Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Kenyan Running Advantage: Connective Tissue Elasticity

This will be "science day" on Down the Backstretch.  Two sports scientists I've met while visiting Chicago are South African natives Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas.  Both studied under Tim Noakes in South Africa.  Jonathan works for a South African company in Chicago.  Ross consults for various sports teams and writes from his base in South Africa.

Several decades ago I wrote a piece for The Runner on the Achilles tendon.  The thing that stuck with me from the research for that article was how little we know about connective tissue and its role in sports performance as compared to muscle fibers.  That hasn't changed much, but every now and then an interesting research project gets published.

One of those studies was published recently and Amby Burfoot included it in one of the Twitter links he often posts on sports science research.  A conclusion of the study was that Kenyan runners may have more elastic Achilles tendons, which may help them run faster.  This coincided with something I had noticed in my own running of late.

I would run a loop on the five mile course I do normally four days of the week and discovered with the same effort--perceived exertion--I would be running significantly faster--sometimes ten to twenty seconds a mile.  The only theory I could come up with that made any sense was that is that the amount of force I was generating with each stride had increased without an increase in perceived effort. My respiration stayed the same.  No major stride changes or application of force that I could feel.

Somehow I was generating more power with the same amount of perceived effort.  When I read the abstract that Amby linked to regarding tendons it noted that one of the findings was that connective tissue--the Achilles tendon in this case--was found to generate more force without utilizing more oxygen.  In other words, an athlete could go faster without breathing harder or feeling the stress the same way it would if the muscles were working harder.

I sent off the article Amby had sent me to Ross and Jonathan.  Today Ross wrote a piece on their blog about the topic.  You can find it HERE. As with most science the paper creates more questions than answers, but it does appear to show that tendon elasticity is an important component in elite athlete performance.  The questions it raises is whether or not the elasticity of the tendons is a genetic trait or whether it is merely an adaptation to training.

Does it help explain why East Africans, Kenyans, are more successful in elite distance running?  Or, stated more simply, is it something you are born with or can any athlete develop this adaptation with the right training.  All interesting questions waiting for answers.

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