Saturday, February 28, 2009

Preparing for the Boston Marathon without a Shirt

This continues my thread on human thermal response and performance, a topic of interest because it offers flexibility in dealing with thermal inflation, energy use, and global warming. A word of warning as you read this post. The person I interviewed is in outstanding shape and knows exactly what he is doing, having done it for years. If one is going to try it, it makes sense to approach it a little bit at a time, and bring along backup protection. One of the things that prevents me from moving my experiments in this direction is recognition that, even if I might do fine in the first mile, I might have a problem in the second mile, and not be able to get back safely home.

February 28, 2009. On the way riding my bicycle back from the library this morning, I happened to see a man running in runner's shorts and shoes, athletic socks, and gloves. His top and legs were exposed to the elements. After a brief consideration about whether to reach out to him, I caught up to him on the left side of Route 20 going in toward Boston, and rode along with him about a half mile. At first he was a little reluctant to talk because, he said, a lot of people think he is nuts. I did not think he was nuts at all, and the conversation I had with him indicated he was certainly not nuts, unless all marathoners are nuts, which some might argue is true. To me this is further validation of my theory about thermal inflation, a topic about which I posted earlier this year, and have written about since 1979.

He explained that he was out on his "long route," 17 miles, in preparation for the Boston Marathon which is not so many weeks from now. The other striking things about him were his age and the way he bent his knees to cushion his body from the shocks of running on pavement. He explained that he had started his experiment with temperature about 40 years ago. At first he had run during winter in heavy clothing and had sweat profusely. Then he realized that this did not make a lot of sense, so he started experimenting with varying levels of clothing, obviously less and less.

What he had learned was that the body generates a lot of heat, which is a disadvantage in excess, and which is retained more if you do not start sweating. He also learned, as he put it, that the pores in one's skin shut down if the skin is exposed to the cold. Much as I have found in my experiments, he found that one can "fool" oneself about how warm or cold one is, by focusing on the perceived temperature of one's skin. What counts is the internal temperature. So after being something of a wimp about the cold when he was a boy, he had to work his way through his expectations and beliefs about his skin being cold. Those cold sensations are good rather than bad.

Also an important factor is never to sweat, because when the sweating begins the skin temperature and body temperature become regulated in a very different way. This modifies the skin barrier between the elements and the core of the body. He commented that he had learned about a remarkable woman who swam competitively in cold bodies of water such as the English Channel, without a wet suit or grease to provide thermal insulation for her body. Her body had adapted by developing a layer of thick subcutaneous fat that serves as that layer of insulation. Indeed, the human body is able to adapt in all kinds of interesting ways, if we foster its doing so!

Then we got to the gloves. I explained that I live at 45-52 degrees, and that when I start to get cold, the first sign is that my hands get cold. He exclaimed, "Yes," the same thing happens for him. This is the reason that he runs with thick winter gloves on his hands.

More later after I get the chance to interview this insightful man who has been willing to experiment for decades.

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