CRM: The charity runners controversy

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As of September 2017, new Sweat Science columns are being published at www.outsideonline.com/sweatscience. Check out my bestselling new book on the science of endurance, ENDURE: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, published in February 2018 with a foreword by Malcolm Gladwell.

- Alex Hutchinson (@sweatscience)

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The March issue of Canadian Running magazine is on newsstands now (including my Science of Running column). It includes an interesting look by Kevin Mackinnon at the sometimes controversial topic of charity runners in big marathons. Mackinnon makes the case that charity runners are responsible for a major boom in road running participation that started in the late 1990s:

The development of large marathons in the 1980s saw the number of participants double over a 10-year period. A decade later participation had doubled again, which, according to many marathon experts, was because of the steady growth of charity running groups…

“It was the fall 1994 marathon debut by Oprah Winfrey that caused another ripple in marathon participation,” [Dave Watt, executive director of the American Running Association,] says. “… As the 90s came to a close, women’s participation numbers in the marathon had doubled from the late 80s. At the turn of the 21st century, the marathon added a new twist: the charity runner.”

Mackinnon also gives a brief nod to some of the criticism the charity runners have attracted, mentioning the Jean’s Marines scandal from 2006, and some more general complaints:

Critics say that the increased cost of taking care of charity runners – for example, having to keep race courses open longer for slower athletes – inevitably gets passed down to the rest of the competitors in the field. Since so many charity competitors tend to be beginners, more experienced runners complain that these rookies display a lack of runner’s etiquette. There’s also a feeling amongst more serious marathon competitors that the charity runners aren’t truly involved in the sport – once they achieve their goal, they move on to another challenge or simply stop running altogether.

To me, none of these criticisms hold any water. Having more runners at races is fantastic, and mobilizing people to raise money for charities is also fantastic. My only quibble, on a personal level, is when people use these programs to earn themselves free or subsidized trips to run races in exotic locations like the Caribbean — paid for, in effect, by the donations they’ve raised from friends. To me, if you want to visit New Orleans and run a race, the money to fund that trip shouldn’t come from the same hat that you’re passing around to solicit donations for a worthy cause. (Or least be honest and say, “Would you like to donate $20, $10 of which will go to cancer research and $10 of which go towards my plane ticket and hotel room.”)

To reiterate, I think these programs are a great idea for charities, because even if they have to allocate some money towards travel costs, they still end up with more money than if they just sent out a bunch of junk mail asking for donations. I’m just calling on individual runners to do their own accounting to make sure their personal contribution exceeds the benefits they’re taking. (And if you can’t afford to fly yourself to the Cayman Islands, run something a little closer to home.)

I know this can be a touchy topic — so please do let me know if you think I’m not being fair or if I’m missing the point.

How fast you eat affects appetite hormones

THANK YOU FOR VISITING SWEATSCIENCE.COM!

As of September 2017, new Sweat Science columns are being published at www.outsideonline.com/sweatscience. Check out my bestselling new book on the science of endurance, ENDURE: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, published in February 2018 with a foreword by Malcolm Gladwell.

- Alex Hutchinson (@sweatscience)

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Nice little nugget in the New York Times on the common claim that eating slowly makes you feel more full:

Researchers have found evidence over the years that when people wolf their food, they end up consuming more calories than they would at a slower pace. One reason is the effect of quicker ingestion on hormones.

In particular, they cite a new study in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, in which volunteers ate a bowl of ice cream in either five minutes or half an hour. Sure enough, those who ate (drank?) their ice cream in half an hour had higher levels of a pair of gut hormones that signal when you’re full, and they also felt more full.

Nothing too surprising here, but it’s always nice when you see a study that backs up folk wisdom.

Pool running: oxygen use and max HR change as you get better at it

THANK YOU FOR VISITING SWEATSCIENCE.COM!

As of September 2017, new Sweat Science columns are being published at www.outsideonline.com/sweatscience. Check out my bestselling new book on the science of endurance, ENDURE: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, published in February 2018 with a foreword by Malcolm Gladwell.

- Alex Hutchinson (@sweatscience)

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Pool running is very different from running on land. Aside from the crushing boredom, there’s also the fact that your heart rate stays lower for a given effort, and your VO2max is lower. This has been demonstrated in lots of studies, and is typically attributed to:

(1) an increase in central blood volume, as a result of the hydrostatic pressure causing a higher stroke volume and therefore lower heart rate for a similar cardiac output; (2) the thermal effect of water, since water temperatures below thermoneutral (33–35 C) reduce heart rate and increase stroke volume; (3) less muscle activity during deep water running because of the possible reduction of muscle activity of the weight-bearing muscles.

But even though most people agree about that, pool-running studies have produced conflicting results about exactly how much lower VO2max gets, what happens to your ventilatory threshold, how perceived exertion changes, and so on. According to a new study in the Journal of Sports Sciences (from which the above quote is taken), this may be because there’s a steep learning curve associated with pool running.

The study, by researchers in the U.K., South Africa and Brazil, compared 10 runners who had at least two months of pool-running training with a certified instructor with seven runners without pool-running experience. They had both groups perform VO2max tests and run at threshold, both on land and in the water. (The testing in the water was as problematic as you might guess, and the machines apparently broke down three times and data from four subjects had to be discarded.)

Going from land to water, the novices dropped the max heart rate from 186 to 172 and their VO2max from 55.1 to 44.3. In comparison, the experts went from 186 to 177 and from 53.8 to 48.3. In other words, they were able to work harder once they’d mastered pool running — probably, the authors speculate, because they’d learned to recruit more muscles.

Practical applications? Well, if you’re trying pool running for the first time, expect it to feel really hard and yet strangely unsatisfying as a workout. But be reassured that if you stick with it, you’ll be getting a better and better workout for the same effort.

How does air pollution affect marathon times?

THANK YOU FOR VISITING SWEATSCIENCE.COM!

As of September 2017, new Sweat Science columns are being published at www.outsideonline.com/sweatscience. Check out my bestselling new book on the science of endurance, ENDURE: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, published in February 2018 with a foreword by Malcolm Gladwell.

- Alex Hutchinson (@sweatscience)

***

There are a couple of different ways you could pitch a new study on air pollution and marathon performance from the March issue of Medicine & Science and Sports & Exercise. The good news is that levels of six key pollutants almost never exceed EPA guidelines during seven major U.S. marathons (Boston, Chicago, New York, Twin Cities, Grandma’s, California International and Los Angeles). And when you compare top times to pollution levels, there’s no correlation in all but one case.

Or you could do it the other way around: Danger! Elevated levels of particulate matter smaller than 10 micrometers (PM10) make women run more slowly, even when levels are well below EPA guidelines!

The study is by Linsey Marr of Virginia Tech and Matthew Ely of the US Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine. It looks back at marathon results from the past 28 years (or as long as available) and digs up accurate pollution readings for the races. To assess performance levels, they look at the top three men and women’s times as a percentage of the existing course record. They also use the results of a previous study to subtract out the variation due to temperature, humidity and solar radiation.

The main finding is that major marathons have pretty good air quality, even in big cities. They’re held on weekend mornings, so they avoid the rush-hour car pollution, and they’re generally early enough in the morning that they avoid the secondary pollutants like ozone which are produced by intense solar radiation.

Despite that fact, it wouldn’t have been a big shock to find that higher pollutant levels — even below the usual thresholds — were associated with slower times. After all, as the authors note:

An athlete running at 70% of maximal oxygen uptake for the length of a marathon (~3 h) inhales the same volume of air as a sedentary person would in 2 d. In addition to the elevated ventilation rate, the switch from nasal to mouth breathing and an increased airflow velocity carry pollutants deeper into the lungs and further amplify the runner’s dose of pollutants.

In the end, though, the only correlation that showed up was between PM10 and women’s (but not men’s) times. This isn’t the first study to find that women may be more sensitive to certain pollutants than men. The theory is that their narrower larynx openings lead to greater turbulence in their airways, which results in greater deposition of pollutant particles.

For what it’s worth, the Beijing Olympics — whose high pollution levels stimulated this study in the first place — had PM10 levels well above the highest levels included in this study. Could this have been a factor in the result?

It is interesting to note that despite relatively high PM10 concentrations of 87 [micrograms/m3] on race day, the men’s marathon winner set a new Olympic record. In addition, the average of the top three men’s finishing times was faster than the preexisting record. During the women’s marathon, PM10 concentrations averaged 62 [micrograms/m3], and the top three women were 2.6% slower than the Olympics marathon record.

The science of home-field advantage

THANK YOU FOR VISITING SWEATSCIENCE.COM!

As of September 2017, new Sweat Science columns are being published at www.outsideonline.com/sweatscience. Check out my bestselling new book on the science of endurance, ENDURE: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, published in February 2018 with a foreword by Malcolm Gladwell.

- Alex Hutchinson (@sweatscience)

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In celebration of a couple of Canadian gold medals in Vancouver, this week’s Jockology looks at the science behind home-field advantage:

The biggest edge gold medalists Maëlle Ricker and Alexandre Bilodeau had over their Olympic opponents may have been from their brain chemistry rather than the roar of Canadian spectators at Cypress Mountain.

A series of studies over the past decade has debunked the long-held theory that home advantage stems primarily from external factors such as an enthusiastic crowd, a familiar venue, travel-weary opponents and officials whose calls are swayed by the crowd. While these factors can play a role, a more basic biological imperative may be at work, as athletes display an evolutionarily driven desire to protect their territory. [read on…]

There are a bunch of interesting studies on the topic, which dissect the role of crowds, stadiums, refs and so on. There’s a sidebar to the piece that doesn’t appear in the online version (not sure if it’s in the paper version), so I’ll reproduce it here:

Can fans influence the game?
A new study shows that sports teams have a “home advantage” even if there’s no one in the stands. But that doesn’t mean crowds don’t have an impact. A 2002 study in the journal Psychology of Sport & Exercise asked qualified soccer referees to make calls on games they watched on video, with the sound either turned on or off. The refs who could hear crowd noise called 15 per cent fewer fouls against the home team than those watching in silence.