Annals of the self-evident: self optimization

Without a doubt, science is often a slow, incremental process. Not every discovery is heralded with a big bang, a sudden flicker of the light bulb. Rather, our collective knowledge is steadily accumulated, one hypothesis after another weighed, tested and either discarded or accepted.

And then there are the ideas that should just get a Darwin Award nomination.

One of those is a forthcoming study in the journal of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise from researchers with the Bioenergetics and Human Performance Research Group at the University of Exeter in England.

The question they posed was could “people become better, more efficient runners on their own, merely by running?” according to Gretchen Reynolds’ report in The New York Times.

What a novel idea? Who would ever think such a thing?

As it stands, Reynolds contends that, in fact, the idea is “remarkably divisive at the moment, with running experts on one side suggesting that runners should be taught a specific, idealized running form, while opponents counter that the best way to run is whatever way feels right to you.”

True, a lot of coaches out there do spend time telling their charges how they should run and what they can do to improve their form. But in the limited running circles I hang out in, I haven’t noticed any particularly heated discussion over this particular idea. Maybe all the runners I know are just too darn agreeable.

However, for the sake of argument, let’s just say that the notion runners must be taught to run is “remarkably divisive,” hence the need for this self-evident careful piece of research.

Reynolds goes on to devote a lot of ink to this particular study, which followed a group of women who recently joined a running group and whom were outfitted with shoes, fitted with motion-capture sensors, heart-rate monitors and other gadgets.

The researchers then studied the runners’ “aerobic fitness, particular running biomechanics or form, and running economy.”

After following the runners for 10 weeks, the researchers arrived – in the words of Reynolds – at this remarkable conclusion: “How the women became more economical seems clear to the study’s authors. They changed, in subtle ways, how they moved, in an unconscious effort to make running easier.”

Incredible! Astonishing! Fantastic! The women actually altered their gait – unconsciously, no less! – to improve their comfort as they ran.

Well, I say, Nobel Prizes all around!

Apparently, this ability to change your running gait over time to decrease discomfort is a major discovery on par with, say, splitting the atom.

One of the researchers marveled that the results showed that runners could “self-optimize,” and Reynolds writes (with a straight face, no less) that the same researcher said “the overarching message of the study is probably relevant for most runners. ‘You can optimize your gait naturally,’ she says, ‘by becoming more conscious of your running movement and how it feels.’”

For all that, it turns out that most of the women struck the ground with their heels, which in fact is poor running form and would seem to contradict the researchers’ findings. Nor, according to the article, did any of the women change that form over the course of the 10 weeks.

Furthermore, Reynolds notes that the research consisted of a  “small, short-term study of a very specific type of runner: novice, adult, female and slow. Whether the findings apply equally to young, experienced, male, or swift athletes is unclear.”

Nor is it clear if the findings apply to young experienced females, or older reasonably competent master male athletes,  or…I could go on, but will spare you.

Perhaps the take-away from all this is some studies are simply not worth reporting on in the first place. If you really feel the need to read this, the full article is here:

Nonetheless, if you are a new and slow female adult runner, rejoice in your new-found ability to self-optimize!

Just don’t think about it too much, though; I’m pretty sure that defeats the purpose and then you’ll have to get coaching.


About subthree

A multiple award-winning journalist, I'm currently a contributing editor with both Canadian Running and Canadian Cycling magazines. My articles have appeared in Explore, Canadian Geographic, enRoute, The National Post, The Globe and Mail, and many other magazines and newspapers. Formerly a competitive cross-country mountain biker, I switched to running in 2006. I've run seven marathons, qualifying for Boston five times (and which I've run once). Generally, I've placed or won in my age group in races, in distances ranging from five and 10 kms to half and full marathons. I've also taught spin classes at a number of leading Eastern Canadian gyms. Sub-three was a 2012 #Runchat finalist for Best Overall Blog.
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2 Responses to Annals of the self-evident: self optimization

  1. RunLovelyOne says:

    Haha! “Nonetheless, if you are a new and slow female adult runner, rejoice in your new-found ability to self-optimize!”

    Been there, done that, got the tshirt.

    This happened for me but I sure as hell worked hard on it obsessively.

    • subthree says:

      I hope you wear the T-shirt proudly. Obsessive hard work seems to form a lot of running in my experience. Stay self-optimized – and thank you for reading.

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