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The modulation of outdoor running speed : the influence of gradient

Townshend, Andrew Douglas (2010) The modulation of outdoor running speed : the influence of gradient. PhD thesis, Queensland University of Technology.


This thesis aimed to investigate the way in which distance runners modulate their speed in an effort to understand the key processes and determinants of speed selection when encountering hills in natural outdoor environments. One factor which has limited the expansion of knowledge in this area has been a reliance on the motorized treadmill which constrains runners to constant speeds and gradients and only linear paths. Conversely, limits in the portability or storage capacity of available technology have restricted field research to brief durations and level courses. Therefore another aim of this thesis was to evaluate the capacity of lightweight, portable technology to measure running speed in outdoor undulating terrain.

The first study of this thesis assessed the validity of a non-differential GPS to measure speed, displacement and position during human locomotion. Three healthy participants walked and ran over straight and curved courses for 59 and 34 trials respectively. A non-differential GPS receiver provided speed data by Doppler Shift and change in GPS position over time, which were compared with actual speeds determined by chronometry. Displacement data from the GPS were compared with a surveyed 100m section, while static positions were collected for 1 hour and compared with the known geodetic point. GPS speed values on the straight course were found to be closely correlated with actual speeds (Doppler shift: r = 0.9994, p < 0.001, Δ GPS position/time: r = 0.9984, p < 0.001). Actual speed errors were lowest using the Doppler shift method (90.8% of values within ± 0.1 m.sec -1). Speed was slightly underestimated on a curved path, though still highly correlated with actual speed (Doppler shift: r = 0.9985, p < 0.001, Δ GPS distance/time: r = 0.9973, p < 0.001). Distance measured by GPS was 100.46 ± 0.49m, while 86.5% of static points were within 1.5m of the actual geodetic point (mean error: 1.08 ± 0.34m, range 0.69-2.10m). Non-differential GPS demonstrated a highly accurate estimation of speed across a wide range of human locomotion velocities using only the raw signal data with a minimal decrease in accuracy around bends. This high level of resolution was matched by accurate displacement and position data. Coupled with reduced size, cost and ease of use, the use of a non-differential receiver offers a valid alternative to differential GPS in the study of overground locomotion.

The second study of this dissertation examined speed regulation during overground running on a hilly course. Following an initial laboratory session to calculate physiological thresholds (VO2 max and ventilatory thresholds), eight experienced long distance runners completed a self- paced time trial over three laps of an outdoor course involving uphill, downhill and level sections. A portable gas analyser, GPS receiver and activity monitor were used to collect physiological, speed and stride frequency data. Participants ran 23% slower on uphills and 13.8% faster on downhills compared with level sections. Speeds on level sections were significantly different for 78.4 ± 7.0 seconds following an uphill and 23.6 ± 2.2 seconds following a downhill. Speed changes were primarily regulated by stride length which was 20.5% shorter uphill and 16.2% longer downhill, while stride frequency was relatively stable. Oxygen consumption averaged 100.4% of runner’s individual ventilatory thresholds on uphills, 78.9% on downhills and 89.3% on level sections. Group level speed was highly predicted using a modified gradient factor (r2 = 0.89). Individuals adopted distinct pacing strategies, both across laps and as a function of gradient. Speed was best predicted using a weighted factor to account for prior and current gradients. Oxygen consumption (VO2) limited runner’s speeds only on uphill sections, and was maintained in line with individual ventilatory thresholds. Running speed showed larger individual variation on downhill sections, while speed on the level was systematically influenced by the preceding gradient. Runners who varied their pace more as a function of gradient showed a more consistent level of oxygen consumption. These results suggest that optimising time on the level sections after hills offers the greatest potential to minimise overall time when running over undulating terrain.

The third study of this thesis investigated the effect of implementing an individualised pacing strategy on running performance over an undulating course. Six trained distance runners completed three trials involving four laps (9968m) of an outdoor course involving uphill, downhill and level sections. The initial trial was self-paced in the absence of any temporal feedback. For the second and third field trials, runners were paced for the first three laps (7476m) according to two different regimes (Intervention or Control) by matching desired goal times for subsections within each gradient. The fourth lap (2492m) was completed without pacing. Goals for the Intervention trial were based on findings from study two using a modified gradient factor and elapsed distance to predict the time for each section. To maintain the same overall time across all paced conditions, times were proportionately adjusted according to split times from the self-paced trial. The alternative pacing strategy (Control) used the original split times from this initial trial. Five of the six runners increased their range of uphill to downhill speeds on the Intervention trial by more than 30%, but this was unsuccessful in achieving a more consistent level of oxygen consumption with only one runner showing a change of more than 10%. Group level adherence to the Intervention strategy was lowest on downhill sections. Three runners successfully adhered to the Intervention pacing strategy which was gauged by a low Root Mean Square error across subsections and gradients. Of these three, the two who had the largest change in uphill-downhill speeds ran their fastest overall time. This suggests that for some runners the strategy of varying speeds systematically to account for gradients and transitions may benefit race performances on courses involving hills.

In summary, a non – differential receiver was found to offer highly accurate measures of speed, distance and position across the range of human locomotion speeds. Self-selected speed was found to be best predicted using a weighted factor to account for prior and current gradients. Oxygen consumption limited runner’s speeds only on uphills, speed on the level was systematically influenced by preceding gradients, while there was a much larger individual variation on downhill sections. Individuals were found to adopt distinct but unrelated pacing strategies as a function of durations and gradients, while runners who varied pace more as a function of gradient showed a more consistent level of oxygen consumption. Finally, the implementation of an individualised pacing strategy to account for gradients and transitions greatly increased runners’ range of uphill-downhill speeds and was able to improve performance in some runners. The efficiency of various gradient-speed trade- offs and the factors limiting faster downhill speeds will however require further investigation to further improve the effectiveness of the suggested strategy.

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ID Code: 35748
Item Type: QUT Thesis (PhD)
Supervisor: Worringham, Charles & Stewart, Ian
Keywords: downhill, field study, gait, global positioning system, gradient, locomotion, overground, pacing strategy, performance, running, speed regulation, speed measurement, uphill
Divisions: Current > QUT Faculties and Divisions > Faculty of Health
Current > Schools > School of Exercise & Nutrition Sciences
Institution: Queensland University of Technology
Deposited On: 21 Sep 2010 03:46
Last Modified: 28 Oct 2011 19:57

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