The Science Behind the Canadian Death Race


The biomechanics (the way our muscles, tendons, ligaments, and bones work to produce movement) of running has been long studied by running coaches and researchers, all looking for the perfect technique that will make runners faster and less prone to injury. Recently, there has been a great deal of both media and scientific attention focused on the biomechanics of barefoot running, and the potential benefits it provides to injury avoidance. This is due, in part, to a renewed examination of the startling injury statistics that exist amongst shoe wearing runners. Proponents of barefoot running suggest that in addition to the running gait changing (landing forefoot and midfoot vs. heel striking), there is also an overall strengthening of the foot (arch in particular) and lower leg muscles, which is thought to help reduce running injuries such as plantar fasciitis, shin splints, a variety of knee injuries, etc.

Rarely in science do we observe a simple cause and effect scenario in complex systems such as the human body (for example shoes = injury and no shoes = no injury). Instead, we typically see several factors working together to produce the outcome. Ultimately, since the biomechanics of running incorporate the entire body, and not just the legs, we are interested in learning how the body responds when running biomechanics break down over time and distance. The Canadian Death Race provides the perfect venue for this with it's physically challenging terrain and course length. Our study group is composed of 15 highly trained endurance athletes who have all been running and racing for over 5 years.

Hypothesis and Study

As the athletes become fatigued during this race, their running form (biomechanics) will begin to change. As their running form changes, we expect the prevalence of discomfort, pain, and potentially injury to increase. Therefore the maintenance of good running biomechanics may slow or prevent discomfort, pain, and injury over long distances or continuous hours of running.We have identified the core muscles as critical to the maintenance of good running form and suggest that a strong core should allow an athlete to maintain their “natural” running form longer than athletes with a weaker core. This may result in a lower incidence of discomfort, pain, and injury in athletes with stronger core muscles.

To test this we have divided the adventure science athletes into two groups. One group was provided a 16-week core training program specifically designed to 1) teach them to activate and properly contract their core muscles, 2) strengthen their core muscles specifically for running. The other group will continue to train and prepare for this race as they normally would for a competition, without modifying any endurance or strength workouts. Before, during, and after the race all Adventure Science athletes will be filmed in order to analyze changes in their running gait. The athletes will also be surveyed before, during, and after the race to collect data on fatigue level, pain and discomfort perception.

Questions to Answer:

  1. How does a runner's gait change over distance? Does this differ between the two sample sets?
  2. Is there a common distance or time at which a running gait begins to deteriorate amongst trained endurance athletes? Does this vary between the two sample sets?
  3. What is the progression in the perception of discomfort to injury amongst the athletes, and does this differ between the two sample sets?
  4. Are the athletes who followed the specified core strengthening program able to maintain their “natural” running gait longer than those who did not?
  5. Did the athletes who followed the specified core strengthening program experience less discomfort, pain, and injury than those who did not?


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