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), Arpad Elo (inventor of the eponymous chess rating system), Edward Teller (theoretical physicist, co-designer of the H-bomb and various quantum solid-state principles), and von Neumann (involved in 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.