Four bullet Friday: World XC, the IAAF’s uneasy distance relationship, and pain for performance

29 Mar 2019 Posted by

It’s been a while since I did a four-bullet Friday – too much travel, too many court cases and meetings! But here goes, four quick-fire thoughts to usher in the weekend!


1. World X-Country Championships and the IAAF’s uneasy relationship with distance events

Something I missed over the course of my frantic last few weeks was the IAAF’s decision to scrap the 5,000m and 10,000m events from Diamond League meetings from 2020 onwards.

However, it seemed relevant again this week, because tomorrow, the World Cross Country Championships take place in Aarhus, Denmark. This is an event that really should be the premier distance race on the planet. It used to happen every year, over two days, with a short and long course race, and now it’s one distance, every two years. Which kind of typifies the IAAF’s struggles with distance running’s relevance.

This year’s event in Denmark seems to have been ‘created’ by a team who understand what the event needs though. Not the IAAF, but the local organizers, who’ve put together a course and a programme that is designed to add back a bit of fun and hype, to maximize involvement of spectators live and for those watching on television. Whether it works or not remains to be seen – perhaps the issues are incurable (I don’t think they are) – but I’m certainly really looking forward to it.

The Letsrun crew are in Denmark, and have written a detailed article about the architecture of Saturday’s races. A Viking Village, Runners’ Valhalla, super steep climbs, running on a museum roofs, sharp banked turns off steep descents, water, sand and mud-pits all feature in what has been described as the toughest course people have ever seen.

As usual, not everyone is delighted – the course attracted some criticism as being “too gimmicky” and leaning towards obstacle racing. My feeling, even if it was true (which it isn’t – it’s still a running event without ladders and walls), is so what? If that’s what creates interest and enthusiasm, then hire the Aarhus team to sort out distance running everywhere, because it seems the IAAF doesn’t have a particularly good handle on it.


2. The Diamond League distance defeat

Speaking of, back to Diamond League. The removal of the 5000m event is part of the IAAF’s desire to ‘compact’ the meetings into 90 minutes, rather than the current two hours, and is based on “clear market feedback” from broadcasters and fans.

Presumably they sent a bunch of intrepid surveyors into European communities who occasionally watch the sport and heard that the distance events were “boring”, took too much time, or something like that.

I doubt their feedback was coming from the tens of thousands of people who run Parkrun 5km events at the weekend, or who enter local 10km races or who meet three times a week for group runs through cities, and for whom the 5,000m may just be the most relatable event in the sport. It definitely wasn’t coming from athletics followers in east Africa, for whom the distance events ARE track and field.

The other frustrating thing is that the way the TV broadcast worked, the 5,000m events were barely shown anyway. Maybe you’d see the first 600m, then a quick check-in at about 2000m, one at 3000m if you were lucky, and then the final 600m. That was about four to five minutes of distance event coverage in a two-hour programme, but it gave them the chance to show you endless replays of high jump failures at 1.98m or a discus throw or long jump competition that had finished an hour earlier.

Now, with the 3000m as the longest event at the meeting (outside the broadcast window, since meetings could include 5000m races as long as they weren’t on TV, as spin doctor and not-so-deft-political-communication head Nicole Jeffrey tried to assure people), we’ll get three minutes of distance running action.

I’m sure they’ll retain the four minutes it takes to introduce the 100m fields when they pan right to left as each individual athlete gets to wave and show off their latest patented hand/knuckle gesture. And the 8 minutes of victory celebrations will remain. But where will we put all the field event highlights? They’ll have to go into the main broadcast package, and since throwing a hammer or javelin, or clearing a bar 5.8m above the ground are so relatable (don’t confuse relatable with impressive and spectacular, by the way!), I’m sure track and field will be the winner.

I’d have loved to see a more creative approach to the ‘problem’ than simply blaming broadcasters and some market research. That rather implies that the event is doomed, inherently so flawed that nothing can redeem it. The IAAF have admitted defeat without actually trying something new first. Amputate, rather than treat.

In my opinion, admittedly biased towards distance, the 5,000m is the most relatable of all the events, because it’s the one anyone can do, and thousands do. Rather help contextualize and relate the event better, show some data, be more creative with the packaging of the race, its presentation. It seems a real shame to cleave off such a large portion of the sport’s ‘viable’ market for the sake of someone’s perceptions of ‘sexy’. But that’s just me.


3. No pain, no performance?

I saw this interesting article yesterday, about a woman who feels no pain, and how the genetic mutation responsible had been identified, creating hopes of new chronic pain relief treatments.

It’s an interesting story all by itself, but when I read it, I wondered how that kind of mutation, one that eliminates pain, would affect athletes. You’ll often read that the “ability to tolerate pain” is crucial for athletic performance, and so the total absence of pain would be a major performance enhancer, right?

Nope. Pain is probably necessary to perform, because it helps modulate both training, the adaptation to training, and performance because of how it impacts pacing. If you can’t feel, how do you know when to slow down, when to rest, when to back off?

Someone who feels no pain, but who exposes themselves to a risk of injury that is inherent in sport is going to have multiple “hardware” failures, over and over, long before any ‘software’ warns them about it. Mild injuries will become severe, overtraining will be common, and

And then if it’s a distance athlete we’re talking about, they’ll battle to manage pacing because one of the key afferent signals that helps modulate performance is pain. If you take it away, then the athlete is running in the absence of crucial information, “flying blind”, and so they’d have to run by numbers rather than physiology. But the process of learning that would be impossible.

I was reminded of some studies by Ammann et al where they used fentanyl, injected into the spinal cavity, to knock out certain afferent feedback. What they showed in one study is that cyclists would start the first half of a 5km cycling time-trial like a house on fire, with 6% higher power output than in either a control or placebo condition. But then there’s a price that is paid in the second half, where the power output drops off so much (11%) that the overall performance is the same as control and placebo, and the degree of peripheral fatigue (measured using femoral nerve stimulation, which assesses how much the muscle’s force producing ability declines as a result of exercise) is significantly greater than when feedback is present.

So here’s the conclusion from their paper:

Our results emphasize the critical role of somatosensory feedback from working muscles on the centrally mediated determination of CMD. Attenuated afferent feedback from exercising locomotor muscles results in an overshoot in CMD and power output normally chosen by the athlete, thereby causing a greater rate of accumulation of muscle metabolites and excessive development of peripheral muscle fatigue.

Point is, no pain, no performer, no performance. Pain is your ally, in many ways, and while tolerating it better would be desirable, not having it is likely limiting.


4. My most interesting: Scientific article – performance modeling and anti-doping

Perhaps in future, if time allows, I’ll write more on the concepts described in this editorial, called “Performance Modeling and Anti-doping”. But I saw it two weeks ago and thought it interesting, because it covers performance modeling as a method to assist anti-doping.

It’s by Faiss et al, with senior author James Hopker, who has already written a few papers on this subject. If you’ve followed my doping discussions for any length of time, you’ll know about this concept of measuring performance as an indicator of possible doping. It’s one I’ve written about a lot – back in 2009, I interviewed Yorck Schumacher on it, and it comes up every Tour de France when we talk about the power outputs, historical trends in those numbers, and what they mean for ‘trust’ and cynicism.

I won’t go into again here, but here’s a section from the Editorial that explains the concept:

The objective of this Research Topic is to discuss the potential for scientific evidence-based models of athletic performance to provide a cost effective tool that can be used by anti-doping organizations in the fight against doping in sports

The challenge here, as it always has been, is to separate the “signal” from the “noise”, because there are so many factors affecting performance. Step 1, though, would be to measure performance properly. Way I see it, we’re still looking at performance in 2019 and wondering how it might be quantified, paralysed by the desire for it to be perfect when it just needs to be done.

We’ll be debating the same concept in 2029 if nobody grabs this issue and actually starts gathering data that may one day be used in conjunction with other tools. Right now, we’re blind just because we don’t have 20/20 vision. Hopefully this article, and others preceding it, push us closer to actually having performances to evaluate.

That’s all for now. Have a good weekend and enjoy the Cross country Championships!


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