Friday, October 22, 2010

Finding Your Critical Pace for the Marathon

Endurance athletes have long known that they perform best when they find their "zone." If you're a long distance runner or swimmer, for example, you may recognize the zone as when you no longer have to tell your legs and arms to keep a certain pace -- they do it automatically. Your body works as a perfect machine, taking in the right amount of oxygen and burning carbohydrate at a steady pace so that it becomes easier to keep going. (Within reason, of course.)

The zone is a wonderfully quiet mental place where you can just think about nothing, relax into the rhythm of movement, and enjoy what's going on around you. Think of it as physical meditation. Now a new mathematical formula by Benjamin Rapoport, published in PLoS Computational Biology, shows the speediest pace any endurance athlete can sustain for an entire race (though his particular focus is marathon running). Part of this is finding the top end of your zone so that you don't hit that infamous "wall."

Typically, endurance athletes do their best to avoid the wall, or period when the body has completely used its glycogen stores, by carbo-loading. In the 7 to 10 days leading up to a race, many athletes will focus on including high concentrations of complex carbohydrates into each meal. As a result, glycogen is built up in the muscles and made available to the body during the race. Many experienced marathoners, for example, also plan their race following a 10-10-10 strategy. The first 10 miles is run at a slower than average pace, which allows the body to conserve energy. The second 10 miles is run at race pace -- which is possible because there's still plenty of energy in the body. And the last 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) is run at or above race pace, using what's left of the glycogen stores and adrenaline from crowds to get to the finish line.

But Rapoport's research suggests that there is more to avoiding that wall than this: his "study demonstrates that the energetic constraints on endurance runners are more subtle, and depend on several physiologic variables including the muscle mass distribution, liver and muscle glycogen densities, and running speed (exercise intensity as a fraction of aerobic capacity) of individual runners."

Speed is the most controllable factor in this formula for athletes. According to Rapoport, "a 10-second difference in pace per mile could make the difference between success and a dramatic failure." Finding your critical pace is in part due to your VO2 max -- a measure of aerobic efficiency. By finding your VO2 max and keeping to it, you can maximize efficiency in burning energy stores and get your body across whatever finish line you're shooting for.

Rapoport plans on making an easy to understand version of this formula online in the near future so that athletes of all levels and abilities can work toward setting new Personal Bests. “My primary goal is to give any marathon runner a qualitative plan for their training,” he says.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

New Module Live at

We are proud to announce that the next module in the Process of Science series is now live on Ideas in Science: Scientific Controversies explores the ways in which such controversies develop, as well as how they influence the way we think. From offshore oil drilling to global warming and climate change, Drs. Egger and Carpi discuss what a scientific controversy actually is, and how it can be resolved (you'll have to read the module to find out).

A must read module for anyone interested in the hot-topics on debate, or teaching about science in the classroom. Think you know what makes a controversy? Try the quiz before you read the module and see where you stack up!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Questioning the data

A few weeks ago, we shared news of the discovery of a habitable exoplanet, Gliese 581g. Now, less than two months after that research was made public, its existence is being brought into question. Francesco Pepe of the Geneva Observatory in Sauverny, Switzerland, has announced that a review of known data, both old and new, show no indication that this exoplanet exists. You can read more about the data discrepancies here.

What this new development highlights is that controversy in science is not as infrequent as many might think. In fact, controversies are easily found in every branch and specialty. In a module soon to be released from Visionlearning, we discuss the nature of scientific controversy. Distinct from political, ethical, and personal controversies, scientific controversies are sustained, public debates among the broader scientific community in which arguments are based on evidence (as in the exoplanet). Though they sometimes overlap or have complex interactions, our module shows that controversies cause progress in science by encouraging research on the topic in question, and are resolved when the evidence favors one perspective overwhelmingly.

As we prepare to launch this new module, we would love to hear how you discuss controversy in your science classroom. Is it something you think about? If not, why? Are there other barriers that keep controversial science subjects out of the classroom? What do you think is the best way to approach these kinds of topics?

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Congratulations 2010 Nobel Winners

Palladium-catalyzed cross coupling, in vitro fertilization, graphene -- it's been a pretty exciting list of achievements for 2010's Nobel Prize awardees, announced this week from Stockholm, Sweden. Interestingly, one of these awards has been given to a relatively young scientist, as well as new discovery (comparatively). 
  • Konstantin Novoselov, who shares the award in Physics with Andre Geim for their graphene discovery, is only 36 years old. The average age for this category is 51.
  • Novoselov and Geim's discovery was made in the early years of this century (around 2003-2004). Most awards are made for contributions decades old.
All three contributions to science are significant. The palladium-catalyzed cross coupling discovery makes it easier to bind carbon atoms, which in turn makes it less challenging to create organic compounds that might be used in medicine. Roberts Edwards' work on in vitro fertilization has made it possible for millions of couples around the world to conceive a child. And graphene, the thinnest and strongest material now known, could lead to new and exciting developments in technology.

It's not easy to get a Nobel Prize in any category -- the selection process is rigorous and subject to high standards. Alfred Nobel indicated in his will that should there be no contribution worthy of the award in any given year, then the Committee should skip that year. Since its first awards in 1901, the Nobel Committee has skipped granting 50 awards in the various categories.

Some other interesting facts about the Nobel Prize:
  • Though 806 Prizes have awarded from 1901 to 2009, only 40 of these have been to women.
  • Two Laureates have declined the Prize (Jean-Paul Sartre and Le Duc Tho), and four have been forbidden by their government to accept the award of money associated with it.
  • Linus Pauling is the only recipient to have been awarded an unshared Prize more than once.
We applaud the various recipients of this year's awards and wish them success in their continued projects. If you would like to learn more about this year's various discoveries or the Nobel Prize, see below.

Palladium-catalyzed cross coupling
in vitro fertilization
2010 Nobel Prize