First, the data were exceptionally well-described by the power laws. The relationships were clean and tight, the way we like to see them in science. They were what we call “beautiful”. We call them beautiful not just because the graphs are pretty (and to scientists, graphs like that are indeed pretty), but because such strong relationships promise strong explanations.
Second, Nancy was completely unable to find anything like her research in the athletic or physiological literature. Apparently, no other scientist had ever asked the question the way she had, and no one had ever seen anything like those power laws. Nancy’s discovery qualified as something new to science - - this was a remarkable achievement for an undergraduate student.
The third thing is much more difficult to describe, and I can only sketch it for you here. Nancy had expected power laws in the first place because she expected running speed to be governed systematically by physiological processes. Seeing different power laws for men and women was not surprising, but the fact that it took three power laws to describe the full range of distances from the shortest sprint to the longest ultramarathon strongly suggests that different physiological processes govern running speed in the three ranges of distance. The interpretation Nancy developed was fascinating, because she did identify three mechanisms, each relating to lactic acid and lactate burn.
It would be far beyond our scope here to explore Nancy Martin’s explanation in detail, but you can read a longer version of this story on my website. The point here is simply to drive home the idea that lactate burn comes with the territory when we push our physical limits, whether we are climbing long flights of stairs, expending extreme effort for several minutes in a downhill race, or spending 3 weeks of sustained effort in the Tour de France bicycle race. Or carving rocks.
Although every aspect of creating stone sculptures is supremely enjoyable, it is no walk in the park in terms of physical effort. It’s a lot of work, from the first stages of shaping with a hammer and chisel, a big pneumatic hammer, or a heavy electric saw to the final stages of sanding. Any professional sculptor who needs to finish one piece and get on to the next knows lactate burn and knows how important it is to manage it.
Here in this image, I am in the last day of sanding on Red Recursion, in travertine, after a couple of weeks of all-day-every-day sanding with coarser abrasives. In earlier stages of sanding, the object is to tune the form by removing material, and then to smooth the surface by taking off the bumps. That requires pressure and speed, both of which generate lactate burn. Late-stage sanding is more about precise adjustments than ‘moving stone’, but precise control of working muscles also generates lactate burn.
Photo by David Shackleton.
In both cases, it is important to manage the burn and keep it tolerable. Because lactic acid builds up in muscles when they are working so hard they don’t get enough oxygen, two obvious controls are to breathe harder or work slower. The former happens automatically, but the latter is uneconomical - - I don’t have time left in my life to work slower. How to control lactate burn and still keep up the pace?
The best way is to spread the effort out among more muscles. I could have performed the action shown in the image by standing upright and using just wrist action. But that would have been a killer. The lactic acid would have been concentrated in just a few muscles in my forearm, I couldn’t have sustained the work, and I would have gotten tennis elbow to boot. Instead, I assumed a posture that at the same time gave more control and engaged my entire arm, shoulders, back, and legs. Spreading the effort out like that keeps the lactate burn tolerable in any one muscle, allows me to keep working longer and faster, and also affords much greater control.
Painting by Perrin Sparks.
But enough about me. Those of you with tickets or TV have the Olympics to watch and I have rocks to carve. But remember to get out there yourself, work your body, and experience the exquisite pain of lactate burn. it’s good for you to push yourself like that.
Happy Valentine’s Day.
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