Running a marathon halts cell death

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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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[18/5 NOTE: I don’t really understand this study. See the comments below — and help out if you can!]

Researchers from the University of Rome just published a study in the journal BMC Physiology in which they analyzed blood samples from 10 recreational runners before and after completing a marathon (press release here). The chief finding:

Apoptosis, the natural ‘programmed’ death of cells, is arrested in the aftermath of strenuous exercise. Researchers… studied peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs), isolated from whole blood samples taken from people after finishing a marathon, finding that the balance between expression of pro- and anti-apoptotic genes is shifted after the race.

The idea that exercise helps your cells live longer has been in the news recently (see, for example, Gretchen Reynolds’ piece on telomere length in the New York Times a few months ago). This appears to be another piece of the puzzle — though a marathon is a pretty intense bout of exercise, so you have to wonder whether you’d get similar benefits from a shorter workout.

Sports genetics: Kenyans, Ethiopians… and Tibetans

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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A must-read article for anyone interested in the interplay of sports and genetics (and for anyone who’s adamantly convinced that Kenyans and Ethiopians dominate distance running because they’re born to run), by Sports Illustrated’s David Epstein. The article is too good and too packed with info to summarize with a few pithy quotes — the fact is, it’s a very complicated area. But the overall message plays down the roles of genes:

Pitsiladis selected 24 gene variants most often associated with sprinting or endurance prowess and looked for them in the genomes of four men who have held the world record in the 100-meter dash and five who have held the world record in the marathon. What he saw was that based on those genes, the world-beaters are not genetic outliers at all. Pitsiladis analyzed the DNA of some of his graduate students for comparison and found that “a student of mine has a better rating for sprinting than the likes of an Asafa Powell or Usain Bolt.”

And:

A decade ago, when Pitsiladis began to study elite athletes, his medical students would ask why East Africans dominate distance running, to which he would reflexively respond that their secret is in their genes. “But after 10 years of work,” he says, “I have to say that this is a socioeconomic phenomenon we’re looking at.”

Having read Epstein’s article, I was interested then notice this press release from the University of Utah this morning:

Researchers have long wondered why the people of the Tibetan Highlands can live at elevations that cause some humans to become life-threateningly ill – and a new study answers that mystery, in part, by showing that through thousands of years of natural selection, those hardy inhabitants of south-central Asia evolved 10 unique oxygen-processing genes that help them live in higher climes.

Of course, the Tibetans live at much higher elevation than Kenyans and Ethiopians do (and they don’t seem to be particularly good at running). Still, the study seems to suggest that many generations of living at altitude does produce changes that show up in your DNA. It would be interesting to find out whether East African populations living at altitude show any particular patterns for these 10 genes related to oxygen processing.

Scott Jurek, the vegan ultrarunner

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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Interesting article in the New York Times about ultramarathoner extraordinaire Scott Jurek, who relies on a vegan diet to get the 5,000 to 8,000 calories per day that he needs. NYT food writer Mark Bittman (a.k.a. The Minimalist) invited Jurek over to cook a (delicious sounding) meal. My favourite paragraph from the piece:

He said he spent a great deal of time shopping, preparing and cooking food — and chewing. He is among the slowest and most deliberate eaters I know, and there is something about his determination at the table that is reminiscent of his determination on the road: he just doesn’t stop.

The article also notes Jurek’s quest to set an American record at the 24-Hour Run world championships in France, which are taking place as I type. According to Jurek’s Twitter account, he seems to have just taken the lead for the first time shortly after the 14-hour mark, from Japan’s Shingo Inoue (who had been on world-record pace through halfway, 5K ahead of Jurek).

Pacing, “deliberate practice,” and Jerry Schumacher

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 a post last month, I mentioned having a chance to chat with Simon Whitfield about his recent training camp in Portland with the Nike running groups coached by Alberto Salazar and Jerry Schumacher. This week’s Jockology column in the Globe and Mail explores some of the ideas Whitfield talked about — in particular the fact that the Portland groups are very precise in monitoring their training paces, and how that relates concepts in sports psychology like “deliberate practice”:

… The group Mr. Whitfield trained with in Portland included Simon Bairu of Regina, who earlier this month smashed the Canadian record for 10,000 metres by 13 seconds at a race in Palo Alto, Calif., running 27:23.63. Chris Solinsky, another member of the group, broke the U.S. record in the same race, and a third member of the Portland group also dipped below the old U.S. record.

“They’re so precise about their pacing,” Mr. Whitfield says. “We came home with the message that when a tempo run is supposed to be, let’s say, 3:05 [per kilometre] pace, then 3:03 pace is not a success. That’s a fail.”

Such precision may be daunting, but it’s a hallmark of “deliberate practice,” a concept advanced by Florida State University cognitive psychologist Anders Ericsson and popularized in recent books like Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success. The best way to master an activity is not simply to repeat it mindlessly over and over again, Dr. Ericsson argues, but to set specific goals and monitor how well you meet them.[READ THE FULL ARTICLE]

I also chatted to Lex Mauger, the lead author of a recent study on pacing in a 4-km cycling time-trial. The study showed that getting accurate pace feedback during a hard effort really does lead to better performances — something many athletes would have told you intuitively, but which had never been shown. In particular, pace feedback seems to be crucial in the early stages of a race, before you’ve settled into a rhythm.

Age-related slowdown: run vs. bike vs. swim

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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A paper in last month’s International Journal of Sports Medicine takes a look at how much you slow down as you age, comparing the three triathlon disciplines. Researchers in France crunched data from the top ten finishers in each age group at the 2006 and 2007 world championships, for both Olympic-distance and Ironman triathlons. Since a picture is worth 1,000 words:

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The top graph is for Olympic-distance, while the bottom graph is for Ironman. What sticks out is that cycling declines more slowly than running and swimming, and the researchers suggest a bunch of different explanations for this. One is that running and swimming rely more on fast-twitch muscle fibres, which atrophy more quickly than slow-twitch fibres. Another is simply that running is harder on the body, so older athletes have to spend less time running to avoid injuries, while cyclists are able to maintain higher training volumes as they age. There are also more subtle possibilities, such as the idea that identical declines in your power output would affect running more than cycling (since running speed is directly proportional to mechanical power, but cycling speed only proportional to the cube root of mechanical power).