Sunday, 1 March 2015

Useless knowledge, or trivia for people who hate trivia

Not that I'm against knowing facts and names, but I hesitate to celebrate the idea too much. When a stray piece of information sticks with me, the better for us both, I suppose. Yet perhaps least celebrated abilities of the human mind is its capacity to sometimes forget. How else can one decide between what is important, and what is trivial.

Spurred on by a recent streak of attending trivia nights at the local pubs, here is a truly random sampling of human knowledge. Created through random wiki articles, it is a representation of what the English-speaking knows, unbiased in actual important (though clearly biased in article density per topic). Maybe not surprisingly a lot of tiny cities pop up in these searches. The only rule besides clicking "Random Article" was to phrase the questions based entirely on information gleaned from the wiki page. I don't expect anyone to know more than one of these. It'd be one more than me!

  1. What language is spoken in the in the provinces of Lamas in the Peruvian region of San Martin and in some villages on the river Huallaga in the region of Ucayali?
  2. In 2012, he became the leader of the oppositional Democratic Front formed by the Movement for Changes (PZP) and the New Serb Democracy (NOVA).
  3. Zeytinli is a village in which country?
  4. Name at least one player in the Eintracht Frankfurt football team, 2006–07 season
  5. Who was the Superior Court judge for the district of Trois-Rivières, Quebec from 1905-21?
  6. Agnam Lidoubé is a village in which country?
  7. This Californian terrace separates Humboldt Bay to the north from the Eel River to the south and is also home to the Wiyot tribe reservation.
  8. This historic property is located at 7 Albert Street in Worcester, Massachusetts.
  9. Cobwebs to Catch flies is a 1783 children's book by this author.
  10. The Keshavarz District is located in which country?
  11. Karel Píč and Josef Kořenský were born in this Czech city
  12. Who directed the 1985 Australian film Wrong World?
  13. What country does the city Qomrud reside?
  14. Born  1936, he is currently in the French Senate representing the department of Corse-du-Sud.
  15. Together with Wojciech Słomczyński, he developed a voting system for the Council of the European Union called the Jagiellonian Compromise.
  16. He authored the thesis titled "The development of U.S. protection of libraries and archives in Europe during World War II".
  17. This process is named for when a quark of one hadron and an antiquark of another hadron annihilate, creating a virtual photon or Z boson, which then decays into a pair of oppositely-charged leptons.
  18. Who won the 1st Czech Republic Hockey League championship game of the 2010-11 season?
  19. Hermann Göring was arrested by US troops in this village.
  20. This city was fourth runner-up in for the bid to host the 2012 Olympic summer games.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Age-category dominance by continent

It is well-known the most competitive runners are between the ages of 18 and 39, and equally understood African runners dominate within this age bracket. But runners outside this age bracket also compete (either as masters, youth, or other specific age category records). I wondered where might one find the best runners at any given age? Depending on how old you are, where can you train with the fastest peers?

Since age data is so plentiful, naturally people have already compiled world records sorted for every age 9 to 99. This can also come in handy when when creating an Age-Graded Calculator, or available as raw excel data here. However the best, original source of many such records can be found at the ARRS website, where world-best times are also tagged by the runner's country of origin. Although sorting runners by about 50 individual countries could lead to over-separating the data, it seemed natural enough to group countries by continent, of which there are only five: North and South America (grouped as one), Asia, Oceania, Europe, and Africa).

Without further ado, here are the best 5 km, 10 km, 16 km (10 mile), half marathon, and Marathon road race performances by single age record, color-coated by the continent said runner originated.

And here are the relevant countries that represent each continent (country codes here):

North and South America: CAN, MEX, USA, BRA, and COL
Africa: ALG, ERI, ETH, KEN, NAM, RSA, and TAN
Oceania: AUS and NZL
Asia: CHN, ISR, JPN, KAZ, KOR, and RUS

NB: I have shown only the even numbered-aged runners to keep the plot length manageable.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Train like a Kenyan in North America?

Last week I read More Fire: How to Run the Kenyan Way. Reading it feels like having a long one-sided stream-of-consciousness conversation. The book is very anecdotal. Certainly not a book for everyone, but full of quality tidbits about high-level training. Given how rare it is to find training grounded in observations of genuine elites players, this makes it worth a look (too many, myself included, claim knowledge based on nothing more than amateur, college-level running).

Reading it, I was noting some of the similarities and differences between Kenyans and Americans in their daily habits. The most obvious similarity is mileage: both groups tend to run between 100 km and 250 km a week. A big difference, however, is in the treatment of those kilometres. Americans prefer to keep rigorous track of their distances, whereas Kenyans tend to guesstimate based on rough periods of time. Americans also prefer to 'chunk' their mileage into larger pieces. This explains why Kenyans cope so well with two or three runs a day: none of these runs are particularly long.

Typical Kenyan day:

6AM - Easy 40 min jog

10 AM - Slightly faster 60 min, or a hard workout

4 PM (optional) - 40 min easy jog, and/or plyometrics

 While most would think of running three times a day as more tiring than two, another perspective is that three runs make for three rest periods. Analogously, would moving from three meals a day to two make a difference? Very possibly it could.

The 'typical' american runner is more likely to group runs into two sessions, perhaps running long warmups before workouts, grouping plyometrics with the morning sessions, or extending the evening run. Americans also love measuring their total miles, despite that values necessarily fluctuate for an unlimited number of legitimate reasons.

Typical American day:

9 AM - 60-75 min easy run (probably too fast), 6 - 10 miles

5 PM - 30 min warmup, stretches, 30-45 min workout, 20 min cool-down, 8-12 miles

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Things we can't explain: Kenyans and Hungarians

Kenyans are very good runners. In fact, they are the best. Kenyans certainly don't win every race, but relative to their country's population there is no contest. Many interesting theories exist as why Kenyans are better at long distance running. An abbreviated list: Cattle ranging, running to school, work ethic, monetary incentive, aerobic capacity, thin calves, altitude, barefoot adolescence, mental optimism, their diet, and total participation numbers, just to name a few.

More incredible is how the Kalenjin tribe, with just 5 million individuals, dominates most of the Kenyan wins. To quote Wikipedia "from 1980 on, about 40% of the top honours available to men in international athletics at these distances have been earned by Kalenjin".

In the world of sport, no other country seems quite as dominant, except for maybe the Canadians participation in NHL hockey (at about 50%), but this sport is not universally played. And to a lesser extent there are Jamaicans in sprinting, eastern Europeans in weightlifting, Romanian gymnasts, and Russian females high jumpers.

Nevertheless I had to pause and wonder about whether this sheer uniqueness of Kenyan running was in itself unique. Therefore I began to consider which other countries, at given epochs, had also dominated a single activity. Hence I want to focus on math, a discipline, like running, that in theory should be practicable anywhere.

Early 20th century Hungarian mathematicians: Hungarian mathematicians were not merely good, they were world-changing. The outcome of WWII and world history beyond was directly influenced by their migration to the United States. Consider the wiki list here, which includes Paul Erdős (who practically co-authored every math paper in his field), Pólya, Bolyai, Stanislaw Ulam (co-designer of the H-bomb), Szilard (conceived the notion of nuclear reactors and the A-bomb), Edward Teller (theoretical physicist, co-designer of the H-bomb and various quantum solid-state principles), and von Neumann (involved in, umm, just about everything, including the world's first re-programmable computer, game theory and DNA). You may have noticed nuclear weapons were mentioned several times among these names. The US government wanted nothing more than to win the nuclear arms race and with no deliberate aim to favour any particular group, Hungarians were often at the forefront throughout its history.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Numbers, numbers, everywhere $#%# numbers

Passing from the Christmas sales straight to New Year's resolution territory come more gadgets for sports than ever. My sister-in-law got one of those 'fit bits' for xmas, I got a new watch, and loads of people out there are testing GPS devices some variety and figuring out what to do with them.

My god, what do we need some of these measurement things for? Let us first enumerate the variables that need (or more specifically can) be measured by a hand/foot held device, in order of utility:

1) Time
2) Distance
3) Speed
4) Heart Rate
5) Other stuff (not less useful)

Preceding my feelings on the matter, Alex Hutchinson has posted about new measuring devices on his Sweat Science blog titled Data Overload. The sentence that perhaps sums Alex's feelings best is: "There's no doubt you gain something with more data, but I think you also lose something".

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Google ngrams for running economy, lactate threshold, and VO2max

I wanted to explore the relative importance people place on difference aspects of running, regardless of how important the really are. So here is a book-indexed trend for each of the terms "VO2max", "running economy", "neuromuscular training" and "lactate threshold".

NB: On an earlier version of this post I had entered "Vo2max" and found a different, erroneous, trend. All sorted out now.

The term "VO2max" has been steadily rising from the 1980s to the early 2000s, where we may or may not be witnessing an ultimate peak around 2005. Though much smaller in book frequency, both "lactate threshold" and "running economy" reached their maximum values in 2002 and have been edging downward. Meanwhile "neuromuscular training" has been growing slowly but steadily. Since as Ngrams only reaches to 2008, I searched Google trends for more recent (search-based) differences.

The trend for these four variables has been quite stable between 2005 to present, with VO2max beating out the others by a fair margin. Therefore I included barefoot running as a more dynamic variable (NB: the phrase 'barefoot running' is quite flat during the pre-2009 ngram timespan). It is interesting to observe the sudden jump in barefoot searches in 2009, followed by a steep decline in 2014 to levels below those of VO2max.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Entering the sub 2-hour marathon debate


The two-hour marathon: Can it happen? The debate heated up with Dennis Kimetto's time of 2:02:57 in the fall of 2014. As I recall, he was less than a kilometer from the finish when he crossed the two-hour mark. But even before Kimetto's run, Alex Hutchinson had already assembled a discussion on what it would take to run a sub 2-hour marathon.

I have been watching these debates mainly from the sidelines as I hadn't found the data convincing enough either way. The only truly convincing (though most difficult) demonstration would be to run a 1:59:59 marathon. The easiest -and most problematic- line of reasoning is to plot marathon record time vs date achieved and extrapolate to one's peril:
Image from SweatScience's post
2032: Year of the Sub-2:00 Marathon?
This approach is much less unappealing, introducing no additional understanding of physiology or innate performance ability. Such extrapolations would never have predicted advances in the high jump, swimming, or speed skating. The curve itself is also a questionable line-of-best-fit.