Sun, Jul 24, 2016 - Page 12 News List

Rio Olympics: Studies delve into nuances of running, strokes, pitches


Faster, higher, stronger: Scientists, too, are doing their bit to make the Olympic motto real. Here are some potentially performance-boosting discoveries, just in time for the Rio Games:


In the decades since Ethiopia’s Abebe Bikila (Olympic marathon gold, 1960) and South Africa’s Zola Budd (5,000m world record, 1985) raced barefoot into sporting history, debate has raged over the wisdom of runners spurning shoes.

Many athletes insist that sneakers alter their natural gait and hamper performance. Some have reverted to running without shoes, while others have turned to minimalist “barefoot shoes.”

Statistics suggest that increasingly souped-up kicks have not reduced injury rates.

In a recent study published in the Journal of Sport and Health Science, Spanish scientists asserted that barefoot running can “considerably” decrease the risk of being hurt.

Runners with shoes tend to crash down on their heels while barefoot runners land on the mid and forefoot, where the in-built shock absorbers in the arch soften the trauma.

Scientists from the universities of Granada and Jaen studied more than 30 volunteers who had never run barefoot before, while training them to do so over 12 weeks.

The runners significantly altered their ground-strike pattern, the team found, switching away from the heel-first landing.

Done correctly, barefoot running minimizes impact force and “therefore, leads to a lower risk of injury,” study coauthor Victor Soto said.

However, this does not mean all runners must immediately hang up their boots.

Barefoot running requires a special technique, without which athletes might expose themselves to other dangers — including rocks, nails and glass shards.


It comes as no surprise that the arms are key to success in the crawl stroke. However, it is not muscle alone, a recent study found — the “shape” of the stroke is key.

Seeking to settle a long-standing argument, scientists from Japan and Australia compared the so-called I and S-shaped downstrokes in the freestyle front crawl.

Among their tools: a robot arm executing different strokes, allowing the team to measure forces on the hand and flow fields in the water around it.

The I stroke sees the arm follow a straight line through the water, from the front where it enters the water, to the back where it exits again.

By contrast, the S stroke draws a double-bellied curve — the arm enters the water near the head, strokes outward, back inward and out again at the hip as it exits.

The S stroke, popular in the 1960s and 1970s, has largely fallen out of favor. However, the new study found it might still have a place.

“S stroke is better suited for swimming middle and long distances, while the I stroke is better for short distances,” study lead author Hideki Takagi of the University of Tsukuba’s School of Health and Sport Sciences told reporters.

The S stroke yields more propulsive power for less physical exertion, while the I stroke delivers maximum speed in short bursts when energy efficiency is not important, he said.


The knuckleball, a bizarre zigzagging ball flight that has stumped many a batsman and goalkeeper, has been demystified.

Scientists from the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris have figured out why knuckleballs bamboozle athletes in some sports, such as soccer, volleyball or baseball, but not others such as table tennis.

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