Science of Sport humour

Innovation and truth in physiology: (and a humorous, great tip for fat loss, straight out of the 1930's)

Since it's a Friday afternoon, and few people are focused on anything serious, I thought I'd do something of a humorous post today, linked to what people have been writing in recently about “fact vs fiction” when it comes to human physiology (which is our staple diet, after all).

We have a big week ahead of us, and so we're saving some of the more in-depth analysis for next week, when you can look forward to:

  • A discussion of the Kenyan “failures” on the track in Olympic and World Champions in the last 15 years. Why has Kenya won only ONE out of the last ELEVEN major titles at 10,000m, for example?
  • More analysis on Oscar Pistorius, who runs tonight in Rome. The picture is slowly emerging on the “science” he produced to legally clear his way at the CAS. Next week, we'll bring you discussion of those tests, and present that Pistorius is a physiological impossibility, thanks to his carbon fibre blades.
  • Continued coverage of the Tour de France which hits the big mountains on Sunday and Monday. This will include more discussion about the feeding strategies, what riders eat, and the physiology and tactics of the race.

But for today, we look at weight loss (as a prelude to further discussion of this topic, once all the sports news is past):

A hot weight loss tip from the 1930's: Introducing Sylvia-from-Hollywood

So here is a weight loss tip straight out of 1930, which I came across a link from a great blog called Half-Fast, which is worth reading for running humour. The post on narcolepsy is a great read, but spend a while going through the posts if you have time or feel like a laugh. But it was a link to this article on a book from 1930's advocating some truly bizarre methods for weight loss that made me laugh.

It turns out that the 1930's were much like today, with people selling “revolutionary ideas” – all that has changed is the platform and method of communication. The following is an excerpt from a book called “No More Alibis”, written by a Sylvia of Hollywood. It seems that Sylvia was something of a Jane Fonda of the 1930's. This is her advice for fat loss:

In case you wondered how this might look, there was a picture:

I guess the less said the better! I have few words to add to Sylvia's description (no, it doesn't work!) Though it would seem that if you squeeze often enough, you develop an upper body like a WWE Superstar!

Innovation and progress: Leading us away from truth

Getting more serious now, the advice above, while laughable, is typical of what you'll find today, in various forms. This post on marketing and weight loss (our first venture into these waters) is inspired by a combination of some of your recent comments, work I did recently here in SA, and then a general theme here at The Science of Sport. Those who've been reading recently will know that we've had some discussion around “innovation” and scientific progress, as applied to things like running technique, training, diet, running shoes, and now weight loss. Our general approach (as scientists and as people) is to be sceptical of anything that is punted as “revolutionary”, because the packaging of “revolutions” almost always compromises the facts!

I was then recently asked to give a presentation on “The Science of Weight Loss” here at the Sports Science Institute of SA where I work. In preparing that talk, I got to thinking that when it comes to making a profit, innovation usually leads us further and further away from the truth.

In other words, whenever someone packages and then tries to sell an idea (be it technology and training, technique, shoes, or methods for weight loss), they have to be novel and innovative, in order to stand out among the clutter. When you do a search on for “weight loss”, you find 60,000 books in the results! Now, if you're the guy writing book number 60,001, you have to innovate, find a point of differentiation. That is obvious, but the problem is that this innovation often leads us away from truth and into fiction.

Weight loss: We've lost sight of the truth thanks to rampant marketing

Take for example the following article, which was sent to us by Steve (thanks Steve!)

The Cardio-free diet: Optimal method for weight loss?

We'll discuss this concept in more detail at some stage. But briefly, it talks about a revolutionary new method for weight loss, where ZERO cardio training should be done. We won't discuss the merits of the argument here, other than to say that it's a very (very) shaky theory, to say the least. The entire basis for the argument is flawed, and the “evidence” to back up the theory is weak and empty. Truth is, cardio is needed, and is crucial to weight loss success. But remember, Jim Karas wants your money, and why would you pay for something that everyone else is doing?

The same goes for running technique – you'd never pay hundreds of dollars to be told that you should run using common sense principles! But when a technique is packaged and then sold, with someone cashing the cheque on the other end, then you have a market. And that is unfortunately what happens.

I must make clear that this is NOT always the case, and there are some excellent ideas and products. And even the theory is often sound – in the case of running techniques, for example, I think the principles are good, I'd advocate them, but it's the “packaging” and sale of technique as a product that I have issue with, as you'll have seen reading our series on Running technique from start to finish!

Quite where the discerning consumer must go to distinguish between genuine progress in understanding and marketing fad is difficult to know. I guess knowledge is power and insurance, but the fact that these concepts have existed for perhaps 80 years (and more) is evidence that the market will always exist, and people will always try to exploit it.

Weight loss – an unexplored territory

At the risk of committing to yet another topic that we should look into in the future, weight loss is a great topic for physiology, because it provides good context for discussion. So I'm sure we'll pick it up in the future, just don't know when!

Have a great weekend, enjoy The Tour de France and the Golden League athletics from Rome!


Credit to 15minute lunch for the Sylvia article – also some funny content on his site

le Tour de France 2008: Bring on the mountains

Yet another lead change in an exciting tour

Today's Stage 6 saw the first mountain stage of the race this year, although it was a soft introduction to the Pyrenees with “only” two Category 2 climbs. Regardless, it was potentially a day for GC favorites to attack and at least test one another's legs and fitness. There were indeed many attacks, but in the end the favorites were subdued and the attacks came from riders who could not threaten anyone in the top ten.

The day started with an escape of three Frenchmen. The highest placed rider among them was Sylvain Chavanel at 2:10 behind race leader Stefan Schumacher. As such, the Gerolsteiner-lead peloton gave the break a maximum of five minutes before slowly reigning them in. At the start of the Col de la Croix-Morand the lead was down to two minutes and the catch was imminent. With 18 km to go the attacks started, with some riders staying away for a few km's at at time, but none could get more than 20 seconds on the bunch.

Then, in the lead up to the final climb, Valverde's Caisse d'Epargne men all came to the front and dropped the hammer, setting a strong tempo up the Cat 2 climb. The climb itself was not particularly difficult, as it has two distinct sections. The initial 8-9 km averaged maybe 4-5%, and only over the last 1-2 km did it really get steep (>8%). The result of this is that most of the Caisse d'Epargne team were able to sit on the front and ride tempo while slowly riders were dropped off the back.

When Valverde's team came to front it seemed as if he was preparing to launch an attack himself to make up some of the 1:20 or so that he lost in the time trial to guys like Evans, Kirchen, Schumacher, and Menchov. However there was no real attack from the Spaniard, and instead we saw a series of minor attacks follow one another.

Eventually, a group of perhaps 20 riders hit the final 500m for the sprint, and it was Ricardo Ricco of Saunier Duval who jumped clear, with Valverde trying to follow him. Ricco was too strong, and moved a length or two clear of Valverde, who then sat up somewhat, allowing Cadel Evans, who had been marking Valverde, to finish just behind him and lose no time.

Confident move by wild-card Team Garmin-Chipotle

With five km to go, the first “real” attack from a GC contender, or at least from a rider within striking distance of yellow, came from Christian Vande Velde. Together with Leonardo Piepoli (Saunier Duval) the two fired off the front and kept alive a 20 s gap until just over one km to go. It was a solid move by Vande Velde, who was in sixth place and just 37 s away from yellow at the beginning of the stage, although it was not meant to be and he finished just behind the winners today. He lost some time on the (new) yellow jersey but moved into fourth place (44 s behind leader Kim Kirchen).

Admittedly there are still many mountains to be crested in this year's race, but this wild-card team finds itself in a very admirable position. They lead the team classification, but more importantly they have two riders in the top ten (David Millar sits just three seconds back in fifth) with no pressure to do anything yet. Neither Millar or Van de Velde are favorites, but should they be able to limit their losses through the mountains the might see themselves finish quite high in Paris as both can time trial very well.

Another new maillot jaune

So we saw yet another change in yellow, although the circumstances were unfortunate. Schumacher touched wheels just inside of one km to go, and hit the deck. He was uninjured, but lost time and the yellow jersey to Kim Kirchen (Team Columbia). There was confusion after the race over a rule that applies to flat stages, where accidents or incidents in the final kilometer are ignored and all riders are given the same time. That rule doesn't apply on mountain finishes, because otherwise riders would fake problems to limit time losses. Schumacher's team maintain that they clearly were not faking anything (true), and there was apparently deliberation over the application of the rule, with different verdicts being passed. Eventually it was ruled that the time loss would count, and Kirchen inherited yellow as a result (as well having Schumacher blame him for the crash).

The interesting thing is that now we have raced six stages and we have a rider who has the potential to take the jersey all the way to Paris, though he is an outside shot. Team Columbia is a solid team with plenty of experience and talent and they will put up a serious defense of the race lead in the days to come, and we must not forget that the pressure is on the other riders to attack him and take they time they need to move into the lead.

However, Cadel Evans, the big favourite for the race, is lurking in second place, only 6 seconds back. He has seemed strong throughout the race, and we suspect that come the first big mountain stage, he'll have enough to make those six seconds and take yellow. Having already seen four different men wear yellow, we may well be one man away from its last wearer too.

Looking ahead: Stage 9

The next two stages should not see any major attacks and changes at the top, especially with the absence of time bonuses in this year's race. Stage 7 has a few categorized climbs, namely two Cat 2s, but a Cat 2 climb is just not long enough or steep enough to create real separation amongst the top contenders, even when it is a mountain top finish. Stage 8 is pretty mild with only some Cat 4 climbs, but Stage 9 will see two Cat 1 peaks: the legendary Col de Peyresourde after about 150 km, followed by the Col d'Aspin at 184 km. However it is a downhill dash to the finish, and as such it will be difficult for any escapee to stay away after cresting the final climb of the day. Rather, Stage 10 on Monday, 14 July (Bastille Day) is a mountain top finish on Hautacam. That is an “out-of-category” climb, which follows soon after the Col du Tormalet, and we are sure to see some drama on the mountain. Organize your sick day now for a stage not to be missed!

Real Tour de France data

Power output and physiology, straight from le Tour de France

Over the last few days, we've been covering the “on-road” action from the first week of the Tour de France. Immediately below this post, you can find our report from the first big GC-type stage, the 29km individual time-trial in Cholet, won (somewhat surprisingly) by Stefan Schumacher, who now wears the leader's yellow jersey.

The other big winner of the day was Cadel Evans, who ended with a one-minute lead over the man everyone sees as his big challenger, Alejandro Valverde.

However, apart from the racing action, our objective is to provide you with “behind the scenes” insight and analysis of the race, and there's no better place to start than to ask the question: “What does it actually take, physiologically, to ride in the Tour de France peloton?”

Introducing Training Peaks: The information of cycling

And to answer that question for the next 2 and a half weeks, rather than take it on ourselves to theorize and speculate, the best thing to do is simply to refer you to the following website:

Training Peaks Tour de France coverage and data

This site will, for the duration of the Tour, be putting up data from Adam Hansen, a Tour rider with the Team Columbia. The data include all those juicy bits of information that cyclists love so much, like power output and heart rate. So, if you simply refer to this site daily (while not forgetting to visit here, of course!), you'll be able to read up what Hansen's efforts have involved, as well as some insights from Hunter Allen on the data files. It makes for some fascinating reading, and is well worth bookmarking.

If you want to really get stuck into the raw data, you'll have to download a trial version of the software that is used to produce the graphs you can see. This is not a bad thing, because it will allow to see what other features are offered.

Innovation in sport technology and information

I was fortunate enough to visit Training Peaks earlier this year, during my time in Boulder, Colorada, where their head office is based. Boulder, for those who do not know, is something of a mecca for endurance sports in the USA, and so perhaps not surprisingly, it has developed into a hotbed of ideas, innovation and leadership in the sports. I was blown away by the culture of Boulder – the sheer number of athletes, coaches and sporting “communities” is fantastic, and it's a beautiful place too, with a vibrant university (and a strong exercise physiology course!) and some great opportunities. I certainly would put it high on my “desirable places to live list”.

But of those innovators, the Training Peaks system must be one of the more impressive. At the time of my visit (early January), I was passing through on vacation, but decided that a great series to do would be one looking at the influence of technology on sport and training, and that was inspired by what I saw at Training Peaks. Thanks to work pressure and a busy year of sports happenings, that has never really materialized, though it is still on the cards (along with about a dozen other juicy topics!)

Getting back to technology, it certainly come a long way from the old heart rate monitors that sounded alarms when you went above your pre-set target zone!

And cycling, perhaps more than other sport, lends itself to data and information, and cyclists are often hungry for this kind of information. But then so are scientists – data is power, and for a scientist, there is no such thing as too much information! The trick is filtering out the redundant, losing the irrelevant and understanding the important information. The WKO+ software you would download to view the Tour de France files is designed to help with that, and they have a number of different packages available, some for the coach, some for the athlete (though of course, anyone can play these roles).

Information, technology and sport: Revolutionary tool or curse?

Whether or not this impacts on information is another question. I guess one has to bear in mind that any software or technology is the tool, not the solution, and so just as one would not expect a computer to perform spontaneous calculations, no one should reasonably expect training with the latest SRM technology and analytical software to compensate for faulty training!

But the point is, this kind of data is easily translated into information and knowledge, and this can, if used wisely, be a powerful tool for training, especially for cycling. Running lags behind somewhat in this regard, for some obvious reasons (relative inaccuracy in quantifying exercise intensity using heart rate or power output, for example) and some subtle ones (financial power of runners vs. cyclists in many parts of the world, for example, though this is a huge generalization; the desire to limit the influence of equipment on running performance is another).

But, even in running, the continual advances of technology (and I'm not talking about super-effective carbon fibre limbs here…!) make an impact, and Garmin GPS watches are become more and more common, for example. Eventually, running will reach where cycling is now.

Different perceptions of technology

I'm sure that many of you reading this use a range of technology in your training – heart rate monitors, GPS, power meters (take your pick of which one!), and the full range of programmes to analyse your training and racing performance. Equally, I suspect that many do not, and could not be bothered with all this information – you take the adage that Kenyan runners, for example, train without watches, let alone heart rate monitors, and it's hardly affected them!

But the role of technology in your training is pervasive and interesting. Books have been written, and will continue to be written, about how to make the most of the technology. An entire industry has shot up around how to use heart rate monitors, the result often being the propogation of myths and false theories that defy physiological belief! That's a series of “myth-buster” posts if ever there was one!

The Training Peaks Tour de France data is one example of how to gather data, process it and generate potentially useful information. It's the most comprehensive I've seen, but there are many others, and they certainly warrant discussion. But that is for another day, after this busy period of sports news is over.

Until then, we'll keep analysing the Tour, and probably referring back to the Training Peaks information from Adam Hansen for some context, so join us over the coming weeks!


le Tour de France 2008: The race comes to life!

Big GC shuffle after the first time trial

Le contre la montre. The race of truth. The individual time trial. Today saw Stage 4 of le Tour 2008, and although it was short in duration, it was long on impact. The racing is off to a great start as we saw the third yellow jersey of the race in only four stages—and no doping allegations yet! Viva le Tour 2008.

Going into the action today it was French hero-of-the-day Romain Feillu who stole yellow from Valverde in Stage 3. In that stage the sprinters' teams let the four-man break have their way, which was a maximum lead of 15 minutes. At 50 km to go they still had about an eight minute advantage, and the catch seemed unlikely. Indeed it was not to happen, and Feillu and his fellow escapees took the stage with Feillu taking both time and the yellow jersey from Valverde.

Time to ante up

With the short time trial (29.5 km) any one rider's losses would be limited. However we mentioned yesterday that it would still create a pecking order among the GC contenders, as well as present an opportunity for serious competitors to ante up to the table and take a few (or more) precious seconds from their rivals. Accordingly, GC riders like Cadell Evans, Denis Menchov, and Kim Kirchen came out swinging and “attacked” each other and their rivals with the clock.

The hot pre-race favorites were Fabian Cancellara and David Millar, two time-trial specialists who have performed well previously. In fact Cancellara is the reigning world time trial champ. It was a nearly flat course, with only a few bumps in the road to break it up slightly. This neutralized the climbers and favored the time trial specialists like Cancellara and Millar. Sadly but not surpisingly, overnight French hero Feillu lost out a bit, giving 4:59 to the eventual winner and new maillot jaune Stefan Schumacher.

Next stop: Super Besse

It was a very tight race with the top ten finishing within 47 seconds of each other. That is a deep field and rearranges the standings just in time for the first mountain stage on Thursday. Schumacher is an interesting maillot jaune. He won two stages in the 2006 Giro d'Italia, won the Amstel Gold Race in 2007, and was third in the World Champs the same year. So he has had some success, and appears to be a budding all 'rounder whose climbing ability will be tested in Stage 6 this year. He will defend the jersey vehemently, but remains enough of an unknown to make it unpredictable up the two Category 2 climbs, where there will be plenty of attacks as riders test each other and try to gain more time.

Only one minute separates places 2-9 from yellow. Among the top ten, the only likely contenders are Kirchen, Millar, Evans, and Menchov (11th). And even among them Millar's climbing has always been inconsistent and not his strength. Team Garmin-Chipotle also have Christian Vandevelde, who can be a good climber but has never performed that well in the grand tours. Having said that, however, Garmin-Chipotle is in a superb position. They are a wild card entry this year with zero expectations, and have gone from strength to strength since the start of the year. Yesterday they nearly won the stage (2nd) and again today Millar placed highly (3rd).

But Evans is the big winner from the Stage 4 time trial. He sits currently in 4th place, 21 s behind Schumacher but only nine seconds behind Millar and Kirchen. Furthermore, he is over one minute clear of Alejandro Valverde and 1:20 ahead of Carlos Sastre, two Spanish climbers and favorites of many to take yellow in Paris. Obviously Millar and Kirchen can match Evans in the race of truth, but surely Evans will climb better than both of them. With his team throwing their support behind him and leaving sprinting legend Robbie McEwen to fend for himself, Evans then looks able to take and defend the yellow jersey.

Le Tour 2008: We like it!

It has been a great tour so far, with three lead changes and a likely fourth change on Thursday. The Super Besse stage on that day will no doubt produce another shake up as the yellow jersey will be attacked on the final climb (or even before). Add to this the fact that it is a mountain top finish, where time losses can be decisive, and you have a winning combination for some fantastic racing, with a rider like Evans possibly amassing a substantial lead over his rivals. Look for Silence-Lotto to try to deal a knockout blow to the likes of Valverde and Sastre and perhaps even Menchov. If not, the pressure is firmly on them to make up the 40+ seconds they owe to the Australian.

Roll on Stage 6 and Super Besse!

le Tour de France 2008: Feed them well

Why eating is important

The 2008 edition of le grande boucle, as it is affectionately known, is now fully underway, and so far each stage has been quite exciting. The tour started without the traditional prologue, and instead was a full on stage. It's slightly uphill finish effectively neutralized the sprinters, and so it was not surprising to see all the main GC contenders at the front. In fact Alejandro Valverde won the stage and took yellow, although we spoke about how much of a challenge it would be to go “wire to wire” in yellow.

Sunday's Stage 2 had its fair share of bumps with four categorized climbs and also a slightly uphill finish. It seemed that again the sprinters would be neutralized, and it was Fabian Cancellara that attacked with one km to go. He could not hold it, though, and even Valverde had a go, but also faded. In the end a big man took victory—Thor Hushovd from Norway powered across the line for his fifth stage win in le Tour. Valverde remained in yellow, however.

During the first two stages there were crashes as the riders passed through the feedzones. These are designated areas where support crew hold out bags full of food and drink. The riders slow down a bit and grab them as they whiz by. Fortunately Stage 3 saw no crashes in the feed zones, but let's looks at why it is so important to eat on the bike.

Energy balance

We can all agree that the energy demands placed on tour riders are pretty astronomical, but it makes more sense to break it down into a specific context. Therefore let's take your “average” 75 kg cyclist and his daily energy demands. His resting metabolic rate, or RMR, is the amount of energy he requires to sit there do nothing all day long. In other words, it is the energy required by his body to maintain all of its life-sustaining functions. For him it is around 1500 calories.

But our cyclist is not just sitting there all day. . .in fact, he is covering upwards of 180 km per stage, often with significant uphill sections which require more energy. Cycling is a pretty efficient activity, however, and it costs our cyclist in the range of 0.3-0.4 calories per km cycled per kg of body mass—or about 25-30 calories per km. The bottom line here is that a 180 km stage will cost our athlete around 4000 calories, depending on the amount of drafting.

It's a lot of cheeseburgers!

Any way you calculate it, our cyclist's total energy expenditure for one day of the tour is very high. His RMR (1500 cal) plus his exercising energy expenditure (4000 cal) adds up to a whopping 5500 calories, which is probably the equivalent of 15+ cheeseburgers! So just to remain in energy balance our rider must consume 5000+ calories a day. Believe us when we say it: that is a lot of food. Add to this the fact that he is on the bike for four or more hours during the day, plus the “anorexic effect” of exercise, plus 8-10 hours of sleep. Suddenly he has only a relatively small window of time to consume large amounts or calories.

If we assume he is otherwise occupied for up to 16 hours a day with riding, sleeping, and other activities, he has only about 7-8 h to ingest 5500 calories, which works out to about 700+ calories an hour during the time he is available to eat and drink. So remaining in energy balance is actually a huge challenge for our tour rider.

Fortunately the race organizers allow the cyclists to grab the feed bags and eat while riding. This is crucial for two reasons. First, it provides more opportunity to choke down a portion of the 5500 calories he needs in a day. Second, the ingestion of carbohydrates during exercise prevents the dreaded “bonk,” or hypoglycemia. Many of you probably have bonked before, and therefore you know that when it happens you are finished—no more racing for the day as you limp home and consume gross quantities of food along the way to fill the hole in your tummy!

How much to eat then?

Klaas Westerterp and his colleagues in Maastricht (Netherlands) actually measured the energy intake and estimated the energy expenditure in five cyclists in the 1988 Tour de France. Their average intake was almost 6000 calories per day, while their average expenditure was nearly 6100 calories per day—indicating that these cyclists did a remarkable job of (nearly) maintaining energy balance. They accomplished this by ingesting 49% of their energy while riding, which amounted to whopping 94 g of CHO per hour during each stage! Furthermore, a full 30% of their carbohydrate intake was in fluid form, which makes it substantially easier to meet energy requirements during the 7-8 h when they are not racing or otherwise occupied.

Given this information now, it should now make total sense when you watch the riders rolling through the French countryside, shoving energy bars and other products down their gullets. Hungry or not, they must get the calories into their bodies. Failure to do so will almost certainly result in fatigue and an early exit from the race, because when cycling four or more hours each day it does not take long to accrue a serious energy deficit. When your body does not get enough energy, cycling four hours or more a day becomes an unnecessary activity, and our bodies have an uncanny way of keeping us healthy—suddenly getting on the bike and pedaling requires substantial effort, more so than a few days ago, and eventually you will not be able to keep up with the bunch.

Stay tuned to le Tour—plenty of action ahead

Looking ahead to Tuesday's stage, we see the first individual time trial. It is a pancake flat 29 km ride and will do two things. First, it will create a pecking order for those who will contend for the GC. Second, it will limit any one rider's gains or losses as the distance is so short, and therefore the race should remain close and within reach for the contenders. It also will set the stage for Stage 6 on Thursday, which is the tour's first mountain top finish, and is sure to produce some fireworks!