Tuesday, 12 January 2010

10 Changes that Shook the Runner's World

Recent reflections on the first decade of the new millennium have been filled, as these kinds of reflections almost always are, with references to technology-- how fast it has been moving, and how, once again, it has Changed Everything. The truth is, sometimes technology creates fundamental change of one kind or another; but, more often, it doesn't change much that's fundamental about the way we all go about our business. Most technological change amounts to variations on an established theme-- quantity rather than quality, if you will. But what if we break things down a bit and consider the effects of technology at the micro-level. Surely, in some small areas of life-- those of our various leisure pursuits for example-- technological change has had transformative impacts. Or has it? What, for instance, has been the impact of technology on the sport of running in the past few decades? This week, I propose to consider this question in terms of my own experience with the running-related technological innovations that have appeared over the course of my own 30 year career. In what follows, I present my ranking of the 10 most consequential running technologies to appear since I laced up my first pair of trainers, along with a few words on the total impact of these innovations. I also offer a couple of dishonorable mentions in the technology department-- so called innovations that are nothing of the sort.

Here, in reverse order of consequentiality, are my choices:

10. Changes in footwear. Ironically, given the amount of general hoopla surrounding running shoes since the advent of the first running boom, innovations in this area seem to have had very little impact on the activity itself-- at least where the proverbial rubber hits the road. In my own experience, some models of shoes from the early 1980s were actually superior to most of the models on offer today, in terms of basic performance and injury prevention. And, there was definitely a period in the last 3 decades when shoes seemed to be getting worse-- over-engineered and too encumbered with new technologies. Recent innovations in the paring down and simplifying running shoes are welcome, but they don't really represent a net gain when the whole era of running shoe innovation is considered. In my view, we need only only concern ourselves with running shoes from the point of view of avoiding those that are bad for us. The best shoes today, as always, are those ones that simply stay our of our way; that enable us to run as long and fast as our own bodies will allow us. That said, the shoes of the past 30 years really do represent a net gain on what came before. The are, by and large, much lighter, more flexible, and more responsive than anything worn in the late 1970s. Its still worth while taking some time to examine the claims, and the performance, of different brands or running shoes. Just don't expect them to do more than their basic job.

9. Satellite-based measurement modalities. Things like Google Mapping, MapMyRun, or the portable wrist-worn GPS certainly represent innovations; but again, their high profile is probably out of proportion to their net value-added. A technological innovation is important only in relation to what it is attempting to improve on or replace. In the case of these technologies, what is being replaced is our own ability to estimate distance for the purposes of assessing our training paces, and we can learn to do this quite accurately with no more technology than a wrist watch. In my case, these modalities have done little more than confirm the accuracy of my own estimations from as long ago as 25 years. I wouldn't go as far as to agree with those curmudgeons who argue that these tools are more trouble than they're worth, however. But I do think their suddenly high profile is way out of proportion to their net benefit. They certainly have their uses, particularly for beginning runners, and those who do a lot of running in strange areas. However, if they don't already own a good set of winter running clothes, a treadmill, or an elliptical trainer (see below), most runners would be better off spending their money on these items first.

8. Heart rate monitors. Much of the above also goes for HRMs. These devices provide another good measure of training intensity, to go along with the established ones-- the wrist watch and our own brains-- but their value-added is not on the level with their pervasiveness, or, I think, with the claims made on their behalf. I completely disagree, for instance, with the premise of a whole training system built around heart rate levels. I simply don't think HR alone is a fine-grained enough measure of training effort to support this kind of burden. I have always taken flack from HR aficionados for this stance, but it's a flack I'm more than willing to take.

7. Flexibility training. This one may have ranked slightly higher, except for the fact that there is as yet no clear evidence that flexibility training really increases performance or reduces injury in runners! Then why count it as an innovation at all, you might ask. In spite of the ongoing lack of supporting research, millions of runners remain sold on an intuitive level on the benefits of stretching, and on new types of stretching, including A.I. (Active Isolated), Yoga, and various kinds of dynamic flexibility exercises that aim to increase functional range of motion. Although I hedge my bets by the not making a religion of stretching, I count myself among those millions who are convinced on the pure level of "feel" that flexibility work enables them to run further and faster, and cope with injuries better. And I think one day science will discover the secret of what many runners "know" deep in their fibers. Anything that has lasted as long as stretching has among runners must be working on some level. Runners, after all, tend to be busy people, and busy people will tend over time to give up doing things that they feel are not of direct benefit to them.

6. Clothing. While advances in running shoe technology have not amounted to all that much in 30 years, innovation in the area of basic running apparel-- from the hi-tech "wicking" t-shirt, to the spandex tight, to and the vast array of super-lightweight winter garments-- has been nothing short of breathtaking. In fact, advancements in running clothing would rank even higher in my mind if we were only considering running in Canada. In most of the rest of the world, one's choice of running apparel is not all that significant one way or another. But for those who have to face four months or more of winter running, and who are old enough to remember the cotton sweatshirts and baggy, heavy, crotch-dragging gym pants that used to pass for cold weather gear 30 years ago, the advent of wafer-thin, breathable and genuinely warm winter running fabrics has been nothing short of miraculous. I would even go so far as to say that the invention of decent winter running clothing has single-handedly increased the total number of year-round active runners in places like Canada.

5. "Active Release" therapy. As with stretching, the jury is still largely out regarding the proven benefits of this form of injury treatment. But again, millions of injured runners desperate to return to the fray will swear by the bang-for-buck value of this therapy, which combines the use of pressure points with the active bending and stretching of the affected limb. My own experience with the technique-- which I first encountered in my mid to late 30s, when my body was beginning to lose the last of its youthful resilience in the face of hard training -- was that I could reduce my injury down time by 50% or more over simply resting and cross training through timely application of ART. Such was the effectiveness of this technique that what might have been stubborn problems, costing me days or even weeks of training in bygone days, could be eliminated in as little as two treatments at the hands of a skilled practitioner. I owe a good deal of my success as a master runner to ART, combined with innovation #4 below.

4. Pilates-based "core" strength training for runners. Originally developed as a therapy for injured dancers, core training was gradually adapted for runners looking for ways to address the underlying causes of so-called "overuse" injuries, and perhaps get a little faster in the process. Elites runners have probably always had decent natural strength in the areas covered by core strength training-- the lower and deep abdominals, the low-back, and the glutes-- good natural core strength being no doubt a part of the secret of their elite-ness in the first place. The real value of core strengthening has therefore been in enabling later-starting, previously inactive, and older runners to reduce pain and injury associated with weakness and lack of stability in these nexus regions of the body. A relatively late-breaking innovation, core strength will no doubt continue to have an impact in keeping more aging runners in the game longer, as well as help late-comers get started without succumbing quickly to common overuse injuries.

3. Expertly made custom orthotics. This one is bound to provoke some sharp disagreement, but not because the custom shoe insert is not a major running innovation; rather, because orthotics tend to be over-prescribed, and are too often poorly made, at least for the purposes of serious running. For the millions-- including many of the sports top performers-- who have relied on them to make the difference between repeated, chronic injury and success, they are almost as vital as oxygen itself. The minimalist fervour notwithstanding, the fact is that not everyone's feet are suited for the mile upon mile of running on pavement and track that success in running requires, and we will never live in a world where more than a few of us can get away with running barefoot. Properly prescribed, expertly made, and carefully readjusted by the hand of a craftsman or woman who knows the biomechanics of running, the contemporary orthotic insert, made of state of the art materials, has become as important a basic running innovation as the running shoe itself.

2. Tie: The lightweight and affordable home/club treadmill and the elliptical trainer. Ubiquitous because they have now become so relatively cheap, the home/club treadmill has quietly revolutionized running by making it far more accessible to inhabitants of environments unfriendly to outdoor, winter, or after dark outings. Male runners; runners who live in temperate, runner-friendly communities; runners who can run in daylight whenever they choose; and runners who are not and have never been the parents of small children may scoff at the suggestion that the affordable treadmill represents an important innovation. But, runners for whom getting outside poses special challenges will know that easy access to the 'mill can make the difference between being a serious runner and not bothering at all. As for the elliptical trainer, it is almost everything the treadmill is, with the added benefit that it can also be used as a cross-training modality while rehabbing injuries. For most runners, in fact, the purchase of a home elliptical trainer is probably better value for money than a home treadmill. And perhaps better value than either for most runners is the purchase of a gym membership, which provides cheap access to both types of machine, plus a great place to do some core strength exercises!

1. The internet. The internet? Indeed. Before you dismiss this as an easy catch-all (what activities, after all, has the internet NOT at least indirectly transformed?), consider the following: In the past 30 years running has gone from being a sport regularly covered in the national media to an fringe sport with no more mainstream media profile than-- to take one of many possible examples-- "mixed martial arts", a sport that remains illegal in many jurisdictions! Thus, as a sport, running now been forced to take up residence almost exclusively on the internet. More than this, however, it currently thrives on-line. Running now seems to depend on the new technology more heavily than most other sports, and seems to be growing in spite of this, or perhaps because of it. Runners seem to be a uniquely computer friendly lot. They have adjusted readily, even happily, to the reality of having to watch even the biggest events on their sporting calendar exclusively via live-stream webcasts. (In fact, many of us now prefer it this way, considering how fragmentary and ill-informed mainstream coverage has become, when the conventional media do deign to cover our sport.) Add to this the rapid growth of running related websites, message boards, blogs, and on-line coaching outfits, and it is clear that the internet has significantly enabled the remaking of running as competitive sport, along with its continued expansion as a mass fitness pastime. The internet now contains a vast and easily accessible storehouse of all things running, as well as a global community of enthusiasts, fans, and experts. Outside of local training groups and races themselves, the net is now almost exclusively where we as a sport community come together to share our knowledge and experience, and as well as recognize one another's achievements-- from world records to age-class wins and personal bests. Some-- myself included-- have even credited the internet with being instrumental the recent resurgence of American elite distance running. No doubt, websites like the famous-- some would say infamous-- LetsRun.com have become important vehicles for the promotion of "best practice" in coaching and training, as well as all-important arenas for the attainment of stardom in the sport-- that is, in a world where only aficionados seem any longer to care.

But what do these various innovations really amount to when compared with the impact of technological change in other areas of life? Compared simply with other sports, I would argue: relatively little. Think, for instance, of the impact of changes in equipment on the way hockey is played. Here, changes in stick and skate technology alone have increased the tempo of the game considerably in 30 years; whereas, in running, the best runners of 30 years ago would not look out of place at all in today's elite fields, and the same could easily be said for recreational runners. Or take golf, where equipment changes, new training regimes, and the introduction of cheap digital video have actually forced the redesign of courses themselves. Running never has been, and likely never will be, transformed by technologies to this extent. To quote one of my favourite runners-- all-time top three Canadian marathoner and sage, Arthur Boileau-- "running is a simple sport". Art was referring to our ability to understand and rate our performance in running when he said this, but it remains true in a general sense. Most of what is meaningful in running occurs under the skin of athletes themselves. Technological innovation notwithstanding, our ability to do well in this sport still depends, as it always has, on our capacity to run long and fast as often as possible for as many years as possible. The above innovations no doubt help to support this basic endeavour, but they do relatively little to change its essence. It may be, in fact, that running has already undergone all the meaningful technological innovation it can absorb. Further "breakthroughs" may have even less real impact than the ones mentioned.

Finally, what about technological innovations that have taken running a step backwards, or that have been generally more trouble than they're worth? In this category of "dishonourable mention", I would include two things, which run the gamut from the sinister to the ridiculous: The "blood-boosting" agent EPO, a banned substance intended for use by cancer patients; and, the infamous "buffet belt", that now ubiquitous strap-on, personal feeding, hydration and entertainment centre.

It might seem counter-intuitive to list EPO has a step backward for running, since it has no doubt contributed to the assault on the record books that took place immediately following its introduction in the early/mid 1990s. In a strictly technical sense, couldn't we list EPO as the greatest of all running-related technological innovations? If running were akin to rocket science, or other kinds of engineering, the answer would be "yes". But running is fundamentally not like rocket science: it is a sport, and sports are games. And games are-- in contrast with activities where the best possible technical means for achieving an objective are sought-- fundamentally based on the establishment and negotiation of gratuitous obstacles. The fastest means to get from point A to point B is, after all, not running at all! What makes running a game is that is has rules which shape the behaviour of participants in ways that encourage them to display characteristics that we humanly value-- courage, determination, honour, etc. The introduction of a means of, in effect, "beating the game", such as EPO represents, threatens to destroys the game itself. The invention of EPO certainly represents a kind of achievement, and the skill that went into its development is something that we value in a general sense. But, its introduction into endurance sport undermines our ability to appreciate the human qualities that endurance sport, as a game, was invented in order to encourage and showcase. The introduction of EPO and other performance enhancing drugs threatens to turn endurance sport into a contest between pharmaceutical researchers and not athletes, strictly speaking (and, EPOs effect on sport aside, pharmaceutical researchers ought to have better things to do!). EPO and other performance enhancing drugs may represent an innovation in terms of finding ways to enable the human body to go further, faster. But the sport of running is not about finding ways to go faster by any technical means necessary, but rather, within a clearly established and mutually agreed upon set of rules. As such, the introduction of EPO into distance running represents a clear step backward for the sport.

More hilariously, the "buffet belt" is a technological step backward for the sport in that it represents an innovation in response to a fictitious and manufactured need. And, because it actually makes you slower! Runners who use these contraptions spends hours training their bodies to run faster-- including reducing the actual weight of said bodies-- only to strap on several ounces, or even pounds, of extra weight, simply in order to have water and other sustenance more ready to hand. The trouble is, most runners don't go far enough, or run in such remote areas, that the necessary water and food are not readily available by other means. (I, for instance, plan my summer runs around access to municipal water supplies, or run 20min loops, so that I can return to my stashed water bottle every 3 miles or so.) And the use of buffet belt in races is doubly counterproductive and mystifying. Why carry all that extra weight when most races supply water and other fluids for free, and at 3-5k intervals, and when a gel or two can easily be stowed in the pocket of one's shorts!? The buffet belt is certainly innovative, but in the field of retail marketing, not running science.

Next week, I review and P-K Performance of the Year nominees for January to September last year, and pick Performance of the Year for 2009, the owner of which will receive a small Mizuno prize package.


Blogger Jo said...

Next time I'm tempted to wear a "buffet belt" when I know in my heart it's not needed...I'll think of you. And promise to try and reform my "wicked ways"...lol

Love the list. Still pondering the orthotics one...not entirely convinced.


16 January 2010 13:07  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As far as the comments: "Flexibility training. This one may have ranked slightly higher, except for the fact that there is as yet no clear evidence that flexibility training really increases performance or reduces injury in runners!"

While the above might be true, I think there is clearer evidence that flexibility training is critical to rehabilitate various muscle-related running injuries (hamstrings, glutes, etc.) when there is not enough flexibility to get adequate range of motion. Given the fact that runners are often recovering from different usually minor "aches and pains" on an ongoing basis, which can be caused by milder forms of the above muscle injuries, the lines between injury rehabilitation, general recovery, injury prevention, and performance improvement can become blurred. Therefore, for some, flexibility training can be as important as, for example, orthotics are for others.

17 January 2010 10:17  

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