September 15, 2022

THIS WEEK: Which is better--speed work, or distance? Sugar intake impacts cultures in diet transition. Does weight-loss improve marathon times? How to set goals that work. Research supports orthotics. Three cheers for 80-yr-old female marathoners. Mental strategies of Nell Rojas. Guide to hydration products. Do top cyclists train like runners? Everyone’s talking about melatonin. And more

Which works better--speed work, or distance?

It’s the essential training question--the one we all want to have answered. You’re increasing training for an upcoming race, and want to know which type of training will give you the biggest payoff: more speedwork, or more distance? A Finnish research team recently tackled this question using a 2-week training block for comparative purposes.

Here’s the key data: 2 groups of mid-30s runners averaging about 30 miles per week were placed into performance-matched groups. One, the Interval group, then did the same workout (6 x 3 minutes hard) 10 times in the next two weeks. They basically maintained their prior mileage. The Volume group, by contrast, did 10 slow, comfortable runs that increased mileage by 70% to 48 miles per week.

Who won the race? It was basically a tie, with both groups improving by about 2 percent.

The Interval trainers seemed to struggle more, at least in terms of increased muscle soreness and decreased heart rate variability (a higher score is better). This caused the researchers to comment that interval training might leave “less margin for error.”

Nonetheless, both training programs seemed “tolerable for recreational athletes,” and both led to “statistically significant and practically meaningful” improvements. More (free, full text) at Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.

“Can I improve my marathon time by losing weight?”

This is a topic that a lot of researchers, often members of sensitive college communities, don’t like to discuss much. The same is true of elite marathoners who are universally super-thin, but don’t want to talk about it. They’d rather talk about their tempo runs. 

The same restrictions don’t apply to real-world marathon runners like the folks at Reddit who are trying to set PRs, achieve Boston Qualifiers, and so on. They know that dropping a few pounds has the potential to yield faster performances, but also to raise risks.

There’s nice variety here. One poster wrote bluntly: “1--Restrictive eating; 2--Maximize fitness gains; 3--Stay injury free. You can only do 2 of these at a time.” The next wrote that he had lost a pound a week in three consecutive marathon buildups with apparently good results, and encouraged others to do the same. If you’re wondering about your weight and your marathon time, this is a good place to review other runners’s experiences. More at Reddit.

New insights on successful goal-setting

Noel Brick, author of The Genius of Athletes, conducted deep interviews with 21 runners after they achieved “excellent performances.”  Almost all “persisted with their initial goal” but more than half adjusted it in some way. Stay strong but flexible. More at University of Lincoln.

Another research team undertook a systematic review and meta analysis of 27 studies that investigated goal-setting. This team found that “process goals appear to be the most effective goal type for enhancing performance.” Process goals are those relatively small steps that are actually under your control, such as “I will run 4 times this week” or “I will go to bed 30 minutes earlier this month.” These can increase self-efficacy/self-confidence--a clearly important variable for runners.

On the other hand, “normative comparisons do not improve performance and result in some maladaptive psychological outcomes.” Surprisingly, non-specific goals like “I will do my best in all workouts” proved as successful as specific goals. More (free, full text) at Int Review of Sport & Exercise Psychology.

Queen Elizabeth's longevity secrets

This one's a bit light weight, but it relates to the biggest news of the week, and what's not to like about 96 well-lived years? Thanks to walking, dogs, purpose, time in nature, and moderate tea, alcohol, and dark chocolate. More at Today.

A fascinating cultural view on the “limit your sugar” story

We’re often told that our modern, highly processed diet (vs the whole foods diet of several centuries ago) is the source of many current health issues like obesity and diabetes. Sounds reasonable, but show me the money … I mean, the proof. That’s what a group of Spanish researchers set out to do recently.

Basically, they identified 11 cultures which underwent a “nutrition transition” and also had sufficient health data pre- and post-transition. From these, they selected four diverse cultures for intensive analysis. Yes, population health deteriorated substantially after transition to a “modern” diet. In one case, for example, BMI jumped 19% and diabetes rates soared 40-fold. 

But what aspect of the modern diet led to these negative outcomes? That was the big question the research group wanted to answer.  It wasn’t total fat calories or even saturated fat calories, as it turned out. Rather, “The nutrient category most strongly associated with negative health outcomes was sugar and refined carbohydrates.” Sugar consumption increased more than 600% in some societies. There was a weaker association with total calories and reduced exercise. You’ve heard the “limit your sugar intake” message hundreds of times before. Now you’ve got a bit of historical-cultural context to reinforce the message. More (free, full text) at Frontiers in Nutrition.

New research supports orthotics usage

Orthotics are disdained by some, and adored by others, especially those who find their way to healthy, pain free running with orthotics. But what aspects of running do they actually improve, if any? Here several British researchers conducted a randomized, controlled trial to find out. They concluded that orthotics felt significantly more comfortable than no orthotics, and resulted in a significantly faster average running pace. There was no significant difference in injury rates, though orthotics tended to reduce injuries. More at World J of Orthopedics.

Nell Rojas explains her mental-toughness tricks

This week the Boston Marathon began accepting applicants for the 2023 race, and I’m guessing Nell Rojas will be one of them. She seems to run her best on the tough Boston course, where she has been the top American female the last two years, improving her best to 2:25:57 last April.

Maybe she succeeds because of her strong mindset. Here, at an unexpected source, CNBC, Rojas explains her approach to realistic thinking. “We’re all human. If we fail, we fail. There will be more opportunities in the future.”

She also notes her opposition to the “no pain, no gain” approach, and says “an absence of negativity” is the key to her mental approach. “[You learn] how to cope with something you’re scared of, or you don’t want to do: Do it anyway. Get through it and do it well.” More at CNBC.

Do top cyclists train the same as runners?

It’s always fun to look into the training of elite athletes from non running endurance sports to see where there are similarities and differences. This paper looked at three top-rank cyclists, and their training through the buildup months and major races. Several things stood out. 1--Overall training was “pyramidal,” building total volume from the early weeks to later peak weeks. 2--Nonetheless, the pyramid turned into “polarized” training in the race season. That is, volume stopped increasing, and the athletes did more speedwork along with their slow training. 3--They didn’t taper for big races as much as the scientific research suggests (40 to 50%). Instead, they cut back about 10% to 20% on average. 4--They also did not do strength training, despite scientific recommendations that favor strength training. More (free, full text) at Scandinavian J of Medicine & Science in Sports.

Score one for 80-yr-old female marathoners

The Berlin Marathon is scheduled for Sept 25, and this year promises more fast running with Eliud Kipchoge slated to return and American Keira D’Amato hoping to lower the American record she set in Houston last January.

We all know that weather makes a huge difference in marathon performances, which was recently verified in two papers looking at hundreds of thousands of Berlin and New York City finishers. High heat and high humidity are both impossible to overcome.

When I looked at all the results presented here, I focused more on the gaps between age-groups. At New York, men’s times were roughly similar through the 40-49 group at 4:12. Then they began slowing: 50-59, 4:27; 60-69, 4:40, 70-79, 5:30; 80-89, 6:45. Women finishers were about 10 percent slower than men, except at 80-89, where both sexes had essentially the same time. This was probably due to few runners, and several super-fast “old ladies,” god bless them. But I have an evidence-free theory that women runners slow down with age slightly less than men. So I’m filing this factoid for future reference. More at European Review for Medical & Physiological Sciences (Berlin), and Frontiers in Physiology (NY).

Ultimate guide to hydration products

I spoke recently with the founder of Doctors of Running, and liked what I heard and learned, so I plan to pay more attention to this site going forward. Here, they branch out from their main topic--shoe reviews--to take a crack at hydration products. It’s a daunting task with so many players in the field, including many niche companies. Also, for me anyway, it’s tougher to distinguish among hydration and fuel products than it is to tell which shoes I like the best. (I’m lucky. I seem to have a cast-iron stomach.)

The DORs do a good job here, skipping over several of the biggest companies that we’re all familiar with to highlight some others with distinctive offerings. I learned that cats like UCAN (photo joke; check out the article), and that the hydration products range from no calorie to quite high calorie, and little salt to quite high salt. This gives you plenty of options, which you should try in training well before your next important marathon. More at Doctors of Running.

Melatonin is one of those fascinating hormones that we’ve read about for decades, mainly in regard to its effect on light, darkness, and sleep. Now it’s popping up frequently again. The NY Times wonders if melatonin can become addictive (no) and how well it works for sleep and other concerns (little evidence, mixed results).

A SportsSmith review of a study recently published at PLoS One explains how melatonin reduced measures of muscle damage among professional soccer players at their intense preseason training camp. The review adds: “A unique characteristic of melatonin is that it can cross all intercellular barriers to exert its antioxidant effects – due to its amphiphilic (i.e., water and fat-loving) properties – making it highly impactful.”

At Psychology Today, a physician fills in the history of melatonin, which the body produces in decreasing amounts as we age. She seems to agree with others who have termed it a “potential disease-deferring hormone.” More here.

SHORT STUFF you don’t want to miss

>>>  In some studies, Citrulline supplements have boosted aerobic performance. However, a systematic review and meta-analysis found that it “did not prove to have any benefits.” 

>>>  Dave Wottle relives his 1972 Olympic gold medal (800 meters) in the actual Munich stadium where he raced. (A short but satisfying interview and video, thrilling every time.)

>>>  Caffeine was found not to raise blood pressure in a trial, and “low-dose” caffeine “positively impacted mood/arousal and cognitive performance.”

GREAT QUOTES make great training partners

“Only the disciplined ones in life are free. If you are undisciplined, you are a slave to your moods and your passions.”

--Eliud Kipchoge, marathon world record holder,  and two-time Olympic champion

That’s it for now. Thanks for reading. See you again next week. Amby