The Boston Marathon and the Science of Long Distance Running

A Conversation with Stephen J. Moorman, PhD


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Tell us briefly about your experiences running the Boston Marathon.

The first time I ran Boston was in 1977.  It was my 3rd marathon.  At the time, the qualifying time was 3 hours and I had run a 2:59 in the “Last Chance Marathon” in Rome, NY.  At Boston, I remember running through Wellesley, where the street is lined by coeds all cheering and offering water to the runners, and I remember the infamous “Newton Hills”.  They aren’t very long and they aren’t very steep but they come at the wrong time in the race – around 20 miles when you are starting to feel the effects of having been running for more than 2 hours. I survived the hills and made it to the finish in 2:55 automatically qualifying for Boston the next year.  I ran Boston 3 more times, setting a personal best of 2:31:49 in 1980. That was the year that Rosie Ruiz ‘ran’ Boston.  I finished less than 10 seconds before Rosie crossed the finish line and was declared the winner of the women’s race only to be disqualified later after it was discovered that she had “cut” the course.  It was a memorable year.

How was your family personally affected by the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing?

My oldest son, Aren, is a junior at Lasell College in Newton, MA majoring in athletic training. Lasell College is located where the Boston Marathon takes the turn to head for the “Newton hills”.  The head athletic trainer at Lasell College is also the Medical Coordinator for the Boston Marathon. He had recruited Aren and 4 other athletic training students from Lasell College to work at the marathon.  Aren was assigned to the finish line.  He had a wheelchair and whenever he saw someone cross the finish line who looked like they needed medical attention he would take them to the medical tent.  Aren was on the opposite side of the finish line and about 100 yards from the bomb explosions.  At the time, I had no idea that anything had happened until Aren called and said “Dad, I wanted to let you know that I’m OK.”  Although they are meant to be reassuring, those are not the words that a parent wants to hear.  This was about an hour and a half after the bomb explosions.  When I asked why he felt the need to tell me that, he said; “You haven’t been watching the news have you? 2 bombs exploded at the finish line and we are being evacuated.”  Simultaneous feelings of panic and helplessness became the order of the day, at least for me.  Aren, on the other hand, had remained calm during the entire experience and continued to do his job – identify those in need of medical attention and transport them to the medical tent.  He continued until he was ordered to evacuate because as an athletic training student he was not considered an essential medical professional.

The bombing and the damage it caused was, of course, unexpected.  What type of injuries or health related issues are race organizers usually prepared to treat?

The types of issues that the medical teams usually have to deal with at running races include ankle and knee injuries, muscle cramps, exhaustion, dehydration, heat stroke, and in rare cases cardiovascular issues.  It is not unusual for medical teams at races to consist of ER doctors, EMTs and athletic trainers. Most races today might also have an ambulance on sight.  Because of the size and prominence of the Boston Marathon, there were numerous ambulances and teams of emergency personnel stationed at or near the finish line. Although the events and injuries were unexpected, the personnel on-site were not unprepared. The outcome that day would have been much worse had sufficient numbers of highly trained medical personnel not been on-site as the events unfolded.

During a long distance run, which part of the body has the most stress?  Hips?  Knees?  Ankles? 

The right knee, followed closely by the left knee. This is because most people start a race with their left foot on the line, which results in the right knee being weight bearing 1 more time than the left knee during the race.  All kidding aside, the knees are probably under more stress than any other joint.  Because of the way the foot strikes the ground and then rolls forward during an individual stride, the ankle is under significantly less stress than the knee.  In fact, many biomechanical issues with the foot or the ankle often have negative affects on the knee causing injuries.  However, any inconsistency in the running surface puts lateral stresses on the ankle, which is why ankle strains and sprains occur. 

Has footwear design contributed to or prevented injuries?

This is a really interesting question. Discounting the recent introduction of ‘more natural’ running shoes with individual toes and little if any support for the rest of the foot, footwear design improvements over the last 3 decades have probably reduced the incidence of injuries. Good running shoes should cup and cushion the heel of the foot, support the arch of the foot, and not constrict the ball of the foot.  The heel of the shoe should have adequate cushioning to prevent injury.  The heel of the shoe should also not allow the sole of the foot at the heel to spread out at heel strike.  This allows the fat pad in the heel of the foot to participate in cushioning the heel, helping to prevent bone injuries. The shoe should have adequate arch support to assist in maintaining the shape of the foot as the foot rolls forward from the heel to the ball of the foot during the running stride.  This helps to reduce the incidence of arch pain on the sole of the foot.  The front of the shoe should be wide enough to allow the entire sole of the foot to contact the inside of the sole of the shoe but not wide enough to allow side to side movement of the ball of the foot while standing.  There have been improvements in all aspects of shoe design, except arch support, over the last 3 decades.  Personally, I like more arch support than any running shoes provide and I think toe shoes are silly. In the last 42 years, I have had only 2 injuries that have kept me from running.  One I got rock climbing and the other while riding a bike. I like to think my running shoes have served me well.

How has scientific research into long distance running contributed to improved race times?

First, lets agree to ignore the 500 lb gorilla in the room - all of the contributions that scientific research has made to the development of performance enhancing drugs. The international sports federations have spent an inordinate amount of time, effort and resources in dealing with these contributions of the scientific community.
In long distance running the contributions that have had the greatest impact have been in nutrition, scientific approaches to training, and in biomechanics. Edwin Moses, a 400-meter intermediate hurdler, was one of the first to take a truly analytical approach to training and racing (see: Edwin Moses and the Engineering of World Records). His approach carried over easily to distance running. Personalized diets, training regimens and biomechanical analysis have become the standard for international runners in all events. The complete athlete also takes full advantage of the psychology community (for instance: The Athlete Warrior: 10 Principles for Becoming a Champion Part 1 ) in an attempt to gain even that last little contribution that might give them a competitive edge.

Times have changed since I last wore my racing shoes.

Stephen J. Moorman, PhD, is an Associate Professor in the Department of Neuroscience and Cell Biology and in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences at the Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. He teaches gross anatomy and embryology to medical and graduate students. His research interests in the past have included spinal cord regeneration, development of the vestibular apparatus in zebrafish, and the regulation of transcriptional noise in single cells.  His current research interest is the use of technology to enhance learning and assessment in medical education.  In addition to still being an avid runner, he is also an experienced rock climber, singer, and theatrical set designer.