A few days ago I dusted off an old book from my library shelf that I was not even aware I still had, “The Complete Book of Running” by Jim Fixx. This book was a best seller in the mid 70’s which really represented the beginning of the running craze in this country. The author some time after its release was found on the side of the road dead as a result of clogged arteries and a hard attack. This left the entire running community a bit skeptical for some time with the question; if I run, will it eventually kill me?
I find that some times it’s best to take a look back to better appreciate how far we’ve come.
With the advent of the computer and the associated advancements across the board in technology, we have put some serious distance on the old school approach to training. As I was pawing through the pages, my professional curiosity drew me to chapter 5 “Getting Started” somewhere in the middle of the compulsory needs he writes about determining how hard you should run by subtracting your age from 220 to find your maximum heart rate and multiplying by .75. This was not earth shattering to me but an asterisk that leads you to the bottom of the page further recommended that if you smoke, multiply by a factor of .65! That blew my mind, the idea of someone butting there smoke to take there pulse before running seemed so out of character. This really put things in perspective for me.
Flash forward to 2001 and we have Nike’s Oregon Project. If you’ve never heard of this, and I confess I didn’t either up until I began research for this article, Nike employed Alberto Salazar to head up an experiment where they took a handful of elite runners and housed them in a hermetically sealed house where they controlled the oxygen content to replicate various altitudes ranging from 8,000 to 17,000 ft. The athletes were paid to live in this special environment in Portland Oregon, they slept ate and basically hung out until it was time to train and only then were they allowed out, the idea being “Sleep High, Train Low”. Science has born out evidence that spending quiet time at attitude where the air is thin produces greater amounts of oxygen rich red blood cells which greatly enhances aerobic performance.
The logistical complication of sleeping at 14,000 ft and training the same day at sea level is obvious, but with this specially designed living environment made it possible. I also learned that these test subjects were also empowered with very sophisticated brain wave monitoring software that originated from Russia that provided biofeedback in respect to the athlete’s capacity for work. We’re talking detailed information gained in a matter of minutes regarding how hard to train any given day. Add an electrode to the forehead and in 15 more minutes the system will assess overall health by checking the condition of his liver, kidneys, and central nervous system.
The pains and expense such a project generates makes an interesting point; that success as an endurance athlete is highly relative to the struggle against gravity and the ability to take in and absorb maximal oxygen. Think of it; in the 70’s the best selling book on running spoke of stop watches and the fact that smoking may dampen your running performance, 30 years later we have the technology to house marathon hopefuls in hermetically sealed homes and monitor brain waves to determine training intensities!
It is no secret that many endurance athletes spend quality time at altitude to work on improving endurance. The problem is that as we return to sea level the benefits of altitude begin to diminish pretty quickly. As is the case with most problems this poses opportunity. A few years ago I had some interesting conversations with a Dr. Andrew Backhaus from Altolab a company that manufactures a hand held altitude stimulator.
The way this device works is that as you breathe in and out through this canister it gradually reduces the amount of oxygen that you re-breathe. The air we typically breathe contains about 21% oxygen, as the subject breathes through this device oxygen is reduced to 16% initially and another 25% less with each concurrent breath.
Clearly, you cannot keep this up for long. To ensure that you don’t over do it, the subject wears a pulse oximeter on their index finger which relays the oxygen content of your blood. Ideally you do not want your blood O2 to drop below 75%. Once this occurs, you simply take a break and wait until your blood O2 raises to about 94% and begin another interval. The entire session lasts for an hour with 6 minutes on and 4 minutes off. The prescription is to do this daily for about 15 minutes leading up to an event to enhance oxygen uptake and markedly improve performance.
Alberto Salazar’s crew of the Nike project also trained on unweighted treadmills called AlterG’s. Unweighting technology provides the opportunity to rehabilitate lower extremities, it also provides highly effective neuromuscular and proprioceptive retraining, (correcting running form problems) and functional rehabilitation following injury or surgery of the lower extremity (hip, knee, ankle or foot).
This is something that we’ve been doing for quite some time now with great result. By reducing the weight of a runner on a treadmill, you can make adjustments to the way in which they make contact with the ground. For example runners that externally or internally rotate (toe in or out) can be harnessed and taught to correct these muscular imbalances.
All of this for the lay person seems a bit extreme, but try and appreciate if you will; if you have tried virtually everything, worked as hard as you possibly could and still turn up in many instances 6th or 7th place as is the case for many of our elite marathon runners when facing competition from the seemingly invincible Africans, you’ll try just about anything.
At the conclusion of the 2001 Boston Marathon Tom Clarke, Vice President of Nike and head of Nikes new ventures decided he had enough. This is what stimulated the financial commitment to the Nike Oregon Project. His thinking was, if through scientific intervention they could nurture another Tiger Wood or Lance Armstrong of running for their iconic label it would pay back in spades. In his words; “If we could come in with another wave of champions, it’d be exciting for anything even related to running as a business.”
It is this type of forward thinking that funds these sci-fi adventures. This is how the world of scientific sports performance turns as I see it. Call it venture capitalism, a profit motive that stumbles upon amazing advancements.
On the flip side, if we study the habits and lifestyles of the truly great runners of the world, much of their success is not of their own doing. Where they live (at altitude), minimal distractions, (they can’t afford the type of distractions we take for granted). Learning to run barefoot which has proven to be superior to running shod, again simply because shoes are hard to come by for them. Being able to adapt to extreme temperatures while training, is no gift, or is it?
I was unable to find whether the Nike Oregon Project was still in existence today. I know that they made impressive improvements over their stable of athletes through their efforts, but I also know that the end game never materialized.
I want to be around in 30 more years so that I can reflect back on this paradox and giggle over what we see as amazing advancements in sports performance and our desire to see the sub 2 hour marathon record become a reality. I wonder what will be the goal to set 30 years from now. Another interesting question might be, if and when these new standards are set will technology be the cause or will it be some poor soul who just trained harder, was given less and wanted it more, as the case seems to be today.