Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Doping, athletics, and the Olympics

A spectre is haunting Athletics. Ok, so there has *obviously* been a lot of media attention on the Russian doping scandal. It boils down to an East German-era doping program alive and well in modern Russia. They even were brazen enough to dump all the evidence in the form of stored samples.

Taking a step back, the precipitator to this story was Hajo Seppelt investigative report, released in German, then quickly dubbed into English. Most importantly it implicated Kenya, Nike Coach Alberto Salazar, and the Russians.

Dick Pound, and WADA collectively, are considered the official whistleblower in this story, which is neat because a) they're an organization actually doing what they're mandated to do, and b) headquartered in Montreal, doubly impressive given how that city has its share of bribery scandals. In a nice play of feedback, Hajo then commented that WADA should be given more power.

IAAF responded with a timid press release on the situation. They are in the awkward situation of either knowing very little about any doping coverups, which is bad, or a lot, which is worse.

Browsing online there is ample opinion floating about. Steve Magness is severe on IAAF and it's leaders:
People are going to try to use Russia as a scapegoat. It's much easier. Don't be surprised if the IAAF or any organization under attack singles out Russia and claims that they were a rogue nation...The problem is widespread. It's in the U.S., UK, Europe, Africa, every where. Don't delude yourself. Don't think this is a one-off issue. It's not.
Cathal Kelly from Globe and Mail is more casual about the situation
Dick Pound has called for Russian athletes to be banned en masse from the Rio Games next summer. It makes a good headline and no sense. Thanks to that state-sponsored conspiracy Pound helped publicize, there is no hard evidence left on which to base such an unprecedented penalty. That was sort of the point....Russia will be in Rio. No amount of western garment-rending will change that.
So the big shots should be kicked out and we should do as Nick Willis suggests
Or clearly if something is valuable enough, some will inevitably cheat to have it. Hence some percentage of cheating is unavoidable, right?

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Half marathon, XC, and other races

After the race, Heather and I enjoying the valley view
On Thanksgiving Sunday I awoke at 5:15 am, ready, more or less, to finish the last of three races in the first annual RNS Performance series*. Race number 1, the Lung Run 5k was won in May with a time of 15:08 just ahead of Cal DeWolfe. Race number 2 was the Natal Day 6 miler, which I lost to Matt McNeil.

Neither Cal nor Matt were registered for the Performance series, so I knew going into the last race it was pretty likely I would win outright. Still, I had no plans to run slack. But neither was I sure it'd be a solid race. Strange thing about running is that the language used to describe your body, legs, mind, etc are in their infancy. Doesn't help either that the feelings you have before doing well seem eerily similar to ones before a lousy run. It can sometimes come down to voodoo and the like.

My goal for the race series had always been to run it under two hours. In other words 5k + 10k + 21.1k = 36.1 km of running, so to complete that in two hours means averaging 18 km/h. My cumulative time until Sunday morning was 47:22, well within reach, balanced by knowing too that a sub 73 minute half is never 'trivial'.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Racewalking: The hidden flight path

Anyone who has watched racewalking intuitively knows it's different from running, hence it has as much credibility as classic technique in XC skiing, or the butterfly stroke event in swimming. And anyone who's tried race-walking knows it's very hard to do well, painful (especially the shins) and frustrating (especially if you get DQd moments before finishing). For most of its contemporary existence it has been a maligned sport.

What are the technical differences between walking and running? According the official rules,
  • Racewalking is a progression of steps so taken that the walker makes contact with the ground so that no visible (to the human eye) loss of contact occurs.  
  • The advancing leg must be straightened (i.e., not bent at the knee) from the moment of first contact with the ground until in the vertical position.
We know there is a flight phase with each running step. Walking, by contrast, both your feet should never both leave the ground. Rule #2 is less intuitive but in fact a better way to differentiate running versus walking. Interestingly this rule only came into effect in 1995.

There are another technical differences. For instance in a runner's mid-stance phase, i.e. when the foot swivels under the hip, the body's centre of mass (COM) is at its lowest. For walkers, because of the straight knee, their mid-stance COM is at its highest point. I only mention this because because I find that both running and walking, when you really think about them, are weird, complex movements.

Returning to rule #2, it is easy enough to visualize (and enforce) to make it a fair visual criteria in a judged sport. However there is a fundamental problem with Rule #1 that I will now explain. There is already plenty of research that observes a flight phase in race walking. For instance in a recent (2014) literature overview, Pavel et al note
From an overall view, race walking athletes seem to adhere to the ‘straightened knee’ rule, but at race speed they do not observe the ‘no-flight time’ rule. 
Admittedly flights times spoken of are small; Pavel estimates between they range 0.01 and 0.05 seconds. But those small flight times add up. Moving at 4 m/s, a single 1/100th second of "flight time" can earn a bonus distance of 4 cm (after all, distance = speed x time). So in a 50 km walk race, given a stride frequency of 3 steps/s (180 steps/min), one takes over 37,000 steps. That tiny flight time and 4 cm per stride adds up to a total distance gain of 1.5 km! Importantly the human eye cannot visually process a flight time of 10 milliseconds yet a race walker is less likely to win without this clear flight-time advantage. Indeed, in one study flight times were found positively correlated with speed.

Video of a race-waller leaving the ground (at 0:13):

Unlike some judged sports where small "cheat" advantage stay small (such as making a single illegal V-shape move with your skis in classic racing), because of the cumulative effects of undetectable millisecond flight times, we now know a completely honest race walker is at a permanent disadvantage over one who can eke out a bit of air time for each stride.

Monday, 28 September 2015

Rum runner's relay and the personal trophy

On the weekend I was part of the winning team for the Rum Runner's Relay (A Few Good Men). The team award has gone to HRC (Halifax Running Club) for ten years straight so yes, we are breaking history.

Ultimate prize: A rum barrel! (sadly it contains no rum) 
Since my time in Halifax is growing limited (assuming I find work in Montreal next spring), it was a good time as any to experience part of the coastline on foot from the HRM to Lunenburg. Beautiful weather and a fun 12-hour day overall. I'd like to be back, if possible. We'll see.

Monday, 14 September 2015

Science of running: a hierarchy

Listening to Steve Magness' podcast on the topic of Systems vs Process methods to coaching got me thinking about my own take on the subject.

By and large I agree with Steve's message, which boils down to acknowledging coaches can't expect long-term development from their athletes if they follow a pre-ordained workout recipe. This makes perfect sense, as so many factors go into choosing a proper working, to declare your original plan unassailable is tantamount to fortune telling.

But I was irked (as always) when Nassim Taleb's cursed Swan quoted. It is true that "One cannot understand a macroscopic system by appealing to its components in isolation" when making final decisions. But it is also true that isolating certain components can be helpful. That's why we have the Large Hadron Collider. That's why our minds do not benefit from unnecessary multi-tasking. That's why workouts often focus on one type of running (easy, tempo, distance, speed).

Isolation is, in essence, good. Then as athletes grow in complexity, so do the workouts. Each workout component is equivalent to a keyed note. The totality of multiple workouts with many such keys is music.

To illustrate this complexity, I made a diagram with the various internal levels within each of us. To avoid over-generalizing I focus on running.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

A season summary: Tely 10, Calgary, and more

I'm not as much a fan of posting too many details about my own races. My favourite thing is to take a step back and see a larger picture. But as this season has been a busy and productive one, it seems disingenuous to ignore all people and places that have been part of 'my' running this season. My season started in April (not counting two indoor 3k races), and is taking a pause in August. In fact right now I'm on a work trip, writing this in Indiana of all places. First to boil down the facts, here's my races from the season.

 My 2015 Spring-Summer Road Races
Date Location Distance Place & Time  Rating*
April 25 Grande-Digue 15 km 2nd in 48:45 ★★★★
May 2 Lung Run 5 km 1st in 15:08 (PB!) ★★★
May 23 Cabot Trail Relay (Leg 17) 18.7 km 2nd in 1:02:05 (PB?) ★★★½
May 31 Calgary Half Marathon 21.1 km 8th in 1:09:14 (PB!) ★★★★
June 21 Halifast Track Event  5000 m 1st in 15:15 ★★
July 10 Antigonish Highland Games 5 Miler 8 km 2nd in 25:32 ★★★
July 26 Tely 10 16 km 2nd in 51:04 (PB!) ★★★★
Aug 3 Natal Day 6 Miler 9.6 km 2nd in 31:15  ★★★
*Rating (out of 4 stars) is a subjective combination of my feelings about my performance and the race itself. At the end of the day, it's hard to disentangle the two.

Some of the best season news is that I had no terrible races and no serious injuries. I never came close to dropping out or running hurt (running sore, well yes). Must be all those training heuristics I use (FYI: I don't keep a mileage log). Also one thing is for certain, I got real comfortable finishing behind the winner. On top of that, both of my victories were only 10 seconds ahead of second, so there was a real possibility of landing 7, let alone 5, runner-up positions. Fun fact: I finished behind a Matt (McNeil + Loiselle) a total of 4 times. Matts are fast!

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Estimating Calories from random foods

Every piece of food you buy in Canada is equipped with a Nutrition Facts label.

This label presents an data total Calories, Fibre, Fat, Sodium, Carbs, Protein and micronutrients per serving. Of those, only protein, fat, and carbs contribute meaningfully to total calories. There are some odd trends in the labelling practises. For instance "Fat" and "Carbohydrates" have a "% Daily Value" (%DV) associated with them, but not protein. This is odd, since recommended protein intake is much easier to estimate a priori than either carbs or fat (more on that later). It's also odd that %DV of total calories is not given, since fat and carbs (whose recommended percentages are given) make up the bulk of food calories. Yet so much data is given, seems we could figure this out. Is it possible to reverse engineer the nutrition data given, make some simple assumptions, and sneakily obtain total recommended daily calories?

My Goal: using only the packaging of random food items (and one assumption about protein intake), I will determine the tacit daily caloric intake made by Health Canada.