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How well are we equipped to run? - 4. Evidence from our achievements April 29 2016, 0 Comments

So are we designed for long-distance running?

Apart from the anatomical evidence that we have discussed in the previous instalments (1, 2, 3), if we look at what we achieve as a running species, it becomes impressive.

Vast numbers of people participate in marathons and half marathons all over the world.  It is gender-neutral. Men's and women's marathon records get closer year by year, and are now within 10% of each other. If we are looking at distance running, then a marathon could be construed as a bit short. Very long races are run on every continent, including the Bruce Trail (Canada - 800km), the Bunion Derby (USA - 3'455km over 3 months), the Ultrabalaton (Hungary - 220km), the Trans-Europe Foot Race (last run in 2012, 4'175km in 64 days) and the Big Red Run (Australia, 250km in 6 days in the Simpson desert).

Dr Dennis Bramble ran an exercise to plot the age of all participants in the New York Marathon against their running times. He found that speeds increased from the age of 19 up to about 27 years of age, and then they declined. Although this might be expected, the rate of decline was very slow, and it was not until an age of 64 that the speed had declined to the same as the starting point of 19 years old. If you think about it, if you need to chase your food for 60km, you're not going to want to lug it back home, and so the whole tribe has to follow dinner until it lays down - so the ability to run has to be long-lived.

Finally, in a long-distance race between a man and a horse, which would you back? It's an interesting question because the stride of a good runner is longer than that of a horse, and we have already established that we can do distances. Since 1980, this event has taken place in Wales each year over a 22 mile (35km) course. The horses win more often than the runners, but the differences are not huge, and on two famous occasions, both on hot days, the runner has won.

So we appear to be designed do long-distance running. Moreover, we increasingly do it for fun, suggesting that we are following a natural instinct to run, and we have developed as a running animal in an evolutionary laboratory over 2 million years. ZEMgear shoes allow us to indulge this ability in a way closest to the natural barefoot state, protecting our feet and still allowing us the flexible, natural use of our feet.


How well are we equipped to run? - 3. Other equipment April 20 2016, 0 Comments

So far, we have looked at the legs and feet, so it is probably time to look at the other anatomical aids we have for long-distance running.

Let's start with breathing. If you watch fast-running four legged animals you can see that at the two extremes of their stride they either stretch or crunch, and this can have a dramatic effect on their breathing.

If you are at full stretch, it is much easier to breathe in than out, and if you are crunched up, exhaling is the most comfortable option. So breathing is linked to pace, and that is an intrinsic limitation. Cheetahs are astonishingly fast, but they run out of puff pretty quickly. Being bipedal enables us to disconnect our breathing from our pace. We may choose to breathe in time with our stride, but if push comes to shove we can double or triple our respiration rate without affecting our running, a handy trick if you want to maintain a pace for a long distance.

Another thing that you will notice with most animals is that they pant to cool themselves down, and this also has limitations. Running generates heat, and if you are pursued by an animal until you cannot cool down as fast or faster than you heat up, eventually you simply have to stop. If the animal pursuing you happens to be homo sapiens, he has the major advantage of being able to sweat across the full breadth of his skin, and the evaporation of the sweat cools him and gives him many more miles of distance before he overheats. The evidence suggests that we were on a high-protein diet (meat) long before we invented tools and weapons, and that running after animals until they simply lay down from exhaustion was how we caught our food.

Finally, in our necks we have a nuchal ligament, something that his found almost exclusively in running animals. It serves to support the weight of the head without muscular effort, and to hold the head still while running.

So the anatomical evidence is looking pretty strong that we were built to run. In the next instalment we shall look at what we can do that supports the man-as-long-distance-runner theory. In the meantime, you might like to have a look at some of ZEMgear shoes that protect your feet but still allow you to run as nature intended.

 


The importance of rest September 16 2015, 0 Comments

Browsing through YouTube the other evening, I came across Dr James O'Keefe, a cardiologist, delivering a talk on TED, in which he advises against overdoing exercise, a rather unexpected comment to come from a cardiologist. He compares exercise to a drug - a fantastic drug that protects against heart disease, diabetes, depression and a multiple of other conditions. However, as with all drugs, it has an optimal dose range, and if you overdo it, it can do more damage than good.

The human body is a remarkable piece of apparatus. It improves by a process of damage and repair. When you exercise beyond your limit, micro-tears develop in your muscles, and when these are repaired, the muscle is built back stronger and better than before. This is the process of getting fit, and it requires a period of rest before exercise is repeated to allow the repair to take place, or the tears simply get bigger. The heart is a muscle like any other, and according to Dr O'Keefe, sustained exercise beyond about an hour results in micro-tears or damage. If you take some rest days afterwards, these repair themselves, better and stronger than before.

The issue comes with long-term, long-distance runners who train regularly enough for the repair process not to take place. Their hearts stretch to accommodate the sustained increased blood that they pump, and the tears do not repair so that scar tissue is formed. He cites a study of some 50'000 people which shows that runners have a 19% longer life expectation than sedentary people, but that when they run over 30km average a week, this benefit cancels out. The result also applies to speed - up to 10km/h provides benefit, but pushing to 12km/h sees it go away. Finally, running two to five times a week provides the benefit, but running seven days a week takes it away again. The Copenhagen Heart Study, tracking 20'000 people since 1976, confirms these results. Joggers have a 44% lower mortality rate and live on average 6 years longer than non-runners - provided they run at a slow to average pace for one to two-and-a-half hours or two or three times per week.

Some of you will always prefer to run far and fast and die happy. With these learnings you can choose your own destiny and the good news is that if you choose to change and slack off now, the heart repairs itself and returns to normal. For the rest of us, exercise is a remarkable therapy, and running up to 30k per week at a moderate pace will make us healthier and happier. You can find Dr O'Keefe's talk here. Good running all!


Running easy vs running fast September 07 2015, 0 Comments

I came across a YouTube post of Christopher McDougal, he of Born to Run fame, who was discussing attitudes to running. He describes running an ultramarathon with an acquaintance of his, Barefoot Ted, who chats with him for the last 13 miles of a 100 mile (160km) race and arrives refreshed and happy at the end. Barefoot Ted typically runs about 25 miles a week, and yet he is still able to easily do a fast time over a much longer distance. McDougal attributes this ability to the fact that Ted does not run in order to beat a time, or to achieve a level of fitness - he only runs for fun, and this is what endows him with his seemingly superhuman stamina and bonhomie.

The idea is very seductive, and echoes another character in the book, Caballo Blanco, who said that it was wrong to start with grand goals and pushing into injuries, and that rather we should start with running at a pace that we find easy and look after our style, and the stamina and speed will come of their own volition. If we accept that we are in fact born to run, and that running is one of our most natural states, doing what comes naturally could be expected to bring physical and mental relaxation. Certainly, I find that if things are getting stressful at work, a run seems to add perspective and to bring me back to a more sane and stable state. 

McDougal's book arose from trying to answer the question as to why, whenever he tried to run, his foot hurt, and he found his answer in running barefoot. Me too. I run happily now having come back with barefoot running from a fallen arch and progressive pain in my ankles, knees and back. Running in the chilly Danish autumn, I switched from fully barefoot to barefoot shoes and have never looked back. And it really is fun.


Fartlek - a Swedish innovation June 18 2015, 0 Comments

A normal training programme for a running event will include distance work to build stamina and shorter faster elements such as intervals to build strength and speed. In the 1930s Gösta Holmér, the Swedish national cross country coach, put these together into the Fartlek, near-literally speed-play in Swedish.  This is how it works.

In the course of a normal run, you insert periods of increased speed, for instance a faster two-minutes within each kilometre, with longer normal running spells in between to allow for recovery.  The advantage of this is that it does not require dedicated times or places for speed training.  It can take place almost anywhere, on roads or trails, and features occurring on the run can be put to use - lamp posts can be counted to set distances for the fast and slower stretches, or hills can be used for shorter, flat-out uphill work.  All of this will add spice to a normal run, and has been shown to be extremely effective in building both speed and stamina.

Sweden gave the world ABBA and the car safety belt, and punches above its weight in international sports competitions.  Distance runners can thank it for the Fartlek, an innovation used to this day by many serious runners.