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The great running experiment

Can the right preparation — from a cave-man diet to split-toed shoes to therapeutic tape — really make one person faster than another?

ON ANY GIVEN WEEKEND IN MARCH, runners fill the roads from Hopkinton to Boston. Some push through 20-plus milers with metronomic speed, following a pace set by their GPS watches. Others struggle through the Newton Hills at a slower clip, refueling with flavored gels and fruity energy chews. Some wear minimalist shoes and clothes that promise performance enhancement. Others throw on a T-shirt, shorts, and faded Red Sox cap. Some cover injured muscles with the stretchable Kinesio tape that so many 2012 Olympians sported. Others prefer the traditional post-run cures of massage and ice.

As the April 15 Boston Marathon nears, the race’s historic course is ground zero for the great experimentation that comes with tackling 26.2 miles. Runners search for anything that will get them to the finish line healthier, happier, and faster: new gear, new technology, new medical studies, new diets, new training philosophies. And that means the months leading up to race day can be filled with trial and error. And all the miles logged in preparation for marathons create giant feedback loops for every runner.

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“The allure of marathon running is that it’s an experiment of one,” says Ian Nurse, a chiropractor with Active Recovery Boston who holds a personal marathon record of 2:26:21. “I can tell you what works for me, but I’m not going to guarantee that [the same approach] works for you. The whole point of marathon training is to figure out what works for you. Every Sunday that you lace up for a long run, you should try a different pre-race meal, a different route, a different training group.”

Stay in the sport long enough, and much of the performance wisdom comes full circle. What’s old becomes new again. High-mileage training cycles go in and out of favor, so do coffee and obsessive high-tech tracking of runs.

When it comes to digesting new studies on running, two-time Olympian Ryan Hall, owner of a 2:04:58 marathon time, says, “I eat the meat and spit out the bones.” Translation: See what’s out there, then figure out what’s truly useful.

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And so the trial and error of marathon running, the endless pursuit of the next endurance-boosting food, the next injury-preventing accessory, the next recovery-accelerating product, goes on and on. A rundown of some of the latest thinking follows.

WHY BREAD IS THE ENEMY AND CAVE MEN ARE IN VOGUE

Eating for endurance

THE NIGHT BEFORE MAJOR MARATHONS, Ryan Hall fuels his body with brown-rice pasta and olive oil. While he no longer follows a strictly gluten-free diet, Hall still keeps his gluten intake low, most days loading up on rice products, sweet potatoes, and salmon rather than piles of bread and traditional pasta. And the fastest American marathoner is not alone in dietary habits that run contrary to popular carbo-loading routines. The pre-race pasta dinner isn’t dead. It just looks and tastes a little different, as gluten-free and Paleo diets become increasingly popular among marathoners.

Thomas B. Shea/Getty Images

Ryan Hall.

Most notably, a gluten-free diet excludes wheat products and many processed foods, but it allows meat, fish, beans, eggs, fruits, vegetables, and most dairy items. It is prescribed for people who suffer from celiac disease and gluten intolerance, roughly 7 percent of the population. So why is a gluten-free diet gaining followers in the distance-running community? Because gluten can cause inflammation, and inflammation is the natural enemy of athletes who push their bodies to the max. Plus, it’s estimated that 20 percent to 50 percent of runners suffer from gastrointestinal issues. And they eagerly try anything that might lessen stress on their digestive tracks.

“To me, it’s been explained as wheat is kind of a high-inflammatory food,” says Hall, who planned to run in this year’s Boston Marathon but dropped out in mid-March due to injury. “So your diet is a big part of controlling your inflammatory response in your muscles. I try to limit gluten more than when I was growing up and eating as much bread and pasta as possible.”

The Paleo diet is a close, more restrictive cousin to the gluten-free regimen — its followers strive to eat like cave men. Permitted foods are what hunter-gatherers ate in the Paleolithic era. Think meat, fish, produce, and nuts. No grains, legumes, or dairy products. Some endurance athletes swear by the hypersimplified approach that steers adherents to protein and healthy fats and lower carbohydrate consumption. But the nutritional logic may not be so simple.

“When you eat good, clean food, you feel better,” says Newton-based sports nutritionist and athlete Nancy Clark. “So for a lot of people that claim they have more energy and feel better, it might be in comparison to what they were doing before, which was hit-or-miss eating and grabbing whatever is available. They do feel better when they go Paleo. But is it Paleo, or is it that they’re just paying more attention to eating quality foods?”

Elite marathoner Stephanie Rothstein Bruce of Flagstaff, Arizona, who suffers from celiac disease, can’t just grab whatever is available. So when she packs for the Boston Marathon, Rothstein Bruce will bring plenty of gluten- and dairy-free Picky Bars. Since she started a strict gluten-free diet in the spring of 2010, her running career has taken off. And to help other athletes find nutritious gluten-free, dairy-free snacks, she cofounded Picky Bars with two other elite endurance athletes.

“You have to pay attention to how your body reacts to certain foods,” says Rothstein Bruce. “When I first heard gluten-free, I had no understanding of what that was going to do. But I can’t believe how much it has changed my life. It took me from a runner that was barely able to train to someone who thought I was capable of doing the things that I do now.”

See Ryan Hall’s pre-marathon diet.

CAN TOO MUCH OF A GOOD THING RUIN YOUR HEART?

Making sense of scientific guides

VERY LITTLE STOPS MARATHONERS in their tracks. They are storm-bravers and stoics, disciplined and determined souls. How else do you explain athletes who rise early on winter Sundays to run 20 miles or more? But recent studies have given distance runners pause, calling into question the wisdom of high-mileage training. Some scientific evidence suggests that logging lots of miles may cause heart damage, especially among older runners. Even more, an editorial that appeared last November in the British journal Heart argued that running-generated wear and tear on the heart cancels out the health benefits of exercise and increases the risk of scarring and a cardiac arrhythmia called atrial fibrillation.

In the wake of the report, one headline read, “Too many marathons can kill, warn doctors.” Another teased, “One Running Shoe in the Grave.”

Dr. Peter Libby, chief of cardiovascular medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and a recreational runner, says observational studies examining lifestyle and cardiovascular risk should be viewed with “a careful eye” because “they’re subject to a great deal of bias” with a lack of randomized, controlled trials.

STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images

Elite marathoner and Marblehead native Shalane Flanagan wears compression socks.

“The message for the public is that our problem as a society is not too much exercise,” says Libby, “it’s too little physical activity. The rule of thumb for most of us is everything in moderation.” And what about marathoners who may train more intensely than the average recreational runner? Libby says: “People who . . . do a couple marathons a year and don’t strive in the sixth decade of life to beat people in their 20s — they’re not going to be hurting themselves.”

A study recently published in the Journal of Experimental Biology reported that running mice have bigger midbrains, the control center for the body’s movement and its visual and auditory functions. Harvard professor and marathoner Daniel Lieberman, who studies human evolutionary biology, says, “There’s evidence that running long distances does make you smarter.” And the going hypothesis is that runners may have their hunting ancestors to thank. Evolution favored endurance running to help our ancestors hunt, but to hunt well you needed to track well.

Kinesio tape.

“Tracking requires a lot of cognition,” says Lieberman, who will be on the starting line in Hopkinton this year. “A hunter has to perceive and remember markers, clues in the landscape, and make sense of them. So when we’re running the Boston Marathon and feeling really smart, that could be because running is enhancing the cognitive functions that were really important for why we evolved to run in the first place: to hunt and track. Brains only started getting really big after we started running.”

As the mileage builds and race day nears, marathoners’ bigger brains worry more about injuries to their extremities. A throbbing knee, tightening Achilles’, or aching hamstring prompts runners to conduct their own medical research, turning their bodies into a testing ground for different therapeutic products. Some promise quick cures. Others are a last resort. Compression socks and Kinesio tape are two that should be visible during April’s Boston Marathon.

Compression socks.

Compression socks have become something of a trademark for elite marathoner Shalane Flanagan. The Olympic bronze medalist and Marblehead native started wearing the knee-high tight-fitting socks to keep her calves warm as she dealt with an Achilles’ problem. This was long before what Flanagan, a three-time Olympian, calls “the big compression craze” that has swept running in recent years. Now, with studies showing the socks promote both better blood flow and quicker recovery from tough workouts, compression gear can be found covering the legs of elites and amateurs. Some outfitters even make full-body compression suits intended to speed recovery while runners sleep.

Flanagan wears her compression socks during most workouts and most races. “It’s very natural for me. I feel like I’m preventing injuries by wearing them and staying warm.”

Kinesio tape offers considerably less coverage, but athletes still swear by its healing powers. During the London Olympics, it seemed Kinesio tape was everywhere, often in bright, patriotic color combinations. Runners use the stretchy cotton tape to treat injured, strained, or sore muscles. Crisscrossing body parts in sometimes intricate patterns, the tape reportedly works by lifting the skin and letting inflammation-causing fluids clear out of muscles and joints, though the opinions of medical experts vary on its effectiveness. Ian Nurse, the Boston chiropractor, reports seeing “great results on my patients.”

HIGH-ALTITUDE SIMULATORS PROLIFERATE, SHOES DO A SPLIT

Testing out endlessly evolving gear

Kara Goucher has tried all the futuristic training aids and all the newest gear.

WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP BRONZE MEDALIST and two-time Olympian Kara Goucher, a contender for the 2013 Boston Marathon women’s title, has tried all the futuristic training aids, all the newest gear: AlterG treadmill that lets injured runners train at a fraction of their natural body weight. Check. SpiroTiger Respiratory Endurance Trainer. Check. Portable high-altitude simulation machine. Check. Now she describes herself as a “high-tech addict in recovery.”

“I’ve definitely gotten back to more old-school running — get a good pair of shoes and just run,” says Goucher, who set a personal best of 2:24:52 at the 2011 Boston Marathon. “It’s more of an organic approach of how I’m feeling, how my arms feel, how my knee lift feels. I just try to get more in tune with myself. So, I’ve kind of gone from one extreme to the other.”

No athletic subculture does extremes better than marathoners, and when it comes to running gear and training aids, they often seem to vacillate between old-fashioned and natural and high-tech and hyperscientific.

Topo Athletic’s split-toed shoe.

The parade of runners in the 2013 Boston Marathon will include gadget-obsessed athletes striding shoulder to shoulder with runners who don’t bother with gadgets and get as close to barefoot running as they can in minimalist shoes. The popular stripped-down footwear, the kind that studies claim helps athletes run with more natural mechanics, comes in many varieties. The latest is a split-toed shoe, one version of which is made by Topo Athletic, a new company based in Newton.

Flanagan, who also will vie for the women’s title in Boston, says that at some future marathon she may race in the lightweight Nike Flyknit shoe, which features an upper tightly woven from polyester yarn and which fits as snugly as a sock. Before committing to the shoe, she wants to try out the newest version and make sure it doesn’t stretch out during long runs.

Goucher does still use one gadget from her high-tech days: a GPS watch. Typically, she relies on her Nike+ sportwatch a couple of times a week to track mileage and pace accurately. At her current high-altitude training base in Monument, Colorado, Goucher covers unfamiliar routes with training partner Flanagan, so they use the watch more often to track distance, speed, and elevation.

Nike Flyknit shoe.

“It helps us to get a split every mile and know how fast we’re running,” says Goucher, who along with Flanagan is sponsored by Nike. “Maybe we’re up high at altitude and we’re running 6:50 [minutes per mile], and we think that feels hard, but really we need to be more at 6:30. . . . For someone like me who loves numbers, I relish those long runs where I get to use it. I’ll admit I get excited when I plug it into my computer and it spits out all the data.”

When home in Portland, Oregon, Goucher and Flanagan try to maintain some of the benefits of Colorado’s elevation by spending 14 hours a day in high-altitude tents. Artificial high-altitude tents or rooms have become a must-have for elite endurance athletes who live close to sea level. The thin air found in high-altitude environments challenges a runner’s cardiovascular system, forcing it to acclimate in ways that change blood chemistry, distribute oxygen more efficiently to muscles, and improve performance. Goucher’s entire bedroom is sealed off and set to high-altitude oxygen levels, while Flanagan’s tent encapsulates her bed. Flanagan says time inside is “kind of like camping.”

Goucher’s entire bedroom is sealed off and set to high-altitude oxygen levels, while Flanagan’s tent encapsulates her bed.

“If you’re not in there enough, it really doesn’t have much of an effect,” says Flanagan, who owns a marathon personal best of 2:25:38. “But we’ve seen our blood results [after extended time in the tents], and it’s similar to what happens when you go to altitude.”

With high-tech help and first-hand experience running the Boston Marathon route, Flanagan and Goucher have mapped out a course in Colorado that mimics the Newton Hills. “We’ll be doing most of our up-tempo long runs from here on out on that course,” says Goucher. Then, on race day, they’ll put everything to the final test.

LONG-DISTANCE RUNNERS ARE LONELY NO MORE

Competing with friends via social media

TRAINING FOR HER 21ST MARATHON (and sixth Boston), Kristina MacPherson logs high mileage around Hopkinton. Most days, her husband, Chris, who will make his marathon debut in Boston in April, joins in as a welcome training partner. But the MacPhersons’ support system stretches far beyond their hometown of Hopkinton. After the couple complete a long run, Kristina often receives congratulations from the West Coast. Thanks to Strava.com, friends in California can follow Kristina and Chris as they prepare for the big race.

Strava

Social media are quickly making the loneliness of the long-distance runner a thing of the past. Now the larger running community comes together long before and long after race day with performance-tracking apps, tweeted training runs, and virtual personal coaches.

“Moving back east from San Francisco, I’ve been more of a solo runner,” says Kristina. “But I have friends who are part of Strava. I follow them, and they follow me. After you do a long run, you’re able to give each other kudos, high-fives, and comments. That keeps you energized about what you’re trying to do.”

The Strava Run app lets marathoners track training runs via iPhone, Android, or other GPS devices, then “compete” against themselves or other runners by comparing data. Virtual medals and trophies are awarded for personal records and top times on popular routes. The post-run readouts can cover everything from pace per mile to elevation to heart rate to calories burned. The idea is the more feedback you get, the better your training plan and race strategy will be. And the more data-sharing among users, the more motivation for everyone. The brains behind Strava call it “social fitness.”

Runkeeper

Chris MacPherson likes that Strava lets him compare how the elevation changes on his training runs stack up against those of Heartbreak Hill. “The more I play with it, the more I learn,” says Chris, who figures he’s well prepared for Boston based on what Strava tells him. Strava is one of many social media options and apps — including RunKeeper, miCoach, Ghost Race, and UltraTimer — vying for distance runners’ attention.

The Boston Athletic Association itself, which organizes the Boston Marathon, will launch its own free app designed for both runners and spectators the first week of April. It will let users track up to 10 runners on race day, receive elite athlete information, and link to the BAA’s photo galleries, Web page, YouTube, and social media channels. Other features will include race-day information for participants, facts, course maps, a news feed from baa.org, and event calendar. Down the road, the BAA may enhance its app with training tools.

“We’re basically delivering race data through a new medium and engaging with our runners in the palm of their hands, which is something we haven’t been able to do before,” says T.K. Skenderian, the BAA’s marketing and sponsorship manager.

For races and race organizers, social media are a mixed blessing. In 2012, on race weekend, the BAA mounted an online and social media campaign that alerted Boston Marathon entrants to the dangers of running in 80-degree-plus temperatures and outlined deferment options. Other races use social media to drive participation in training programs, making for better prepared marathoners and safer events. But when races go awry or when entry fees soar, the running community on social media truly comes alive.

If you visit virtual gathering places for marathoners, though, it’s clear they value training feedback and race advice more than the ability to sound off. They want tips for lining up in the Hopkinton start corrals, for tackling Heartbreak Hill, for finishing strong down Boylston Street. Above all, whether using social media or training apps, they want a competitive advantage, a nugget of information that will help them cover 26.2 miles. Many runners “are inherently competitive, and social media helps accommodate some of that behavior,” says Green Bay marathon director Sean Ryan, who will be assisting with the gear check in Hopkinton. “It gives them the feedback that they crave.”

NEXT-GEN RACE BIBS

ANOTHER CLEVER USE of existing technology may help runners get race-day feedback even more quickly. Some events like the Green Bay, Miami, Houston, and Marine Corps marathons are experimenting with QR codes on race bibs. And many more runners soon may skip results tents, scan their personal QR codes, and receive an almost instantaneous official breakdown of their performance.

Shira Springer, a Globe sports reporter, has run 11 marathons and is training for her next one. Send comments to springer@globe.com.

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