The Physics of physicality
August 13, 2012 1:07 AM   Subscribe

WIRED has been running a fascinating series: Olympic Physics: Can Runners Benefit From Drafting?, Scoring the Decathlon, New [Swimming] Platform Is No Chip Off The Old Block

Air Density And Bob Beamon's Crazy-Awesome Long Jump, How The Hammer Throw Is Like A Particle Accelerator and is also Exciting and Artisitc

The Social Psychology of Relay Racing
Both the 4×100-meter relay and the 4×400-meter relay require speed, endurance and great depth of talent on the team. But the relays also are a fascinating laboratory for social science, bringing to two of the field’s most interesting observations to the fore: the Köhler effect, and the social-loafing effect.
Modern penthathlon gets 'more modern' with frikkin' lasers.

With the end of the Games, The US Team won 46 gold medals,' the most in a non-boycotted game since 1904.' With so many golds, What if US female Olympians were their own country? There are also 30 other questions remaining.There is: The Olympics most painful moments, in GIFs(Mashable, slideshow). And for the distance, a detailed analysis of the Women's Marathon. And a look at The Ancient Roots of Iran's Wrestling and Weightlifting Olympic Dominance. Usian Bolt adds to his legend with straight 100m and 200m wins.

Finally, an Olympics Cartoon review(slideshow)

The Olympics wasn't always about sport, in fact, 'In the modern Olympics’ early days, painters, sculptors, writers and musicians battled for gold, silver and bronze'
posted by the man of twists and turns (16 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
The decathlon one is neat (especially since I remember growing up playing Microsoft's version) but FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, MONTRESOR, DO NOT PUT YOUR FUCKING LEGEND ON TOP OF HALF THE FUCKING GRAPH.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 2:12 AM on August 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

From the first two articles I checked:

Update (11:15 on 8/1/12): A reader pointed out an error in the last set of equations showing the acceleration of a diver off a slanted block. For some reason, I had accidentally dropped a cosine term. The old set of equations has been replaced with the corrected version. The same conclusions apply. Sorry for the mistake

Update (11:34 AM 8/4/12) The original graph showing the three cases for a long jump (No Air at Sea level, Air at Sea Level, and Mexico City) had the wrong labels on the axes. I have replaced the graph with the correct axes labels.

Maf and Fizics iz hard.
posted by charlie don't surf at 4:38 AM on August 13, 2012

Great links. That graph of US women's medal count since the passage of Title IX at the "What if US female Olympians were their own country?" link was really eye-opening for me. And I caught the modern pentathlon for the first time this year, and was impressed as hell. Okay, most people who are in decent shape could probably do a 3k and a swim, but horseback riding, fencing, and shooting? It's just ridiculous watching the same people do all of those at that level.

I think I'm all in favor of the laser target shooting, so long as the skill does translate well to pistol shooting, which I suppose all depends on how realistic the simulated "kick" is, and how close the weights are. But still, you don't have to compensate for gravity or wind... Would an expert quick-action laser-pointer really make an expert marksman? It would be nice to think that the "modern" pentathlon still measured the all-round martial skills that a 19th century cavalryman might need...
posted by OnceUponATime at 5:13 AM on August 13, 2012

Upon reading the headline about runners and drafting I thought there was no way it would be that big of a difference but then to learn the average runner in the Olympic 1500 runs at about 16 mph I nearly fell over. 16 mph!
posted by photoslob at 7:22 AM on August 13, 2012

I was really interested in the running/drafting one--it's a question I've often asked myself--so it was kinda disappointing to read the whole piece to discover lin the final paragraph that the conclusion was, essentially: "I dunno. Maybe?"
posted by yoink at 7:27 AM on August 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

"I dunno. Maybe?"

Basically, the math is too much for that little blog. I scraped by my fluid mechanics class, and have forgotten most of it - it would be quite difficult.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 7:31 AM on August 13, 2012

The thing with drafting in distance running is that, separate from any possible advantage bestowed by less wind resistance, the drafter is able to conserve mental and physical energy. Mental energy because they are not having to think about pace, and physical energy because they are not having to think about pace and they can physically relax into whatever tempo has been established. A big part of running fast is learning how to relax at redline effort, thereby making one's form/stride as efficient as possible.

It's hard to describe feeling differences in perceived physical exertion when running at the same pace depending on whether you're running from the front or keying off the runner in front of you to anyone who hasn't raced competitively, but it's an actual "thing".
posted by stagewhisper at 8:15 AM on August 13, 2012

I was really interested in the running/drafting one--it's a question I've often asked myself--so it was kinda disappointing to read the whole piece to discover lin the final paragraph that the conclusion was, essentially: "I dunno. Maybe?"

Yeah, the piece didn't mention (because it was written earlier) that the 800m world record was set in this Olympics by a person front-running the entire way (the 800m is the shortest and therefore fastest event not run in lanes). David Rudisha's 1:40.91 translates to 7.9 m/s, so the effect of wind resistance would seem to be greater. Then again, most 800m records (including Rudisha's previous ones) are set in rabbited races, so it might have just been a particularly impressive effort, but the effect of air resistance just can't be that large.

On preview, I would guess that the mental energy effect stagewhisper mentions is stronger than wind resistance, because you basically never have records set in 1500m or longer events in unrabbited races.
posted by dsfan at 8:23 AM on August 13, 2012

One more thing- these calculations are based on a windless situation, so the results really only make sense for indoor track races. Depending on the strength and direction of a breeze, using other runners as a buffer will effect effort.
posted by stagewhisper at 8:34 AM on August 13, 2012

It's hard to describe feeling differences in perceived physical exertion when running at the same pace depending on whether you're running from the front or keying off the runner in front of you to anyone who hasn't raced competitively, but it's an actual "thing".

Oh, I don't doubt the psychological side of it (they've been using pacemakers in non-Olympic events for years, of course, for just this reason). But that's not drafting. Drafting is an actual physical phenomenon, in which the #2 runner is exerting less physical effort to achieve the same pace as the #1 runner. It's an extremely vivid effect in cycling, for example (that's why the #2 cyclist in the sprints is generally considered to have the advantage in the race). But I've never really noticed strategic use of drafting in running races and I've always wondered why.
posted by yoink at 9:39 AM on August 13, 2012

They've done experiments with drafting and if you're running 1 meter behind somebody you save about 2 seconds per lap in energy, or with 2 meters you save about 1 second per lap. This is running at 4 minutes/mile pace, or 15 MPH. Since running 1 meter behind somebody is almost impossible, then drafting saves 1 second per lap. They mention it either in the Lore of Running by Tim Noakes or Better Training For Distance Runners by David Martin and Peter Coe.

Furthermore if drafting didn't provide some sort of effect then every tactical distance race ever run would have been very stupid for the fastest person in the field. If I knew I could run 3:28 for the 1500, and the next fastest guy could run 3:30 (this has been a fairly typical situation for the last ten years or so), then I would be an idiot not to run 3:28. But championship races almost never happen that way. They'll often "jog" at 3:42 pace or so before the race is broken open after two or sometimes even three laps (that's 800 or 1200 meters).

They do this because nobody wants to take the lead and have the other runners draft them, because then those drafters would blow by them on the last lap with the energy they conserved by not leading the race. This actually happens fairly often: In the women's 10,000m at the Olympics this year three Japanese runners bravely led the field through 5k in 15:32--a very stout pace--they were rewarded at the finish with 9th, 10th, and 16th place respectively.

Championship distance races are like chess matches or poker games because of wind resistance: the point isn't to be the fastest, but to conserve the most energy so that you can cover any move anybody makes in the last two laps (if we had better commentators for distance races maybe even the Wired staff would know this too). Women's races tend to be less tactical probably because they're not as fast and therefore not as much air is being moved, so the penalty for drafting is less.

In rabbited races on the other hand, there's much less passing and the athletes run mostly in a line as opposed to bunched up. Rabbited races are therefore more like sprinting events, or even an event like the discuss where the point is just to put up the best number as opposed to crossing the finish line first (finishing 4th with a lifetime personal best time is great in a rabbited race but not so much at the Olympics).

Rudisha is such an amazing athlete that he was able to run a world record with no rabbit in the 800. The last time I can find an 800m WR being set without a rabbit was Alberto Juantonera in 1976. This is because Rudisha is extraordinary.

Also, Rudisha is helped less by rabbits than most other runners because he's tall, so therefore his performances with and without rabbits are more similar than they would be with athletes who are shorter than 6'3". After all, he only broke his own world record by 1 tenth of a second. Rudisha can probably run under 1:40 right now with a rabbit, which would be at least as impressive as anything Bolt is doing at the shorter distances.

I agree that front-running is mentally taxing, but running in a large pack can be just as bad. Also, some runners can get so used to leading races that battling with another runner for a spot is just so unfamiliar and intimidating that being led can cause them to wilt (you will sometimes see top high school runners crack once they get to college with better competition not because they can't handle the pace being run but because they've never had the experience of running that pace and being in 6th place: something like this happened to 3:53 high school miler Alan Webb).

Wind resistance IS the single biggest factor in dictating how distance races play out.
posted by Luminiferous Ether at 10:04 AM on August 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

Laser pistols for pentathletes are fine, but I'm holding out for mecha-horses.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 10:40 AM on August 13, 2012

My experience is drafting is counterproductive but I am not a competitive-against-other-runners racer. To me the challenge in running the fastest is synching my own striding and breathing; if they get just a little too frequent or a little too infrequent I stitch up in my diaphram and the optimum frequency of striding and breathing has a very narrow range for getting a good time.

The decathlon article is fascinating and I can easily see possibilities increasing by N! (Ten factorial is 3,628,800.) I would love to have somebody pay me to study this for a couple years. I am one of those fans who believes that the Olympic decathlon champion is the world's greatest athlete and the argument is unequivocal and not even close.

Off the top of my head, you want some composite weighted average of strength * .33 + speed * .33 + (timing OR coordination) * .33. So the hurdles, for example, might be weighted more than just the 100 meter dash because it tests the competitor's coordination beyond just his speed. Also it is weird how the athletes' endurance is only tested by the number of different events, the one event--the 1500 m run, and the (odd coincidence? or is it diabolical design?) feature that the 1500 m run is the last event. One thing which might make the competition more interesting is if you had the sequence of the events randomized (for example you put the ten events on marbles in a can and draw a marble immediately before each event) and you did it in one day starting at sunrise and continuing through all ten events in one twelve or fifteen hour stretch.
posted by bukvich at 11:09 AM on August 13, 2012

Manteo Mitchell of the United States ran his leg of the 4x400 relay with a broken leg.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 10:48 PM on August 13, 2012

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