Reinventing the truth

Now this might be confusing at first (certainly took some figuring out from our side – it has major implications for our understanding of fatigue, actually), because you’ve no doubt heard that the faster you run, the more oxygen you use. And this is still true – the trick is to understand the units that economy is being reported in. This is illustrated in the following example:

Take a runner who runs along at 4min/km, and uses about 200 ml/kg of O2 to run 1 km. If we look at his O2 use per minute, then we work out that he is using 50 ml/kg/min (because it takes him 4 minutes to run that kilometer and use those 200ml/kg of oxygen). If our runner increases his speed to 3min/km, if we assume that his total oxygen to run 1 km remains 200ml/kg (again, we acknowledge that some people will differ, but generally, as the figure above shows, this is the case). But now, he’s only taking 3 minutes to run the kilometer (and hence use those 200ml/kg of O2). Therefore, his actual use of oxygen PER MINUTE is now 67 ml/kg/min!

So in fact, the use of oxygen PER MINUTE goes up with running speed, but the use per kilometer remains relatively constant. This is important (and has MASSIVE theoretical implications, but that is for another day). The other thing about this figure is that it creates a number of questions – why are the East Africans lower than the Caucasians, for example? But that’s all for the later posts in this series. Let’s get back to Tadese.

Tadese has one of the lowest total volumes of oxygen to run 1 kilometer ever reported. In the article, the authors report the following “normal” values for running economy, measured as ml/kg/km (that is, volume used to run 1 km)

Frank Shorter – 192 ml/kg/kilometer (running at 3:06/km)
Elite Kenyans (including Olympic medallists) – 192 ml/kg/kilometer (running 3:00/km)
Elite Caucasians (Spanish runners) – 211 ml/kg/kilometer (running 3:09/km)
Zersenay Tadese – 150 ml/kg/kilometer (running at 3:09//km and at at 2:51/km)

The size of this difference is astounding. We do have reports of runners who have been tested in this range, but we just need to get permission to publish the results (we’re working on that!). But let’s put this into context:

Tadese is running along at 3:09/km, which is a 2:13 marathon pace.
He is using 150 ml/kg of Oxygen to cover each kilometer.
If we now convert this to a volume per MINUTE, we work out that he is using 47.6 mlO2/kg/min. This is absolutely astonishing for how low it is!

We cannot emphasize just how significant this is – quite what it means, and the implication thereof is something we will tackle in another post, possibly even another series (we don’t want to go off on a tangent here!).
What is wrong with this picture?

But just think about something for a moment – Tadese has a VO2max of 83 ml/kg/min, and he runs at 3:09/km using only 48 ml/kg/min. Therefore, he is using only 57% of his “maximum” at this speed.

There is good evidence that athletes are able to run for 2 hours at about 80% of their VO2max. Now, if Tadese did this, he would be able run at 66 ml/kg/min. Given his Running Economy of 150 ml/kg/km (which is 'relatively' independent of speed - see Figure, and was similar for Tadese in the two speeds he was tested at), this would mean he could cover each kilometer in 2 minutes 18 seconds! Even if his running economy worsened quite a lot and he used up 180 ml/kg/km (a 20% increase), he'd still have it in him to run 2:45/km!

Quite clearly, this is not possible. So either Tadese becomes MUCH LESS efficient as running speed increases (which is somewhat out of the ordinary, as the figure demonstrates - slight changes, sure, but not so large), or something else is going on - there's something wrong with this picture. We need to address this, but as I've said, that's another can of worms!

-Ross Tucker

Pointti ylläolevassa on se, että suurin osa tutkijoista ymmärsi taas jotain väärin ja ymmärtää edelleen väärin. Mutta hankalaahan se on tutkia shakkipeliä tarkkailemalla vain yhtä ruutua koko pelin ajan.

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