Nice coverage of a super company
Someone forwarded a link to me today for an article written on August 9. That’s old news now, but it is a wonderful article about a company doing some great work. The article is here, and I am republishing it here in its entirety, just in case it disappears from NBC’s Olympics web site.
One note of bias – this company is in the portfolio of my venture fund, so I am pre-disposed to like it!
It’s good to have credit cards, and a G-Trainer treadmill
For the last half dozen years, the training toy of choice among world-class distance runners has been the altitude tent or altitude chamber. You climb in at night, dial the altitude up to about 8,000 feet, and eight hours later awake with visions of beating Kenyans and Ethiopians. Or at least keeping them in sight.
This Olympics, the new de rigueur training device is a space-age monster called the G-Trainer treadmill. The USOC considered bringing one to China, but it took up so much space and poundage (about 1000 pounds) that they opted instead for those carbon-filter face masks. Let’s not knock the G-Trainer though. It costs $75,000–which means, at last, a genetic advantage for we Westerners. We were born to shop!
Price aside, the G-Trainer is the most significant advance in training equipment for distance runners in the last half century. I felt this way almost immediately when I first heard about it two years ago. And I was slow out of the starting blocks. By the time I learned about the G-Trainer, from Alter-G Inc. of Menlo Park, California, Alberto Salazar had already issued two Nike purchase orders for his athletes and other Nike-sponsored runners. Among them: Kara and Adam Goucher, Dathan Ritzenhein, and Shalane Flanagan, just for starters. Last March, before her well-publicized stress fracture, Paula Radcliffe bought a G-Trainer and had it installed in her high-altitude home in France. Life is good with lots of credit cards.
The G-Trainer is a literal development of space-age research. NASA wanted a way to help weightless astronauts exercise and maintain their bone health. For this, the orbiting pilots needed a treadmill that somehow increased their weight. While messing around with this problem, a researcher named Rob Whalen came up with the opposite: a treadmill that decreases your body weight. It does this by wrapping you, from the waist down, in an airtight bag that also encircles the entire lower part of the treadmill. When high-pressure air is pumped into this bag, you body weight effectively decreases. The more air you pump in, the lighter you get.
This has two big advantages for runners. First, if you’re rehabbing after an injury or trying to increase your weekly mileage–these two groups combined amount to 100 percent of known runners–the G-Trainer lets you do it with less pounding. You’re still running, but you’re not getting beat up. Second, as you get lighter, you can run faster. This has its appeal, as the only way to get faster as a runner is by actually running faster. It’s elementary, Watson.
Ritzenhein is a particularly good ad for the G-Trainer, says Tom Allen, a company spokesperson whom I spoke with recently. “Dathan’s a guy with so much talent, but he’s had injury issues,” notes Allen. “The G-Trainer helps him balance things out in his training. He can do more without breaking down.”
Allen was also the guy who flew to France to make sure Radcliffe’s treadmill was working properly. In the buildup to next Sunday’s women’s marathon, her story is one of the headliners. Everyone knows about her DNF in Athens four years ago. Everyone knows she’s had a host of problems this year, and seemed a highly unlikely starter in Beijing. But she’s here now and apparently ready to give it a go. We’ve also been hearing stories about the massive amounts of cross-training Radcliffe’s done to substitute for her normal high mileage. A lot of it has apparently been water work, but water’s a poor substitute for asphalt. Yes, you can train hard and get in fantastic shape. But it’s not land-running, and never will be.
Neither is the G-Trainer but it comes a heck of a lot closer. In a just published article in the Journal of Applied Biomechanics, two University of Colorado researchers found that the G-Trainer permitted “multiple running speed and weight combinations that demanded the same metabolic power.” Translation: An injured runner like Radcliffe could lower her effective weight (to protect her healing stress fracture), run faster than normal, and get a workout equivalent to her normal weight and normal pace. That’s a powerful effect.
It’s not the real deal, but it has two substantial benefits, one physical and one mental. First, running at race pace or faster provides an important neuromuscular stimulus. No matter if you’re running on the moon, your legs and brain are still becoming attuned to a certain leg turnover. Practice makes perfect; you can find your groove. Second, imagine what it does for your confidence to see those fast times on the treadmill display? An injured runner is a mental train wreck, and a train wreck can’t get back on the rails when the start gun sounds. The G-Trainer could go a long way to averting this problem. I guess we’ll know more next Sunday when the obviously under-prepared Radcliffe runs her second Olympic Marathon.
Allen points out that all three members of the U.S. women’s 10,000-meter team are G-Trainer fans, or have at least used one when they needed it: Shalane Flanagan, Kara Goucher, and Amy Yoder Begley. All three also had foot surgeries performed by Amol Saxena, DPM, of Palo Alto, California. He’s the one who first told Salazar about the treadmill, and remains a big supporter of its rehabilitation and training benefits.
Ultimately, Alter-G is targeting hospitals and orthopedic centers as its primary market. Football and basketball teams are already buying the thing to help rehab their gargantuan players, who definitely need some weight-relief when getting their banged up legs back in motion. But health clubs and other running groups will also buy G-Trainers, I imagine, and figure out a way to spread the cost across many runners.
One last success story: Shannon Rowbury missed last year’s track season with a hip stress fracture that sounds similar to Radcliffe’s recent problem. When she hit the comeback trail, she did a lot of her running on the G-Trainer. This season, she’s improved her 1500-meter PR by 12 seconds and now has a chance at winning a medal in Beijing.