GAUGING A RUNNER’S MECHANICS

There was some back and forth on social media last fall regarding the efficacy of using new technologies like wattage meters or other stride measuring metrics in training. Some respondents suggested that such technology was either unnecessary or just plain gimmicky as a training aid. The counter-argument didn’t focus so much on efficacy from the athlete’s training standpoint (though there can surely be a benefit). Instead, proponents underscored how using new technology in an action-challenged sport like running could help open a new window into the inner workings of the sport to better educate the audience WHY the race was shaping up as it was.  

Often, when commentating, we announcers make subjective assessments about which athlete “looks better”. Splits, of course, tell their own story, but much of our assessment comes from years of watching scores of runners and races. But if athletes were fitted with non-intrusive stride metrics and internal systems measuring devices, like how a car’s dashboard shows RPMs, engine temperature, oil pressure, and the like, we could more precisely illustrate which athlete was working harder to produce this pace based on objective data rather than a subjective eye. 

There are other factors involved, of course, but the more information we can get to the audience, the better chance we have to engage their interest, especially in a sport where the action is repetitive, hard to differentiate, and moments of truth are generally relegated to a single move late in the race.

While watching 2020s elite-only London Marathon, I recall thinking that women’s marathon world-record holder Brigid Kosgei was carrying her left arm cocked up more than I recall seeing it in her other marathon races. She always carries her arms up high, yes, but not as rigidly held on the left side as I perceived her to be doing in London in 2020. 

At both her Honolulu Marathons (2016 – 2017) and at London 2019, I thought she was more fluid in her arm swing, as both hands swung easily across the body to the sternum midpoint, though, again, she carried them high.

In 2012, we recorded a 25-kilometer fartlek session along the Masai Land Road in Ngong, Kenya with the then world record holder in the marathon Patrick Makau. We attached tiny accelerometers to his shoes that measured stride length, foot roll, ground contact time, and distal leg (heel) lift.

Through the readouts, we discovered Patrick had an imbalance from one leg to the next. The minor compensation he made unwittingly per stride to offset that imbalance eventually led to a chronic lateral knee problem.

Another year at the Los Angeles Marathon, we put similar accelerometers on the shoes of several top runners, and on-air in real-time we monitored the same stride metrics that we measured on Makau in Kenya.

Every sport digs into data collection to enhance performance and viewer appreciation. Running should, too. 

END

5 thoughts on “GAUGING A RUNNER’S MECHANICS

  1. Japanese broadcasters used to use such technology more frequently than they do now. In particular, I remember watching broadcasts there in which a lead runner would be converted to a stick-figure image similar to what is used in biomechanics labs, and the commentators would compare changes in movement, stride length, etc. in the latter stages of the race with how the athlete was moving early on. Another fascinating feature was the use of heat sensors that would show how much of an athlete’s surface area was heating up, which areas of the body were warmest or coolest as the race progressed. As far as I know, athletes were not wearing any special sensors…all of this was picked up through the TV cameras and related equipment on the camera vehicles. Great stuff and it made for interesting insights. I don’t see this used as frequently now, but it might be that it is of such an expense that it is only something they incorporate for major events with as the Olympics or world championships.

    1. Brendan,

      The Japanese have always regarded the sport of distance running more highly than do we. It shows in their coverage. In America, running is viewed more from the vantage point of a major civic happening rather than as primarily a sporting event. Accordingly, fewer resources are positioned to cover the event seriously, and the general public comes away thinking the sport is boring. It’s an old story that somehow we can’t seem to change. TR

  2. I’m all for geeking out. Especially if it generates fan interest. Look at how far other sports have come from the most basic slow-motion replay.

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