FitnessGenes 20km relay team analyze their results

Wednesday, July 11, 2018. Author Dr. Haran Sivapalan

FitnessGenes 5km relay team

Last week, four FitnessGenes staff had the honor of competing in London's Olympic Park, the site of the momentous 2012 Olympic and Para-Olympic Games, to race in the Simplyhealth Great Team Relay. Close to 1,800 competitors filled the Olympic Stadium, with each person running a 5km leg of a 4 x 5km team relay.

We were privileged to run on the same track where Usain Bolt memorably broke the 100m Olympic record (in 9.63 seconds) and where Great Britain's Mo Farah won gold in both the 5k and 10k events.

Here's an account of what happened, replete with some interesting scientific facts about running. 

First leg-Ian

Getting us off to a flying start was our Chief Revenue Officer and veteran marathon runner, mountain biker, and amateur juggler, Ian Baynes (pictured second from left).

Modestly self-described as a ‘keen runner', Ian logs a significant number of miles each week. As part of his preparation for the Berlin marathon this coming September, he gets in a 20+ mile run every weekend. While long runs are a necessary part of marathon training, they can take their toll on your body. Firstly, running such long distances depletes muscle glycogen stores.

Studies also show that, even in trained endurance athletes, running distances between 18 to 40 miles can lead to reduced contraction strength of the quadriceps and other knee extensor muscles. Similarly, prolonged running can impair the elasticity of muscle tendons, which is to the detriment of the body's mechanical efficiency when running. Fortunately, these effects are short-lived and, with adequate recovery,  disappear after a few days. Of course, this exact recovery period varies from person to person. 

In line with his FitnessGenes results, Ian gave himself sufficient time to recover after his long-run before competing in this relay. This optimized recovery time, personalized to his gene variants and lifestyle, allowed his muscles to repair effectively and Ian had us off to a flying start before passing the baton on to Paul.

Second leg-Paul

Compared to Ian, Paul Daly our Marketing Manager for Gyms and Health Clubs (pictured far right), has significantly fewer miles under his belt, preferring HIIT and resistance training. Yet both of these activities were helpful training for Paul in the second 5km leg.

HIIT (High-Intensity Interval Training), which involves short bursts of intense cardio exercise interspersed with recovery periods, increases VO2max. VO2max is a measure of your body's ability to consume and deliver oxygen to your muscles. Roughly speaking (although it's a bit more complicated than this), the higher your VO2 max, the better your endurance ability. This obviously has benefits for long-distance running. 

Resistance (strength) also enhances running performance.  One study found that 9 weeks of explosive strength training and plyometric exercise helped to significantly reduce 5k running times.  What are the reasons for such improvement? The answer is simple: improved running economy. Neuromuscular adaptations to strength training allow your body to move more efficiently, meaning that for any given speed, you consume less oxygen and energy when running.

Maybe it was partly a result of this training that Paul exceeded his expectations, completing his 5km leg well under his predicted time.

Third leg-Haran

I had the honor of running the third leg. Perhaps it was the excitement of running on the same track as my hero (and lookalike) Mo Farah, or maybe it was merely inexperience with the 5k distance, but I set off too quickly.

The issue with running too fast out of the blocks is that it causes excessive initial reliance on anaerobic respiration: the process by which energy is generated in the absence of oxygen. Anaerobic respiration is great for sprinting and short, explosive movements, but it quickly creates something called an ‘oxygen debt'. This is the amount of oxygen that must be repaid to oxidize lactate (one of the products of anaerobic respiration) to be cleared or reused as energy. This ‘oxygen debt' explains why you'll be panting and catching your breath immediately after sprinting.

In hindsight, having set off too quickly in the first 500metres, I was probably repaying my oxygen debt for the remainder of the 5k! Luckily, I persevered and came through (albeit slower than I would have liked) to hand on the baton to Alex.

Fourth leg-Alex

Alex Auld, our Partnership Program Manager (pictured far left), is built for endurance. Along with only 18% of the global population, Alex has the XX genotype for the ACTN3 gene. Some studies show that this genotype is overrepresented in elite endurance athletes, intimating that the X allele confers an advantage for longer distance, aerobic activities. Indeed, two copies of the X allele gives rise to more Type I ‘slow-twitch' muscle fibers, precisely the kind recruited when running 5k.

Playing to his endurance strengths, Alex is also currently training for a triathlon. As you can imagine, running as a stand-alone activity is different from running immediately after swimming and cycling. One study found that triathletes take shorter but more frequent running strides, especially in the first 2km after transitioning off the bike. Irrespective of fatigue levels, these changes in gait mechanics are thought to lower running speed.

All of this is academic, as Alex only had to run the finishing leg, which he did in great time.

We're happy to report that the  FitnessGenes team finished a respectable 9th overall (out of a field of 437 teams), with a net time of 1 hour 19 minutes and 36 seconds - a great all-around effort!

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