spring and summer, due to an injury sustained in attempting to make your dubious stand.

5.In choosing when to retreat to the treadmill, elliptical, or indoor track, consider the footing outside rather than the temperature. With some simple precautions, it is possible to train safely outside in very cold temperatures. (And no, you will not "freeze your lungs" if you run in the cold. If this were possible, x-country skiers would be in big trouble!). Generally, only the extremities (and in the coldest temperatures, exposed facial skin) are in any danger in the deep cold. Running on slippery surfaces, however, is a different matter. Without proper traction, we run the risk of de-optimizing the relationship between the benefits and risks of training, and this negative relationship intensifies as our attempted speed increases. When we train, ordinarily injury risk increases with the length and intensity of our sessions; but, so does potential benefit, creating a trade-off. On loose or slippery surfaces, the risk of injury to the hips, groin, hamstrings, achilles, and plantar fascia (not to mention trauma from falling down) increases and is not matched by the potential benefits of the training, since our speeds will be slower relative to the effort applied. Simply put, when we attempt to run on poor surfaces, we increase our risk of injury while reducing the potential benefits of our training relative to other training options.

6. Learn to use the various modalities of indoor training effectively. Making the best use of your indoor training options entails, first, understanding which of them is best match for runners. There is some debate about this, but, in my experience, the available options ranks as follows in terms of their suitability for replacing outdoor running:

-Running on a treadmill (a no-brainer, really). In spite of some minor differences in our running strides on and off the mill, treadmill running is as close to a one-to-one with outdoor running as you can get, and is useful for replacing the full range of running workouts, from long runs to hill reps. But, remember, treadmill speedometers are not always a reliable guide to actual pace. And, even when calibrated, treadmill speeds feel about 10 secs/km easier than their outdoor equivalents, due to the absence of atmospheric resistance. Always add 1% of elevation or .2 MPH to equal your outdoor running paces. Finally, be aware that treadmill running forces a faster stride rate than outdoor running; so, when assessing effort, tune in to respiration rate and muscle fatigue rather than to how fast your legs seem to be moving.

-Running on the indoor track. Circling the indoor track is perhaps better than t-mill running, but for the greater risk of injury from repeated cornering.

-Tie: elliptical training and traditional-style x-country skiing. Both are great modalities for replacing running's aerobic stimulus, but their significantly different limb actions and resistance to gravity make them secondary options (i.e. unlike running, both involve mainly milder concentric muscle contractions rather than sharp, ballistic, eccentric ones). Runners who replace running with these activities will find that their lower legs and feet are somewhat de-conditioned when it comes time to hit the road, trail and track again full-time.

-Deep water running. Here, the limb action is very similar to running, but the buoyancy factor reduces the aerobic demands below that of the other options. It's possible to recoup this loss through higher intensity sessions, but most runners without a lot of experience can't manage the kind of intensity required (think: hard interval sessions once or twice a day just to maintain basic conditioning!). The other drawback of deep water running is that the initiation period required to do it effectively (about 2 weeks of everyday sessions) reduces its usefulness as an emergency substitute for running for all but those with prior experience doing it.

-Swimming. Great for the few who really know how to do it, and who have the extra time involved, but too technically tricky and time-consuming (about 2 hours of swimming is required to replace 1 hour or running) for the average runner. And, of course, the limb action is significantly different from running.

-Stationary cycling. Good for multi-sport athletes who have worked out proper bike set up, and who have developed the leg power to reach the aerobic intensity necessary to replace running, but risky to the low back and probably next to useless for the average weak-legged runner.

Next week, look for an update on the P-K Performance of the Year nominations (I'm still reviewing January to October for suitable performances), as well as some reflections on the advance of running-related technologies and innovations over the past 30 years, when I consider my picks for the top ten such advances over the course of my career.

Finally, I'm happy to report that Dylan Wykes has retained his national team status and funding for 2010. There was initially some question that he would make the cut, when he was put on provisional status, subject to appeals from excluded athletes. After a failed appeal by an excluded athlete in late December, Dylan was officially added to the list. Being nationally "carded" carries significant benefits for an athlete in Dylan's position, including a tax-free stipend. Congrats Dylan!