Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Walking on, walking on the moon...

I once read a book called "Blue Ocean Strategy" (which I unfortunately keep misremembering as "Blue Sky Strategy") which puts forward the idea that you should look for wide open oceans to compete in rather than densely populated jungles. The much cited Cirque de Soleil is an example of this - by combining aspects of theater and circus they created a show which appealed to a different audience and for which they could sell tickets at a premium.

So what would happen if the inventor of the bouncy castle were to join forces with the inventor of the treadmill? They would probably come up with something like the AlterG:

The AlterG is an "anti-gravity treadmill" which allows you to specify not only how fast you'd like to run but also how much you'd like to weigh (although it can't change how much you appear to weigh). You wear a pair of neoprene shorts which zip onto the machine, forming a sort of bubble in which you run: by increasing the pressure of the air in the bubble you can achieve weightlessness. There are several reasons why you might want to do this. The most obvious is if you are injured. Alistair Brownlee, the current Olympic Triathlon Champion, used one of these devices to run back to health after tearing his Achilles Tendon, by reducing the associated impact forces. Even for non-injured athletes, it is useful to be able to run at higher speeds without the corresponding muscle damage. In this way, you can train and ingrain the biomechanics of race pace and above.

There are only 12 of these machines in Spain of which only four can be found in Madrid. One of them happens to be owned by a friend and ex-colleague of mine, Antonio Ciardo. Antonio recently left the bank to concentrate on his osteopathy clinic which, judging by his clientele and his swanky new premises in the posh part of town, looks like it was a very good decision. He invited me to try out last night and warned me to bring a towel as I was likely to work up a sweat.

Love the decoration
At first it feels a little strange to be so constrained but I soon got used to it. Once you step on to the belt and get zipped in, the treadmill calibrates itself based on your weight. The first thing we tried was reducing my weight to just 20% - just a tad more than what it would be on the Moon - and, of course, my feet hardly touched the ground. It reminded me of a recurring dream I have where I can't quite fly but I can run really fast effortlessly by just occasionally tapping the ground with my foot. Then we started piling on the pounds until I weighed only 80% of my normal weight - about 17 kilos lighter. After Moonwalking, even a 20% discount seemed depressingly unnoticeable, although I was able to run at my Marathon pace of 15 km/h (4:00 min/km) while still keeping my pulse very low (less than 140). It did start to get quite hot in there after a while - Antonio explained to me that he still has to set up the ventilation - so my pulse gradually crept up. This model designed for rehabilitation has a maximum speed of 19.2 km/h which I tested out at 80% body weight. It was still hard to run at that speed - after all, you still have to move your legs quite fast - but the impact was noticeably lower and I was able to concentrate more on form. After the problems I have been having with my feet (Hallux Limitus, Morton's Neuroma) I was interested to see whether the pain was more likely to be provoked by a different running gait at high speed, or by higher impact forces - the AlterG allowed me to decouple these two effects and seemed to confirm my suspicion that the latter was more to blame.

One aspect that I found interesting was that the machine obliged you to run upright and to minimize hip movements laterally, transversely as well as vertically, especially when the skirt was inflated (that's to say, when running with less than 100% body weight). This strikes me as a good thing as far as running technique goes. For the second half of the workout I ran at 17 kph (3:30 min/km) or just over 10K pace and then gradually put the weight back on. It was so depressing!! I felt so much heavier and more sluggish than I had before I started and, as the cushion deflated, my hips started to move around much more - left, right, backwards, forwards, not to mention bouncing up and down more. Antonio had stressed that it was important to return to weightfulness before stepping off, otherwise the shock might make me lose balance. However, I wish I had left with the memory of lightness as it was so much more pleasant.

Luckily I don't have too much of a need for one of these things (my wife asked me if I would be buying one!) - apart from being extraordinarily expensive, I'm just glad that I am not injured at the moment (touch wood). But it would have come in very handy as a way to get back to weight bearing when I got a stress fracture in my foot.

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