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How fast to run if you’re stranded in the desert

April 9th, 2009

I had an interesting interview this morning with Karen Steudel of the University of Wisconsin’s Hominin Locomotion Laboratory, for an upcoming feature in Canadian Running magazine. She’s the researcher who caused a stir a few weeks ago with a study revealing that each person has an “optimum running speed” where we burn the least number of calories per mile (nicely summarized by Dan Peterson of 80percentmental here). Until now, strange as it may seem, researchers thought that it would take you exactly the same number of calories to run a mile, no matter what pace you ran at.

Steudel’s real interest is in whether our ancestors a few million years ago were efficient enough runners to chase animals for hours until they collapsed of heat exhaustion, a technique known as persistence hunting. But she’s well aware that the idea of an “optimum speed” might be of interest to runners (and she’s apparently receiving tons of e-mail asking for training advice!). The optimal paces in her study were about 7:14 per mile for men and 9:14 per mile for women — but with just nine subjects, the study is too small to take those numbers too seriously. However, she’s now back in the lab working on a new study trying to determine how limb length affects that optimal speed — another result that will be of interest both to evolutionary biologists and runners.

So what do we do with this information? Well, I’ve often pondered the scenario where you’re stranded in the desert with no food, 100 miles from the nearest aid, and you have to decide what your strategy is. Do you run? Walk? How fast? Seems like if you know your optimal pace, you can maximize your odds…

  1. Asterix
    April 9th, 2009 at 13:17 | #1

    Sounds like a possible study – let’s drop 100 people 100 miles out in the desert and see how (if) they make it out! Maybe Dean Karnazes would be interested in participating.

  2. alex
    April 10th, 2009 at 00:09 | #2

    Ha! The real challenge in that study won’t be the 100-mile run — it’ll be convincing the university’s ethics review board. :) “Some attrition is expected, but it’s all in the name of science…”

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