Nike’s carefully engineered attempt to shepherd three runners towards breaking 2:00 for the marathon this morning was amazing to watch. If you missed it here’s the replay:
For me, watching these runners tackle this huge goal and understanding the work of the team behind them was a powerful reminder of how inspiring sport can be.
Three Very Different Runners
The three runners Nike selected for this project are Lelisa Desisa (last, in white), Eliud Kipchoge (middle, in red), and Zersenay Tadese (first, in grey). They also had a fleet of amazing pacers.
As you can see right away, Desisa is having a tough time with his hip flexors. As he passes his stance foot and his hip flexor runs out of play, it pulls his pelvis into a deeper anterior tilt and he arches his back to keep from face planting. Hence the deep lumbar curve, expanded chest, and retracted head.
Let me emphasize that anterior pelvic tilt is necessary for running, particularly at high speeds. But hip flexors that won’t lengthen enough for adequate stride length increase that with a strong pull and the nervous system reacts to protect the runner. Trying to run fast while this is going on is a terrible feeling.
I didn’t recall seeing this to such a degree previously in Desisa’s running. A quick scan of Google images shows he has a modest habit of running like this, but nowhere near the severity of today. Perhaps travel tightened up his hips (airplane seats are a major culprit for doing this) perhaps stress and anxiety tightened his posas (which it can definitely do), or perhaps his nervous system was reacting to something about the special shoes, which I was concerned about when I learned about the graphite plate.
I’m sure I understand imperfectly how those shoes work, but I do know there’s no such thing as free energy, so an extra spring in the shoes to propel a runner forward will also have to be loaded with each step–a kind of effort different from simply running. It seems likely to me that the work of loading the spring will happen in the opposite direction that the spring creates propulsion–namely pushing the runner backwards a little with each step.
Skipping forward to Tadese, I’ve watched his technique with interest for years. His head is quite distinctly forward, with a relaxed and wide upper back. Most of the time when runners move their heads forward like this, they counterbalance it by moving their backs upright, destroying their forward lean. However somehow Tadese also maintains a significant forward lean–you can see it’s slightly more than Kipchoge’s.
Runners tend to be so concerned about not slouching, hunching, or rounding any part of themselves that they end up harming themselves with the excess tension they use to straighten up. I’ve always felt that Tadese’s big lean and large head movement, though it may look sloppy, is a huge asset for his running.
I’ve written about Kipchoge’s form before with great admiration. Today he was a marvel of economical movement and internal focus. Particularly clear from the side view is his head placement exactly in line with his torso (on a forward angle)–something I teach via this lesson. Kipchoge is more of a frontal plane runner than a transverse plane one, meaning he uses less rotation of his upper body and pelvis, and more lateral action.
I must say, it was with great pleasure I watched that little gizmo attached to the center back of his waistband move side to side, showing his pelvic rotation (movement in the transverse plane). That’s often hard to see in runners but here, thanks to that reference point, it was crystal clear.
Fatigue and the Right Side
Kipchoge’s perfect form remained intact to the very end, though small “tells” of his fatigue appeared in the last few kms. First, his lean reduced slightly, his head moving back a small but significant amount.
Second, and most interestingly, asymmetry suddenly appeared in his running. His head shifted rightwards, oscillating from his right foot to between his two feet rather than from right to left. Though I didn’t get good screenshots showing that, I did capture these just before the end.
Note his right hand is closed and his left hand is open. The muscular tonus of the hands is connected to the tonus of the entire body and shows us the same thing his head movement does: the right side is shortening and contracting.
It was, in fact Kipchoge’s shoe insole mishap in the Berlin Marathon 2015 that first alerted me to the prevalence of this kind of asymmetry, and in this event it was interesting to note that not only Kipchoge, but in fact all three runners shortened on the right side as they fatigued.
Here you can just make out Tadese’s head oscillating over the right leg as he approaches the finish line, just like Kipchoge’s did.
And here you can see from behind that Desisa bends right, shortening from shoulder to hip, regardless of which foot he’s on. And when he’s on his right foot the bend is extreme.
Shortening from shoulder to hip is in fact the mechanism pulling all three men’s heads to the right. And all three, immediately after crossing the finish, staggered immediately to the right and had more difficulty lifting their right foot from the ground than the left. (Of course, the foot that your head is vertically aligned with is the foot that will be harder to pick up.)
So here’s my question to the scientists involved in this project: next time, would this phenomenon be a factor to consider in improving performance when fatigue sets in?
Honestly I’m a skeptic about mechanical and technological help substituting for natural human function because there are always unintended consequences. But if you’re going to put springs in the shoes and aerodynmic stickers on the shins, might it make sense to work out whether it’s the disproportionate weight of the liver that causes this universal asymmetricality or some other phenomenon. (And then please tell me what the answer is!)
And then, say, add a little weight at the base of the neck on the left side to exert pressure in the other direction to relieve runners of the effort they make to correct for this when they’re fresh and struggle with it when they’re tired?
Nah, scratch that about the weight, as there will be unintended consequences. But at least figure out the reason so we know what we’re dealing with. A lot of runners with runner’s knee on the right side, Achilles tendonitis on the right side, piriformis syndrome on the right side, plantar fasciitis on the left, and IT band syndrome on the left will thank you. In fact, it will move the whole sport forward.