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The Science of Running

Get the latest science news related to massage, marathons and your heart, achilles injury, vitamins and reading on the treadmill.

Massage and the lactic acid trip

One of the perks often available at big road races is free article-run massage – a chance to enjoy the pampering that elite athletes get on a regular basis. But what, exactly, is the benefit offered by massage? A common answer is that massage improves circulation, helping to flush out the lactic acid left behind after exercise. One problem with this explanation is that the theory that fatigue and muscle soreness result from the accumulation of lactic acid has been largely discredited – in fact, there’s some evidence that lactic acid may actually protect against fatigue. And now, a new study from researchers at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. suggests that massage actually decreases blood flow to the muscles, rather than increasing it.

Kinesiology professor Michael Tschakovsky and his collaborators used ultrasound to measure article-exercise blood flow in the forearms of a dozen volunteers. They found that the massage strokes reduced circulation compared to controls. “If you compress tissue, you squeeze blood vessels shut, and prevent the flow of blood,” Tschakovsky explains. That doesn’t mean massage is a big hoax, he hastens to add: “I get massages and will continue to do so.” Exactly how massage works is still unclear – it may have to do with pressure to the muscle disrupting the nerve patterns that are causing the muscle to contract. But lactic acid, we now know, has nothing to do with it.

Will the marathon break your heart?

Running is supposed to be good for the heart, but there have been several studies over the past few years suggesting that the extreme exertion of a marathon might be too much of a good thing. Marathoners appear to show signs of abnormal heart function and chemical markers of heart damage shortly after crossing the line. But there’s good news from the Manitoba Marathon, where researchers undertook the most detailed study yet: “We were able to definitely show that these fluctuations do not result in any true damage of the heart,” concluded Davinder Jassal, a professor of medicine at the University of Manitoba.

The study examined 14 non-elite runners who underwent comprehensive cardiac screening before the marathon, and were retested immediately after the race and again a week later. What’s new in this study is that Jassal used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to directly examine the heart, rather than relying on indirect methods. Sure enough, he found that the right side of the heart doesn’t function as efficiently immediately after the race – but the effect disappears within a week. In other words, just like the other muscles in your body, your heart takes a pounding during a marathon, but quickly recovers.

A new option for Achilles injury treatment

Achilles tendon problems are among the most stubborn injuries runners encounter. While stretching, anti-inflammatories, physical therapy and immobilization eventually take care of problems for most patients, about 10 to 15 per cent of runners don’t respond to these conservative treatments, and are offered the somewhat daunting option of surgery. Researchers at Northwestern University in Chicago are now suggesting an intermediate choice: Instead of the knife, patients who don’t respond to traditional treatment can try a new technique called “sonographically guided debridement.”

The basic “debridement” procedure is roughly the same as what surgeons do: poke, prod and generally irritate the tendon with the hope of triggering its natural healing mechanisms. The difference is that, instead of cutting open the ankle, the new procedure uses a 20-gauge needle, guided to the appropriate spot by ultrasound. “Approximately 50 to 60 to-and-fro movements are made into the abnormal tendon,” the researchers write. The study tested the procedure on 17 patients, 10 of whom reported improvements ranging from “slight improvement in appearance of tendinosis” to complete recovery. Of the seven who didn’t improve, three subsequently had successful surgery – which suggests that the needle can’t do everything that surgery can. All in all, the technique will likely fill a fairly narrow niche between conservative and surgical treatments, but is still welcome news for those who avoid surgery as a result.

‘Radical’ research on vitamins and exercise

It sounds like some sort of bad joke: a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that some vitamins (antioxidants like vitamins C and E) block the positive effects of exercise – as if health and nutrition research wasn’t confusing enough already. We’ve long thought that “free radicals” are harmful molecules that damage our cells and play a key role in the aging process. Antioxidants help mop up free radicals in our bodies, which is a key reason people advocate taking lots of vitamin C and E – particularly after hard exercise, which triggers the production of free radicals. But the new study found that exercisers who took antioxidant supplements didn’t improve their insulin sensitivity (a key factor in obesity and diabetes risk), while a control group that received placebos did.

The lead researcher in the new study, Michael Ristow of the University of Jena in Germany, has published previous results raising questions about the “conventional” picture of how antioxidants and free radicals interact in the body. He suggests that free radicals are actually beneficial, and as a result antioxidant vitamins may leave the body more vulnerable. That doesn’t mean we should avoid antioxidant-rich foods, whose benefits are well-established – but it means that mega-dosing on one chemical extracted from a richly complex food like an apple doesn’t give you the same benefits as eating the whole apple.

Read this if you read on a treadmill

Have you ever tried reading while running on a treadmill? It’s not as easy as it looks, since your head is bobbing up and down, while the book or magazine just sits there. That’s the challenge tackled by researchers from Purdue University’s Healthcare and Information Visualization Engineering Lab in a project they call “ReadingMate: An Infrared-Camera-Based Content Stabilization Technique to Help Joggers Read While Running on a Treadmill.”

It works like this: You wear goggles with a couple of LED lights mounted on the side. A Wiimote (the remote control for Nintendo’s Wii gaming system) equipped with an infrared camera watches the motion of the LED lights and transmits that information to a computer. The computer uses that information to move your text around on a screen in sync with your head motion, in real time. The researchers have already built a prototype, and eight of the 10 users in the pilot study reported “positive experiences.” They’ll certainly need to design a system that doesn’t require goggles if they want it to catch on – but who knows.