Weekly Meeting - August 28: Running Brave, Running True, At the Top of Your Game

Speaker: Geoff Burns is a fourth-year Ph.D. student in Kinesiology, working under Dr. Ron Zernicke. The focus of his research is running biomechanics and their patterns in high-performing individuals. Outside the lab, he trains and competes as a professional ultramarathon runner [any footrace longer than the traditional marathon length of 42.195 kilometres (26.219 mi) is referred to as an ultramarathon, sometimes also called ultra distance or ultra running] and has represented the United States at world championships over the 50km and 100km distances. He was a top performer on the cross country team at both the University and Traverse City West High School. “It’s a really unique symbiotic relationship,” he feels. “My running informs my research and helps me not just ask novel questions and gain insight and perspective into the craft, but also helps me refine how I prepare for races.”

In 2016, building off research from more than 100 faculty members and students, the University of Michigan launched the Exercise and Sport Science Initiative — a program designed to optimize physical performance for athletes everywhere. The spectrum of disciplines coalescing into this effort include medicine, kinesiology, psychology, social science, nutrition, bioengineering, and data science. “With developments in areas ranging from improved helmet designs to the analysis of sports data,” remarked S. Jack Hu, then the University’s Vice-President for Research, “science and technology are opening up a host of new opportunities to transform sports and exercise.”

One key area of inquiry has been what factors contribute to and account for excellence in athletic performance. That may vary from sport to sport. They may seem intuitive. Isolating them, though, and then exploring the science underlying them, will enable those engaged in athletics to maximize individual and team performance.

Running is a good example.

Many of us jog. Some of us may have been competitive in track and field competition at the high school or collegiate level. We may even run marathons. At elite levels such as the Boston Marathon, however, and even more so in the case of ultramarathons, is there a specific technique or approach that “ups the ante” in terms of success?

A recurrent question in that context is whether running cadence is a determinative factor. Since the 1980s, 180 steps per minute has been considered an optimal cadence for elite runners. Running coach Jack Daniels first observed this to be the average step rate for runners in the 1984 Olympics. Striving for that rate has been widely accepted ever since as a means to reduce injury or improve speed. “It’s one of the few biomechanical measures we have,” our speaker once explained, “that is a gross system-level output for running.”

A new study, published by our speaker this February in the Journal of Applied Physiology, calls this accepted wisdom into question. It reconfirmed that pace as indeed being the average. But the actual number of steps per minute per mile varied from 160 to 210. This variance bore no relation to how good or how fast a runner was. Moreover, at race’s end, a runner’s actual cadence remained constant even if he or she was barely lifting his or her feet while crossing the finish line. Our speaker will explore the ramifications of these facts this afternoon.