Tuesday, September 27, 2022

subsurface science

There are three types of runners, he likes to say. “You’re the injured runner,” begins John Mercer, “you’ve got runners who are going to recover from injury, and you’ve got runners who are going to get injured.”

The kinesiology and nutritional science professor smiles intentionally, his grin twice as long as a rim-shot. He’s been there – and so he’s here.

Flashback to the late ’80s: Alf was still on prime time, bangs were big enough to endanger low-flying planes, and a young John Mercer worked as a lifeguard at Hofstra University in his native New York. was doing. A multisport athlete, Mercer was battling a knee injury from running at the time (see: above). He saw a man running in the pool. “I talked with him about what he was doing, and it put me in the direction of running in the water,” Mercer said.

Decades later, he has devoted a good part of his academic career to researching ways in which athletes can perform better in the water, improving wetsuit technique, and using underwater walking for training and rehabilitation. By studying how they can use water to perform better.

“In the beginning, the question I was asking was a very theoretical question: Why do we run the way we run? Why do I run the way I run?” Mercer said. “It’s interesting not just from the theoretical understanding of the movement, but also, how do you help someone run better? How do you help someone run injury-free?”

Kinesiology and nutritional science professor John Mercer works with student Jack Binder on ongoing research in deep water. (Josh Hawkins/UNLV)

an iron-clad truth

Ask Mercer how many Ironman triathlons he’s participated in and he’ll have to stop to actually do the math. “I feel like I’m 18,” he notes on the notoriously grueling run, which includes a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bicycle ride, and a 26.22-mile run. Mercer has competed in triathlons since the mid-’80s, when he first competed in the American Steamship Triathlon in Buffalo. He has done over 100 of them.

His passion for triathlon directly informs his research – and vice versa. “I love researching the questions I want to know the answers to 24, in this case, why does running in deep water work?” Mercer said. “I asked this question in the early ’90s, and I’m still trying to tease out the exact details 20, 30 years later.”

Mercer joined UNLV in 1999 after graduating from Buffalo State University in New York, a master’s degree from the University of North Texas, and a doctorate from the University of Oregon. In 2002, he launched UNLV’s Biomechanics Laboratory, with equipment worth a few thousand dollars. In the two decades since, Mercer collaborated frequently with Kenji Masumoto, an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology at Kyushu University in Japan, who did his postdoctoral work at UNLV.

Studies of running primarily in deep water, where the feet never touch the bottom of the pool, have focused on how active the muscles are and how they are being coordinated in this context.

“One of the key messages we’ve been able to promote is that in order to be successful in water running, you need to exercise harder on water than on land,” Mercer said. What they discovered in their research was that by working hard in the water, the muscles begin to coordinate in a similar way to those on land, without the risk of overuse injury to you on land. It has practical applications for both rehabilitation and training purposes.

“The other thing I talk to with athletes is that you may be able to supplement your run mileage by running in the water and adding extra miles to the training program,” Mercer said. “With every mile you add to your training program, you increase your risk of overuse injury. So instead of increasing the impact load you’re likely to experience on land running, add some more time to water running .

device is the culprit

The deaths were worrying. A little over a decade ago, there was a series of triathlon-related deaths. “The pattern was that the deaths were occurring in the swim section,” Mercer said. “It caught my eye because being in the triathlon world, I was drawn to it. We started looking at the effect of a wetsuit on blood pressure and then got to core temperature.

This inspired one of Mercer’s graduate students to do his thesis on the effect of wearing a wetsuit on blood pressure. “What was inspired by that study was that buying a wetsuit was common advice for triathletes,” says Mercer. “And the anecdotal advice was, ‘If it doesn’t sound tight, it’s too big.’ What we were able to demonstrate was that being too tight of a wetsuit could affect the lowering of blood pressure.”

In addition to his research on underwater running, Mercer has spent a lot of time delving into wetsuit technology, investigating how clothing can be made both safer and more efficient.

“We continue to talk about how a wetsuit can be changed to be able to have features that are helpful for performance,” he said, “but then make it more comfortable because not everyone does a triathlon.” I’m trying to go faster – sometimes they just need to be more comfortable, and that’s how they’re going to go faster.”

Mercer entered the world of education in the late ’80s by volunteering for a research study involving cyclists at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, becoming fascinated by the process. Thirty years later, he has come full circle. “I got involved in academia because I attended as a subject,” he says. “Now, I’m studying, and hoping to inspire someone else when they’re a subject. It’s a neat thing to do.”

Learn more: Evidence-Based Triathlete Podcast

Listen to the weekly podcast The Evidence-Based Triathlete with kinesiology professor John Mercer and Ted Giroud, program director for UNLV’s athletic training program. The two discuss the science of triathlons and how to hit the start line injury-free.


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