The Ethics of Defying Gravity

Maybe it’s my age (I’m 40 this year). Or the fact that I came to running later in life and my body is still adapting. Whatever the cause, I tend to get injured on an annoyingly frequent basis. After running a successful half marathon race at Napa to Sonoma, I managed to strain my high hamstring just days later. I’m working on achieving a fast marathon time at the upcoming Ventura Marathon on September 7, so — as it probably seems to most people whenever they get injured — the timing could not have been worse. The very next week was to be the start of an almost 90 mile training effort. How could I possibly do the daily double-digit easy runs let alone the speedwork or the long run/tempo run combo that my training plan required on a bum hamstring? Enter the Alter G.

I’ve been seeing the fantastic folks over at the San Diego Running Institute (SDRI) since my calf injury in May. One of the most frustrating aspects of dealing with medical professionals as a runner is that most of the time they just advise taking weeks off coupled with physical therapy. SDRI is different, and encourages runners to continue doing what they love to the extent they are able to without exacerbating the injury. For me, that meant continuing to run on easy days at whatever pace my body dictates as acceptable. I was surprised to find that my body could indeed handle the stress of running at a slightly modified easy pace even the day after my hamstring injury. Granted, this injury was much milder than my calf tear had been, so the program could be a little more aggressive. As runners, though, isn’t that just what we want when injured: to be able to continue doing the maximum running possible while minimizing the risk of further damage?

Off to one side of the SDRI clinic is an area dedicated to a unique kind of treadmill called an Alter G. I had been intrigued about this from the moment I saw it, but now I had a reasonable excuse to check it out (and justify paying the associated cost). I was told that it would be perfect for the intervals and tempo runs I had planned, work which would be all but impossible otherwise until further healing took place. I quickly scheduled my time. The idea of losing a week of faster runs this close to the marathon was distressing, even depressing. Here, in all its glory, was a solution.

The Alter G works in ways best explained by the folks who invented it, but essentially, it allows you to run in a pressurized air chamber from the waist down, which has the effect of reducing your body weight and allowing for much lower physical stress when running. When the day came, I stepped into the modified wet-suit style shorts, into the chamber, and zipped in. Since my intent was to run for injury rehab rather than as a supplement to regular training, my weight was reduced to about 70% of normal (I think many people run at closer to 90%+ for regular training benefits). The chamber filled with air, and I felt as though I was being lifted up. When I started running, it was nothing less than extraordinary.

My intervals called for a two-mile warm up, 10x 1k repeats at about a 5:45 pace (with two min rest), and a 2-3 mile cool down. As I started the first interval, it quickly became apparent that I was going to need to increase the pace substantially. It was just too easy. I finally settled on a 5:27 pace, but only because this was the maximum leg turnover I felt comfortable with given the injury, even with the reduced weight. Cardiovascularly speaking, I may as well have been running a 10 min mile. My mouth was closed, my breathing normal. I could converse fully. In that respect, it was not a particularly noteworthy or productive workout. On the other hand, below the waist, my legs were spinning at a pace I would not normally be able to hold for 800s, let alone 1k. It took a little focus, but within a few seconds I got into the rhythm and it felt great. My legs had an amazing workout, even if my heart and lungs were missing out on the action.

Tomorrow, I’m going to do the long run with the tempo segment. This involves running 22 miles, with the first 12 and last two at an easy effort and the middle eight at tempo pace. Since the tempo portion won’t require the same kind of leg turnover as Wednesday’s speed workout, I’m thinking I’ll probably be able to run it on a greater body weight in order to try to tax the cardio systems a little more. I’ll have to adjust on the day based on how it all feels, but one thing I know for sure is that I’ll be able to run the tempo portion much faster than my normal pace.

Since my time on the Alter G is a temporary measure, intended to allow my training to continue while injured, and since my maximum leg turnover is limited by the injury even with reduced weight, I feel (mostly) comfortable that I’m not crossing into an ethical grey zone in using it. It did make me think, though, that if I had the resources and the inclination to routinely use this machine while perfectly healthy, I am quite sure it would have a dramatically positive effect on my running ability. Quickly. At the same time, would doing so be fair?

A tangled set of arguments can be made. The Alter G is widely available, albeit at a cost, to many runners across the country willing to seek it out (I drive a 2.5 hour round trip to use mine). Its use is not banned by any athletic association I’m aware of. Many pros use them — most famously, Alberto Salazar and the runners of the Nike Oregon Project. The technology uses the physics of air pressure to assist running. Regular old air. What could be more pure than that? Still, it confers a distinct advantage to those who use it, something I believe is only fully appreciated when a runner actually tries the machine and experiences how profoundly easier running becomes. It’s expensive (even on an hourly use basis), but so are many things that runners regularly use, such as special recovery drinks, and shoes, and, yes, even coaching services — things they believe offer them an advantage over the choices of other runners. Some of these may be only as effective as placebos, but undoubtedly some do confer an edge. In this way, we are lying to ourselves if we think the playing field is ever truly even.

The upshot is that when I first experienced the instantly gratifying, wondrous, weightless sensation of the Alter G, I fell deeply, madly in love. If you just close your eyes, it feels like everything running is supposed to be. It is effortless, flowing, fast, and powerful. It wasn’t until I was driving home in my car that doubt about the ethics of using it started to creep in. As with many things this thorny, I don’t think there is any one right answer, but I’m curious to know what others think.

Has anyone else tried the Alter G? Whether you’ve tried it or not, what do you think about the philosophical implications of using it?

Alter G shot


10 thoughts on “The Ethics of Defying Gravity

  1. Pingback: Daily News, Tue, Aug 5

  2. I fail to see what ethics to which you are referring. From the argument you suggest, it follow that no rehab services should be implemented. It doesn’t give any unfair advantage; it is a rehab tool. The machine doesn’t provide enough stimulus to replace running–the very reason you were able to use it in the first place with your hamstring injury.

    • Hi Guy,

      Thanks for your comment. I wrote the piece because I’m truly interested in what people think. Some, like you, may see no issue at all, and that’s fine! Like I said, my issue is not so much with using it as a rehab tool — frankly I’m thrilled it’s available. Rather, I wonder more about the ethics of using it when NOT injured at all. Essentially, it allows an artificial situation in which a runner can run more or faster than they would ordinarily be able to do and therefore, presumably, improve faster. The sport is not generally a fan of artificial performance enhancers, so it gives me pause. You?

  3. Unfortunately it really is that “grey area” since it isn’t available to everyone. But then again, time is a grey area and so are shoes. There are a lot of people out there who just don’t have time to train (maybe they work multiple low income jobs), but could be great runners. Does that mean no one else should be allowed to train 20 hours a week?

    I combine my training with my commute by pedaling roughly 20 hours a week. Ideal? No. But it is my only option in life right now, and still better training then I had a couple of years ago.

    • Thanks for the comment Josh! I think run or bike commuting is a great way to get in extra training. It’s all about being creative to fit it all in.

      I’m glad it’s not just me who sees a possible grey area here! I tend to be a person who worries (too much?) about stuff like this where a lot of people might not see an issue. It IS totally ‘legal’ to use the Alter G and I’m not suggesting otherwise, but I guess ultimately we each need to be guided by our own moral compass.

      • Morals are for losers (just ask Lance!). If you are insanely competitive, then you will hear the line of “If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying!”

        It is difficult to reconcile that idea if you have morals. So the only grey area that really exists to me is the area of “The rules don’t say anything about…”

        As long as you follow the rules as written, then your integrity is safe.

      • I suppose you’re right — that’s why the rules exist: to protect against those whose moral compass is skewed the other way! Still, it was such an amazing experience, and my track workouts definitely benefitted even from the short time I used it for rehab. Legality aside, the fact remains that half of me wants one in the garage and the other half of me is really uncomfortable with that!!

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