Human Limits

Exploring performance and health with Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

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Archive for the ‘Elite Sports Performance’ Category

Faster, Older, Younger?

It has been a while since I did a post with a hardcore “human limits” angle, but some impressive middle and long distance running results over the last couple of weeks make the time ripe for a few observations. So, here goes!

 

Is 45 the new 35?

In mid-February the 40 year old and seemingly ageless Bernard Lagat went 3:54.91 for the mile at the Millrose game in New York City.   The previous best time for a 40+ was 3:58.15 by Eamonn Coghlan – the “Chairman of the Boards” set in 1994.   Lagat went 3:51:38 at age 36 and his best mile time is 3:47:28 at age 26. Who knows just how fast he could go if he focused on the mile and ran five or ten highly competitive races in the next several years. My bet is that he could run at least a couple of seconds faster.

 

I also bet that if Lagat continues to train for the next five years, he might be able break 4 minutes in his middle 40s.   If top competitors can avoid injury and keep training hard, it is possible for them to maintain their fitness at a level near the peak values typically seen in their 20s. However, even the most dedicated and injury free trainers start to lose something in their 40s. The minimal rate of loss for maximum oxygen uptake is probably about 4% from age 40 to 50, and this is a key determinant of mile time.

 

So if Lagat lost only 2% in the next 5 years that would slow his mile time by about 5 seconds and his projected age group record at 45 would be 3:58 to 3:59. The old timers reading this will remember that in the early 1970s four-time Olympian George Young broke 4 minutes in his middle 30s. At the time that seemed both inconceivable and unbelievable.

 

I wonder if and when we will see a sub 4 minute mile by a 50 year old?

 

Chasing Paula

The world record for the women’s marathon is 2:15:25, set by Paula Radcliffe who also owns the two next fastest times and no one else has broken 2:18. Her marks are true outliers and a number of people wonder if and when the field will “catch up”.   On February 16, Florence Kiplagat ran the half-marathon in 1:05:09 which converts to an estimated marathon time of just less than 2:16. A few days later Genzebe Dibaba went 14:18:86 for 5,000m. That time is equal to about a 2:17 marathon.

 

The chart below is from an analysis that Sandra Hunter, Andy Jones, and I did on the 2-hour marathon “equivalent” for women. It shows the 100 top men and women’s times as a % of the world record with and without Radcliffe’s times. Based on these recent times at shorter distances, perhaps the men’s and women’s curves might start to look similar as more women run times between 2:15 and 2:18 in the next few years.

 

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That having been said, it will be interesting to see if Paula Radcliffe holds the three fastest marathon times for women in five years. My bet is no.

 

Young Guns!

Last week Tim Kruse who worked in my lab prior to starting med-school at the University of Washington sent me an e-mail pointing out that about 20 collegiate male runners broke 4 minutes for the mile in February. In response I asked where these guys came from and he drilled down on it a bit and said that 13 came from the U.S. and several more from Canada.

The question then became why? Better training? A bigger talent pool? Better tracks? Doping? I bounced these ideas off David Epstein, Alex Hutchinson, Amby Burfoot and Rickey Carter. The general consensus was that doping was not a major issue. Better tracks and better competitive opportunities likely played a role.   However, several people commented on the role internet and dedicated track and distance running sites. These sites (like LetsRun) promote the sport in general and are also a great forum to share information about training and also inspirational stories. My guess is that they have been catalytic.

Amby pointed to an article he wrote a few years ago about the “turning point” in U.S. distance running being marked by the 2000 Foot Locker High-School Cross-Country Championships which featured Alan Webb, Dathan Ritzenhein and Ryan Hall. Evidently these guys had been more or less stalking each other for some time via an early internet site devoted to high school running. Amby’s article is a great read and really nails the reasons behind improved middle and long distance running in the U.S. in specific and N. America in general.

That having been said, the depth at the collegiate level indicates the North American talent pipeline for middle and perhaps long distance running is as full as it has been in many years. It will be interesting to see if this ultimately translates into things like more international top 10 rankings, victories at major competitions and even Olympic medals.

 

My bet is that the East Africans might not seem so invincible in 10 years.

 

A Good Month

It was a good month for middle and long distance running that makes me as optimistic about the future of “my” sport as I have been for a long time. The growth of mass participation distance running by people committed to fitness has been the big story over the last 10 or 20 years. The re-emergence of a sizable number of elites in North America has the potential to be the frosting on this wonderful cake.

 

A Holiday Gift For Your Athlete

I get a lot of questions about exercise equipment. What is the best exercise? How to workout on the road? What “should my kid be doing to improve” etc.   There is one simple answer to this question and it is also an ideal gift for almost anyone with fitness or athletic goals regardless of age who does not have too many orthopedic limitations. So what is the answer?

 

Get a Jump Rope and use it!

Jumping rope (or skipping rope) is outstanding for general conditioning. It can be used to generate an aerobic workout and you can things like minute on minute off intervals skipping rope. Skipping rope also develops footwork and balance. For younger athletes these are skills that carry over to almost all sports. For middle aged and older people these skills are critical to ward off things like frailty and falls.   Jump ropes are also cheap, portable, and don’t require a lot of space. The video clip below shows some classic footage of boxers jumping rope. Note especially the foot work and wild routine of the great Sugar Ray Robinson.   Later in the video you can see Bernard Hopkins who keeps fighting at age 50.

 

 

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What kind of rope?

I have a 40 year old Everlast leather jump rope with ball bearings that my mother got me sometime in the early 1970s. This is the type of rope the boxers use and it has stood the test of time. It is also a beautiful piece of functional industrial design. But almost any rope will do.

 

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No barriers

The specifics of skipping rope aside it is important to remember that you don’t need much if any equipment or space to develop an outstanding and effective whole body exercise routine. Skipping rope along with some simple calisthenics is free, can be done almost anywhere, and requires minimal equipment. The key requirements are simply self-discipline and motivation.

 

How low can marathon times go?

 

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What Kind of Mind Game Will It Take to Run a 2-Hour Marathon?

 

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Everything You Need to Know About Endurance Training in One Race!

Last Saturday was the 50th anniversary of Bob Schul’s victory in the 5,000 meter race at the Tokyo Olympics.   Schul, who was from the United States ran 13:48.8 and beat Harald Norpoth of Germany and Bill Dellinger also from the U.S. The great Kip Keino of Kenya was 5th anticipating his Olympic success in 1968 and 72, and also anticipating the rise of the Kenyan runners. It was a close race run on a slow and muddy dirt track. The last few laps of the race were very fast in spite of the conditions.

 

Training Methods 101

The race also serves as a short primer on training methods:

  • Schul was interval trained and literally did intervals twice a day almost every day. I looked up some of his old workouts in the classic book “How They Train” by Fred Wilt. He might do a brief warmup and then 30-40 times 100 meters in the morning. The afternoon would include a brief warm up and then many longer intervals between 150-400 meters.   My guess is that this sometimes added up to about 70-80 miles per week.
  • Norpoth was a disciple of Ernst Van Aaken the originator of so-called long slow distance (LSD) training that included very high mileage. He did long slow runs up to 30 miles or more and also restricted his diet to get as skinny as possible. Mileage well in excess of 100 miles per week was done and perhaps only about 5% of the total was anything near race pace.
  • Dellinger, who was later the track coach at Oregon, was coached by the legendary innovator Bill Bowerman and did the sort of mixed training popular today which would include longer runs, intervals, hills, and sprints. This program also featured the classic hard-easy pattern advocated by Bowerman.
  • Also in the race was Ron Clarke, who ultimately set 19 distance running world records. Clarke did a lot of long fast continuous runs with surges and raced often and fast. He did what we might call threshold training.  Clarke also frequently ran more than 100 miles per week in training. What he did in the 1960s also seems similar to what anecdotal reports indicate the East Africans are doing today.

 

Take Home Messages

The narrative above makes me an unbeliever in the idea that there is a “best way” to train or that much has really changed in the last 50 years. You can also find similar stories and varied approaches in other endurance sports with examples of success stemming from all sorts of programs.

 

However, all of the training programs outlined above were marked by several hours a day of training at least a couple of days a week or more. They would all also evoke essentially maximal physiological adaptations in most people. All of the programs also included at least some fast running. In talking with LSD trainers who were successful in the 1960s and early 70s, many have told me that in addition to their training they also ran a whole lot of races including “doubling” at track meets by running multiple events.   This clearly supplemented the limited formal speed work they did in their regular training.

 

Another take home message is that depending on where you live and what resources are available one program might more sense than another. For example if you live in an urban area where finding the right course for a long run can be challenging, maybe an interval focused program on a track or in a park makes the most sense. If you live in a place full of trails, hills and mountains perhaps one of the less interval focused programs would make more sense.

 

Whatever the program there is no substitute for consistency and at least some fast running. Consistency also means staying injury free, so at least some easy days every week make sense as well. Also, don’t forget to ask yourself “what is the purpose of this workout?” and perhaps “what is the ultimate goal of this training program?” If you can’t answer those questions maybe you should rethink things.

 

New Marathon Record: An Analysis & Next Steps

On Sunday September 28, 2014 the Kenyan runner Dennis Kimetto ran the marathon in 2 hours 2 minutes and 57 seconds breaking the record of 2:03:23 set last year on the same course.   Starting in 2007 with Haile Gebrselassie’s 2:04:26 the record has been broken five times, all at Berlin.

 

What is Physiologically “Possible”?

Back in 1991, I created a predictive model of marathon performance based on well-established physiological variables.   I then asked what would happen to the marathon world record if the same athlete had optimal values for all of the key variables associated with distance running success. The predicted time I came up with for such a superman was just under 1:58:00. The model, plus some speculation, was revisited in 2011 with my colleagues Alejandro Lucia and Jonatan Ruiz and we projected that someone might break 2 hours by sometime between about 2025 and the late 2030s. So, what seemed inconceivable to many in 1991 seems to be getting closer by the year.

 

What Might Happen Soon?

Many elite distance runners have marathon personal bests that are about 4.6 or 4.7 times their 10k personal bests (a marathon is ~42.2k). If you use this rule of thumb then the current world record for the 10k (26:17:53) works out to a predicted marathon time somewhere between just under 2:01and about 2:03:25. Similar values emerge using various point tables and race conversion calculators. So, the current record is perhaps still a bit on the “slow” side, and I would not be surprised if the record fell by another minute or so in the next few years.

 

How to Make it Happen Sooner

If I were a race promoter, shoe company, or billionaire interested in wanting to get the marathon record as fast as possible as soon as possible, here are three things I would do:

 

  • A lot of the top runners decide where they are going to run and who they are going to run against based on financial considerations. You can only run so many fast marathons per year so it is important for top runners to make each one a pay day. To get more of the top people in the same race, I would offer purses to be split by all runners under specified split times at say the half-way point, 30k, 35k, and 40k. This sort of pay out structure would encourage the top people to work together, draft, and it would not penalize risk taking if someone went out too fast and then faded.   I would start with split times based on 2:02:30 and work down as records fell.

 

  • Develop a 5 or 8k loop that was flat and had an ideal surface and then stage a yearly “elites only” race on that course.   Pick a part of the world and time of the year where weather conditions are likely to be ideal with low humidity and temperature about 10C (50F).

 

  • Run the race in the late afternoon as the sun is setting. There is some anecdotal evidence that this might be an ideal time vs. the early morning.

 

2:02 or Bust

When colleagues, fans and members of the media ask me what I think might happen, I tell them that something under 2:02 is possible now and that once the record gets below 2:02 the fun will begin.

 

Jens Voigt & Ideas About a “Fairer” Triathlon

Last week the 43 year old cyclist Jens Voigt set a world record for the 1 hour ride. Voigt covered 51.115 kilometers and then retired. Voigt has had a long career near the top of professional cycling and avoided the doping scandals that have plagued cycling over the last several decades.

 

What Does Voigt Have to do With Triathlons?

The short answer is not much. Normally a performance like this is a lead into a discussion about aging, the history of world records, the role of technology in sports (he used an aero bike), or some other element of sports physiology. However, Voigt’s record got me thinking about what would happen if each element of a triathlon was designed to take about the same amount of time. Both the Olympic distance Tri (1.5k swim, 40k ride, and 10k run) and the Ironman distance Tri (2.4 mile swim, 112 ride, and 26.2 mile run) have bike segments that take about 50% or more of the total time for elite competitors. The swim segment also takes less time than the run for elites.

 

Three 1 Hour Segments?

So, what would happen if there was a triathlon designed around world records for the hour? The current world record for the hour run is just over 21km by Haile Gebrselassie. The best record I could find for the hour swim is 6135 yds (about 5610 meters) set by Robert Margalis in a 25 yard pool in 2007. The swimming record, while impressive, is likely soft in comparison to the cycling and running records that were set by truly world class athletes in their respective disciplines.

 

Based on these records (and some other back of the envelope calculations) perhaps something with a running distance about 3.8 times the swim distance would equalize those two triathlon elements. A biking distance perhaps 2.5 times the running distance would also seem reasonable. So how about a swim just over 5k, a 50k ride, and 20k run? These ratios are a start. To do this well one would need a detailed statistical analysis of a larger number of elite performances, but my guess is that such an analysis would lead to ratios and distances similar to the ones I have suggested.

 

Take it Indoors?

Why not also take it indoors and come up with something like the triathlon version of the Crash-B Sprints for rowing.   These races are conducted indoors on rowing ergometers and a number of winners and record holders have impressive records on the water.

 

For the Triathlon the format might be an hour swim in a short course pool and distance run in an hour on a calibrated treadmill.   The trick would be how to deal with the bike element indoors. I would use some measure related to average watts of power output per kg of body weight over the hour. I have seen varying reports of what Voigt did, but it appears that he averaged about 400 watts per minute. This works out to a bit more than 5 watts per kg.

 

Using the ratios I mentioned above, point scales and records could be established for each discipline. Perhaps a top score for each event would be worth 1,000 points. Such a scale could also be age and sex adjusted so performances could be easily compared for each competitor.   Perhaps things could be more strategic by letting each athlete pick their own preferred order of events with a standard 5 minute transition period between events. Would most people do the swim second to give their legs a break?

 

Just a Thought Exercise?

So far this is just a thought exercise or perhaps the beginning of a barroom argument for endurance athletes.   However, I would be interested in hearing other thoughts about how this might be done and if anyone is interested in sponsoring such a competition it would be easy to formalize the ideas outlined in this post. Finally, I volunteer to be the first commissioner of the “Three Hour Test”.

 

Is Katie Ledecky Having the Best Year Ever?

The 17 year old swimmer Katie Ledecky set world records in the 400 and 1500m events at the Pan Pacific championships in Australia last week. These records are on top of the 400, 800, and 1500m records she set earlier in the summer. That makes it five world records in two months.

 

Her margins of victory are also huge. At the Pan-Pacs she won the 400 by six seconds and was the only swimmer to break four minutes. This is a margin of victory reminiscent of the great miler Jim Ryun who dominated that distance in 1966 and 67. Incredibly the first 400 of her record 1500 at Pan-Pacs would have won the 400 outright.

 

Over the last two seasons she has lowered the 1500 record by 14 seconds.   That is an improvement of about 1.5% which is impressive in an event where Janet Evans held the world record for 19 years (1988-2007). It is even more impressive because Lydecky did it without the aid of the high tech swim suits which were banned in 2010.

 

The clip below is of her 400m record from a couple of days ago.

 

 

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Is this the best year ever by an endurance athlete? Two other exceptional years come to mind. The cyclist Eddy Merckx in 1972 and runner Henry Rono in 1978 had years that rival the one Ledecky is having.

 

Eddy Merckx 1972

In 1972 the Belgian Cyclist Eddy Merckx won the Tour de France, and Vuelta a Espana (Tour of Spain). He also set a world record for the hour ride that lasted for many years and was only broken with the advent of aero bikes.

 

Henry Rono 1978

In 1978 the Kenyan runner Henry Rono set world records in the 3k, steeple chase, 5k, and 10k in a span of 81 days.   He also won two medals at the Commonwealth Games.

 

The Best Summer Ever?

It is impossible to compare different sports, different events, and different eras. However, that Katie Ledecky’s achievments this summer can be compared to those of Merckx and Rono says plenty. It also adds fuel to the argument that the 1500m swim should be added to the Olympic program for women.

 

Go Katie Go!