Lessons from Two Oceans

21 Mar 2008 Posted by

Two Oceans Ultra Marathon, and the state of the “industry” – more on the running shoe market

A rather “South African-centric” post today, but for those outside SA, please do read on, or bear with me for the post focusing on one of South Africa’s biggest road races – The Two Oceans Ultramarathon (and Half-marathon). This is a race that few outside of SA will likely have heard of, but it’s one of the big 2 ultra-marathons in South Africa, along with the 89km Comrades in June.

The race, a 56km cruise around the Cape Peninsula, is without doubt one of the more beautiful races in the world, and if you’re reading this from outside SA, and feel inclined to take a “running holiday” in the future, next year in April is a good bet – you won’t be disappointed, either by the race or by Cape Town! There is also a half marathon, for those interested in the shorter races. The race profile, incidentally is shown below – a tough final 28km, the marathon mark falling in the middle of the most challenging climb of the race, with another 14km to go.


Most of the runners who’ve actually completed the race will only read this on Tuesday, after returning to work after the weekend, and so their legs will testify to the toughness of the final few kilometers! Well done, and take a few days off!

The Two Oceans Expo – some observations

But the main focus of the post today is the Two Oceans expo – as with many big races, the three days leading up to the race involve an expo where all the ‘players’ in the running industry get to show their wares and promote their goods. Think running shoes, clothing, gels, sports drinks and other gadgets and “necessities” for runners.

I was at the Two Oceans Expo for the last three days, and given our recent series on running shoes, it was a first hand tour through the technology. So I thought I’d share some insights and thoughts.

Running shoes – the industry is shifting

Over the last few days, we’ve done a series looking at running shoes and the possibility that the expensive shoes you were fitted out in might actually be the cause of the injury, and not the solution! And the response has been fantastic – we’ve received many comments and emails from people, supporting, refuting and discussing the topics, and so it’s quite clear that shoes, more than any other topic, touches runners where it counts – their feet! And, unfortunately, their wallets, for it’s still the largest expense a runner incurs for the sport.

So it’s not surprising that when 20,000 runners gather for a serious running event, the shoes take centre-stage.

I was fortunate enough to wander around and interact with various shoe companies, and have their sales and technical staff explain to me the latest innovations and gadgets that are “guaranteed to make me faster, and injury-free”.

What is particularly interesting, given the context of our series on shoes over the last week, is that every year, it becomes clearer and clearer that the market is heading towards a neutral, cushioned shoe focus. The major brands still have their heavy, expensive motion-control shoes, but the trend is without a doubt towards the lighter and more cushioned shoe. I remember a time when the default option was to suggest that the runner get an anti-pronation shoe, simply because they pronated. Remember, pronation is the “normal” movement of the foot – almost everyone has it. But as recently as perhaps 4 or 5 years ago, it was the enemy, and advice was given to stop it at all costs.

That is no longer happening, as far as I can tell. Again, there are brands that still make shoes to stop the movement, but they now seem to be out-numbered by the cushioned shoes, and the default advice that most people are getting is “go neutral”. Every company – Adidas, Nike, New Balance, Asics, and Puma (at this particular Expo, that is), has developed some device to mimic or simulate “barefoot” running. Whether it be a flexible shaft in the shoe, or a plate that rotates on the heel, or even the more breathable design, the very obvious trend is towards more movement, more natural, more barefoot. As we said in our last post, the companies are trying to sell “barefoot”. And that is encouraging, and I’d love to know the rationale and forces driving that shift.

Market forces – you buy, they make more

In economics (I’m wearing the marketing management hat for this post), it’s often said that the “market speaks”, and that may well be what is happening with shoes. People may once have tried the heavy, rigid support shoe, prescribed to them by companies who promised injury free running. But time reveals truth, and so with time, it may have become apparent that this was not in fact happening, and so sales of those shoes went down. Nothing speaks to business more loudly that declining sales and profits, and so perhaps we are now seeing the shift, driven by you, the runners, into the more cushioned, neutral shoes? I’d love to see sales figures to confirm or refute this…

The other really interesting thing that was pointed out to me a few days ago by one of our readers is that about 10 years ago, Adidas came up with a “Feet you wear” campaign. Some may remember that – the logo was a foot that had ‘evolved’ into the shape of a smiling face. The concept back then was to mimic barefoot running, bring the foot closer to the ground, and let your feet decide, they knew best, and so on. That idea then disappeared, but it’s the earliest efforts I can recall of a company going that way, even preceding the Free concept by Nike. What is interesting is why that campaign did not take off, and why this current trend might be different? Was that particular shoe range inferior for some other reason? Perhaps the scientific evidence, and the support given to this concept by “experts” in the field, like physios and podiatrists who may be advocating neutral shoes is different now, compared to the late 1990′s? Again, it’s speculation, though I suspect that industry insiders know this.

I’m curious to see how this develops – I do believe that within the next 5 years, the companies that make the best cushioned shoes will grow, while those who hold onto their motion control shoes will suffer. In marketing, a model called the BCG matrix calls some products “Stars”, and others “Dogs” (among other classifications). I suspect that the star of 5 years ago, the motion control shoe, is gradually becoming a dog, and how the industry reacts will be interesting…

Expanding into other areas – the industry and scientific integrity

Expanding from shoes, and looking at the running industry as a whole, what tends to happen at these expos is that everyone abandons scientific integrity (if there was any to begin with!) in order to sell product. And it’s astonishing, and often humorous to observe how it is done. Products are being peddled left, right and centre, with little regard for facts. Some of the advice being given runners is frankly shameful. At least one runner, who was standing next to me at a product stand, is going to run the 56km race drinking a protein shake to “take away lactic acid and stop the muscle from being broken down”. Anyone who has ever eaten a high protein meal before, or during exercise, will know just how badly this can affect your stomach – I hope he abandons this strategy before stomach problems end his race!

Of course, runners can often be an adventurous bunch, willing to try new things and experiment, often to their detriment. In the last three years, I have been in the medical tent of the Comrades Ultra marathon doing research, and every year, three or four people have to receive medical treatment because they tried a new product on race day and had a negative reaction to it!

Some of the products being sold, and the rationale behind them, is just astonishing. For example, you can buy a cream in South Africa, which you rub on your legs in order to “remove lactic acid from the muscles”. It’s anyone’s guess how it works. Never mind the fact that the lactate (or lactic acid, as it is often incorrectly called) is unlikely to really be the problem for an ultra-marathon runner. I once asked one of the technical consultants to explain how it worked. The answer was that “The cream contains oxygen, which diffuses through the skin, into the muscle and then takes out the lactic acid”.

While this is clearly ridiculous, where it becomes more disturbing is that this product is backed and endorsed by a local University, reasoning and all! As we have seen before, when the price is right, science can say pretty much whatever it needs to! (I’m thankful to say it’s not my University!) I suspect that where ever you are in the world, you’ll be able to relate similar stories and products.

Knowledge is power. The market has the power, what of the knowledge?

And I make these points and give these examples, not to slam the industry or those in it, because they are trying to survive and gain a competitive edge – their incentive is not truth or validity in their claims. That’s wrong, I know, but it’s the way it is. So you cannot hold them accountable for the myths they perpetuate, unfortunately. Rather, I wish to point out that ultimately, the consequence of the sales-myths is that the athlete, or end-user is compromised, not the company. And as with shoes, you, the runner, should dictate the market by being discerning and severe on these kinds of products. Force the makers, and the scientists who say what they are asked to (this applies to other situations as well) into a higher standard of credibility and integrity.

That, of course, requires knowledge, understanding, and education, which is why sports science, often undervalued, needs a boost in its public profile and perception. I was working at the Runners World stand at the Expo (I am the scientific editor of the SA mag), and people were invited to come and ask questions – none did, and I suspect they do not perceive that there are things they might benefit from knowing. Injury? Ask a physio. Illness? Ask a doctor. But what does one as a sports scientist? Hypothetically, the issue of oxygen diffusing through skin would be one such question! This is also not to say that suddenly the “exalted” field of sports science has all the answers, for clearly it doesn’t (and nor do I). But the contrast between what is perpetuated at events like the Expo and the facts is so large, that everyone can contribute to better understanding. And hopefully, fewer people will run marathons drinking protein shakes as a result!

Also, what this does is introduce some really interesting discussion points, and so I did, at the very least, leave the Two Oceans expo with some ideas for articles in the future, and with a greater appreciation of where the various sections of the running world (running shoes, energy products, creams, recovery aids etc.) are heading. I also left with a few other stories and discussion points from chatting to coaches and runners, but that is a topic for tomorrow’s post.

One thing I did not leave with, is the anti-lactate cream! Promise…

To all those runners who are taking part tomorrow, good luck! And to all those who read this AFTER taking part, congratulations!

For those not lucky enough to be in Cape Town for the weekend, wherever you are, have a wonderful Easter weekend, and perhaps next year, I’ll see you at the Expo!