13 February, 2017

The Nike Marathon: science or farce?

Let's start with the facts. On December 12th, Nike introduced Breaking2. It was a project aiming at (unofficially) breaking the 2 hours marathon record barrier. Their announcement starts with a reference to R. Bannister's sub-4 min mile, a reference I find misplaced. While Bannister's record necessitated less than 0.6 % improvement over the record of Hägg, a sub-2 hrs time in the marathon corresponds to a 2.4 % improvement over the current world record. Nike stated that the team behind this enterprise comprises "... world-class experts across biomechanics, coaching, design, engineering, materials development, nutrition and sports psychology and physiology".

The Nike athletes who will participate at this endeavour are two top-class marathoners and one half-marathon specialist. E. Kipchoge, with a personal record of 2:03:05 is the winner of the 2016, Rio, Olympics. L. Desisa has won twice the Boston marathon and  has a personal best of 2:04:45. The third member of the team, Z. Tadese, is the half-marathon world record holder, with a time of 58:23, a curious addition since his performances on the marathon are rather modest.

Desisa, Tadese and Kipchoge

Not many details are given neither in the Nike announcement nor in the Runners World article, which invokes a confidentiality clause of their arrangement with Nike which will give them a "behind the scenes" access to the project. A funny observation is that Nike is planning an assault to the 2 hours barrier already for this coming spring while the author of the Runners World article, Alex Hutchinson, had just two years ago published an article predicting that the 2-hour barrier would be broken around 2075! The Wired article written also by a knowledgeable author, Ed Ceasar, who published last year the book "Two Hours: the quest to run the impossible marathon" is equally poor in details.

But is Nike project the first launching an attack at the 2 hours milestone? In fact, no. In 2014, my compatriot Y. Pitsiladis, who is a professor of sports and exercise science at the University of Brighton, launched his Sub2 Project. His goal was to have the barrier broken within five years. A look at Pitsiladis' website reveals among his partners the Athens Marathon and my alma mater, Athens University. And Adidas. Now, this last point is not negligible given that D. Kimetto (2:02:57), W. Kipsang (2:03:13), and P. Makau (2:03:38) are sponsored by Adidas. Pitsiladis and his team claim that A. Ayana, who established the out-of-this-world  record over 10000 m in Rio with 29:17.45, and K. Bekele, who ran 2:03:03 in Berlin in September becoming thus the second-fastest marathoner in history, have profited from timely application of beverages, prepared by them.

Why this special interest in the 2 hours marathon barrier? A look at the world record evolution over the last decade or so shows a clear change of slope.

Extrapolating linearly from the current trend (something one is advised not to do) leads to a sub-2 hr record prediction for a date around 2030. Does this make the Nike claims reasonable? People do not seem convinced.

One who is particularly vocal is Sarah Barker in her article for deadspin.com. A point she is making and which I have not seen in other analyses is her mention of "speedy pacers galore". In fact having fresh pace-makers every, say, 5 km, is something that could be of great help (and definitely ruled-out by the current IAAF regulations). Barker is reporting also the reactions of several specialists.

But what is even more interesting is her, deadspin.com also, interview of J. Hermens, the ex world hour record holder, whose Global Sports Communications company represents some of the biggest names in distance running (H. Gebreselassie, K. Bekele, E. Kipchoge, F. Kiplagat, A. Ayana to name but a few). I was especially startled to see this interview, linked to the Sub-2 project, in which Hermens spoke of genetic testing to identify the best young athletes. He makes the astounding suggestion that they might “manipulate those genes, 'turning up' those that would benefit a long distance runner and 'turning down' those responsible for performance limiting factors like lactate production”. This is pure techno-speak and, given that Hermens is not a scientist, I would simply discard these statements as marketing and/or obfuscating material.

Hermens with Gebreselassie

Ross Tucker in his blog "The science of Sport" addresses the question of sub-2 from a physiological point of view. 

He starts with the remark that his first reaction, when he heard about the project, was that the event would be held in a downhill course. In fact a 1 % decrease in gradient lowers the energetic cost of running by around 4 %. This would mean an altitude difference between starting and ending points of around 400 m. Personally, I think that such a choice would remove all credibility from the event putting it (almost, but not quite) on a par with Gatlin's farcical wind-assisted attempt. (But downhill running presents other disadvantages, from the point of view of muscles and joints, making this choice far from advisable). In fact, Tucker himself discarded his first reaction and decided that Nike would rely on shoe technology. This makes perfect sense since they are selling shoes.

Tucker mentions a research paper that showed that "... the Adidas Boost cushioning material resulted in a 1 % reduction in the oxygen cost during normal running". Now, it is not inconceivable that special shows with in-built springs could reduce the physiological cost of running by an amount greater that the 2.4 % needed for a sub-2 marathon. Will Nike equip their team with such shoes? I guess we'll have to wait for this coming spring in order to know. Tucker surmises that such shoes already exist and have even been field-tested, not only by Nike but by its rival Adidas as well. Anyhow, shoe technology looks more promising that a downhill race. 

The bottom line according to Tucker is that this is a disingenuous campaign. Going for a 2.4 % improvement when the records are already becoming asymptotic is unrealistic. And when sports science promises and  under-delivers, it hurts everybody. But in the case of Nike the project looks more like marketing dressed up as science.

I, and I am not alone, would like to see a sub-2 hrs marathon during my lifetime. However, it has to be a genuine, by the book, attempt and not some almost farcical, marketing oriented, one.

Bekele running at Dubai

PS While I was preparing this article K. Bekele announced that he would make an attempt at breaking the world record during the Dubai marathon. Unfortunately Bekele was jostled and fell at the start and had to abandon at mid-race when all record hope was gone. Had he broken the record we would have had a clear picture of what one can expect from a top-class marathoner under quasi-ideal conditions. I guess that now we have to wait for the Berlin marathon.  

01 February, 2017

European records revisited: how to avoid a witch-hunt

In January 2016 the president of European Athletics, Svein Arne Hansen, announced a number of measures to bring about a “cultural revolution” in athletics. Among the various measures considered was a review of existing records in the light of the doping scandals which reopened the discussion about the legitimacy of certain records.

A few days ago the European Athletics Executive Board appointed a task force to examine the credibility of all European Records. The European Athletics president, speaking about records said that "they should be 100 percent believable and credible. However, there is a view that this is currently not the case with some of the performances on the European Record list". Thus the review came to being. The announcement pointed out that the task force will use all available media to ensure that optimal integrity is applied to this important historical work. Also members of the sporting public were invited to contribute any comments or suggestions.

I am 100 % in favour of reviewing the record list. But this cannot be done on an case per case basis. How can we establish that Mennea's 200 m record is clean while Schönlebe's 400 m one is not? I do, a priori, respect the members of the task force. However if they start to examine the validity of the records one by one the whole process will, to my eyes, lose all legitimacy.

So, what can be done? The only solution I find acceptable is to keep only the records realised after a given date. I am aware that it is difficult to find the ideal date and here is where the task force should concentrate their efforts. For me, given that doping controls got serious in the 90s one can decide that all records prior to 1990 are to be discarded. What would this lead to?

In order to illustrate this proposal I am giving below the list of the records that should change, limiting myself to the "standard", outdoors, ones.

200 m P. Mennea 19.72
400 m T. Schönlebe 44.33
Long Jump R. Emmiyan 8.86
Shot Put U. Timmerman 23.08
Discus Throw Y. Schult 74.08
Hammer Throw Y. Sedykh 86.74

400 m M. Koch 47.60
800 m S. Kratochvilova 1:53.28
1500 m T. Kazankina 3:52.47
100 m Hurdles Y. Donkova 12.21
High Jump S. Konstadinova 2.09
Long Jump G. Chistyakova 7.52
Shot Put T. Lisovskaya 22.83
Discus Throw G. Reinsch 76.80
4x100 m GDR 41.37
4x400 m USSR 3:15.17

Which are the records that would replace them? I start by giving a list taking simply the best, post 90, european performances.

200 m C. Lemaître 19.80
400 m I. Thomas 44.35
Long Jump L. Tsatoumas 8.66
Shot Put D. Storl 22.20
Discus Throw V. Alekna 73.88
Hammer Throw V. Deviatovskiy 84.90

400 m M.J. Pérec 48.25
800 m J. Ceplak 1:55.19
1500 m L. Muir 3:55.22
100 m Hurdles L. Engquist 12.26
High Jump B. Vlasic 2.08
Long Jump H. Drechsler 7.48
Shot Put N. Ostapchuk 21.58
Discus Throw L. Korotkevich 71.30
4x100 m Russia 41.37
4x400 m Russia 3:18.38

Notice that some athletes' names are in red. In all these cases the athlete has, at one point in his/her career, been sanctioned for a doping offense. I do not know what would be the policy adopted by European Athletics in such a case. But let us assume that all performances by doping offenders do not count towards a european record. 
In this case they should be replaced by the following:

Hammer Throw I. Astapkovich 84.62

800 m S. Masterkova 1:55.87
100 m Hurdles S. Kallur 12.49
Shot Put A. Kumbernuss 21.22
4x100 m Germany 41.62

Just in case anybody was wondering there is no known case of doping for the members of the russian 4x400 m women's relay. The same holds true for Astapkovich, Masterkova, Kallur, Kumbernuss and the german 4x100 m team. The case of Drechsler is more subtle. She has never failed a drug test. However there have been allegations as to a possible use of anabolics by Dreschler in the 80s, the BBC even claiming that she has admitted to unknowingly taking prohibited substances under orders from her team doctors. Since I have decided to apply the rule that only convicted doping offenders do not qualify for a european record, I let Drechsler's record stand.

And how about world records? Once the process is underway at the level of Europe it is unthinkable to stop there. In fact the president of European Athletics clearly stated that he was in regular contact with the president of the IAAF on this matter and that the IAAF would monitor closely the work of the european federation before deciding on any actions at the world level.

The task force is expected to report back to the European Athletics Executive Board by September 2017 with their recommended changes and rationale. I cross my fingers for a fair proposal to emerge but I am not overly optimistic.