Welcome to the Science of Sport, where we bring you the second, third, and fourth level of analysis you will not find anywhere else.

Be it doping in sport, hot topics like Caster Semenya or Oscar Pistorius, or the dehydration myth, we try to translate the science behind sports and sports performance.

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Thursday, December 31, 2009

Favourite videos of 2009

Bringing the curtain down on 2009:  Two great "alternative" sports videos

One final post for 2009, to bring the curtain down on a great year.  These are my two favourite alternative sports videos of the year, for you to enjoy as the curtain comes down on a great (and controversial) year in sport.  It's easy to be bogged down in the detail and to overlook the remarkable, which I hope these videos capture to some extent.

Remarkable balance and control - bet you don't use your bike for this

First up, a video that we featured in April this year, showing Danny Macaskill, a trials rider, showing some skills over a period of a few months in Edinburgh.  Everything about this video - the skill, the setting, the soundtrack (a song by Band of Horses called "Funeral", for those who are interested), the editing, is just breath-taking, and it's my favourite video of 2009.

Extreme sport video of the year

Next, a video of extreme sport - wingsuit jumping.  What is most incredible about this is how difficult it must be to learn it.  Learning a sport like golf or tennis is difficult, sure, but there's a very set process by which you improve, systematically acquiring skill, practicing, obtaining feedback and then improving.

An activity like this, there is one chance.  I can't get my mind around how remarkable the process is by which these guys learn to do this.  I assume these men all begin as sky-divers, evolve into base-jumping and then eventually graduate to 'buzzing the walls' while wearing outfits that you'd expect to see in a sci-fi movie.  The penalty for miscalculation is severe, and the opportunities to experiment limited, and these men are right on the limit of extreme.  It's quite incredible.  Enjoy!

And on that note, a final thank you to everyone for reading, contributing and supporting us on The Science of Sport in 2009!

We hope that 2010 brings more of the same, and we'll do our very best to keep covering it!

Happy New Year, everyone!


Number 1: Caster Semenya

Number 1: Caster Semenya's saga

Less than a day remains of 2009, and we've spent the last week recapping the biggest sports science stories of the year.  And it comes as no surprise that the number 1 science of sport story of the year is that of Caster Semenya.

There is little more that can be written about Semenya, so intense was the media spotlight on her during a two month period following her world title in Berlin.  In fact, more has been written than she would have ever wanted, following what was a meteoric rise to the top of the world - at the start of 2009, her personal best was 2:04, and within 8 months, she had cleaved 9 seconds off that and ascended to the summit of women's 800m running with one the most dominant performances seen at the championships.  To revisit our very first post on the Semenya story, written the day the leak was first reported, click here.

However, the real story was only just beginning.  The night before that final, the first reports emerged that the IAAF had begun an investigation into Semenya's gender.  A media firestorm erupted, punctuated by the finger-wagging (and now revealed as deceitful) president of Athletics South Africa, Leonard Chuene, who, backed by other politicians here in South Africa, managed to turn the issue into a racial and political one overnight.

We would eventually learn that this was done deliberately, and 'pre-empted' the announcement of any testing on Semenya.  A local TV show, 3rd Degree produced by Debra Patta, revealed that Athletics South Africa DID in fact know of the controversy surrounding Semenya BEFORE the World Championships and had even received an expert medical opinion that she should be withdrawn from the race.  They refused, instead telling the IAAF in a hastily arranged meeting that they would "Oscar Pistorius look like a picnic" compared to the fallout if Semenya was not able to run.

The science of sex verification

The drama continued when the team arrived back in South Africa.  Political leaders threw their weight behind Semenya, telling the world to pull down her pants to check, since it was, after all, this easy.

Scientifically, it was anything but.  We did a series of posts trying to clarify why sex verification was in fact not so simple.  The issues and some explanation can be read in this post, for those who are interested in learning more (and didn't learn more than they ever wanted to in September this year).  Incidentally, I also co-authored a scientific paper on this topic with Prof Malcolm Collins, which will be published next year, and am working on another such paper for a journal next year, for those who want the journal article version (and will wait a while...).

To sum it up, the simple biology that a male has an X and Y chromosome which directs the development of testes, while females have two X chromosomes which result in the formation of ovaries, is rather oversimplified.  Any number of 'errors' can occur, either genetically or hormonally, resulting in XY females or XX males (or XXY mosaicism, or XY mosaicism).  Each condition, termed a Disorder of Sexual Development, is complex and has far-reaching effects on the physiology.  Some are incompatible with athletic performance, whereas others may confer performance advantages.

That performance advantage lies mainly in the effects of the hormone testosterone - known as the 'male hormone', it is produced by the testes and is responsible for, among other things, muscle and skeleton development.  Semenya's muscular appearance, along with hirsutism (hair growth), deepening of the voice and skeletal structure all pointed towards such a condition in her case.

Simple science, complex interpretation and no value of experts in SA

Ironically enough, as complex as this physiology is to interpret, it's actually remarkably easy to obtain a fairly accurate picture of an individual's biology.  I was fortunate enough to get in touch with a few experts in genetics and endocrinology, and within minutes, the entire picture was made clear.  No need for textbooks or scientific journals - an endocrinologist will tell you instantly what the typical female levels of testosterone are, how various conditions may affect it, and how this may influence muscle and skeleton development.  This is not so complex an issue that it is unsolvable - the legal implication of the biology is certainly complex, but knowing it is not.  And this is the reason that officials in South Africa should be held to account for their willful ignorance of the facts, and the complete and utter disdain for expertise.

Leonard Chuene publicly announced that he would not accept the opinion of a "scientist from some stupid university", which tells you all you need to know about the now former president of ASA.  Meanwhile, the Minister of Sport, our highest ranking sports official, declared that the questions about Semenya meant nothing.  His words? "That means nothing. There are many hermaphrodites in the world so what does it matter. This girl is running as a girl who has been accredited as a girl. Nobody has questioned that  (this comes after the whole world was questioning it, I might point out). She doesn’t have a womb, so what?". 

He went on to declare that if anyone tried to take her medal or stop her from running, it would be the "Third World War".  I was embarrassed to be South African, and wrote as much, for which I received a letter from the Minister saying that if I knew something he didn't, I should say so.  Perhaps the Minister will in future consult an expert endocrinologist, geneticist or doctor?  Or maybe he'll even read this website in 2010...

The origins of the investigation - reports, rumour and requested tests

It eventually transpired that the investigation from the IAAF began as a result of Semenya's physical characteristics, PLUS reports in South Africa of her gender being questioned, PLUS the magnitude of her performance improvement - 9 seconds in a year is possible, but when it takes an athlete from 2:04 to a top-20 of all-time performance, then it is suspicious.  A good high-school male athlete, for example, could reasonably expect this jump in a year.  An elite female?  It was cause for concern, and the IAAF began prodding around for some facts.

The rumors from within SA were interesting.  Inside athletics circles, it has been widely known for about three years that all was not well with Semenya.  In fact, three years ago, at the SA Junior Championships, ASA officials informed all competing teams that they knew of the problem and were investigating, so they should please not lodge any protests.  Needless to say, nothing was done, until the IAAF acted on these reports, and requested an investigation from ASA (which is what they should do, according to their own policy).

ASA complied, under the guise of doping control, and Semenya found herself undergoing invasive physical examinations in South Africa, a few days before the team left for Berlin.  Those results were enough to cause the ASA doctor, Harold Adams, to request that Semenya be withdrawn from the team.  We may never know what was found by those tests.  However, it is relatively easy to perform physical exams to confirm that an individual possesses no womb and has ambiguous genitalia.  Genetic testing would follow and the picture would become clear very quickly.   I would be very surprised if ASA did not know everything at that point.  However, they refused to withdraw her, and the rest is history.

If all this was not bad enough, the IAAF then decided that if ASA would provide them with the results of the investigation, they would perform their own, and so Semenya underwent a second round of testing, this time in Berlin.  This investigation should have remained confidential, but was leaked to the media.  To this day, I do not know the source of the leak, but it seems to have come from within the IAAF, and it has resulted in the greatest invasion of privacy of any athlete I can imagine.  Semenya has not been heard from since her arrival back to South Africa, first retreating to her home in Limpopo and then writing exams (though she eventually had them deferred) under the care of the University of Pretoria.

The facts dry up as the IAAF close up on Semenya

The IAAF have pretty much retreated themselves, bitten not once but twice by a leak.  The second one coming a few weeks after the race, when a reporter in Australia, Mike Hurst, obtained information that Semenya was a "hermaphrodite" who possessed testes.  It was the wrong word (offensive as well as inaccurate), but it seemed that much of the content report was accurate, and Semenya's position in the spotlight was sealed.

The leaks have also had an indirect effect on how information will flow from now on.  The fear of future damages have set up a firewall of protection around Semenya, which means that we may never know the outcome of the case.  The medical results will not be announced, which is correct, since these are private.  The problem, however, is that Semenya may wish to continue to run.  If she does, then a hard decision must be made - one option is that she is allowed to run in her current situation, which will require that everyone be informed of just what her physiology is.

Alternatively, she'll be barred from competing until she has surgery to remove the alleged testes.  If this happens, the world would still need to be informed, because Semenya's presence on the international scene would demand answers to these questions.  No athlete, sponsor or meeting organizer would entertain the idea of inviting her unless the air was properly cleared, and so at some point, facts must be disclosed.  What we have seen is that the media want the truth, and will dig for it, resulting in many false or inaccurate claims, and I would suggest that the only way to control this is to manage the information before it leaks.  Whether that happens or not, 2010 will tell us.

The closing point then is that this story is nowhere near finished.  2009 may be drawing to a close, but Semenya will be a name heard again in 2010, without a doubt, though quite what the context will be, no one knows.


P.S.  Incidentally, the piece on Semenya brought us the most comments we've ever received for a post, and so I'd like to end of the year by thanking everyone for their inputs, even the highly critical!  As I've said before, we don't aim to have the last word, but rather to start the debate and present our thoughts, and to all who have contributed to this and all the other issues (cycling, Tour de France, doping, Pistorius and Bolt), thank you and have a wonderful New Year's Eve!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Number 2: The cleansing of swimming's record books

Number 2:  Swimming's technology debate as the ban approaches

Swimming went through a frantic year in 2009.  It featured the showpiece of the sport, the 13th FINA World Championships in Rome, but it was dominated by an ongoing pursuit of world records, powered by swimmers wearing high-tech swimsuits that arguably contributed to the biggest rush of records in the history of the sport.

And record rushes are nothing new to swimming - because swimming is such an inefficient activity (even for the elite), any changes that make even a tiny difference to efficiency (which we'll define as the speed in the water for a given force of muscle contraction, as poor a definition as that is), make a big impact on swimming times (a relatively larger impact than on sports like running or cycling).

For example, deeper swimming pools, wash-off areas that prevent the return of waves from the side walls, and full length body suits have all contributed to step-wise reduction in records.  You see this if you look at the progression of records - periods where little happens, followed by a sudden spate of records, then dormancy, eruption and so on (for example, the introduction of swimming goggles some 30 years ago allowed swimmers to see the wall and spend more time in the pool training, causing a sudden drop in times).

However, 2009 introduced a new character, or villain - polyurethane.  First introduced in 2008 by Speedo in its LZR Racer, the first generation suit was developed in collaboration with NASA and the polyurethane was reported to have zero resistance in wind tunnel tests.  The LZR Racer shook up the Beijing Olympics, helping its swimmers to 25 records in the Cube pool.

2009 and the stakes are raised

Other manufacturers were not taking this lying down - pretty soon, the LZR Racer, which consisted of normal fabric with panels of polyurethane material, had spawned a new generation of swimsuits, entirely made up of polyurethane.  Arena, Jaked, TYR all came to the party, and the swimmers duly did the damage to the records, particularly in the faster, less turbulent events - freestyle and backstroke (the breaststroke is too slow for the hydrodynamics to have a huge effect, while butterfly is very turbulent, which somewhat reduces the impact)

Rome, for example, produced an astonishing 43 world records.  The previous record had been 29, back in 1976 when doping was the likely driving force.  Out of 20 men's events, 14 world records fell.  On the women's side, it was even higher - 17.  The result was that on the day that the curtain fell on Rome, the average age of men's world records was 198 days, while women's records were 79 days old.  The table below summarizes the age of the records.

Changing the nature of competition?

On a more micro-level, upsets and unpredictable results were the order of the day, and this was one of the problems with the suit - it cast doubt on whether a race outcome was 'genuine' or assisted by technology, and that is good for no one.  Not for the swimmer who is beaten, the swimmer whose world record is broken, or for the new champion, whose title is forever marked by an asterisk indicating "soon to be illegal suit".

Two such swimmers were Michael Phelps and Paul Biedermann.  Phelps you know - no introduction needed.  Biedermann is not as well known.  The German swimmer was previously an Olympic finalist, but while Phelps was rewriting the record books in Beijing, he was, in a manner of speaking, filling a lane alongside the record act.

One year later, he improves by 4 seconds and claims the world title over 200m and the world record of the greatest swimmer ever, amidst claims of unfair result and lucky win.  The problem is - he may have deserved it.  Phelps did swim slower than in Beijing (by 0.22s) and Biedermann's improvement is large but not impossible.  Perhaps in an 'equal race', the result would have been the same?  But we'll never know, and the technological imbalance created by the swimsuit wars means the result will forever be questioned.

FINA acts, eventually- the 2010 ban

FINA, the sport's governing body, eventually acted, deciding that all suits would be banned from January 1st, 2010.  This means, of course, that there are two days left in this era of swimming.  Then it's back to the pre-2000 suit - knees to navel for men, knees to shoulder straps for women, and polyurethane will be condemned to swimming history.

Part of the problem for FINA was that eventually, the voice of dissent became so loud that they had to act.  Swimmers like Phelps, through his coach, began to threaten to boycott races given the debacle, while others voiced their displeasure, mainly because sponsorship restrictions (and loyalty) prevented swimmers from racing in the 'best suits'.  And while many will question this, I can certainly relate to the swimmer's predictament - remember, these are swimmers, not football players, basketballers, or golfers, where sponsorship earnings can be enormous.  For a swimmer, it's often the suit manufacturer alone, and so the commercial problem on the ground was disproportionately large.

For FINA, the signs were there in early 2008, but they were slow to act.  At that stage, Arena had tried to have the Speedo suits banned, but FINA held firm and Beijing was a Speedo showpiece.  The wheel turned and Speedo then found itself on the receiving end.  I wonder what the commercial incentives might have been for FINA, given that Speedo are their partner sponsor?

There is also a cost issue - at hundreds of dollars per suit, and given that the suit lasts only a handful of races, many decried the impact it would have on the development of the sport.  In my opinion, this was not a great factor - it's easy to ban high tech suits for swimmers under the age of say 16, and ensure equal races.

To me, the bigger issue is the equality of competition - are we seeing an equal race between swimmers, where the technology has a negligible impact on the outcome of the race?  For tennis, and running, that is the case.  For swimming, it did not seem to be, making swimming in 2008 and 2009 resemble Formula 1, where the equipment has a bigger impact on performance than the natural difference between swimmers.

In any event, the suit will soon be a thing of the past.  Some have said that the only thing worse than allowing this technology is allowing it for a while and then banning it.  Time will tell, but certainly, the days where 100 or more records fall per year are gone (I'll be honest, I can't even remember how many records have fallen since the start of the revolution.  I'd guess close to 200, but I've lost track)

The number 1 story is to follow!


P.S.  Below is a post which collects some of the posts we've done in 2009 on some of the bigger stories of the year.  You'll be able to find this summary using the tabs on the top of the page - "2009 highlights" is the label to use to find this page if you're interested.

2009 news stories

2009 produced some fascinating sports stories. Below are links to our coverage of those top stories of 2009

Caster Semenya - male or female? The big debate of 2009

Swimsuit drama - records are meaningless
Oscar Pistorius in the news again - the scientific evidence for and against
The Tour de France 2009 - controversy over the limits to performance and power analysis

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Semenya not suing - reports. The fog thickens

Semenya not suing the IAAF - "It is nonsense"

Two days ago, I interrupted our countdown of the top sports stories of 2009 to comment on a report that Caster Semenya was to sue the IAAF and ASA for $120 million and $18 million respectively.

Today, reports in SA are suggesting that the report, which you can read here, is false.  In fact, the latest reports quote Jeffrey Kessler, chairman of the law firm representing Semenya, as saying "I have no idea where this is coming from".  Another lawyer has labeled the report "nonsense".

This quote can be juxtaposed alongside this quote, also attributed to Kessler in the initial report, where he is reported as saying:  "Hopefully, the IAAF has learned from this experience (Pistorius) and we look forward to working with it to ensure a just outcome here for Ms. Semenya".

"Creative" reporting?  Downright fabrication of a story, right down to the quotes?  Your guess is as good as mine.  Perhaps the reporter has bent the facts in the name of a story, who knows?  Perhaps the story is true, and the denial is coming because this kind of story should not go public - litigation proceedings are notoriously confidential, after all, and perhaps the lawyers are just denying their own leak? 

Confused?  So am I.  But then, nothing about this Semenya story , since day 1, has been easy to understand.  Before this latest allegation-denial sequence, we had the South African Ministry of Sport issuing a statement that the matter had been resolved, and that Semenya would keep her medal and look forward to competing, only for the IAAF to completely deny that this had happened.  A swift retraction by Sport and Recreation South Africa followed, and we were no better off, only more unsure about what would happen next.

That follows on from leaks from the IAAF, ASA's and the Minister's denial, lies, attacks, hyperbole, journalists who publish confidential medical information, coaches who allege cover-ups and resign, reporters who obtain stories under false pretenses - this story has had it all.

Will there ever be resolution to this story?  I doubt it.  From a sports point of view (which is relatively minor, I dare say, but my main interest), the 'closure' may have to come in June next year, when we find out whether Semenya is or is not running in the European season.  Before that, there is the local athletics season, which starts up in mid-January.  Will Semenya feature?  In 2010 or 2011?  Who knows? 

Seriously, you couldn't make this stuff up.  Then again, maybe you can, and maybe some have...


Monday, December 28, 2009

Top 9 of 2009: Number 3 - the marathon

The revolution in the marathon - 2009 produces an unprecedented explosion in record times

Kibet, Kwambai, Kirui, Wanjiru, Kebede, Gharib, Gebrselassie, Kipruto, Goumri, Makau, Kirwa, Worku, Yegon, Cheruiyot, Kemboi, Tsegay, Keitany, Kisri, Kipkorir, Mutai.

20 names of 20 men who have broken 2:07 in the marathon in 2009.  In what has been an unprecedented explosion of super-fast marathon running, more performances (25) and more men (20) have cracked what was basically the world record only 12 years ago.  2009 thus represents a 56% increase in the number of performances since 2008 (which is itself a 167% increase on 2007, see chart to the left). 

Add to this that 2009 has produced new marathon records in Rotterdam (2:04:27), London (Samuel Wanjiru 2:05:10), Fukuoka (Tsegaye Kebede 2:05:15), Chicago (Wanjiru 2:05:41), Paris (Vincent Kipruto 2:05:47), Frankfurt (Gilbert Kirwa 2:06:14) and Amsterdam (Gilbert Koech 2:06:18).  Of the big marathons, only New York and Boston were won in times slower than 2:08 this year, and only they have course records outside 2:07.

East African ascendancy, everyone else winding down?

So 2009 has been a golden year for marathon running, right?  Well, it depends how you frame the question.  Look again at that list of 20 names – 13 are Kenyan, 4 are Ethiopian and 3 are MoroccanAnd that’s it.  In fact, it turns out (courtesy the IAAF analysis, which is really great) that there were 104 performances of 2:10 or faster this year, but only 13 of them came from anywhere other than Kenya and Ethiopia (64 Kenyan and 27 Ethiopian, by the way).

That’s an incredible perspective on the issue of marathon standards.  Kenyan and Ethiopian athletes are getting faster and faster, while everyone else is slowing down. 

Where have they gone?

When Meb Keflezighi won in New York, breaking the US drought of 27 years, he did so in a time (2:09:15) that is comparable to what a good few US athletes were producing in the 1980s.  The same is true of the Boston Marathon – winning times from the 1980s would be extremely competitive today, and would even win the race in some instances (obviously, weather and race tactics make direct comparisons impossible).  So the fascinating thing is that the dominance of the east Africans, in the US Marathons anyway, is only partly due to the improvement in times by these runners. 

There are numerous factors that account for this – prize money and prestige, as well as sponsorship and time-based incentives that attract the super-fast (2:05 athletes) to the faster courses of Europe (London and Berlin, in particular) mean that the US-soil performances may lag behind those of Europe somewhat.  What would Wanjiru or Kebede do in New York, for example?  They certainly wouldn’t hit halfway in 65 minutes, that’s for sure.

What is more worrying is that nations with something of a marathon heritage have all but disappeared from the scene in terms of times.  91 out of 104 sub-2:10 performances come from Ethiopia and Kenya.  Morocco (3) and America (3) produce six of the remaining 13, with one performance each from Italy, Japan, Bahrain (but actually a Kenyan), Korea, Ukraine, Eritrea and South Africa.

Where then are Portuguese, Spanish, Australian, British, Brazilian and Mexican runners?  These are nations which have previously produced world records, world champions, and big city marathon champions.  Also, surely Japan, South Africa, Italy and Korea should be producing more than 1 such performance per year?  It is an alarming sign of the times, and a fascinating question that a “freakonomics” approach could look at answering (forgive the reference – I just read “Superfreakonomics”, and I love the approach to problem solving).

East African dominance

Numerous theories have been put forward to explain why east Africans dominate running so comprehensively.  This is not the time to write my own dissertation on the topic – I’ll rather sum up and say that it’s like a combination of multiple factors: 

The right genes, nurtured in the best environment, with the optimal living conditions, and the disproportionately large financial carrot of global running success.  And then perhaps most crucially of all, a community of athletes who provide inspiration and self-belief that teaches every young runner that international success is within reach provided the necessary hard work is done.  I don’t think there’s any magic in it - when you see images of young children, 12 years old, jogging to school alongside Olympic champions who happen to be out for a training run, then you appreciate the power of culture and community and the belief it fosters among these individuals.

None of this explains the apparent decline in standard among other nations.  As mentioned above, if these nations produced the same times as they did in the 1980s, they’d feature heavily in the list of times and in the front groups of major marathons like Boston and New York.

Erosion of incentives and belief

I believe the decline is the result of changing paradigms and attitudes towards running (the "is this really worth it?" argument), as a result of the dominance of east Africans, particularly over shorter distances, and in the 1990s.  There is no question that the standard of global running has been propelled forward by Kenya and Ethiopia.  Remember, the world 10,000m record was outside 27 minutes only 20 years ago - that was a time that belonged to Arturo Barrios, of Mexico.  Since then, 51 seconds improvement, and only Africans feature.  That’s testament to all those positive factors that produce so many champions from such a small proportion of the world’s population.

The consequence of that improvement has been a progressive erosion in the desire and belief of European athletes to compete against the Kenyans and Ethiopians.  Is it realistic, for example, to expect a young athlete to spend five years training for twenty hours per week to run 28 minutes over 10km, and finish 12th in a medium level 10,000m race?  To be lapped in an Olympic 10,000m final, where the final 5,000m are now being run in close to 13 minutes, a pace that many European athletes cannot sustain for 3000m?

Now, to this volatile mix of failure and frustration, add the fact that more options exist than ever before – study, other sports (triathlon, trail running), office work – and you see that there are probably fewer world-class runners even making the commitment to race.  I wonder how many 16 year olds, who may possess the ability to succeed globally, make a decision to leave running based on the failure of OTHERS, not even their own? Given the choice to make up the numbers in the middle of the pace, or to start a career in another field, perhaps it’s not surprising that so few Europeans feature – choice may be eroding the standard (what would be really interesting to look at is the participation numbers at competitive club level)

It’s probably not surprising, then, that if you look at the list of 5,000m and 10,000m times over the last decade, you see the same trend – east African dominance, with very few European contenders.  Look also at the World Cross Country championships, where the only thing preventing more African success is the limit on the number of entrants from Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda and Eritrea.

The point is that what we see in the marathon in 2009 – the absence of non-African athletes, is the result of a shift in track running a decade ago.  Just as the times in the marathon have been driven down by the increased speed of the athletes who now race over 42.2km, the answer to the drain of non-African runners lies in the fact that they are no longer competitive over shorter track distances, and I believe it is partly because they choose not to take the risk (time and energy) to find out.

This is why the performances of Dathan Ritzenheim, Matt Tegenkamp, Ryan Hall and, prior to 2009, Craig Mottram, are so important – their presence in the upper echelons of running, particularly on the track (Ritzenheim’s sub 13 clocking in Zurich is the best example) may serve to inspire similar performances, just as the Kenyan success is built on previous success.

Does it matter?  I know some are concerned about the dominance of Kenya and Ethiopia in running events.  It is never good for a sport to be dominated by so small a population - the NFL provides the best illustration of competitive parity for the health of the sport.  And unquestionably, more participation and greater distribution of titles is good for the sport across the world.

Hopefully,the trend is reversible, and we'll see a gradual rise in representation of these "minor" nations in the top 10 in distance events. 


P.S.  While we're on the topic of marathons, the world's best marathon runner title this year is a shoot-out between Tsegay Kebede and Sammy Wanjiru.  Kebede actually wins on the basis of average time - his two marathons this year were 2:05:18 and 2:05:20, for an average of 2:05:19.  

Wanjiru is not far behind - 2:05:10 and 2:05:41, an average of 2:05:25.  However, Wanjiru won two major marathons - London and Chicago, both in record times, and beat Kebede in London.  Since marathons are all about racing (especially the way Wanjiru runs them), Wanjiru is the undisputed number one.  Kebede's great year, to follow up his Olympic medal and wins in Paris and Fukuoka in 2008, adds something to the world marathon scene, and he will certainly be one to watch in 2010.  Given what happened in 2009, 2010 should be a magnificent year on the roads.  As always, we'll cover it in great detail!

A final word on the African-European performance debate 

And then finally, it would be remiss if I didn't acknowledge that in our debate about European vs African runners, there is a ‘joker in the pack’ – doping.  Far be it for me to pull a Mayweather and accuse anyone of doping (what a farce that is, by the way – if the sport was in any way transparent and clean, it would not even register, yet Pacquiao has responded like a true Tour de France cyclist with aggressive counter-attacks of his own.  But that is another story), but is it possible that the slide in European runner’s performances is due to tighter doping controls?

In the 1980s and 1990s, when EPO use was rife, blood doping was common, perhaps the Europeans managed to push beyond the 'genetic ceiling' to run their 2:08s and claim world marathon titles.  Now that controls are tighter (far from perfect, mind you, but definitely tighter), is it possible that the gap is wider as a result of the relative removal of the pharmaceutical aid?  Of course, this assumes that the African situation has not changed - they either never doped, or they still are - which many would regard as a big if.  Nevertheless, no debate in the sport is complete without at least acknowledging this possibility...

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Semenya to sue for $120 million

Semenya will sue the IAAF for $120 million - a heavy price to pay, but for who?

This report was written after news reports emerged that Caster Semenya was suing the IAAF for an extra-ordinary $120 million.  It later emerged that this report was false - that is, it was denied by the lawfirm representing Semenya.  You can read that follow up post here.

I realise I'm interrupting my series on the Top 9 sports science stories of 2009, and I am bombarding you with posts at a time when you may not even be reading (you'll have a lot to get through when your vacation is over - apologies!), but I came across this link courtesy Alessandra at our last post, and decided to comment, since the opportunity will pass as we move into the Top 3 stories over coming days.

This was always going to be the Number 1 sports science story of 2009, without a doubt, and so when I tackle Number 1, I'll review the whole saga, but I've just read that Caster Semenya, the world 800m champion from South Africa, and the athlete caught in the middle of a gender/sex row, is to sue the IAAF for $120 million.  ASA, for all their bungling, and the fact that they deliberately covered up the testing they did prior to Berlin, escape "lightly", being taken for "only" $18 million.  The reason?  Presumably they don't have enough money to pay what they should - it would be interesting to know what that amount would have been if ASA had any money at all (but that's hypothetical, after years of Chuene-leadership has bled ASA of ALL its money).

I don't begrudge Semenya compensation for the last few months - she was without doubt the victim in this affair, first at the hands of the corrupt and incompetent management of Athletics South Africa, which exposed her to invasive physical examinations under the guise of doping controls, and then entered her into the event in Berlin despite being advised to withdraw her by medical officials who were well aware that problems existed around her eligibility.

Then there was the leak.  To this day, I don't know where it came from, or whether the IAAF were to blame.  All that is known is that the IAAF were faced with reports that Semenya's sex was under investigation and they confirmed it.  Where the leak originated, I do not know, but I would suspect that legally, they are liable, even if the leak was not in their control.

For this discretion, they face a $120 million lawsuit.  It seems to me an absurd amount, though I'm not a lawyer and I don't know how these values are worked out.   I guess it's a combination of lost earning potential (which I'd put at very little, if her gender is in fact as confirmed - she would not have been allowed to compete anyway, regardless of a leak) and the psychological and emotional hurt done to her, which has been enormous.  But worth $120 million?  Your opinions are welcome. (I realize a settlement is likely, with a figure smaller than this, but still, the value is astronomical.  Or is it?)

The IAAF meets the law...again

The other twist in this story is seen by the following quote by the chairman of the law firm who is representing Semenya (it is the quote of the day on LetsRun.com):

"We learned during the Oscar Pistorius case that the rule of law does prevail in international sports and that equality of opportunity can be achieved.  Hopefully, the IAAF has learned from this experience and we look forward to working with it to ensure a just outcome here for Ms. Semenya."

To clear up the issue, this is the same law firm that teamed up with questionable science to bend the result in favour of Pistorius, obscuring the science that existed and suggested that he enjoyed a 10 second advantage in a 400m race.  Yet they still managed to win the verdict.  Far be it from me to jump to the defence of a global sports governing body (my time in rugby has created a distrust of such organizations), but when they say that "the rule of law does prevail", and that the IAAF "has learned from this experience", what should be read is that the IAAF have been shown that good PR and law trumps good science and the truth (see our 4th biggest story of 2009 for more).

Where to?  Complex can only get messier

So the IAAF are on the block.  As for Semenya, if she wins even half of what is being sought, $70 million, then what?  Is this a sign that she is NOT going to attempt to compete internationally again?  Or is she going to go for the double-play, continuing to run with her millions?  And what of the surgery?  Can she run without it?  The issue has so many unanswered questions, and this latest story just adds to the layers of complexity. 

The IAAF may end up paying out a fortune to Semenya, but in the long term, I wonder who will really pay?  Does money buy back everything done since August?  The implications of this lawsuit (regardless of its outcome) will only become clear once we know if Semenya intends to run again or not.

If Semenya never runs again, will $120 million cover the loss (not of earnings, but of her career and peace of mind)?  If she does run, will $120 million become her legacy, a giant banner above her head at every meeting, every race?  Can she win and run?  Purely from a South African perspective, I shudder to think of the repercussions in South Africa of an individual suddenly coming into that amount of money with this much media attention.  Just ask Josiah Thugwane - he won a miniscule amount after winning the Atlanta Olympic Marathon, and became a repeat victim of organized crime.

I hope Semenya is getting some seriously good long-term advice right now - my point is that a lawsuit to claim hundreds of millions cannot be viewed separately from Semenya's ambitions (if any) to run again internationally, yet they seem to have been compartmentalized in this way.  Semenya the aspirational athlete may ultimately be the one to pay for $120 million.

A giant mess for 2010, and it seems no end in sight.


Top 9 of 2009: 4 to 6

Usain Bolt, Weight loss and exercise and Oscar Pistorius - newsmakers 2009

As mentioned, today is second installment in our Top 9 of '09 series, looking back at the top sports stories of 2009, as covered here on the Science of Sport.

Yesterday we covered stories 7 through 9, looking at sudden death during marathons, Meb Keflezighi's win in New York and the Tour de France and doping.  Stories 4 through 6 produce a mix of controversial, heated and awe-inspiring.

6.  Usain Bolt does it again - 9.58s and 19.19s

Usain Bolt began 2009 with greater expectations than any sprinter in recent history.  A Beijing Olympic games that produced three golds in three world records catapulted the young Jamaican into the sporting stratosphere, making him an instant celebrity.  Track and field rarely delivers athletes who transcend the sport and become sporting icons, but Bolt was one such athlete.  Throughout the off-season, his activities were documented, his parties reported, and his car accidents covered as front page news!

Then the season began, and astonishingly, it proved even better than the one before.  Berlin, a return to the stadium where another sprint icon, Jesse Owens, had rewritten record books 73 years before, produced two of the greatest sprint performances ever.

First came the 100m, where Bolt had so memorably destroyed the field while celebrating in Beijing.  This time, there was to be no celebration, but there was to be another destruction of the field, and of the world record.  A time of 9.58s, scarcely believable, destroying the world record by 0.11s.  (Click here for the detailed analysis of the race)

The table below (click to enlarge) shows the 20 m interval times achieved by Bolt, Tyson Gay (second in 9.71s) and Asafa Powell (third in 9.84s), courtesy the IAAF analysis of the race.

To me, the stand-out feature of the analysis is that out of 16 races (semi-finals and finals), the fastest first 20m interval belonged to Usain Bolt, one two occasions (2.89s).  Bolt was in first place at 20m, which is amazing considering his size - the tallest sprinter in recent years, and a man who should not be able to start as fast as he does.  Of course, once he's into his running, he's absolutely unstoppable, thanks to an extra-ordinary stride and what I believe is unparalleled neuromuscular co-ordination and stretch-shortening cycle activity.

As the graph below shows, he extended his lead as the race progressed, running his fastest 20m interval between 60 and 80m.  Gay and Powell fought bravely, but the graph reveals how the gap just got larger and larger.

Interestingly, his final 20m showed a slowing in speed, which is typical of 100m races - nobody speeds up from 80m to 100m.  This is exactly why predictions of what Bolt would have run had he not celebrated early in Beijing were misplaced - they assumed constant speed to the line, and Berlin clearly showed that this does not happen.

Regardless, Bolt again moved the 100m event forward a generation.  How much faster can he go?  Scientists have predicted that the limit exists at 9.48s, which is now "only" 0.1s faster than he has gone.  Tyson Gay cannot be discounted either.  9.71s in Berlin, followed by a 9.69s in Shanghai.  Whether 2010 produces the same astonishing performances (no Olympic or World championships to drive performance, remember), one thing is certain, 100m sprinting is in an exciting place right now.

Then of course, there is Bolt's 200m.  Not nearly as competitive, for here, Bolt is all on his own, way clear of the rest of the world.  Michael Johnson's world record of 19.32s from Atlanta in 1996 was supposed to stand for generations.  Bolt has now reduced it to 19.19s.  And scariest of all, he has the potential to run it considerably faster.

If you take Bolt's reaction time from Beijing (which was very slow at 0.182s) and compare it to the reaction time from Berlin (0.131s), you find that his actual running time in Berlin was about 0.06s SLOWER than in Beijing.  This suggests that he can lower the record to at least 19.14s, if he links his reaction time to faster running time from Beijing.

Is sub-19s possible?  I'd say no, because it would require a reduction of another 0.20s, which is huge considering that he has already knocked 0.11s off his Beijing performance.  If he runs 18.99s, it means the world record will have been improved by 0.33s in a few years.  Stranger things have happened, but I can't see it, as amazing as Bolt is.

And then there is the 400m event.  It seems inevitable (barring injury or a loss of form) that Bolt will one day step up to 400m.  When he does, 43.18 will be threatened, and perhaps even the 43 second barrier will fall.  Will this involve a change in training that negatively affects his 100m and 200m performance?  I'd suggest that it must, and so if Bolt does step up, he may find that his 100m and 200m times "stagnate", but his 400m times move that event forward, just as he has done for the 100m and 200m.  Time will tell...for now, let's hope that Bolt continues for a decade, because he's been great for the sport of athletics.

5.  Exercise won't make you thin - Time magazine 

"In general, for weight loss, exercise is pretty useless"

This quote was attributed to Eric Ravussin, a diabetes and metabolism research from Louisiana State University.  It formed the backbone of a piece published in Time magazine in August which basically said that those of you who exercise to aid with weight loss are wasting your time.  For obvious reasons, given that millions have used exercise as a successful means to lose weight, the article caused consternation among exercise professionals.

Amazingly, we didn't actually cover this story on the Science of Sport.  Well, to be fair, I saw it, but it came right in the middle of the World Athletics Championships, which featured Bolt and Semenya, two of the biggest stories of the year, which I was not about to leave alone to tackle this question.

However, it's certainly on the cards in 2010, because it needs to be addressed.  Is Time magazine correct?  Or are they just dressing up common sense in the form of sensational reporting to sell magazines?  The reality is that the article, for those who read it, contains elements of truth, and could prove invaluable to people who are exercising but NOT losing weight (and there are many).

Basically, the key point is what is called "The compensation problem".  It's hardly rocket science - when you exercise, you tend to compensate by reducing other activities and by eating more food (or the wrong food).  The net result is that all your hours of sweat don't add up to kilograms lost.  Is that the same as saying that "exercise is pretty useless for weight loss?".  Not at all, and this is where Time magazine did itself, its readers, and many exercisers, an enormous disservice.  It left out a vast body of research which does show that exercise aids in weight loss, and it portrayed limited research suggesting that exercise was ineffective through a very biased lens.  It was, to be frank, a poor piece, given 'credibility' by the quotes like those above, from leading scientists.

We'll address this in more detail in 2010 - so all of you making new year's resolutions involving exercise and weight loss, stay tuned!

4.  Oscar Pistorius - a 10 second advantage over 400m, as the debate takes on a new complexion

Our number 5 story of 2009 flew well below the radar, even here in South Africa, where in 2008, Pistorius was THE BIG NEWS.  Perhaps it was because this story came at around the same time that more reports on Caster Semenya surfaced.  Perhaps it's because people are tired of the Pistorius PR machine.

Pistorius had an eventful year off the track - a boating accident which was alleged to have been the result of alcohol, a night in jail after allegations of assault, and finally, a research publication by his own scientists which suggested that he enjoyed an advantage of 10 seconds in a 400m race.

The first two stories made headlines here in SA, the third barely registered, though we covered it briefly on the site in November.  But it was the outcome of 18 months of research, led by Prof Peter Weyand and Hugh Herr.  Somewhere on that 18 month journey, a major split in the camp occurred, because the paper alleging a 10 second advantage was published by Weyand and Matthew Bundle,  and was responded to by a rebuttal by Herr and a host of colleagues.

The exchange between the two camps got heated, with Herr eventually borrowing quotes from the great sportsman John McEnroe to try to force home his point ("You cannot be serious").  Herr's arguments also borrowed from video footage recorded off a television screen, which came across as a hastily put together defence that was utterly lacking in scientific credibility.

Weyand's case, on the other hand, revolved around the fact that Pistorius is able to reposition his limbs so quickly, thanks to their reduced mass, and because of the energy characteristics of the blades, which reduced the energy cost of running and allowed increased energy return compared to human limbs.  This had already been shown by Bruggemann as far back as October 2007, incidentally.

Perhaps most amazingly though, the research article from JAP provided a 180 degree about turn in the position occupied by some of Pistorius' scientists.  Weyand went on to say that "We recognized that the blades provide a major advantage as soon as we analyzed the critical data more than a year and a half ago (my emphasis)"

What is astonishing, if this is true, is that for 18 months, Weyand went along with the Pistorius PR machine that was proclaiming that the scientific evidence proved that Pistorius had no advantage.  Of course, I don't know the circumstances and who was pulling strings behind the scenes, but for the CAS to make a ruling on Pistorius' eligibility during this 18-month time-frame suggests that:
  • The full extent of the scientific evidence was not disclosed, which is neglectful and a wrong decision was made, or;
  • The evidence was deliberately omitted and the CAS decision was made based on deliberately misleading science.  Again, the wrong decision has been made.

Either way, the point is that this "new evidence" is not new, and has existed for some time.  But decisions were made without taking it into account.  The legal process has suffocated the science, which, I have to say is what I have written since the CAS verdict was first announced.  Pistorius, then, pulled the victory at the CAS because of legal loopholes and the science which should have been presented never was.  The process was flawed, and 2010 should see it revisited so that the right decision can be made.

To be clear, I think 10 seconds is high.  When the story broke, I felt the advantage might be between 5 and 10 seconds.  For Weyand to vindicate this position means that intuition, theory and a vast body of data are now aligned and in agreement.  Will 2010 see the correct decision made?

Preview:  Marathon explosion

Marathon running (among men) has never been as healthy as it was in 2009 - records fell with extra-ordinary regularity and 2:07 become a pre-requisite for success.  But is marathon running really that healthy?

Join us for the Number 3 story of 2009 to start the debate!


Saturday, December 26, 2009

Top 9 of 2009: 7 to 9

Marathon deaths, miraculous wins and a Tour de France "without" drugs?

We trust you all had a wonderful Christmas yesterday, and are still enjoying the festive season!

As promised, we begin a recap of the year's top sports stories, as viewed through science, and featured here on The Science of Sport.  Nine stories for 2009, and today, we recap 7 through 9.  That will be followed by brief reports on 4 to 6, and then single posts looking at each of the top 3 stories.

9.  Sudden death during marathons

This is something of a recurring theme, it featured in the Top 8 of 2008 list as well, courtesy some very high profile cases during marathons and also soccer matches in Europe.

We have covered the topic fairly extensively in the past, and this year, it popped up again with the death of 3 runners during the Detroit Marathon and half-marathon.  All three actually happened in the half-marathon, within about 15 minutes of one another, leading to media coverage, debate and the same old speculation that running is harmful to your health.

In response, we did a couple of posts, and the one that got quite a lot of debate going was one where we summarized some research from 2008, which found that while cardiac deaths did occur during marathons, the hosting of races which required road closures actually prevented 20 more deaths than would be expected without the race.  In addition, we looked at risks of running vs other activities, and tried to explain that the media, which has never met a sensational story it didn't enjoy, miss the key point that regular running may greatly reduce the risk of sudden death, even if those individuals who are susceptible are more likely to experience cardiac events during exercise.

If you're really keen to get stuck into this issue, then I can recommend no better read than this - a report by Amby Burfoot, Editor-at-large of Runners World.  Also, this post, which we wrote two years ago, looks at the practical implications of running and sudden death.

8.  Meb Keflezighi wins New York, and sparks debate about nationality, genes and performance

In November, Meb Keflezighi pulled one of the surprises of the marathon year when he beat a quality field to win the New York City Marathon.  Keflezighi's win was celebrated because it was the first win by an American man in New York since 1982

Keflezighi's win sparked some major publicity in the USA, which can only be good for the sport - talk-show appearances, media reports, news stories, and a lot of debate in the aftermath made for great exposure.  Not all of it was positive, however, and a rather controversial debate about whether Keflezighi was really American got many people heated.

The debate was around whether Meb, born in Eritrea, but who moved to the USA aged 12, could be claimed by the USA as one of their own, given that he was not born in the USA.  Without rehashing the debate, the fact is that Keflezighi learned his running, and owed pretty much his entire running development (and life, for that matter) to the USA.  Celebrating his win for the USA thus seems completely appropriate.  The debate took on racial overtones (a recurring theme of 2009, as our Number 1 story will illustrate).  People became ultra-defensive, or attacking, and the argument got heated.

I am not personally that interested in the debate about what qualifies someone as being American (or any other nationality, for that matter), and the introduction of race is only a hindrance to the debate.  What I found interesting about the debate is that it once again highlighted the issue about East African running dominance, and whether it is genes of lifestyle that explains why these athletes dominate running.

Those who follow the sport will know that distance running is utterly dominated by Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and more recently, Uganda.  No one is 100% sure what factors are responsible for this dominance, but it includes genes, lifestyle, environment (particularly altitude), culture and financial incentives, all of which mix together in a melting pot that has produced almost all the world's distance champions since the 1980s.

Keflezighi's genes link him to those athletes - Gebrselassie, Bekele, Tadese, Yifter, Tergat and co., but his environment as a runner is unquestionably American.  Those who challenge his designation as an American champion are implying that genes entirely determine performance - his success is not American, but African like 'all the others'.  Those who celebrate his win as one for America are in the school of thought that genes may be important, but are only part of the package.  Would an American born athlete, given the same experiences and upbringing as Keflezighi have achieved the same success?  Or is his success solely due to the "selection" of his parents and the fact that he may share whatever undiscovered running genes predispose one to performance?  We may never know the answer to that one, but the debate was certainly one of the more interesting of the year.

7.  The Tour de France - no high-profile drug positives, the return of Armstrong, and cycling still under suspicion

I'll be honest, I was not even going to bother putting this into the Top 9, because I'm tired of cycling and the eternal doping debate.   And then two days ago, it was announced that Team Astana, the team of the tour winner (Alberto Contador) and the returnee who finished third (Lance Armstrong) was under investigation after equipment including drip bags and syringes were found during the Tour.  No wrongdoing in that (yet), but it is the latest in what has been a trickle of allegations around the Astana team since July - reports of evading testers, delaying the provision of samples, and Lance Armstrong's suspicious blood values have leaked out ever since the race finished in Paris.  Suddenly, the dope-free Tour was looking more and more like the facade that we are used to seeing from cycling.

My opinion on this has been stated a few times before on this site - I don't believe that the highest levels success in cycling are possible without some form of doping, and I do not believe that the Tour de France produces clean champions, and hasn't since at least the early 90s (I say this for scientific and personal reasons).

However, the 2009 Tour was noteworthy because there was not a single high-profile positive in the race.  In 2008, we had Ricardo Ricco, Stefan Schumacher and Bernard Kohl, and the revelation that the doping authorities had been lying in wait for cyclists who were using CERA, a new form of EPO which was supposed to be undetectable.  By the time the dust had settled on the 2008 Tour, multiple stage wins, the King of the Mountains, and fourth overall had been exposed as drug cheats.  It was business as usual for the Tour.

Jump ahead to 2009, and the Tour passed with not a single high-profile positive test.  Is that a sign that anti-doping efforts, most notably the biological passport system, are having the desired effect?   Or does it mean that the very best cyclists are just that little more sophisticated, able to dope beneath the level that would produce positive test results?  I believe it is more likely to be the latter, though I have little doubt that the sport is heading in the right direction.

During 2009, we interviewed Prof Yorck Olaf-Schumacher, who has been at the forefront of the battle against doping, a pioneer of the blood passport system.  His insights in that interview are intriguing, to say the least, and he gives me some hope for the future of the sport.

Returning to the actual race, the 2009 Tour was  punctuated by some really great debate about the physiology of cycling performance.  We covered the debate about Alberto Contador's VO2max, which a French engineer had estimated at 99.5 ml/kg/min, based on some assumptions of his power output and efficiency.  That debate led me to my own calculations, which I'll save for another day (or another year), but which suggests that a sustained power output above 6 W/kg is decidedly unphysiological, achievable only with "assistance".  Therefore, when I witness Tour riders climbing at 6.2 W/kg for an hour, I cannot help but be skeptical.

Cycling has, and will continue to make fools of those who believe it to be clean.  Yes, other sports are likely just as bad, and cycling is scrutinzed more than most, but my lasting impression of 2009 is that something is wrong with this picture.

Preview:  What do exercise and weight loss, marathon revolutions and Usain Bolt have in common?  

They're part of our next installment, looking at the Top stories of 2009, 4 through 6.  Join us then!


Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Runner's Body - Our first book

The Runner's Body - a book for curious runners everywhere

They say better late than never.  Hopefully that's true, because this is a super-LATE post, about a book that's been available since about June this year!  I have all kinds of excuses for why it's taken fully 7 months to actually write a post about Jonathan and my first book (along with Matt Fitzgerald), but maybe the reality is that we're just not that keen on self-promoting ourselves and we never got around to doing this post, despite our best intentions and the encouragement of many who suggested it!  There were also a few things that came up - in June, it wasn't available in SA yet, in July, it was the Tour de France, in August, it was athletics, in September, it was Caster Semenya.  So this post, on something as "trivial" as our first book effort, slid down the list until today - better late than never!

The Runner's Body

The book is called "The Runner's Body", with the by-line "How the latest exercise science can help you run stronger, longer and faster".  It is published by Rodale, and you can purchase it from Amazon.com here, or, for those in South Africa, on Kalahari.net here.

As mentioned, it was written by me, Jonathan and Matt Fitzgerald, a highly respected (and very prolific) writer from San Diego - you can check out some of his other excellent books here.  The story begins with Matt and an article that he was writing on Oscar Pistorius, way back in 2007.  He interviewed me for that piece, and we struck up a conversation about sports science, running and writing in general.  It seemed logical to put our collective minds to use and bring together all the writing we'd done on the site during its first year of existence, plus new information that we all wanted to see in a book, and to use Matt's expertise to fill out the content into a book that would be readable and informative for runners.

The result - The Runner's Body.  The idea behind the book was not to write another textbook explaining the physiology of running.  Nor was it to prescribe training programmes and help you "run your best 10km in 8 weeks".  We all felt there were enough books like that out there.  So instead, we went for the "Freakonomics" approach to physiology, where we tried to weave the physiology and science into a readable format that gave practical and interesting advice to runners.

Those who are regular readers of the site will know that we have tried to do this throughout our existence - to peel away the layers of physiology and explain, in 'entertaining' terms how science can improve sport.  With Matt's help, we've hopefully improved on that even more, producing a book that we'd like to think is informative and entertaining, as well as practical.  You can expect some anecdotes, some trivia, some science and hopefully some debate!  In this case, we've zoned in on running, but that does not mean that those of you who are not runners could not also enjoy the book.

To give you an idea of the content, the book covers, among other topics:

The morning after problem
Why do your muscles get stiff after exercise?  Why your current beliefs about muscle stiffness might be wrong.  And what does this tell us about the body and adaptation to exercise?

Big Impact
Your bones are an engineering marvel - NASA's best would struggle to design a material that is at once durable, flexible, adaptable and alive.   It withstands 100,000 impacts of six times your body weight per week.  Learn about bone health, osteoporosis, stress fractures, and how the right training and diet can help you stay bone-injury free.

Weak in the knees
Every year, 2 in 3 runners will suffer some kind of injury.  Learn about injury development, the Big Five running injuries, and how you can train smarter to minimize your risk of injury.

More mileage per milliliter
Much has been made of the VO2max as the be-all and end-all of exercise.  But running economy may play an even greater part in determining who wins and who doesn't.  Why are some runners more economical than others?  Who is the most economical runner in history? How can you become more economical? 

Blood, sweat and Gatorade
For thirty years, you've been told to drink before you're too thirsty, or it's too late.  You've also learned that dehydration is the biggest danger you face as an athlete.  But what if you're wrong?  What if you learned that the reason you think this is because of American Football, scientific endorsement and the selective funding of research that helps to sell sports drinks?  Learn why the body is a more amazing machine that you may have realized, and why taking the advice of scientists may lead you to a far more dangerous situation than you thought.

The mysterious muscle cramp
50% of runners will cramp at some point in their racing careers.  The answer is simple - electrolyte deficiencies and dehydration.  Right?  Wrong.  As with fluid replacement, myths around cramping abound.  Learn why electrolyte depletion can't be the explanation for cramp, why certain muscles cramp and others don't, and what you can try to do to minimize your risk of cramp.

Maximum fuel economy
You are what you eat.  As applied to runners, this famous adage conjures up discussions about carbo-loading, fat-loading, pre-race meals and in-race nutrition.  Learn how your body uses different fuels in different situations, and how you can manipulate your metabolism for best weight loss, fat burning and performance.

Mind matter over body matter
Fatigue is the most fascinating topic in physiology today.  Theories on fatigue have evolved over the years, and the latest thinking is that our brains regulate exercise performance in ways that are too complex to fully understand.  That doesn't stop us from trying though!  Matt had already written a book called Brain Training, based on the fatigue research of Prof Tim Noakes.  My PhD thesis inherited this line of research, and this chapter discusses at the brain and performance.  How does your brain regulate performance specifically to prevent bodily harm during exercise?  Hopefully, it will challenge the way you think of the limits of your performance.

It's all about style
If you want to start an argument among runners, talk about running technique.  Opinions range from "let it be" to "teach it like you teach a golf swing", but the debate is always heated!  Should we land on the heel, or the forefoot?  Do shoes increase the risk of injury by allowing us to heel-strike?  This chapter examines the aspects of running technique, evaluating whether teaching technique is both desirable and feasible.

In the long run:  Aging and running performance
Nothing in life is as inevitable as aging.  We're all faced with the steady process that usually sees us slow down, become less able to recover from training and more injury-prone.  But what of those who seem to defy Father Time and run well into their 70s?  Men like Ed Whitlock, who broke 3 hours for the marathon at the ripe age of 74!  In this chapter, you'll learn about aging and performance, and when you can expect your best running years.  Learn also about a condition where people become intolerant to exercise, a form of "premature aging" and what you can do to avoid it.

Thank you for your support

There's a lot more to it - those are just some of the chapters.  Others cover exercise and free-radicals, the immune response, endorphins, diet and optimal body weight.  We hope it makes for good discussion and debate, and is thought-provoking enough to help you improve your running (and impress some friends with a new way of thinking about issues you may not have considered before).  Just to give you some outside opinions, there are some reviews of the book pasted below this post.

As is always the case, we don't aim to have the last word, but rather to start the conversation, so we're always happy to entertain questions, comments and even criticisms!

Thank you to all of you who may already have bought the book.  We really hope you enjoyed it (despite the odd mistake courtesy of the publisher).

To those who are sufficiently curious (the book is for you, after all), you can order it on Amazon.com, or Kalahari.net (for SA readers). 

Thanks again for the support - the book would of course not be possible without this site, which in turn would not exist without your time and readership!

2009 recap to follow!

Some reviews for The Runner's Body (From amazon.com)

A fantastic resource for the science-oriented runner. Lies strongly toward the left on the spectrum between peer-reviewed journal and popular press. No bibliography and no citations are a definite weakness. The material is presented in a logical fashion and is readable for someone who isn't accustomed to the peer-reviewed journal format (most people). Challenges many of our cherished beliefs regarding proper training, nutrition, recovery, etc. If you're looking for a day- by-day training guide this isn't it, but if you want to know what the current research shows about training principals, this is for you.

Richard Hudson (Miami, FL):
Are you a runner who wants to be enlightened? Then pick up this book, which challenges conventional wisdom in many areas including training, diet, fatigue, and injuries. I have been running for three years and trying to move up a level. This has helped me understand many things about my body and its adaptation to running. I've already seen my times improve. One point I will make is that the information may be overwhelming to a beginning runner or a non-runner who is considering the sport; however, for anyone who has been running seriously even for a few years, you will learn a lot and should be able to make some adjustments right away. The only people who may not be too keen on it are the makers of nutritional supplements and some sports drinks, whose effectiveness the book debunks. Another point is that I read this book on the Kindle, and some of the charts don't reproduce as well on its screen. I suspect that the paper version would alleviate that problem. 

A.Mulhern (North Carolina):
Found this book to have valuable information to improve my running; includes info on mechanics, hydration, optimal fueling, mental involvement, weight loss, supplements, shoes (or no shoes), etc. When the science is inconclusive, they say so, which is refreshing. I've run over 85 marathons and 8 ultras, and I still learned a lot from this book -- even took notes to review key points before my next race.

J.Schneider (Long Island, NY):
I think this is a good book for the athlete who is interested in the science behind the training. This book is not for someone looking for a basic training program. It is for the person who wants to know about all the physiological processes involved in running on the cellular level and why things work the way they do.

R. Colberth:

 The book had good information and was a big help in some areas. However, the authors simplified some explanations a little to much for my taste. Overall the book is excellent. I recommend Runner's World The Runner's Body to any runner who want's to further their knowledge on the sport.

M.Sanders (Colorado):
I love to know the "why" behind the things I do. This books is great for that! It reads a bit like a text book so don't expect it to be fun and exciting. But learning the facts behind what is happening as I train for a marathon make it so .... for me anyway.

Order The Runner's Body (US Readers, and rest of the world)

Order the Runner's Body (SA Readers) 

Monday, December 21, 2009

Looking back on 2009 and ahead to 2010

Top 9 of 2009 and our picks for 2010

It has been a record slow period for us here, so please excuse our lack of posts for the past few weeks.  Between Ross catching up after a long trip to the USA and his work with the SA Sevens team, and the end of the semester here at UIC, neither of us found much time to get online.  Fortunately for us the sporting calendar has been slow, with the Fukuoka Marathon as being the only real event during this time.  As an aside, Tsegaye Kebede successfully defended his title from 2008 and lowered the course record to 2:05:18, which means his best three marathon times are now 2:05:35 and it solidifies his status as a major contender in any race he lines up, at least for the next 12 months. 

Of course the other big news in sports is the Tiger Woods debacle, and we have read and heard many interesting pieces on this topic.  A commentary from the Sports Scientists will come, but for now suffice to say that I was not surprised one bit when the news broke and as it continued to break, and in fact one has to ask that perhaps his legendary performance and status as a fierce competitor is because of the qualities we are now hearing about,  and not the other way around.

Looking back on 2009 and ahead to 2010

As has become customary on the site, we like to look back at the year in Sports Science and give you our picks of what we think are the top stories of the year.  Last year it was the "Top 8 of '08," and so accordingly this year it will be the Top 9 of '09!"  The series will look back at the Top 9 sports stories of 2009, from the perspective of Sports Science.  We will follow our Mission Statement and Vision, as our purpose here is to provide that second and third-level of insight, to look beyond what happened, and try to interpret how it happened, why it happened.

At the end of the countdown we will whip out The Science of Sport Crystal Ball and pick what we think might be major stories in the year ahead.  Of course it will be an Olympic year, with the winter games in Vancouver starting on 12 February.   Traditionally we have not written much about winter sports, but as sports scientists you can be sure we will follow the games and provide the insight we can considering that the first time Ross saw snow was in 2007 and the only experience I have in winter sports is watching my neighbors cross country ski along the boulevard in front of our apartment!  Interestingly, though, my new office mate works with the US Curling team, and so I will be leaning on him for some insight into the winter sports and vibe from the games!

In the mean time stay tuned for the #9 story of 2009 followed by the countdown to #1!