Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Seventeen seconds

According to the Cure seventeen seconds is a measure of life. I often think about it when I ride on my rollers. I found that 17 seconds is about how long I can daydream for when I work out hard. I look at the clock and then I think (or try to think) about something else for a while, and when I look again,  about 20 seconds have gone by. I need to make a conscious effort if I want to tune out for longer than that.

Interestingly enough, 20 seconds is also a measure of the patience users display when working with an interactive computer interface. Users are willing to wait about 20 seconds for things to download, or displays to update, or the program to perform calculations in the background. Anything longer than that and the application loses its interactiveness.

All of that leads me to believe there must be a neural correlate to 17-20 seconds. Something about how our brains process information.

Timing is very important in biology. A good example lies in the different energy generating system we use. These have different time constants as well and these constants dictate the types of races we compete in. The marathon duration for example is correlated with glycogen storage levels. It is about the longest anyone can exercise continuously at a high level (a level that burns carbohydrates). The timing of course relates to top competitors who finish in less than 2.5 hours.

The same applies to other races as well. Take 100 m dashes, which are entirely anaerobic events or the mile or 1500m, etc. Since energy delivery in cycling is less constant, and since cycling relies on several energy systems within a race (there are sudden accelerations, sprints, hills, etc.) the connection between energy systems and duration is less obvious here. Except when it comes to time trialing, where the 40K TT is equivalent to the marathon in glycogen depletion. (Runners need to devote more cardiac output to cooling than cyclists hence the difference in absolute time).

Athletes are encouraged to train for hard efforts with different time constants. Coaches prescribe short (1 minute or less), medium (3 minute or less) and long intervals. This approach tries to single out individual energy producing systems and train them in isolation in order to improve their performance. It is a reductionist approach that makes logical sense -and improvements can be noted in appropriately timed tests- but I don't think anyone has ever done a controlled study to see if overall performance gains are better this way.

In other news, the case of Ricco is dominating the headlines. It is now all but certain that a blood transfusion was the cause for his hospitalization. The early season doping headlines are making everyone uneasy and several riders, officials, and coaches have spoken out loudly against Ricco already.

While I can understand the outrage, it is not good practice to condemn people without due process of law. In Western societies people are presumed innocent until proven guilty, not the other way around and I don't think it is a good idea to start making exceptions.

I can certainly understand that cycling promoters dread another scandal, especially one that comes at this time of year. But in my opinion the situation will never improve unless we revamp our entire approach to doping and bring it in line with other legal procedures.

The current method that relies on detecting specific substances and outrageous punishment is clearly flawed. Many suggest making the punishment longer will help. They want three to five year suspensions. Some even call for life-long suspensions after a first offense. I don't think that is a good solution.

Everyone involved in criminology knows the deterrent effect of punishment is very limited. Perpetrators never think much about the consequences before they act. They always think they won't get caught so any strategy that relies on punishment only is bound to fail. "We won't arrest our way out of this," the administration's new drug czar said in a recent interview when asked about the war on drugs. And I can assure you that neither UCI nor WADA will suspend their way out of this either.

I also don't buy the wishful thinking that says things are improving. Given how easy it is to cheat and how unlikely it is that you will get caught when you do, I can't imagine why anyone would change their ways. It is possible that a new generation growing up with different values will resist temptation better - Education does help- but only time will tell if this is enough of a deterrent. Looking back in history gives one no reason to be very optimistic.

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