Banned basketball shoes: a reality check

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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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A reader recently tipped me off about an interesting shoe technology story [thanks, Alexis!]. According to the company’s own press release, Athletic Propulsion Lab’s Concept 1 basketball shoe, featuring “Load ‘N Launch technology” is banned by the NBA because it provides an “unfair competitive advantage.”

Now, the first thing that came to mind when I read the press release was the brouhaha a few years about Spira’s spring-loaded running shoes, which they claimed were banned by USATF — despite assurances by USATF that they weren’t, in fact, banned! In fact, Spira is still using this supposed ban as a selling point:

We expect with time to have the rule overturned, but the mere existence of a rule that prohibits the use of our shoe for competition certainly provides us with a level of credibility. After all, if it wasn’t better, why would it be banned?

I think something similar is going on with the APL basketball shoe: from the press release, it sounds like they called the NBA and more or less begged them to ban the shoe. So what are these shoes supposed to do?

The technology itself features a unique device that serves as a “launch pad” housed inside a cavity at the front of the shoe, which compresses (The “Load” phase) and then releases (The “Launch” phase) as the athlete exerts force on the front of the foot.

The description of the technology’s benefits on the APL site provides a very nice lesson in the difference between science and salesmanship. To their credit, the company has performed a study comparing vertical jump in the fancy shoes versus ordinary basketball shoes, at an unnamed “leading West Coast university.” They even show the data (in graphical form) for the 12 subjects, and boast that participants saw “an increase of up to 3.5 inches instantly in their vertical leap.” Nowhere do they say anything about the average increase in vertical leap, let alone provide any information about statistical significance.

The problem is that, from the data they do show, it’s clear that only one person in the study (subject 4) came anywhere near an increase of 3.5 inches. The average looks to be a fraction of an inch at best. And we don’t know whether these were one-time tests — maybe subject 4 just had a bad jump in the regular shoes?

I give the company credit for at least paying lip service to idea that they should back their claims up with scientific studies. But what they’ve provided falls way short of the mark. If the results are so good, why not disclose all the details of the study? If they’re not that good, I guess they’ll have to rely on a bogus “ban” to get attention.

[UPDATE: a follow-up post on the banned basketball shoes here]

Do sports superstitions really work?

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)

***

My column in today’s Globe and Mail is about sports superstitions — and in particular, about a great study by German researchers showing how well they work (e.g. handing someone a golf ball and telling them that it’s a “lucky ball” makes them hit 33% more putts). I wrote it while I was at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi, which allowed me to ask athletes there about their superstitions, some of which appeared in this sidebar accompanying the story:

Athletic superstitions range from the simple to the ridiculous. Here are a few that were on display at the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, which wrapped up last week:

David Mathie (lawn bowls): Always plays with the price tag on his right shoe.

Erin Marie Roth (lawn bowls): Carries a poker chip with her when playing internationally.
More related to this story

Catherine Dion (gymnastics): Always tightens her right grip before her left on the bars.

Then there are the major league superstitions:

Serena Williams (tennis): Doesn’t change socks during a tournament if she’s winning.

Bruce Gardiner (hockey): Dunked the blade of his stick in the Ottawa Senators locker-room toilet before games to end slumps.

Turk Wendell (baseball): Always chewed four pieces of black licorice while pitching, and brushed his teeth between each inning. Also never touched the baselines.

Jason Terry (basketball): Tries to sleep in a pair of uniform shorts belonging to next day’s opponents, wears five pairs of knee-high socks and eats chicken before every game.

Sources: Psychological Science 2010, mentalfloss.com

Average age of elite male and female marathoners

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)

***

One of the stats that aroused interest at the 2008 Olympics was the age of the two marathon champs: Sammy Wanjiru was a young lion of 21, while Constantina Tomescu-Dita, at 38, was more of a cougar. Philip Hersh wrote an interesting article a few weeks ago in the Chicago Tribune about why top marathoners are getting younger — on the men’s side, at least. Is it really a trend? And if so, does it apply to both men and women?

Researchers at Marquette University tackled that question in a paper available online ahead of print in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. They analyzed the ages of the top five men and women from the last decade or so of the World Marathon Majors — Chicago, London, New York, Berlin and Boston — plus the Olympics and World Championships. They found:

  • The women were 29.8 on average, while the men were 28.9 — a difference, but almost certainly not a physiological difference. (All of the difference came from Chicago and London, which had some unusually old female winners and young male winners.)
  • The difference didn’t change over the years, which puts another nail in the coffin of the now-discarded theory that women would one day out perform men over long distances because of greater ability to burn fat as fuel. On the contrary, it suggests that women’s marathoning is now a “mature” sport, since they’re no longer closing the gap to men’s performances.
  • The difference between men and women was smallest for first place and largest for fifth place, suggesting that there’s less depth in elite women’s marathoning ranks — something that’s fairly obvious to see.

So that’s the scoop. Nothing too earth-shattering here, but a reminder that one pair of unusual events (an old winner in the women’s race and a young winner in the men’s race) does not a trend make!

Back to regular programming (intervals vs. endurance training)

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)

***

I’m back home from a fascinating couple of weeks in India — many thanks to the athletes, coaches and scientists who shared their time with me. More articles to come, which I’ll link to in future posts.

img_2158-1In the meantime, the blog will get back to its bread-and-butter: reporting on new research related to exercise, fitness and sports. For starters, a study in the current Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise adding to the debate on the benefits and shortcomings of short, intense interval training for cardiovascular and other health benefits, from Lars Nybo’s group in Denmark. (The full text is freely available online.)

The study: four groups of nine untrained men did a 12-week training program:

1) Interval group: 5 min jog warm-up;  5 x 2 min HARD (getting HR above 95% of max); 1 min break between intervals (not clear from the paper, but I assume they just rested between intervals); 3 workouts per week, but they only completed an average of 2.0 due to factors such as injury (more on that below).

2) Endurance group: 1 hr of running at 80% max HR; 3 workouts per week, though they only completed 2.5 sessions on average.

3) Strength training: this group did three weights sessions a week. Not that interesting — they managed to confirm the well-known fact that running doesn’t give you bigger muscles, and lifting weights doesn’t improve aerobic fitness. (They probably should have to used these subjects to increase the size of the other groups…)

4) Controls who did nothing.

The key results are that (a) interval training produced double the increase in cardiorespiratory fitness that endurance training did (14% boost in VO2max compared to 7%); and (b) interval training was much less effective at lowering resting HR, body fat and bad cholesterol.

This is all good — we can all agree, I think, that different workouts do different things. Unfortuanately, you can’t cram all the benefits of an hour-long endurance session into 20 minutes. The big pitch for HIT (high-intensity interval training) is that it’s so much more time-efficient than the standard slog-on-the-treadmill-or-bike-or-elliptical workout. This is true. But the revised message of the last couple of years’ research is that you can adjust part of your weekly routine to HIT, not all of it. And in fact, you’re actually better off doing, say, 1-2 HIT sessions and 2-3 longer, slower runs per week than just doing four of the slower sessions. High-intensity has some major benefits beyond simple time-efficiency.

The one point that I wanted to circle back to is the injury question. The subjects in this study apparently hadn’t “participated in any type of regular physical training for at least 2 yr.” I don’t see any reference to a breaking-in period or a gradual ramping-up period — so it’s remarkable to me that ANY of the subjects made it through this study alive! Running for an hour continuously is a pretty tough task for an untrained subject, let alone a hard interval session. As it is, of the nine interval subjects, three missed sessions with shin splints, another got plantar fasciitis, and a fifth had “bilateral unspecific knee pain.” In the endurance group, two subjects had overuse injuries.

To me, that’s a pretty important point. If more than half of the subjects in an experimental group get injured, that’s a relevant detail when you’re talking about public health advice. The subjects in this study presumably had access to experts who could tell them how to deal with their injuries. For the average person outside the lab, encountering shin splints, plantar fasciitis or unidentified knee pain could easily spell the end of their attempt to get in shape.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m a big fan of interval training as a powerful and efficient way of getting in shape. But it’s an approach that does carry some higher risks, so I’d prefer to see it advocated as part of a well-balanced exercise regimen, rather than a revolutionary approach that should replace your current one.

Running, arthritis and your knees: more studies

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’s a nice article in today’s New York Times by Gretchen Reynolds, discussing recent research on knees, arthritis and vigorous exercise. In particular, there’s a new meta-analysis by Australian researchers that raises some interesting questions about the role of bone spurs — whether they might actually be a beneficial adaptation to the stress of exercise, rather than a sign of impending doom. (I blogged about this study here back in July.)

It’s definitely more complicated than “running ruins your knees” or, conversely, “running has no effect on your knees.” Physical activity has inevitable effects, and your body adapts to it — the question is whether this adaptation is good or bad. Worth a read.