The battered psyche of the distance runner--and distance coach

The girls 1600 at today's El Paso County Small Schools meet was something of a casualty from the perspective of many athletes, but why?

If this afternoon or evening you are a disappointed distance runner, parent of a disappointed distance runner, or coach of a disappointed distance runner, you need to read this.

If you previously thought all the talk of barometric pressure, oxygen density, and the like was all so much hocus-pocus, it's time to start listening. The data aren't on your side.

All across Colorado today, we encountered temperatures above the seasonal norms (since air is a gas, and gases expand with increasing temperature, warmer air means less oxygen density) and barometric pressures well on the low side of low. Midday barometric pressure reading were as follows: Alamosa - 29.42, Lakewood - 29.46, Colorado Springs - 29.38, Wray - 29.46, Littleton - 29.31. "Standard" barometric pressure, adjusted for altitude, is considered to be 29.92. The barometric pressure readings listed above are extraordinarily low.

So, what happened today in meets held in these Colorado localities? I did a little calculating on actual times versus seed time for distance races of both genders and 800, 1600, and 3200 meters. Here's the tale of the FinishLynx camera for five meets:

Liberty Bell Invitational

  • Girls 800 meters - 61 entries with seed times, actual times ran a total of 71 seconds slower than seed times
  • Girls 1600 meters - 63 entries with seed times, actual times ran a total of 511 seconds slower than seed times
  • Boys 800 meters - 64 entries with seed times, actual times ran a total of 40 seconds slower than seed times
  • Boys 1600 meters - 63 entries with seed times, actual times ran a total of 308 seconds slower than seed times
  • Note that Liberty Bell 3200s were run on Friday evening. Oxygen density conditions were poor on Friday evening, too, but not as poor as today and this story is about today.

Dick Evans Invitational (Wray)

  • Girls 800 meters - 13 entries with seed times, actual times ran a total of 75 seconds slower than seed times
  • Girls 1600 meters - 10 entries with seed times, actual times ran a total of 36 seconds faster than seed times
  • Girls 3200 meters - 4 entries with seed times, actual times ran a total of 203 seconds slower than seed times
  • Boys 800 meters - 24 entries with seed times, actual times ran a total of 98 seconds slower than seed times
  • Boys 1600 meters - 17 entries with seed times, actual times ran a total of 90 seconds faster than seed times
  • Boys 3200 meters - 8 entries with seed times, actual times ran a total of 90 seconds slower than seed times

High Altitude Invitational (Alamosa)

  • Girls 800 meters - 12 entries with seed times, actual times ran a total of 78 seconds slower than seed times
  • Girls 1600 meters - 9 entries with seed times, actual times ran a total of 300 seconds slower than seed times
  • Girls 3200 meters - 6 entries with seed times, actual times ran a total of 318 seconds slower than seed times
  • Boys 800 meters - 15 entries with seed times, actual times ran a total of 29 seconds slower than seed times
  • Boys 1600 meters - 8 entries with seed times, actual times ran a total of 188 seconds slower than seed times
  • Boys 3200 meters - 9 entries with seed times, actual times ran a total of 199 seconds slower than seed times

Green Mountain/Chatfied Invitational (Lakewood)

  • Girls 800 meters - 22 entries with seed times, actual times ran a total of 10 seconds slower than seed times
  • Girls 1600 meters - 25 entries with seed times, actual times ran a total of 357 seconds slower than seed times
  • Girls 3200 meters - 11 entries with seed times, actual times ran a total of 278 seconds slower than seed times
  • Boys 800 meters - 31 entries with seed times, actual times ran a total of 24 seconds slower than seed times
  • Boys 1600 meters - 26 entries with seed times, actual times ran a total of 217 seconds slower than seed times
  • Boys 3200 meters - 24 entries with seed times, actual times ran a total of 92 seconds slower than seed times

El Paso County Small Schools Championship (Colorado Springs)

  • Girls 800 meters - 25 entries with seed times, actual times ran a total of 68 seconds slower than seed times
  • Girls 1600 meters - 21 entries with seed times, actual times ran a total of 275 seconds slower than seed times
  • Girls 3200 meters - 8 entries with seed times, actual times ran a total of 328 seconds slower than seed times
  • Boys 800 meters - 39 entries with seed times, actual times ran a total of 123 seconds slower than seed times
  • Boys 1600 meters - 41 entries with seed times, actual times ran a total of 196 seconds slower than seed times
  • Boys 3200 meters - 11 entries with seed times, actual times ran a total of 22 seconds slower than seed times.

So, clearly what we have here is some variability, but within that variability is also a very clear picture--times for races of distances 800 meters and up today were off. Way off.

To be fair, we might have expected times to have been a little off in Alamosa. Alamosa is at over 7500 feet of elevation and many of these athletes had been out of the San Luis Valley a time or two this season and already run races at lower altitudes, like Pueblo. But, this phenomenon was by no means limited to Alamosa. It occurred everywhere.

Most specifically, it occurred at Liberty Bell. Neither coaches nor athletes go to Liberty Bell with expectations of racing poorly, or even merely at the level they've been racing all season. Liberty Bell is a meet where coaches go to test athletes against great fields. Athletes go with dreams of big PRs. Undoubtedly, a few athletes did set PRs at Liberty Bell today, but they were the exception rather than the rule.

The rule was that today was a disappointment. But, we must temper that disappointment with an understanding of what was going on. In Littleton today, conditions were comparable to "normal" conditions at about 8300 feet of elevation. In Colorado Springs, we were all breathing an oxygen density typical of 9300 feet of elevation.

Besides the obvious lesson here of learning how lower oxygen density impacts performance, there is an important secondary lesson. Current thought among elite distance coaches is that the 800 is more anaerobic than aerobic. These data don't back that up. Clearly, the 800s were impacted today. Perhaps they were not as impacted as much as the 16s and 32s, but they were impacted. My best guess is that the elite distance coaches are thinking in terms of elite athletes. Not many high school athletes fall into that category. For most high school athletes, the 800 is probably more aerobic than anaerobic. 

Bottom line: the motor doesn't perform the same way under under conditions of low oxygen density as it does under conditions of typical oxygen density. So, turn back the throttle a little on the disappointment. That message is for coaches, parents, and athletes alike. There will be better days ahead, but today wasn't such a great day to be a distance runner if the clock is the only way you measure performance.

To be honest with you, I try to temper all of my interpretations of distance performances with an understanding of what the day's oxygen density allowed for. Even so, today caught me off guard. I knew the barometric pressure was trending low and the temperatures starting to trend high, but I was completely caught off guard by the magnitude of impact on athlete performances.

 

 

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