Friday, November 6, 2009

On science and running

This week, I was sequestered at a science writing workshop at the Bodega Marine Lab with 20+ of my geeky science colleagues from The Nature Conservancy. Since I’m in recovery mode, running has not been the central focus of my life, but it is never far from my heart. The atmosphere of creative energy during these writing fests is always inspiring and this week provided a great distraction to keep my mind from obsessing on how little I'm running.

The running high I’ve enjoyed for over a month is starting to wear off and has forced me to put my life back into perspective. Like an addict looking for the next fix, I was all fired up to keep pushing myself after the Marine Corps Marathon. My coach (aka training colonel) ever so gently talked me off the ledge and convinced me to take my recovery more seriously. And, I am listening. I have run only 4 times since my last marathon and the cold I have been battling is finally on its way out. My cold did serve an alternate purpose, providing me with a sexy smoker's voice for a concert that I played tonight. I was able to get away with a Johnny Cash song (actually a 9 Inch Nails song as covered by JC) that just has less of an effect without a little rasp and vocal depth that comes from either smoking or lots of phlegm.

So, back to science and running. A post in the Science of Sport blog last week caught my scientist’s eye. Ross discusses the use of science in coaching and states that the most successful coaches use the scientific process with their athletes. I would like to carry that one step further and propose that athletes benefit when they think about their training scientifically. I have talked with many runners that laugh at the fact that I wear a cigarette-pack-sized GPS unit on my wrist for every run, or that I painstakingly record every workout in a relational database, or that I keep a log of how I feel before and after every workout, or that I record weight and body fat measurements every day. What they’re missing is that this is all part of a grand experiment: sample size (n) = 1 and control = 0! As a matter of fact, this data forms the basis of my training and aids in my improvement as an athlete. One might even say that it is one of those elusive secrets to my success.

But, I didn’t always think like a scientist. After reading the blog post I began to reminisce on my transformation as both a scientist and a runner and the interaction of the two.

Born to run (in a multi-variate statistical sort of way)

In defiance of my early acquisition of an INTJ Myers-Briggs brand, I chose a dodgier career path in management out of college (INTJ is actually called The Scientist: I have the barcode on my right earlobe to prove it. As an aside, Lance Armstrong and Hanibal Lecter: both INTJ). While I got by as a manager and found it mildly entertaining for about 6 years, I was constantly trying to solve problems using what I would later find out is the scientific method.

I finally embraced my inner-geek and dove into the field of ecology with both feet in 1995. I landed in California after an Air Force tour in Germany, leaving management and the active-duty Air Force with hopes of becoming a certified science genius in ecology. The odds were not in my favor at this point. I had a non-science undergraduate degree in Aerospace Management and little practical experience doing science. So, I needed to get my hands dirty in this new field and give it a test run. I wound up as an AmeriCorps ‘volunteer’ for a year making $600/month before taxes. While I amassed an amazing amount of debt that year, I also fell in love with science and ecology.

I applied to and was (amazingly) accepted into the Graduate Ecology Program at UC Davis in 1996 and started pursuing my Ph.D. While I thought like a scientist, I had no flippin’ idea what I was doing at that point. Drinking water from a geyser is about how it felt my first year in grad school. I was simultaneously learning the basics of ecology, biology, botany, genetics, etc. in an attempt to make up for my lack of undergraduate training in these areas while also taking graduate-level ecology classes. As I became immersed in my new field, I realized just how fun it was to systematically solve problems using a butt-load of data, some sweet statistical software, all nuanced with a bit of keen personal observation. I was finally formally using the scientific method and dug it to no end.

Here’s how the scientific method works:

  1. You come out of the closet with a wild-ass idea (called a hypothesis);
  2. You design a clever way to test whether or not your wild-ass idea has any chops (called an experiment),
  3. You collect a butt-load of data in a supposedly unbiased way (though I now believe this is impossible for humans to do—there’s always bias);
  4. You analyze the data using some sweet piece of software to determine whether you were dreaming when you came up with the wild-ass idea, and you either reject or accept your hypothesis based on the evidence;
  5. You form a new hypothesis based on what you’ve learned and begin the process anew.
  6. *Optional step: you spend 3 years writing and re-writing a paper that gets criticized (objectively, of course), rejected for publication and rewritten until you find a venue that will take your piece of trash science rag off of your hands so others can continue to criticize it (is that cynical?).

But, I digress.

This is the scientific process that Ross talks about in his article (well, he might describe it slightly differently). It doesn’t mean that you blindly follow Jack Daniels’ training prescriptions or read Noakes’ Lore of Running before bedtime every night. It means that you’re aware of the science and you use it to form educated guesses about how you’ll do in race X using training plan Y. You do the work prescribed in your training plan and collect the data along the way including the final piece of data: your race time. You then go back and attempt to divine why you did or did not meet your goal and revise your training as appropriate.

My coach and I both think like scientists and use this process to improve my training and make me faster. That's why I think we make such a great team.

So, my advice to you, dear runner, is to embrace your inner scientist and go get that 5k/10k/marathon PR. Or, continue to rely on voodoo and necromancy to get you across that finish line faster. Your choice.


  1. I marked all three reactions to this blog entry! Your background is so cool! Can I just live vicariously through you? You're in good company when you train scientifically (of course I'm not there yet, but I'm learning). Great blog entry. Keep enjoying your down time and I hope that cold is completely gone soon.

  2. Thanks, Glorybelle. I don't mean to make the scientific process sounds intimidating. I bet most people actually do use it. The thing that most don't do as well as they could is record what they're doing and how they feel regularly enough or for a long enough period of time to actually use it. This information can really help figure out why significant events are cropping up like an injury, a period of bad performance, or a period of super performance. Good or bad, finding the combination of things that worked can be very significant. See you on the roads soon I hope!

  3. Hey, Effin' J, how do you know I read "The Lore of Running" in bed every night? ;)

  4. ahhhh, so refreshing! :)
    "Drinking water from a geyser is about how it felt my first year in grad school. "