Saturday, June 30, 2012

Lessons from the Cheetah

Photos I took in Kenya last summer.
The New York Times recently posted an article titled
What Runners Can Learn from Cheetahs by Gretchen Reynolds and author of the book The First 20 Minutes: Surprising Science Reveals How We Can: Exercise Better, Train Smarter, Live Longer. In is she wants to explore the biomechanics of cheetahs running to help improve the humans mechanics of running. After all the cheetah has been clocked at 65 miles per hour and the fastest human, Usain Bolt, has only been clocked at 28 mph. 
Sorry Usain, you are not that fast after all!
She writes about some scientists in England who compared the running of the cheetah to a similarly speedy animal,  the greyhound whose body mass and running form are similar.
Both animals employ a running form known as the rotary gallop. Their legs churn in a circular motion, the animal’s back bowing and its hind legs reaching almost past its ears at full stride.
Up until about 40 mph, both animals are similar in stride, but then the cheetah finds another gear. They discovered that when finding this faster gear,
 ...their leg turnover rate spurted and their pace dramatically increased. They began bringing their legs around faster and faster, their strides lengthening, even as the frequency of their strides increased. The greyhounds, on the other hand, maintained a fairly even stride frequency throughout their entire run.
They also discovered that,
 The cheetahs also hit the force plates differently from the greyhounds, their paws remaining on the ground slightly longer — an action that presumably allows the legs to absorb more of the forces generated by the pounding stride.
This is all very interesting, but how do you draw lessons from this to teach human runners to run faster, after all we are not really built like greyhounds and cheetahs, and obviously we only use two legs to run. So they come up with this:
The lessons for human runners are somewhat abstract, since we have only two legs and, with rare exceptions, cannot curl them up past our ears, as cheetahs and greyhounds do. “The cheetah’s back functions as an extension of its hind legs,” Dr. Wilson points out, its spine coiling and extending with each stride, as ours cannot. But there are tips we can glean from the cheetah. The speed with which a creature brings its leg back around into position appears to be one of the main determinants of speed, Dr. Wilson says. The faster you reposition the leg, the faster you’ll move. But swift leg turnover requires power. “Compared to the greyhound, the cheetah has bulky upper legs,” Dr. Wilson says. Its powerful thigh muscles allow its legs to pump more rapidly than the spindly greyhound’s can. So strengthen your thighs. And perhaps invest in lightweight racing shoes. “Having less weight in the lower portion of the leg aids in swift repositioning” of the limb, Dr. Wilson says.

OK the article is entertaining and may contain an element of truth, but like most articles today, you can get more lessons from the comments that readers make and this is where the real fun of this article begins.
First off we learn about another high speed animal that wasn't mentioned in the article, the pronghorn antelope, one reader mentions:I think that the truly remarkable runner is the Pronghorn Antelope, which can run about 45mph for 15 minutes to one hour. Covering 10 miles in 15 minutes is a feat that no other animal can approach. Two difficult problems to solve for this type of high-speed distance running are 1) supplying enough oxygen, and 2) not overheating. Pronghorns have very large lungs and hearts for their size to supply oxygen. Cheetahs do overheat in their short sprints and can't eat what they've caught for up to 30 minutes until their body temperatures return to normal. I don't know why Pronghorns don't overheat.
Of course you have the wise guy commenting too, and these two left me chuckling,
At first I read this as, "what runners can learn from cheetohs" and I was so excited. 
 Wasn't the Segway supposed to make us all fast & nimble?
But the most insightful comments and lessons probably come from the fact that the scientists studied captive cheetahs who rarely felt compelled to run faster the 40 mph.
I think the huge speed differential between captive Cheetahs (40mph) and wild, hunter Cheetahs (65mph), can teach us a lot about our own obesity problems. Why do cultures who supply large amounts of calorie-dense food to people who don't work physically hard for it, inevitably become slower? And fatter?... Athletes begin to decline when they stop being "hungry," which is literally true as well as a metaphor for ambition. Luxury and comfort bring on lesser health and fitness, and in our country this trickles down even to those below the poverty line, who still have no trouble getting high-fat, processed-carbohydrate foods for little money.
In the end, I am not sure if studying the cheetah can really make us faster. We already know to strengthen our legs, wear lighter shoes, and move those legs quicker.

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