The science behind Endurance

Monday 23 September 2013, 12:39PM
By Matty Graham

Research bites – I thought I would provide some small, easily ‘digestible’ research bites on some topics that I have had questions about recently.

Endurance sport is entrenched in tradition and there are a lot of personal options and theories floating around.

What I aim to do here is provide some evidence on a few topics to help you make an informed decision either way.


Barefoot running injury and economy

There is a lot of hype around the ‘barefoot’, minimalist, forefoot running technique or whatever you want to call it.

Everyone has their opinion about it and many companies are capitalising on it with new products.

Is the hype all it is cracked up to be? Let’s see what the research says.

Runners are notorious for getting injured. In a recent study carried out at Harvard University of 52 collegiate cross-country runners it was founds that a staggering 74% of them experienced some form of moderate – severe lower limb injury during the year.

Those athletes who were habitual heel strikers (i.e. they landed on their heel when running) were two times more likely to sustain an injury compared with forefoot strikers (those that land on their forefoot when running).

Another study to come out of Harvard University looked at the economy of running when wearing minimalist shoes compared to standard cushioned running shoes.

It was found that runners were 2.4% more economical when running in minimalist shoe compared to a standard running shoe.

Now I can see people thinking to themselves that of course the minimalist shoes is going to be more economical, because it is lighter.

However, in this study they controlled for shoe mass by adding weight to the ankle to match the standard running shoe mass.

It is thought that this difference in economy is likely due to more elastic energy being stored and released in the lower extremity during running in minimalist shoes.

While these two studies shine very promising light on barefoot/forefoot running re-evolution, caution is needed.

These running techniques expose the body to forces it may not be conditioned for if you have come from a heel striking/cushioned running shoe background, which can lead to injuries if the transition is made to quickly.

Protein ingestion before bed to improve recovery

Most endurance athletes are aware that protein is an important component of their diet as it provides the building blocks to construct the new cell structures required for adaptation and performance improvement.

Alongside this, most are also aware that sleep is also an important component of the recovery process.

So what happens if we combine these two important aspects of recovery? Are we able to recover above and beyond that of a mere mortal?

In a study from the Netherlands, it was found that protein (20 g) ingested immediately before sleep is effectively digested and absorbed.

Thereby stimulating muscle protein synthesis (production of new proteins in the body) during overnight recovery compared to when a placebo was consumed.

So what does this mean for you? Because this is the first study of its kind in this area, the exact ramifications are not completely known.

However, if there is a greater amount of protein synthesis occurring at a time where the body is in ‘recovery mode’ it is logical that this may result in faster more complete recovery overnight following evening training sessions.

So consuming a protein containing drink before you turn in for the night, might just be an easy way to get you bouncing back from your training sessions faster.

Coconut water and hydration

In a recent trip to the States I was amazed at the amount of people consuming coconut water and the cost of it per can!

It also seems this coconut craze is slowly diffusing over to New Zealand with it becoming more widely available and consumed.

But what is it, and why are people drinking it?

For those who have not heard of coconut water, what we are talking about is the fluid that comes out from the centre of the coconut when it is broken open, opposed to the milk which is obtained from the grating and compressing of the flesh of the coconut.

Producers of the product market it as a natural sports drink for gym bunnies and athletes.

But what does the research say?

A number of studies have compared coconut water against standard sports drink for hydration during and rehydration after exercise.

On a whole there is no difference between coconut water and a standard carbohydrate and sodium containing sport drink for hydration during or rehydration following exercise.

So coconut water does stack up next to sports drinks.

If you are looking for a more natural sports drink or you really like the taste of coconut water, this could be the sports drink of choice for you, as long as you do not mind the price tag.


Matty Graham
MPhEd, BPhEd
Sport Scientist and Performance Coach

Exponential Performance Coaching

Daoud, et al. Foot Strike and Injury Rates in Endurance Runners: A Retrospective Study. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc., Vol. 44, No. 7, pp.1325–1334, 2012.

Perl, et al. Effects of Footwear and Strike Type on Running Economy. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc. Vol 44, No.7, pp.1335–1343, 2012.

Res, et al, Protein Ingestion Before Sleep Improves Postexercise Overnight Recovery. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc., Vol. 44, No.8, pp.1560–1569, 2012.

Kalman et al. Comparison of Coconut Water and Carbohydrate-Electrolyte Sport Drink on Measures of Hydration and Physical Performance in Exercise-trained men. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition Vol. 9, No.1, 2012.

Saat, et al. Rehydration After Exercise with Fresh Young Coconut Water, Carbohydrate-Electrolyte Beverage and Plain Water. Journal of Physiological Anthropology and Applied Human Science. Vol. 21, No.2, pp.93 – 104, 2002.