The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 185 | On the biology of super-speed and other stuff

Leaving Proof 185 | On the biology of super-speed and other stuff
Published on Wednesday, May 15, 2013 by
Leaving Proof‘s got running on the brain as we talk about the speculative science of comic book super-speed, do a running shoe review, share some marathon cosplay pics, and more.

Every now and then, it makes for a fun creative and intellectual exercise to think about comic book superpowers and how they would translate in real life, using what we know of the physical world as it exists. This week, let’s take a look at one of the most frequently used superpowers in the superhero designer’s toolkit: Super-speed.

flash-vs-quicksilver1The most popular character identified with the ability to run superhumanly fast is probably DC Comics’ Flash in any one of his multiple incarnations and variations. The original Golden Age Flash, Jay Garrick, gained the power of super-speed by accidentally inhaling “hard water” (water with a high mineral content) vapor in a laboratory. (NOTE: This would later be retconned as “heavy water”—water with large amounts of the hydrogen isotope deuterium—for some reason. It’s not as if changing the catalyst for his super-empowerment from hard water to heavy water made it any more realistic!) Later versions of the character would gain their abilities through similarly fantastical means. The super-speed possessed by the Flashes is actually derived from an extra-dimensional, quasi-mystical energy called the Speed Force that allows them to reach light speeds. The physics of such an ability, never mind the biology of it, would obviously be beyond any sort of rational explanation consistent with the real world. Even the more modest abilities of Marvel’s Quicksilver, who can reach “only” subsonic speeds running at full tilt, defy explanations grounded in real-world science.

Any attempt to speculate as to how superhuman running speed would actually be like has to begin with defining the upper limit of human footspeed. To date, the fastest recorded running speed for a human is 44.72 km/h (27.79 mph), set by Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt during the 2009 IAAF World Championships in Berlin, where he set a new world record (9.58 seconds) for the 100 meter event:

As amazing as the feat is, it’s hard to say whether Bolt’s record is anywhere close to the biological limit of human running speed. Mathematician Reza Noubary, an expert on sport and statistics, once predicted that the absolute human limit for running 100 meters would be 9.44 seconds although he did concede that it might actually be lower than that after Bolt’s record-breaking performance. Physiologist Peter Weyand and biomechanist John Hutchinson, on the other hand, say that predicting how fast the human body can run is too complex of a question to answer with any real certainty using traditional mathematical models.

But how does Bolt’s top speed compare to that of some of the world’s fastest mammals? Check out the list below:

Mammal Top Speeds:

  • Cheetah: 112–120 km/h (70–75 mph)
  • Pronghorn: 88.5 km/h (55 mph)
  • Wildebeest: 80.5 km/h (50 mph)
  • Jackrabbit: 72 km/h (45 mph)
  • African Wild Dog: 71 km/h (44 mph)
  • Kangaroo: 71 km/h (44 mph)
  • Horse: 70.76 km/h (43.97 mph)
  • Greyhound: 69 km/h (43 mph)
  • Coyote*: 65 km/h (40 mph)
  • Human (Usain Bolt, 2009 IAAF World Championships): 44.72 km/h (27.79 mph)

* – incidentally, the fastest recorded running speed for the roadrunner bird is 42 km/h (26 mph).

There are a number of reasons why humans are the relative slowpokes of the mammalian clade. As science writer Ed Yong explained in a piece written for the BBC last year:

… [running] speed is largely determined by how much force [runners] can apply when their foot is on the ground. They have two simple options for running faster: hit the ground harder, or exert the same force over a longer period.

The second option partly explains why greyhounds and cheetahs are so fast. They maximize their time on the ground using their bendy backbones. As their front feet land, their spines bend and collapse, so their back halves spend more time in the air before they have to come down. Then, their spines decompress, giving their front halves more time in the air and their back legs more time on the ground.

Such tricks aren’t available to us two-legged humans…

In essence, the collapsible and bendy spines of speedy quadrupeds like the cheetah and the greyhound allow them to bound instead of stride through their gait (cheetahs can cover up to 7.6 meters, or 25 feet, in a single bound and go from 0 to 100 km/h in about 3 seconds).

In the case of partially bipedal macropods like kangaroos, it is the highly elastic tendons in their lower limbs and other evolutionary adaptations for rapid locomotion that provide them with the ability to reach “superhuman” speeds.

This raises an interesting question: If even the fastest recorded human can’t beat a jackrabbit or an antelope in a dead sprint and he doesn’t have the speed to outrun a pack of coyotes or African Wild Dogs, how did early humans come to dominate the planet?

Setting aside the obvious human advantage of having a more advanced forebrain and all the benefits that confers and looking at the issue simply from the point of view of locomotion and how it affects hunting and predation, one answer is that the same feature that makes us relatively slow runners, our plantigrade bipedalism, also gives us the ability to outlast many other mammals in contests of endurance. Fast walking on two legs is very economical of metabolic energy compared to quadruped locomotion. Coupled with the human body’s efficient built-in temperature regulation system (sweating allows humans to avoid overheating in hot conditions better than most mammals can with panting), it isn’t hard to imagine early humans slowly but surely pursuing their prey through the African savannah, waiting for them to succumb to muscle fatigue and heat exhaustion before going in for the kill. In fact, it is generally accepted knowledge these days that the earliest humans did not sprint after their prey but rather they walked them down, a predation technique unique to humans called “persistence hunting” that is still practiced in parts of Africa:

So if humans have evolved primarily to be endurance runners (or more accurately, “endurance brisk walkers”), does this mean that superhuman-but-not-drastically-so running speeds of, say, 48 km/h (30 mph) will forever be beyond our reach? Not really, although the future methods and techniques that will allow the human body to exceed the normal biological and mechanical limits on footspeed will likely be quite radical. It has been suggested that the controversial Oscar Pistorius’ use of carbon fiber prosthetic lower legs gives him an unfair advantage over normally-abled runners, as his leg swing times are significantly faster than those of runners with a full complement of limbs and the material of his prostheses return energy at an amount almost three times that returned by the human ankle. It’s not unreasonable to assume that prosthetics engineering might advance to the point where an elite Paralympic athlete wearing prosthetic legs can unequivocally outperform the world’s fastest Olympian sprinter because of a combination of shorter leg swing times, lighter weight, and superior energy return (“springiness”). Future advancements in gene-based human enhancement may allow for the optimization of fast-twitch skeletal muscle density in the calves and limb length, thus increasing the amount of force a runner can exert against the ground (the most significant factor in determining running speed) while also increasing stride length. Still, given the mechanical disadvantages of the bipedal gait in terms of exerting force on a running surface over time compared to that of the quadruped gait, it’s probably safe to say that any “superhuman” running speeds prosthetically or even genetically modified runners achieve in the foreseeable future will still be “sub-coyote.”

It turns out this image isn't all that inaccurate (illustration by Alan Davis).

It turns out this image isn’t all that inaccurate (illustration by Alan Davis).

Skechers GoBionic impressions

After a few months of reading online reviews and browsing various running message boards, I finally settled on picking up the Skechers GoBionic as my next pair of running shoes. I can hear you asking: Skechers? Isn’t that the company that earlier this week agreed to pay $40 million to settle a class-action lawsuit related to the unsubstantiated claims in their advertising for their Shape-Up training shoes? Yes, it’s the same company. Skechers doesn’t really have much of a reputation as a “serious” athletic shoe manufacturer, and from my own experience with the brand, I think they’re known to the general public mostly for their tween-marketed, celebrity-promoted fashion-over-function sneakers. But a funny thing happened a couple of years ago. Skechers representatives started reaching out to professional runners like US Olympic marathoner Meb Keflezighi and elite ultra-runner Christian Burke as well as prominent members of the online running community, asking for suggestions and feedback in the course of testing and designing their new “Go” line of athletic shoes. Most notably, they enlisted the help of then-Saint Anselm College professor of sport and exercise biology Peter Larson. Larson is the co-author of Tread Lightly: Form, Footwear, and the Quest for Injury-Free Running and through his RunBlogger site, is perhaps the most well-known online advocate of minimalist running. Larson served as a run-tester and (unpaid) design consultant for the GoBionic, a super-lightweight, minimally-cushioned training shoe seen below:

skechers_gobionic01

I won’t bore you guys with the details of minimalist running and footwear and I’ve already written at length about how I came to the decision to change my running form and how that transition turned out in the articles here, here, here, and here. There’s a lot of information out there for those who want to learn more about the topics and understand the rationale behind minimalist running and minimalist shoe design (I recommend starting with this article from Lower Extremity Review and the Runblogger’s Guide to Minimalist Running Shoes), although I have to caution that there’s a lot pseudoscience and unreliable, marketing-based “pop exercise physiology” advocating both for and against minimalist running. I also want to emphasize that I don’t “believe” in minimalist running as some sort of miraculous answer to running injuries, even though the chronic knee pain that I used to associate with running since suffering an injury some 15 years ago has all but disappeared since I changed my running form and began to use footwear purposefully designed to accommodate that form. Running, and personal fitness in general, I find, is an “experiment of one,” and while trends can be observed and generalizations can be formulated, what works running-wise or fitness-wise for one person, or even one population, may not necessarily work for another.

So anyway, what about the shoes? I made a trip to the Pacific Centre Skechers store in downtown Vancouver to check out the GoBionic—none of the shoe stores in my town stocked the shoe, although a couple of places did carry the GoRun, the GoRun 2.0, Meb Keflizighi’s signature shoe the GoRun Ride, and the GoTrain, which is a cross-training variant of the GoRun. The store staff was helpful and reasonably knowledgeable about what a minimalist-inclined buyer would be looking for in a shoe.

Different interpretations of "US size 9" depending on the manufacturer: (From left to right) Merrell Trail Glove, Skechers GoBionic, Reebok RealFlex, Saucony Excursion TR4

Different interpretations of “US size 9″ depending on the manufacturer: (From left to right) Merrell Trail Glove, Skechers GoBionic, Reebok RealFlex, Saucony Excursion TR4

These were my first pair of Skechers shoes of any type, and the sizing was a bit weird. I normally wear a US size 9, but I “scored” as an 8.5 when my foot was measured in-store. And while I had some extra room in front of my toes in the 8.5, I know from experience that I need at least a centimeter gap between the tip of my feet and the end of the shoe so I don’t get the dreaded “runner’s toe” (I’ve only recently grown out the deformed nail plates I developed after hiking through a spur trail in Arizona last year while wearing size 9 Adidas Response Trail 16s). Additionaly the toebox felt a bit restrictive laterally—my small toe couldn’t comfortably splay out—so, looking to err on the side of caution, I went with a size 9. (It’s because of experiences like this that I’m wary of buying running shoes online. There’s really no way to determine how well a shoe will fit and how it will feel until you actually try it on. Also, I wish running shoe stores had treadmills that customers can try running on while wearing potential purchases, because a shoe that fits and feels fine while standing, walking, and even doing some jumps and static running in place may sometimes turn out to be an entirely different beast altogether when actually running.)

The first thing I did once I got home was subject the shoes to my highly inaccurate manual test for shoe flexibility:

skechers_gobionic02

As you can see, the shoe is quite flexible, more flexible than supposedly minimalist, big-name offerings like the Nike Free or the Reebok RealFlex. All the foam in the midsole (Skechers’ proprietary “Resalyte” compound) makes it significantly less flexible than my usual minimalist running/training/hiking shoe, though, which is the Merrell Trail Glove:

trail_glove02

Trying to ball up a shoe with one hand is ultimately a meaningless, if interesting-looking, exercise unless you can actually contort your feet like a fleshy Fruit Roll-up. What’s important is that it didn’t take any effort on my part to flex the GoBionic through a range consistent with—and even exceeding—the natural range of motion of the human foot. And while I didn’t take a picture, the GoBionic also has great flexibility along its long axis. The GoBionic is also incredibly light. I don’t have a digital scale at home, but a casual comparison with the Trail Gloves (which weigh in at a little over 175 grams) makes me think that they probably weigh anywhere between 170 and 200 grams. (Checking the Skechers site, I found out that the size 9′s come in at a featherweight 170 grams!)

The reason I opted to pick up the GoBionic instead of another pair of Trail Gloves is because I do about half of my running on pavement these days, with the other half being runs on a nearby, none-too-technical trail. While the Trail Gloves are an excellent shoe option on any surface and are still my go-to training shoe, some days, I just want an easier workout where I can get a bit lazy with my forefoot/midfoot landing form, and the relatively cushioned-but-not-squishy midsole of the GoBionic (it has double the thickness of cushioning compound compared to the Trail Gloves) means I can get occasionally a little-but-not-too sloppy with my technique without worrying too much about the soles of my feet getting beat up too bad.

In terms of looks, I dig the understated appearance of the shoe and I like the fact that I can also wear the GoBionic with jeans as a casual, zero-drop, kick-around shoe, although there are a number of less traditional color variants for the more fashion-forward runner. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve worn flashy running shoes in the past—there was a time not too long ago when my favorite running shoe was the Puma XC in black and bright yellow—and I realize that many, if not most, runners love making fashion statements through their footwear. With many of the newest designs, however, it seems like that statement is “I’ve stepped in a bucket of melted crayons.” I mean, look at this random selection of shoes from a local retailer’s website:

friends_dont_let_friends_design_drunk

I’ve put in just a little under 20 kilometers on pavement in the GoBionic since I picked up the pair last week, and they’ve performed to my satisfaction for the most part. I don’t feel like the shoes are doing the work for me and I feel the same lower leg muscles being activated as the ones that I use when running with the Merrells, but my feet don’t feel as battered after running on extensive stretches of concrete and asphalt. I did develop a hotspot and even some minor abrasion on my right foot after my first run in them though, near where the fourth proximal phalanx meets the fourth metatarsal head. From what I could tell, this was caused by the lateral overlays on the shoe rubbing on that part of the foot during the toe-off/propulsive phase of my gait (odd that it doesn’t happen with my other foot), which itself is probably an effect of getting the shoes in size 9 rather than size 8.5. This problem disappeared after I re-laced the shoe to make it looser through the lower portion of the midfoot, though. Also, the cardstock-thin sockliners (the green material in the first set of pictures of GoBionic posted above) that come with the shoe have a tendency to bunch up after a while, which can be annoying on longer runs. They also stick to the bottoms of my feet (I run sockless for more perceptive ground-feel), so they come out like neon green vomit when I pull off the shoes and I have to reinsert them every time I wear the shoes. But like the hotspot issue, the sockliners aren’t really a problem: They’re easy enough to remove and the finished footbed underneath seems to indicate that the shoe was designed to be worn with or without the sockliners.

All in all, I’m pretty happy with the purchase, and I hope that the success of Skechers’ Go line of shoes means that controversies like the ones that plagued the Shape-Ups will be a thing of the past for the company going forward.

All this talk of running makes me wonder…

Where are all the running equipment/apparel and superhero comics tie-ins? I mean sure, companies like Skechers and Geox package original superhero comics with some of their kids shoes and children’s shoe manufacturer Stride Rite does sell an officially licensed Marvel Collection but you’d think major superhero comics publishers like DC and Marvel would have managed to partner up with big names in the running shoe industry like, say, Nike or Adidas or Asics and gotten some officially branded, superhero design-themed, competition/training-quality gear out there given how many superheroes count the ability to run pretty fast among their superpowers, how important licensing and merchandising is to the bottom-line of the superhero character business, and how much runners love to use races as an excuse to do cosplay. I mean, just look at the following pics that turned up after I did a quick Google Image Search for “marathon costumes”:

This full body track speed suit is practically an Alpha Flight costume (Canadian runner Tyler Christopher at the 2007 Pan American Games)

This full body track speed suit is practically an Alpha Flight costume (Canadian runner Tyler Christopher at the 2007 Pan American Games)

Paired Nike Dri-Fit or Adidas TechFit compression tights and long-sleeved compression tops designed to match the pattern of the various Flash and Quicksilver costumes, or even just competition-quality performance gear like singlets and shorts with various superhero-inspired prints seem to me like specialty products that would sell both to cosplay enthusiasts, runners, and the seemingly large intersection of the two groups. And despite what I wrote above about my preference for more conservative colors when it comes to running shoes, I’d be all over a pair of GoBionics with a red upper and yellow midsole with the Flash lightning sigil in place of the Skechers “S” logo. As it stands, it seems like the closest thing we have right now to a superhero design-themed performance running shoe is Puma’s BioWeb Elite, the ad campaign for which slyly suggests an unofficial Spider-Man connection.

And before any of you guys bring it up in the comments, yeah, I’m aware of the limited edition Marvel x Reebok Spider-Man Insta-Pump Fury that came out last year but it isn’t what I would call a performance running shoe—the Insta-Pump Fury may be described as a running shoe on most sites, but the next time I actually see somebody running/training in them will be the first, as it’s really an entry in the niche retro fashion sneaker market—although I do love the design printed on the removable sockliner/insole:

Marvel-x-Reebok-Insta-Pump-Fury-Spider-Man-insoles

On FUNimation’s Spice and Wolf

Spice and Wolf picI started watching FUNimation’s Spice and Wolf on YouTube last week, and I’ve just recently finished the first story-arc. Based on the light novel series written by Isuna Hasekura and illustrated by Jū Ayakura, it’s a show about the adventures of a traveling merchant in medieval Europe as he helps an anthropomorphic wolf-goddess make her way back to her home in the north of the continent. Oh, there’s some fanservice here and there (viewing the series on YouTube requires a Google or YouTube user ID sign-in to confirm viewer age), but it’s actually quite good and surprisingly unconventional in some ways. There’s not much in the way of the usual sword-and-sorcery violence one would expect in a fantasy-themed anime and there is quite the plot and dialogue focus on medieval trading: The first story-arc actually revolves around a mystery involving currency speculation and manipulation.

Beyond those unique characteristics, the characters are compelling and can be quite funny. The musical score by Yuji Yoshino (video gamers might be familiar with his work on the Suikoden series of games) is also a cut above a lot of made-for-TV anime fare, incorporating medieval and early Renaissance-styled flourishes that help establish the setting. While the episodes I watched were in the original Japanese with English subtitles, the clips I’ve seen of the English dub of the show sound surprisingly good, although how much of that is due to the performances of the voice talent and how much of it is due to better-than-average translation work is hard to judge from the limited number of samples I’ve been able to view.

Besides YouTube, Spice and Wolf can also be viewed on FUNimation.com and Blu-Ray/DVD collections of both the show’s seasons are also available.

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