4 September 2013

Feeding and caring for freelancers

It must be hard living with a freelance writer.

Mr Hayley: I was thinking of making risotto for dinner. What do you reckon?

Me: Hmmm?

Mr Hayley: Can you just stop looking at that for a minute? I'm making a risotto. What do you want in it?

Me: Did you know humans can regenerate their fingers?

Mr Hayley: [silence]

Me (clicking on new link): Huh! No way!

Mr Hayley: Right, I'm making this risotto. Did you post those forms for our passports?

Me: What? Oh no, sorry, I still had that script to write about serotonin. Actually, that was really interesting because...

Mr Hayley: But we live opposite a postbox!

Me: Can you stop talking for a bit? I'm trying to finish this article.

1 hour later

Mr Hayley: Are you going to come and eat this risotto?

Me (above sound of furious typing): Yep, just a minute.

Mr Hayley: It's getting cooooold!

5 mins later

Me: Sorry, I just had to get that done while it was in my head. This looks good. Wow, I'm hungry.

Mr Hayley: Did you have lunch today?

Me: Er, did I? Um... Did you put any fresh basil in this?

Mr Hayley: No...

Me: What about cheese?

Mr Hayley: Well...

Me: What's in it then? Just rice and butternut squash and stock?

Mr Hayley: And garlic.

Me: Why didn't you ask me? You know I make the best risottos.

While this is a characterisation, it's a pretty accurate one. Dear me, I'm awful. Carers of freelancers need some sort of support society of their own.

28 August 2013

The Big Questions

Questions. Questions, questions, questions. We ask ourselves questions all day long. Where did I put my car keys? (The same place I always put them, except I haven't looked hard enough.) When am I going to do the washing? (Tomorrow. Always tomorrow.) Shall I go to the Vietnamese supermarket and pick up all the ingredients for this delicious-looking noodle recipe? (No. I'm too hungry. I'll just make the same boring pasta dish I've already made twice in the last week.) When am I going to stop messing about on this blog and start preparing for the interview I've got to do in an hour? (Argh!)

You probably have more important questions on your mind. Scientists definitely do. Here are some of them, on the cover of the book (BOOK!) that I recently wrote with Mun Keat Looi and Colin Stuart:

I know what you're thinking. "Wow, Hayley has very manly hands." They're Mun Keat's.
Yay! Book!

I'm excited (and terrified) because it's the first book project I've worked on where I haven't been "just" editing or one of about 50 other authors. This is actually written by us - the three of us. And it was a total blast. I think I must have had some of the most existential conversations anyone has ever had over Skype while writing this book. There were a lot of in-jokes about robot butlers. And one particularly memorable back and forth about a bestiality reference... see chapter six.

Anyway, you can buy it "in all good book shops" from 12th September - or pre-order on Amazon now. Thanks to everyone at Carlton and at Watson, Little, for their help. And to Claire for the wonderfully playful illustrations. Worth buying just for those. I mean, you should buy it anyway. But the illustrations are *really* good.

11 June 2013

The preserve of professionals?

On citizen science, Muki Haklay writes:
"...by definition, citizen science can only exist in a world in which science is socially constructed as the preserve of professional scientists in academic institutions and industry because, otherwise, any person who is involved in a scientific project would simply be considered a contributor and, potentially, a scientist. ...[U]ntil the late 19th century, science was mainly developed by people who had additional sources of employment that allowed them to spend time on data collection and analysis. Famously, Charles Darwin joined the Beagle voyage, not as a professional naturalist but as a companion to Captain FitzRoy. Thus, in that era, almost all science was citizen science albeit mostly by affluent gentlemen and gentlewomen scientists."
It's an interesting point. What other elements of our society and culture do we consider the preserve of professionals? Am I a citizen athlete, citizen chef or citizen seamstress?

2 May 2013

Trust and citizen science

As communicators of science, we often talk about "trust" in scientists. Would the average member of "the public" trust a scientist to tell the truth - any more they would, say, a journalist, or a politician? The Ipsos MORI Trust Poll gives us an answer to this question. 83% would trust a scientist to tell the truth. Wow, trust in scientists is second only to doctors and teachers! Journalists (21%) and politicians (18%), meanwhile, languish at the bottom of the list.

(For the record, I think the idea of trusting someone to tell you the truth is a weird concept. The truth about what? Their expenses? Where all the bourbon biscuits went?)

Anyway, I've been doing some research on citizen science for a report I'm writing and have noticed a lot of references to trust cropping up. While the average member of the public supposedly places a lot of "trust" in scientists (I wonder if those who actually know any scientists score lower or higher...), it doesn't seem to work the other way. Scientists don't have much faith in members of the public. Or at least... even if they would trust them to own up to eating all the biscuits, they wouldn't trust them to do anything resembling scientific research.

Citizen science projects - like the Great Chicken Coop Stakeout or the South African Bird Atlas Project - use volunteers, sometimes on a mass scale, to carry out scientific surveys and monitoring. From what I've read, some scientists are skeptical about the quality of data emerging from these type of projects. This mistrust extends to policymakers, who are reluctant to use the data on the presumption that it is somehow faulty or unreliable.

Here's a post by John Gollan, a research fellow at the University of Technology, Sydney in which he explains that far from being of poor quality, data collected by citizen scientists is of similar quality to data collected by scientists and on occasion better.

The comments section provides food for thought. From Les McNamara:
"It is odd that a society can train volunteers to reliably perform first aid, fight fires and provide care to needy and vulnerable people, but that same society can't trust volunteers to count birds. Scientific snobbery?"

Clearly all scientists do not hold the same view - Les is a researcher himself. But why mistrust data collected by volunteers, who after all are just PEOPLE. Like scientists, remember? We are all PEOPLE with the same foibles. In general, volunteers taking part in citizen science projects are not being asked to follow complex scientific protocols, so why should they be expected to make mistakes? If a project is well-designed in the first place (most are designed by scientists themselves) and the volunteers are properly briefed, the risk of bias should be the same as for any ol' science project. Here's Gollan:

"It should not be a case of blaming the citizens. The scientist behind such programs should have checks in place – citizen science project or otherwise!"

30 April 2013

An attempt to run a marathon using SCIENCE: part XII

So after running a marathon you get really lazy. Too lazy to do the washing up, or walk down the stairs at your flat to put the recycling out, or change out of your pyjamas before the postman arrives... Your kitchen sink slowly disappears under a pile of unwashed mugs used to eat chocolate gateau out of and you have to force your way through mountains of unrecycled cardboard to get to the bathroom. When you can be bothered. So, yeah, definitely too lazy to write blog posts.

I'm exaggerating a teeny bit. Something like that happened for a couple of days and then, lo and behold, the SUN came out! And I had my trainers back on in a flash. The mental recovery was probably harder - my brain went into a flap for about a week afterwards, wondering what it was supposed to focus on after all the training and menu plans came to an end, and all the niggles and sniffles that threatened to ruin the race magically disappeared. Then there was the Boston Marathon thing, which felt strange and horrible while I still had my own marathon in my legs.

Anyway, here's a picture of me running a marathon:

I know! I even look like I'm enjoying it!

I won't bore you with the details of the race. Suffice to say it was rather hillier than expected - a two-lap course that inflicted some severe psychological torture between 20-30k, when all the hills from the first lap reared their ugly heads for the second time around. On reflection, a time of 4:02 was respectable and, hey, I have this nice picture that will no doubt lead me to remember it as being all lovely and smiley and even repeatable in the not-too-distant future...

So what have I learnt? Has SCIENCE taught me anything about running a marathon? Did it help?

I guess I should really have run a marathon *without* the SCIENCE first... as a control. But that would have made for an equally poor experiment. I think you learn so much by doing all the training and running the marathon, that a second marathon will always be easier anyway, no matter how much expertise you throw at it. For example, next time (ha!) I would be much more careful about my tapering - not just cutting down on the mileage for the couple of weeks before the race, but avoiding *anything* untested. (I stupidly had a go at some 100m relay reps the Wednesday before - "it's so short it couldn't possibly hurt!" - not thinking anything of it until I woke up the next day, three days before race day, with some very tired thighs). There was also a lot of trial and error that went into planning my pre-race meals. Not particularly scientific either, just seeing what would get me up in the morning feeling energised rather than sluggish. (Brown rice rather than pasta, if anyone's interested, but that's just me.)

On the subject of nutrition though, I do think that reading some of the literature on carbohydrate storage and "the wall" helped. Otherwise, I think I would have been pretty skeptical about using energy gels. Sports drinks, I've concluded, are largely useless in the context that they are used by most people. But a marathon is a special case. You simply can't run on empty. So I spent a long time researching energy gels and tried out everything I intended to use on training runs before the race. As a result, I never hit the wall... and managed to avoid throwing up on a grass verge as I saw several runners doing.

High intensity interval training at the track has also helped me increase my pace. As coaches keep telling me, there's plenty of evidence for this type of training improving your speed endurance, but I'm not sure whether the effect has been largely physiological or psychological. (I *believe* I can run faster, so I do?) And I reckon the major benefit has been over 5k and 10k rather than longer distances. Still, who knows? It might have taken me 10 hours to finish the thing without all that HIIT.

There were other aspects of endurance running and training that were not particularly well studied. I remain unconvinced by evidence on yoga, cross-training and stretching, for example. The problem is that there are just so many variables... Every study tries something different - different exercises, at different frequencies, with people of differing abilities. It becomes impossible to make comparisons. And most studies are small. With runners so stuck in their ways, convincing more to take part in scientific studies is a challenge because it means messing with their precious training regimes.

I think there's an important lesson to be learned from all this. You can't rely on science to tell you what to do. It doesn't have an answer for everything - well, not yet. People have been running marathons for a long time. People who run them and people who train other people to run them know what it takes, even if they haven't tested it on hundreds of people and published it in a scientific journal. And everyone is different. What worked for me almost certainly won't work for everyone else trying to run a marathon. On the other hand, you can save yourself a lot of money and wasted energy by being skeptical and looking up the evidence that is available (or not available, in many cases). If someone tells you to wrap your feet in newspaper and stand on your head for half an hour every morning to cure your plantar fasciitis, try putting it into PubMed before you do it.

Oh dear - look what happened over that second lot of hills!

6 April 2013

An attempt to run a marathon using SCIENCE: part XI

The important business of the day: WHAT AM I GOING TO WEAR? Currently, it could be either of the following two outfits...

It's April and due to the Great British Weather there's no telling whether we'll have sunshine or snow next weekend, but if like me you're marathoning for the first time this month, I have one piece of advice: DO NOT run in something you haven't tested out beforehand. Don't even think about it. I made that mistake in a race once before, so this time I've tested two new pairs of shorts in near-freezing conditions, just in case we have warm weather on the day. Since we've had few opportunities for warm weather training, temperature will unfortunately be a worry if it heats up in the next week... but at least I won't get caught out by chafing or embarrassing wardrobe malfunctions.

As far as the SCIENCE goes, I'll leave my results and conclusions till after the marathon. For now, here are some quite staggering statistics courtesy of my Garmin watch.

Since the start of the year...
  • I've run 585 km (not including warm up/down)! That's the distance from Torino, Italy to Aix-en-Provence, France. I know, I have NO IDEA where that is either.
  • I've run 6.10 km per day, or 9.29 km on each run if you discount rest days. WHAT? I am NUTS!
  • I've spent a total of 66 hours 35 minutes and 17 seconds exercising, not even including all the nasty hurty stretches the physio prescribed. That is nearly three whole DAYS! And I bet I've spent twice as long analysing my Garmin stats...
  • I've used up 28,069 calories just on running. Man, I could have eaten a LOT more cake if I'd thought about it.
I am never doing a marathon again.

Anyway, there's one more thing I want to share with you before I do this thing...

15 years ago, my dad made a bet with me. A bet worth one thousand English pounds. Next Sunday, my dad will lose that bet - albeit a few years later than I intended - when I complete my first marathon. Sadly, he won't be well enough to watch me run and I won't be claiming my winnings. Actually, I'm sure he hasn't given that bet much thought since the day he made it. I asked him a couple of times if he had any recollection of it and he told me he didn't. But no matter. What he said provoked in me a fierce desire to show that I was stronger and more determined than even he knew. That's why when I'm running I'm often thinking of my dad - not in defiance but with a sly smile that says, "I told you so." I hope he'll be proud that I proved him wrong.

2 April 2013

An attempt to run a marathon using SCIENCE: part X (Rest)

My race number arrived!

This week I've been getting to grips with rest. In the practical and the academic sense - while winding down ("tapering") my training I've been devoting some time to theories about *when* to rest. Common sense dictates that your rest day should be the day after your long run. For me, that's usually a Monday, after a 20k or 30k run on a Sunday. However, there are some running bods who would advise me to delay my rest day till Tuesday. Why? Surely it would be madness to run again the day after a killer 30k?

 As I've been finding out, there are plenty of dubious reasons to delay your rest by one day - cleaning out clogged systems etc - but a few days ago I came across this post referring to Matt Fitzgerald's book Brain Training for Runners, which offers an immunologically-founded scientific explanation.

Now, I like immunology. I was such a nerd about it at university that I took *Advanced* Immunology as well as ordinary, boring, easy immunology. And I got top marks. YEAH. So as you can imagine I was pretty excited to hear this explanation.

Ben at Ben's Book Blog has helpfully copy and pasted page-referenced sections of the book if you're interested. The gist of it is that immune cells produce a molecule called IL-6, which is released during long, exhaustive bouts of exercise and is involved in the body's adaptation to endurance training - suggesting it would work to enhance your marathon performance. Therefore, running again while IL-6 levels are still high should offer some training benefit.
"IL6 is believed to facilitate many of the body’s adaptations to exercise training, ranging from increased fat burning to greater resistance to muscle damage, to improved cognition." (Fitzgerald)
Sounds like SCIENCE. Except... "believed"? Could it be just another dubious theory? What worries me is not so much that the theory could be wrong, it's that runners are being told "don't give yourself a well-earned rest the day after a really heavy training session, go back out for more punishment..." The IL-6 theory has been used to support a training strategy known as "bonk training" (ahem), supposedly practiced by elite athletes, but certainly by diet and exercise obsessives looking for quick-fix solutions.

"Bonking" approaches involve running before breakfast or within a few hours of a long run, to get your body - in its state of depleted energy supplies - to shift from burning sugars to its back-up fuel, fat. At the extreme end of the scale, bonking means pushing yourself through "the wall" to a hypoglycaemic state where you feel sick, dizzy and fatigued. As those who read my second marathon post will know, I experienced something like this a few months ago due to misjudging my nutrition needs on a long run and I DO NOT recommend it. It is neither pleasant nor safe, especially if you are running on your own.

Right. So let's break down this IL-6 business. What's IL-6? It's a signal protein that tells your body - primarily your immune system - when it should be doing certain things. We've known since the early nineties that IL-6 is released during lengthy exercise. We also know that it's released when levels of glycogen - a stored form of sugar that you keep in your muscles and liver - are low. Makes sense, right? Energy levels are going to get lower the longer you exercise.

There are studies, in both humans and mice, showing that IL-6 increases up to 100-fold during extreme exercise. Here's one showing that IL-6 levels increase after running a marathon. It's thought the molecule is released by contracting muscles, as well as the brain.

So what happens when you run on already low levels of sugar/glycogen? What is IL-6 telling your body to do? What's the training benefit? It's not so clear. Despite evidence suggesting IL-6 is involved in fat-burning and the body's response to muscle damage, there's still a lot we don't understand about this molecule. In a 2012 study, Danish researchers wrote:
"it is evident that exercise training has beneficial effects on [fat] tissue inflammation and overall [fat cell] function... but it is not known whether IL-6 contributes to such training-induced adaptations in adipose tissue."
In the same paper, after summarising the results of some experiments in mice, they went on to suggest that IL-6 mediates effects of exercise training on fat tissue. Regular training seems to result in *lower* resting levels of IL-6, potentially balanced by increasing levels of receptors producing greater sensitivity to the molecule. But what does it all MEAN? Does running on IL-6 teach your body to switch between fuels? Does it make you fitter? We don't really know. Not only is research pretty early stage, it is published post- the initial hype about bonking and Fitzgerald's 2007 book... Even in 2012, the science of IL-6 was still dodgy.

The picture gets even more complicated when we appreciate that a good deal of the research in the field of IL-6 and exercise comes out of the lab of a minor celebrity scientist at the University of Copenhagen whose reputation appears to have been somewhat blemished by accusations of scientific fraud. "Leading" exercise researcher Bente Klarlund Pederson has written several books (in Danish, I can't translate) about exercise but recently found herself under investigation after a paper she co-authored with colleague Milena Penkowa was retracted.

As far as I can see, there just isn't enough evidence yet to cement the link between IL-6 and any training benefit in endurance runners. It's just a theory. We seem to be back to the same problems I've been coming up against with most of the exercise research I've looked at in this series - the studies are too small and too few. And in this case, they're not necessarily in runners/humans. I was able to track down a relatively recent paper in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness (October 2012) focusing on a study in 16 male runners, which showed that IL-6 levels remained elevated up to six hours after a 90-min run - although I can't get at the full paper because of annoying PUBLISHING REASONS. Anyway, the authors didn't translate this result into training advice, which seems perfectly sensible given the thin evidence base.

Personally, I think it's silly - you might say BONKers - to suggest running on empty, especially if we're talking about only a few hours after a long run. Or to base your advice on one molecule... which might or might not be beneficial in this situation. I imagine there probably are benefits, adaptations, whatever, to this type of training (through the IL-6 route or otherwise), but there may also be risks - like keeling over and DYING. Which, I distinctly remember saying, was something I wanted to avoid.

Also, if running on IL-6 did have some training benefit, presumably it would depend on levels of the molecule remaining high until your next run. In other words, not replenishing your carbohydrate stores, which would bring IL-6 levels down again. So, what, I'm suppose to come in from a 30k run on a Sunday, eat bacon for dinner (or, I dunno, something else devoid of carbohydrate) and then head back out on Monday morning? Pah! Thus I am going to continue taking a whole day's relaxing break every Monday and use it to stock up on lovely, lovely carbs. So there.

As for rest in the more practical sense, the hardest part of my training is now over and, so far, tapering has involved eating almost an entire box of chocolates in one weekend (it was Easter) and getting into the studio at 10.30 this morning. (Despite what you might think, keeping lazy working hours is not standard practice for freelancers. And I haven't worked in my pyjamas *once* this year. Okay, maybe once.)

12 days to go!

20 March 2013

An attempt to run a marathon using SCIENCE: part IX (Blisters)

Okay, it's Wednesday morning. I have a zillion other things to do. But I can't get on with the rest of my day until I've answered the following question: what the hell is a blister anyway?

Yes, that is my foot.

And that does appear to be a blister ON A BLISTER. Sustained on a 30k run the other weekend.

A quick (because it *is* Wednesday morning) explanatory post about blisters then... From what I can gather, it's a bit like when the cashier at the supermarket till hands you a plastic bag - we all take our own re-usable bags these days, of course, but bear with me - and you have to stand there for five minutes, trying to prise it open. Lemons are rolling at you, tins of tomatoes and boxes of tea are stacking up... and you still can't get the damn thing to open up. Anyway, as we all know, the way to do it is to rub the plastic between your fingers until the two layers separate. Theeeeere we go.

Like the plastic bag, skin has different layers. And as with the plastic bag, it just takes a little bit of friction (rubbing) to open up a space between the layers. This is what happens when you run a long way - possibly wearing ill-fitting shoes - and the friction causes the connections between the surface and the underlying layers to break. In the case of your skin, the space that's created starts to fill with liquid - serum, which is blood devoid of the red blood cells. Boom. You have a blister.

I like Jae Won Joh's pictorial explanation of this process on Quora.

What are we told to do about blisters? 1) Stop the friction (get better fitting shoes) 2) Stop the running (blisters will go away on their own) 3) DON'T BURST THE BLISTER (in case evil bacteria get in)! Don't be mad medical peoples, but I have to confess that if I have a heavy training schedule and can't wait for a blister to go down, I will sterilise a needle and make a tiny hole to release the fluid... Then stick some antiseptic cream and a plaster on it. Am I really naughty?

7 March 2013

An attempt to run a marathon using SCIENCE: Part VIII (Yoga)

Hello again running friends.

This last week has been one of the more painful and annoying ones in the lead up to my marathon. It started with that plantar fasciitis scare, which resulted in a semi-diagnosis of, yes, mild plantar fasciitis and a prescription from the physio for more foot manipulation and nasty, hurty calf stretching. As it turns out though, plantar fasciitis isn't my main problem... I'm also "chronically inflexible". I don't know why I put that in quotation marks because it's not actually what the physio said. But that's what I heard in my head. Anyway, what it means is EVEN MORE nasty, hurty stretching, persevering with nasty, hurty yoga and using a nasty, hurty foam roller on my legs to relieve stiffness. Pouty sad face.

On top of all this, someone decided to steal - STEAL - the foam roller that I got delivered to our block of flats. Having seen the package on the way out, I thought I'd leave it at the bottom of the stairs until I got back home, to save going back up three flights; when I got home, it was gone. Well, I hope the thief is happy with his/her new foam roller. Not exactly what they were hoping to find in that box, I suspect.

On the plus side, I ran in my first race for my club - cross country 5.7k in glorious (Welsh!) sunshine. Here's me in my club vest. Hoorah!

So. Yoga. 'Cause that's what the post is supposed to be about. As you can imagine, I don't much buy into all the "vital energy" and "breathing into your hips" (my hips have lungs?!) wotnot, but I've been doing yoga because I thought the stretching might help with the tightness from running. And it gives me a decent hour-long break from work on a Tuesday lunch time.

I have actually spent some considerable time in the past looking for studies on yoga and running performance/injury prevention, but without much luck. As far as the flexibility aspects of yoga are concerned, I might be inclined to say that this brings us back to the question of whether static stretching is useful or not. (Answer: not). But it isn't the same thing. Being generally flexible is quite different to doing a few stretches before or after you run. You could argue that being flexible means you are more able to extend limbs when running and less likely to hurt yourself if you stumble or twist. Equally though, I can't find much evidence to back this up. For instance, this 1996 paper actually suggests that *in*flexible people are more economical runners - they use less energy per mile covered. (I wonder, though, whether the inflexible people are just the people who do more running and therefore better at it.) A more recent study found no connection between flexibility and running economy. And here's a really thorough review that could find no link between stretching exercises and prevention of leg injuries in runners.

Of course, I'm not accounting for rehabilitation from specific injuries. You'd hope professionals would know what they're doing when recommending targeted stretches for running injuries. But let's put the flexibility and injury issues aside for now and deal with some other aspects of yoga. Because I've found this shall-we-say "quirky" paper...

At first glance, it seems quite dull: "Effects of brief yoga exercises and motivational preparatory interventions in distance runners: results of a controlled trial". A quick look at the abstract tell us the authors tried out a couple of different activities - yoga and a "motivational preparatory intervention", whatever that is - to get groups of runners ready for a timed one mile run on an athletics track. But the researchers weren't focusing on the physical benefits of yoga. They were focusing on the psychological benefits. So the question they were asking was: can yoga (or this other intervention) help you prepare your mind to run faster?

It's when you start reading the details of their methods that the study gets quirkier. The group that did the yoga had to perform sun salutations for 20 minutes before running - it doesn't say where but I'm imagining on or next to the track. Okay, moderately funny if you happened to be watching. But it's the motivational preparatory intervention that turns out to be hilarious. This involves a group of runners shouting things at each other very loudly. They weren't allowed to shout any old thing - motivational statements were pre-rated by participants, meaning each had a card with their favourite motivational statement written on it.
"Each note card included the participant’s most preferred motivational statement selected from the list of 40 statements given the previous week. The participants then formed a circle and, for about nine minutes, were instructed to shout out their chosen motivational statement, one person at a time in a clockwise fashion."
What? Nine minutes? That sounds exhausting! But that's not all...

"Next, participants played a game in which they took turns rolling a large ball to another participant after shouting the motivational statement listed on the note card—for example, “you’re the definition of speed”."
"You're the definition of speed"? Really? Then, more shouting, this time at participants striding between two lines of people, and finally...
"participants assembled into a tightly formed circle, and were instructed to enthusiastically and loudly shout their motivational statements for about three minutes. Facilitators encouraged athletes to shout these statements spontaneously, and randomly."
Bloody hell. After all that, I don't think I'd have enough energy left to run. If you can believe it though, the shouty group actually did a bit better than the yoga group compared to an original baseline run. Although the yoga group improved their times by more than a control group (no intervention), the shouty group basically won! Now, it's worth bearing in mind that this study was based on just 90 high school runners, so we shouldn't take the results too seriously. (In fact, HA! Let's not take them too seriously at all.) But it was published in the British Medical Journal, which has its reputation to uphold, so...

Forget the yoga! I should be getting people at my club to shout "You're the definition of speed" at me... Um. Yeah. Or, if I do the yoga, I could at least do it on the track before running. Blimey. There's no real indication as to why either of these two activities work, but there's some suggestion of the social aspects being beneficial.

Apologies if this doesn't exactly reveal much about the effects of yoga on running. I got a bit sidetracked. But I have to say, it was one of the only studies I found on the subject, and certainly the only one published in a high level journal. Which brings me back to a point I have to keep making here. Good studies on endurance running seem to be scarce and most of the studies I've looked at during the course of this series have been small. I guess this kind of research is fraught with difficulties, such as runners not wanting to change their training regimes for the sake of a scientific study, not to mention finding funding for research that is not exactly going to save lives, even if it *might* help win a few medals. However, if doctors are prescribing exercise and healthier lifestyles as protective measures against big killers like heart disease and cancer, perhaps it is important that we do more research on the exercise part.

I would also add that coaches have a big part to play. Even if the research hasn't been done officially, a good running coach will have spent decades playing with different training strategies, making observations and seeing the results in his/her athletes. It's a science of sorts... So definitely worth seeking out your local athletics club and (cautiously) taking on board the advice of the endurance coaches. Personally, I've found those at Bristol & West AC very supportive.

As far as the yoga goes, I seem to be falling increasingly into the category of "creature of habit" (see my stretching post). I'll probably carry on with the yoga. I like the mental break from work on a Tuesday and the fact that it's a completely different type of exercise. The other factor, though, is the lack of evidence to persuade me otherwise. I'd really like to see more studies on this if anyone can dig them out.

24 February 2013

An attempt to run a marathon using SCIENCE: part VII ("Niggles")

Runners don't like to take it easy. After last Sunday's long run was replaced with an epic afternoon of photography - due to some niggling pain in my right foot and a tight left calf/back of knee - I managed to contain myself for one more day, playing it safe on Monday with a swim. Then it was back to running on Tuesday with a 12k. The rest of the week involved a punishing interval session combining 1500m and 200m repetitions (in below-zero temperatures), weird foot stretches, early morning hill runs, physio, an "easy" 5k and finally a 25k long run that resulted in a surprise half-marathon PB.

Fastest 21.2k ever - during a 25k run!
I know, I know, I've only got myself to blame for the niggles. But over the years, running has come to form such an important part of my routine that it's hard to stop for more than a couple of days. Any longer than that and I find myself fidgeting while trying to write and pestering Mr Hayley half to death... poor Mr Hayley. He does suffer so.

Since it's sort of difficult to apply SCIENCE to deal with niggles in general, we have to use common sense to tell when a "niggle" is actually something more serious, when to give ourselves a break and when to consult a professional. This is a point that was made very well in a copy of Runner's World I happened to leaf through in the waiting room at my physio appointment. Niggles can easily turn into injuries and injuries can turn into months of being unable to run. (Ultimately the worst fate a runner can suffer, pretty much besides death.) Ignore niggles at your peril.

My particular niggle turned out to be serious enough to require me to book in for a full assessment next week, but not serious enough for the physio to suggest I stop running. But in the meantime, I have been doing what I've been told... which is this:

Ice. Yow!
Unfortunately, though, sports medicine - like any type of medicine, I suppose - is not always as straightforward as simply diagnosing the problem and treating it, as I'll explain. The snippet of SCIENCE I have to offer this week relates to that foot and a bit of it I didn't even know existed. (Despite being a biologist by training, I have almost no clue about anatomy.)

It turns out there is a chance I may have something called plantar fasciitis - put that into Google and you will get some scary pictures of foot braces. This condition affects the tissue in the base of the foot; the connective tissue (plantar fascia) that joins the toe bones to the heel and forms the foot arch. Among runners, plantar fasciitis is relatively common - 8% of all running injuries! However, it does also affect people who have recently gained a lot of weight, presumably because the foot arch suddenly has to support that extra weight.

Plantar fascia, apparently...
According to a long, incredibly fastidious and very well referenced blog post by John Davis at the RUNHAPI injury clinic in Leesburg, Virginia, there is no evidence that plantar fasciitis is related to inflammation - as the suffix "-itis" would usually suggest. Instead, rather more worryingly, it seems to be caused by degeneration of the tissue itself. Unfortunately, this means that treatments like ice, which should work for inflammation, may not work for plantar fasciitis. Or, at least, they may only be beneficial in the initial stages of injury, before degeneration sets in. So that bottle of ice I've been rolling my foot on? Well, let's see if I have plantar fasciitis or not first. I'm really hoping NOT.

The exact causes and risk factors for plantar fasciitis are hard to pin down. Possible risk factors, including being flat-footed (check, I have flipper feet) and having a job where you have to spend a lot of time on your feet (nope, I barely move all day). As for treatments, it seems there is little to inform treatment in runners specifically, but some evidence for calf stretching being of benefit more generally. You can also do a more specific stretch for the plantar fascia itself, which involves pulling your toes back. So, as I wrote a couple of weeks ago, stretching before and after running is probably of little benefit, but specific injuries may call for stretching at other times. Other options include wearing a really uncomfortable-looking splint at night (oh great), taping to support the arch, shortening and quickening your stride pattern to reduce impact (hmm, difficult), and, um, electric shocks (oh, come on, really?).

As with a few of the topics I've looked at in this series of posts, there's a lack of high quality evidence in this area. It will be interesting to hear what the physio has to say in his full assessment, simply to see whether he really knows his stuff... If you're interested in reading more about plantar fasciitis, and especially if you think you might be suffering from it, I would really recommend Davis's post as it cites proper research in proper journals. I've given a very basic summary here, but his is really the most comprehensive non-academic article on this topic I've seen.

So boo to niggles - and niggles that may turn out to be injuries. Thankfully, I'm not in huge amounts of pain and there seem to be *some* sensible treatment options. And like an alcoholic at an AA meeting, I've taken the first step by admitting I have a problem. Fingers crossed.

17 February 2013

An attempt to run a marathon using SCIENCE: part VI (Apparatus)

Today I had one of those ideas where you think you'll do something cool and it will just take an hour, and then it ends up taking the whole day. Yeah. At about midday today, I decided it would be cool to photograph all the individual items that make up my training kit to illustrate this week's blog post. "This will be a doddle. I'll just photograph everything against the same background and then stick it all together in some sort of collage."

Well, photography is actually not my strong point, although I do enjoy it. Also, I don't have a smartphone or Instagram or any of that new fangled stuff, so I had to do it using a real camera and Photoshop. At about 3pm, I realised it was going to take a lot longer than an hour, but by then I had passed the point of no return. So I did it and it took me all day and now there's no blog post to illustrate. But hey, this is my kit.

I don't know what this proves. That you can spend a lot of money on running? That I am really, *really* avoiding writing the last chapter of my book?

And P.S. I am not cross-training in rounders. It's a foam bat that I'm using as a roller to work the base of my foot.

10 February 2013

An attempt to run a marathon using SCIENCE: part V (Stretching)

Tut tut. Two weeks without an update. It's becoming apparent that if there's one time of the week that I'm least inclined to blog, it's on a Sunday evening after the most demanding run of the week. But I'm persevering, even after today's 30k - in appalling conditions - into which I mixed some nasty hills, just for "fun".

So this week I've been researching stretching. Personally, I've never been much of a stretcher. But since starting training with my local athletics club, I've adopted some of the dynamic stretching exercises we use at the track for my own running routine. More about those later though. Let's start with more basic static stretches. These are the kind that you can do standing or sitting on the spot. If you watched the Australian Open final the other week, you will have seen the frighteningly flexible Novak Djokovic running through a series of static stretches during one of the breaks between games. Whether these were meant to aid his tennis performance or just to intimidate his opponent, I've no idea. We're focusing on running.

The theory behind pre-run stretching was always that it would reduce muscle soreness and the risk of injury. As most serious runners will probably know, however, experts are now advising against static stretching before running. This is backed up by some fairly extensive studies on static stretching vs no stretching. In 2002, the British Medical Journal published a review of studies on stretching before and after exercise that suggested the benefts of pre- and post-exercise stretching for muscle soreness and injury prevention were at best tiny.
"...on average, about 100 people stretch for 12 weeks to prevent one injury and (if the hazard reduction was constant) the average subject would need to stretch for 23 years to prevent one injury."
And 23 years is a really long time to have to hold a stretch... sorry.

At the time, the review authors concluded that there was not enough evidence to say whether stretching could improve performance. But more recently, in 2009, US reviewers found an "acute bout" of stretching before exercise could actually impair muscle strength. With regard to injuries, they said there was no evidence for reducing overuse injuries but some, limited evidence for reducing muscle strain. Yet another review, published by The Cochrane Collaboration in 2011, found stretching - before or after exercise - did not reduce later muscle soreness.

None of these reviews were specific to running. But a year later, an orthopedic surgeon (and lifelong runner) called Dan Pereles was involved in a stretching study that recruited 2729 runners via the USA Track and Field website. I found this particular study interesting because it tells us something about why this type of research is difficult to carry out, and why the practice of stretching persists, despite its lack of any real benefit.

Like many studies before it, Pereles' study split the runners into two groups: a stretch group and non-stretch group. Runners fell injured at exactly the same rate over a three month period - 16% or just under 1 in 6 of the volunteers - whichever group they were in. So again, no discernible benefit of stretching for injury prevention. But what's interesting is that many of the runners who initially volunteered to be involved backed out as soon as they found out they would not be able to stretch for three months. And therein lies the problem: runners are creatures of habit. They can become so attached to their routines that they are afraid of changing them, even when there is little indication that these routines are doing them any good. The fact that it took two years to get enough runners to balance out the stretch and non-stretch groups is telling.

Having said that, many of those runners who backed out probably saved themselves an injury, because as it turned out, those who were avid stretchers and ended up having to join the non-stretching group were more likely to injure themselves (almost 1 in 4). Why? It seems no one is exactly sure, but it may have had something to do with an abrupt change in a routine that the body has already adapted to. The lesson: if you're going to change your routine, do it slowly and carefully. I guess we could also conclude from this study that stretching is nothing but a harmless waste of time. So if you're married to your routine, perhaps there's no real harm in sticking to it.

All of this doesn't necessarily mean that stretching is pointless. Some static stretches are targeted at specific muscle groups and connective tissues and may help in prevention of or rehabilitation from injury - at times other than before a run. There also seems to be some confusion about whether static stretching might be of benefit when it's part of a more general warm up. And in some forms of exercise, like ballet, stretching may be more beneficial for helping athletes (or dancers) achieve the range of movement they need. I haven't looked into other sports, so it's worth seeking out more detailed research, if it exists.

What of my dynamic stretching then? This is basically movement-based stretching or drills a bit like you might see footballlers doing as part of their warm up. I like to refer to it as the Ministry of Silly Walks. It's the kind of stretching that's really quite embarrassing to do on the side of the road at 7am, especially when you live opposite a bus stop. Plenty of coaches are subscribers to the dynamic stretching approach - including Robert Chapman, who coaches elite distance runners from Team Indiana Elite. He says:
"...by engaging in these activities, we can neurologically activate specific muscle groups prior to running, which helps us minimize injuries and perform better in the subsequent workout."
Sounds a bit hand wavy and to be honest, I haven't been able to track down many references for dynamic stretching, despite plenty of pages on the internet recommending it based on miscellaneous "research". However, that 2009 review I mentioned refers to various potential benefits, including raising core temperature ahead of exercise and increasing your range of motion without damaging your performance during the exercise. This recent study found that male sprinters performed better after 1-2 sets of dynamic stretches, but less well after 3 (suggesting too much dynamic stretching could be tiring). On the other hand, dynamic stretches seemed to have little effect on long distance running performance.

So I guess that brings me back to the central question of whether dynamic stretching is really going to help me in my marathon running efforts. I wonder whether its use might actually be limited to the shorter track sessions. But hey, I'm a creature of habit - why change now? After all, it doesn't seem to be doing me any harm...

27 January 2013

An attempt to run a marathon using SCIENCE: part IV (Cross training)

(I was going to cover muscle recovery in this post, until I realised this would mean getting to grips with ice baths. There's been so much ice outside the house this week, that I couldn't quite contemplate sitting in a bath of it inside. So that's postponed for warmer weather...)  

In the last week and a half, I have been forced to try OTHER sports besides running. This has led me to two conclusions:
  • I am ill-equipped to do other sports.
  • Swimming pool timetables are worse than third-year-of-a-biology-degree revision timetables.
Some people refer to training in other sports besides your "primary" sport as "cross-training". I refer to it as a pain in the bloody backside. It all began with the snow - when it hit a week ago on Thursday, I decided I could probably take a day or two off from running to rest various niggles. By Sunday, the roads were still skating rinks. There was to be no traditional Sunday long run and I had been reduced to pacing around the house like a caged animal. It was time to hit the pool.

The first problem was that I didn't have a swimming costume, which meant swimming in a mismatched bikini that I had to tie on so tightly it hurt. The second problem only became apparent after about four lengths - the stretchy rubber strap on my 15-year-old pair of goggles had stopped being stretchy and pretty much disintegrated as soon as I tried to tighten it. Mr Hayley, who had been cajoled into joining me for a swim, was made to share his pair, which meant stopping to hand them over every four lengths or so.

The ice continued to hang around, leaving me no choice but to persevere with the cross-training regime. I found myself at a 7.00am "group cycling" class, cycling to tracks from Big Willy Style... oh yes. And then back at the pool again on a Saturday morning, only to be told that adults aren't permitted to swim on Saturday mornings. After driving to three different swimming pools, all with similar anti-adult policies, we decided we'd emitted enough carbon for one day and went for a big, fatty-fat-fat breakfast to make up for our disappointment. At least we now have two pairs of goggles and a timetable for every swimming pool within a five-mile radius.

Anyway, this post is primarily about the scientific basis for cross-training, so I'll get on with it. Actually, there seems to be very little to support the idea that cross-training in other sports complements endurance running - at least in terms of performance. This New York Times article summarises the current state of research on cross-training, which is based on a few small studies from the nineties, most of which didn't last longer than a few weeks. The general consensus seems to be that although you can maintain a decent level of fitness by substituting runs for cycling or swimming sessions, the only thing that is going to make you really good at running is doing a lot of running.

In one 1994 review, a researcher at the University of Tennessee concluded that athletes (and ordinary folks) never see any greater benefits from cross-training than they do from their main sports. There may be some transfer of aerobic capacity between running and cycling, but less with swimming. Boo. Another study took the interesting approach of comparing physiological adaptations between runners and cyclists. Intriguingly, an athlete's ability to use oxygen, measured as VO2max (based largely on heart and muscle adaptations, see posts II and III), was specific to their individual sport. So a runner would be able to achieve a higher VO2max on a treadmill, whereas a cyclist would be able to achieve a higher VO2max on a bike. This hints at just how well our bodies are able adapt to different sports. BUT, it turns out triathletes have pretty similar measurements on both treadmill and bike, reflecting the fact that they train regularly on both.

So my cross-training probably hasn't made me any better at running. On the other hand, that wasn't really my expectation. I was trying to ensure that I didn't lose any fitness during my marathon training regime, and to protect a dodgy ankle from pounding on hard ground. My best guess based on limited literature is that my running fitness would take a few weeks to drop off, and that swimming, and certainly cycling, would go some way towards slowing that drop-off. But what about protecting my dodgy ankle? According to the Tennessee guy:
"...cross-training may be an appropriate supplement during rehabilitation periods from physical injury and during periods of overtraining or psychological fatigue"
Okay. Good. But note the "may" in this sentence. It seems common sense to me that if you're reducing your weekly mileage on the roads, you're less likely to get injured (this study on injuries in high school runners and this one on risk factors for running injuries come to tentatively similar conclusions) but I can't find any evidence to suggest that adding cross-training to an already demanding running schedule will stop you doing yourself a mischief. And perhaps surprisingly, this very small study appears to suggest that running and cycling take an equal toll on your feet, thus throwing my early morning Big Willy cycling sessions into jeopardy...

All this contradicts a lot of what I have been reading in marathon training plans, which seem to suggest that cross-training should form a big part of your weekly routine. I'm not convinced it does that much good, besides giving your body a bit of a break from punishing work outs on hard pavements. I think I will continue with one swim a week (not on Saturdays) just to see what happens. But otherwise, how about a leisurely stroll, a lie down on the sofa or a big fatty-fat-fat breakfast?

20 January 2013

An attempt to run a marathon using SCIENCE: part III (Fuel)

Hello lovelies. Well, the weather here in Bristol has thrown a spanner in the works as far as marathon training is concerned.

Friday - definitely a rest day
Perhaps fortunately, the snow has made time for resting a niggly knee/ankle/lower back and exploring "cross-training", which I now intend to cover in a future post. (Cross-training is not, apparently, using one of those boring, horrible machines in the gym - it involves doing OTHER THINGS besides running, an idea I hadn't given much thought to until this week...) I have refused to feel guilty at the sight of the odd runner bouncing down the road, mostly on account of the fact that they might easily slip over on the ice and DIE, a fate which, I think we've established, it would be best to avoid. Anyway, onwards with today's post, which is about fuel.

A couple of weeks ago, I headed out for my Sunday long run, intent on breaking the half-marathon barrier for the first time. I'm a fairly early riser and do most of my running in the mornings before breakfast, but for long runs I tend to wait until about 11am, so I can get some porridge at a reasonable hour and have time to digest it. Clearly, though, a bowl of porridge wasn't sufficient to fuel my 25km attempt, because suddenly, at just over half marathon distance - about 22km - my legs became so heavy that I couldn't carry on. I had heard about "hitting the wall" and "the bear on the back", and this felt very much like both of those things. At once.

Being about 3km from home at this point, it took me over half an hour to walk back on unsteady legs. My head was swimming and I was on the point of falling over by the time I stumbled up the stairs to our flat. It was my own stupid fault and in retrospect, I should have at least carried a phone and some extra water in case of emergency. But having run six half-marathons (more if you count those run in training) including two in the last three months, I must have got a bit complacent and thought 25km was an easily achievable target. I was also skeptical about whether "the wall" actually existed.

If I had really done my homework though, I probably could have avoided any of this happening by taking on extra fuel during my run. I spent my evenings the following week researching carbo-loading and doing cost comparisons between energy gels (I am THAT cool...). One of my prime concerns was finding something that I could take without feeling sick, which is what happened after I knocked back one of the energy gels being handed out by the stewards in the Bristol half-marathon last year. I finally plumped for SiS's GO Isotonic Gel (60ml) and, on the potentially spurious advice of a triathlete I met in Moti, some Jelly Belly sport beans.

Now, before we get into how all of this worked out the following Sunday, let me share some of the results of my research with you. I want to recommend one particular paper for those who, like me, are a) interested in the science of endurance running, and b) fans of pretty graphs. Because this one has a RAINBOW EFFECT graph in it that I really enjoyed...

The paper is published in PLOS Computational Biology and it's open access. Although it's theoretical, it provides a really decent and not-too-complicated background on metabolic needs, i.e. fuel, for endurance runners; the key thing being that it's focused on marathon running and in particular avoiding hitting the dreaded wall. While there seems to have been some debate about whether the wall exists or not, and whether it's necessary to take on carbohydrate in the form of energy gels etc, this paper takes a more nuanced approach, suggesting that the wall exists for some runners but not for others. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it depends on how fit you are and how fast you run. So while a highly trained, elite athlete may be able to maintain a quick pace for 26 miles and finish without taking on extra carbohydrate, mere mortals will have to hit the sports gels.

"Runners with large aerobic capacities and relatively large leg muscles can store enough liver and muscle glycogen to fuel marathon runs at elite-athlete paces (paces approaching those required to challenge the current world records of 2:03:59 for men and 2:15:25 for women) without exhausting physiologic carbohydrate stores; runners with smaller aerobic capacities or relatively small leg muscles must run at slower paces or refuel during the race in order to avoid ‘hitting the wall.’"
As the author indicates, it all boils down to how much fuel you can store in your liver and leg muscles, and how efficient you are at using oxygen to get energy out of it. (Tying nicely into our discussion of VO2 max in the last post). So Paula Radcliffe can presumably do both of these things pretty well. Me: not so much. I can "carbo-load" my muscles before a race by eating lots of pasta, but I won't be able to take on enough to see me to the end of a marathon - my body is just not well enough adapted. The upshot is that at some point between about 1.5 and 4.5 hours I am likely to hit "the wall" unless I consume extra carbohydrate. At least according to the rainbow coloured graph...

This basically shows that runners of varying abilities and fitness will hit the wall anywhere between 9-26 miles. So given that I hadn't made any particular effort to carbo-load that Sunday and was carrying dilute squash only, it's probably safe to say that about 13-14 miles, I hit the wall. Incidentally, if you're interested in carbo-loading, there are references in the paper to some further studies on optimal strategies.

What of the next Sunday's long run then? Well, I had myself pretty well prepped by then. I bought what I've since referred to as a "utlity belt" for the beans and strapped on a little-used arm band/pouch to carry the gel. (Actually the utility belt also has special elasticated gel holders for easy access, but on the first run out with it I was worried about the packets slipping through).

All fuelled up

Going on advice from t'internets and the packet instructions, I took the gel at about 1 hour 30 and carefully chewed on sports beans (to avoid choking... another unforeseen way to DIE during a marathon) throughout my run. Whaddya know? I got to 25km at a nice, steady 5:30/km pace and, still flying, I decided to see how far I could go - 30km (~19 miles) total! Which brings me to almost three quarter distance. I can't put this all down to the gel/beans, of course - perhaps I had eaten extra pasta the night before, I can't remember - but I'll wager they helped. I guess there were also some psychological aspects involved too - once I got to 25km I suddenly felt awesome!

But back to the science. It doesn't seem to matter too much when you take these things, as long as it's before your existing stores runs out.
"The timing and distribution of midrace fuelings evidently have little impact on their effectiveness, provided the required total amount of carbohydrate is consumed sufficiently far (typically approximately 30 minutes) in advance of the anticipated onset of fatigue."
I'm still skeptical about using these types of energy drinks and gels too frequently. I don't recognise half of the ingredients on the back of those Go gel packets, so who knows what mischief some of the them might be causing. Doug at Rock Creek Runner has experimented with natural alternatives to energy gels. Fine if you fancy chomping on almonds or thinly sliced, baked sweet potatoes during your run, but I'm not sure how well such dry foods will go down. And I'm worried about the choking... Still, if you're braver than me, you can also salt the sweet potatoes to account for the electrolytes in energy gels. (Disclaimer: I haven't done any in depth research on electrolytes, but they do include salts. Probably more useful in weather warmer than SNOW, when you're really sweating).

Whatever you use, I'd definitely recommend trying it out before a race. During the Bristol half, I was silly enough to take an energy gel I hadn't tried out beforehand, but I'll never do it again. Plenty of websites advise testing different brands to find something that works for you, especially as it seems gulping down pure carbohydrate can upset your stomach. I personally chose isotonic as opposed to hypertonic (concentrated, take with water) because I guessed that a lower concentration would be less likely to make me sick. However, this does mean having to carry a slightly larger gel packet. I also avoided those with caffeine in them - watch out as it's not always listed explicitly. There's a fairly succinct review of five of the most popular here.

That about wraps up this post. Do have a gander at that paper, and others, and let me know what you find. I might have a go at tackling muscle recovery next week, as I seem to have got it all wrong so far...

14 January 2013

An attempt to run a marathon using SCIENCE - part II (Interval training)

Long run, week 1/13 of the countdown. A very decent start!
PART II: Interval training

On the first Friday after Christmas 2012, I drove out to a soggy field in north Bristol, parked my car and trudged across the grass to a pavilion in search of a bunch of wiry, lycra-clad people. I located them immediately, tried to look as if I knew what I was doing and went for quick bound around to assess the mud situation. It was a bog and I didn't have any spikes, but I couldn't possibly be seen to be backing out. I went back to the pavilion and watched in trepidation as Bristol & West AC coaches trudged back and forth positioning small red cones around the perimeter, blocking off areas where the ground had gone to mush. Ten minutes later I was sliding my way around the mile-long, makeshift running track in a pair of completely grip-less trainers, doing my best to hang onto the back of the "slow" group. This insanity was repeated three times, allowing only a couple of minutes for recovery between miles, at a rapidly deteriorating pace (on my part, anyway).

This particular brand of torture is called high intensity interval training or HIIT for short. Actually, most of the training sessions I've been to so far have taken place in far less slidy surroundings - at an athletics track - but all of them have been variations on the same theme: pain. I jest! Well, not really. Other variations include: sets of 400m and 800m separated by single slow laps; pyramids of 300m, 400m, 500m, 600m, 500m, 400m, 300m; and a 5k "steady" (actually quite fast) run followed by 200m repetitions. Oh, you get to enjoy it, honest.

I was lured into HIIT by the suggestion that it would improve my endurance running over longer distances and since, as discussed, I have 26 miles to cover in April, it seemed like a good idea. Well, I have to report that it seems to be working. Just since the start of December I've taken around a minute off my 5k time and yesterday I ran to half marathon distance a minute quicker than I ever have before... and carried on running for another 9k! (See pace graph above, more on data geekery to come in another post). Get in! But of course, plenty of other factors could be contributing to these gains. So I've been doing a bit of background research on HIIT to see what SCIENCE says about all this.

It turns out the benefits are actually fairly well documented. There are an awful lot of papers out there on this subject and I won't pretend to have read them all, but there are two things I've tried to find out. First, what changes is HIIT making to the way my body works when I run? And secondly, will HIIT actually help me run faster over longer distances?

I'll start by answering the second question, because it's fairly easy to say whether or not something is having an effect, whereas it can be a little bit more difficult to say why. Most of the papers I looked at focused on elite athletes and they showed that, yes, HIIT can help them improve their performance. One small study, for example, focused on endurance runners who were asked to swap their 45km a week training schedule for HIIT sessions involving repetitions of 30-second sprints. After four weeks, they had maintained their 10k times, without regularly running that far. The effect seems to extend to other endurance sports as well, including cycling - a couple of HIIT sessions involving 8 x 5min a week actually improved performance over 40km time trials. While many of these studies are small, there are scores of them, all using different HIIT schedules and trying to work out the optimal combination of high and lower intensity training for improving performance.

With most of these studies we're talking Olympic level athletes. One review suggested elite athletes could expect to see improvements of between 2-4% in intense exercise performance. I haven't found as many studies to tell me whether I, as a lowly recreational/club runner, can expect to make the same gains.  But I think it's fair to say that HIIT could help me run faster, with one possible caveat: I can't just do a few fast laps of a track two or three times a week. Although it may be possible to maintain performance over a few weeks by replacing all of my 5-30k runs with HIIT, the general feeling seems to be that to get the best result, I have to do both.

To deal with the first question and why this works, I found a paper entitled 'Endurance exercise performance: the physiology of champions'. So again we're looking at elite athletes, but assuming we're all built in a similar way, there are a few things you want to improve to get better at long distance running. I'll just look at a couple that seem to crop up constantly in the literature. The first is the amount of oxygen your body can use in a given time, known as VO2 max. This depends on processes in your mucles and (or including) your heart - most importantly, perhaps, how much blood your heart can pump with each beat, or what's known as stroke volume. The second thing you want to improve is your lactate threshold: the point at which your body stops operating under normal aerobic metabolism and turns to anaerobic metabolism. Essentially, it stops using oxygen to send energy or ATP to your muscles and starts makes ATP without it, producing hydrogen and lactic acid and causing you enough pain to stop you in your tracks. (Interestingly, it may actually be the hydrogen and not the lactic acid that causes the "burn").

So the crucial question is: does HIIT increase your body's ability to do these two things? Well, here's one study that suggests that it does. What's particularly encouraging is that the people involved in this study weren't elite athletes; they were "recreationally active" types, people who maybe jogged or cycled two or three times a week - normal people! (What's surprising is that as part of their study, the researchers seem to have taken muscle biospies from their victi... er, participants' legs and then asked them to cycle to exhaustion. Presumably this didn't all take place in as quick succession as the paper suggests?) The main result was that these people improved their metabolic capabilities over a six weeking training programme - their abilities to use sugar and fat as fuel. Another study does the crucial comparison between HIIT and moderate exercise and comes up in favour of HIIT for the first factor we looked at, VO2 max.

Again, these studies were small, but given the wider breadth of research in this field in general, I'm pretty confident I should be seeing some benefit. The other interesting aspect is it seems that experts are now starting to look at HIIT training for people with underlying health problems such as heart disease. These sessions are pretty hard going, so I'd be surprised if a doctor was to prescribe a course of HIIT with the local athletics club for someone with heart problems, but I can see why the idea appeals - it appears to be less work for greater benefit. For healthy, slightly more serious runners though, reviews on the subject seem to suggest that incorporating some HIIT into your training schedule can help you improve your times while cutting down on some of those long distances. But importantly, I wouldn't presume to go into a 26 mile race without having run at least 23-24 miles in training.

So that was part II. It gives me some idea why my times may have improved over 5-10k in the last few weeks. But I think my surprise half-marathon PB yesterday during a 30k run was down to something else: finally conquering 'The Wall'. It's taken me longer than it should have to realise that my body simply stops functioning after about two hours of hard exercise. So when I went for my Sunday long run yesterday, I took what was basically a utility belt full of fuel in the form of energy gels and beans, and carried a bottle full of sticky, sugary squash. Part III is going to be all about fuel.

10 January 2013

An attempt to run a marathon using SCIENCE - part I

Like the idiot I am, I've signed up to a marathon. I now have until 14th April to figure out a way to run 26 miles and I need all the help I can get. So I'm going to be harnessing the power of SCIENCE to try to do what Pheidippides did (before collapsing and dying, remember) all those years ago.

Sunday is traditionally "long run" day for endurance runners and there are 13 Sundays left before my attempt to run the Worcester Marathon, so each Sunday after pounding the streets of Bristol, I will be reporting on my progress. In particular, I'll be reporting on different bits of SCIENCE that I have been, and will be, employing to make my way around the marathon course without meeting the same fate as Pheidippides.

(At this point, if I was on the telly, I would probably have to say something like "Do make sure you consult your doctor before embarking on any strenuous exercise regime." Thankfully, I'm not on the telly. So it'll be fiiiiiine.)

(And of course, I'm doing all this at the same time as trying to write a book, which has to be completed at vaguely the same time as my training regime... It'll be fiiiiiine...)

Hopefully, this may be of some genuine benefit to other runners - many will be training for the London Marathon on 21st April. If it is of no genuine benefit, then it may at least be vaguely amusing (see bullet point number nine in the list below). I'll be covering bits of SCIENCE related to:
  • High intensity interval training (running as fast as you can and then jogging for a bit before running really fast again, otherwise known as pain)
  • Eating to run (most importantly, is it okay to eat cake?)
  • "The wall"
  • Drinking (not that sort - hyper/hypo/isotonic and all that jazz) and energy gels
  • Muscle recovery
  • Kit, including the mythical "right shoes"
  • Stretching (eek, I'm very bad at this, must do better)
  • Yoga / pilates / core strength
  • Ice baths (no no no no no no no no no no no no no no)
  • Niggles and injuries (I am a complete hypochondriac - Mr Hayley will attest to many phantom Achilles injuries and broken toes)
  • Other things that will undoubtedly crop up along the way (unlike the niggles and injuries, hopefully)
I will be citing actual scientific research and using myself as a test case. Which means you can probably trust most of what I say about other people's research and forget all of what I say about my own research, since n=1 is a pretty poor scientific study.

I should also say that I'm not starting from zero here. I've been running for about ten years at varying levels of fitness. I can run a decent 5k, 10k and half marathon no trouble. Yes, I have a Garmin sports watch. No, I don't have one of those weird feeder tube things to drink from when I'm running. I run about 30-40k a week depending on the time of year/weather/number of weeks till very infrequent races. I've even recently joined Bristol & West AC... although training with them makes you feel like a complete amateur again. But I've never run a marathon. I am also no expert in sports science. I am simply a science writer who likes to run, trying to find a way to do it for several hours without dying. So let's see what happens...