Runners high: Running in Space

Apart from running, the only other thing that excites me is science fiction and space sagas – others may not admit to it, but I am not ashamed to say I have been through all episodes of Babylon 5, Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek. I am currently indulging myself watching the latest series of Star Trek called Discovery. The moment I first fell in love with the new series was when I noticed that the corridors of the Discovery spaceship are filled with joggers night and day! How cool is that? In fact, the main character, Michael Burnham seemed to do this often – perhaps as a way to fill the time and cope with her outsider status on the Discovery. (In case you have no clue what I’m talking about, she plays the role of a famous mutineer and Federation prisoner, released only temporarily to serve the war effort between humans and the Klingon race.) I agree with Michael Burnham, running can often feel like therapy for the soul.

The 6th episode in the series finds Burnham joined in her morning jog by her room mate and mentee, Cadet Tilly, who is determined to one day become a Starfleet captain. According to Burnham, the path to a captain’s chair begins with a fitness commendation. I can’t help but agree with Burnham on this – fitness would be an important asset for any member of Starfleet — you never know when you’ll need to run from an angry Klingon, or Borg troops threatening to assimilate your crew!

My favourite moment is when Burnham says to Tilly, pushing her that extra bit “See your path, stay on it, reach your destination: cadet to captain, just like that. What’s it going to be, Tilly?”

It reminds me of what Oprah said about running: “Running is a metaphor for life because you get out of it what you put into it.” Another quote I like is from Arthur Blank and it perfectly resonates with how I feel about running: “I run because it’s so symbolic of life. You have to drive yourself to overcome the obstacles. You might feel that you can’t. But then you find your inner strength, and realize you’re capable of so much more than you thought.”

This particular episode also made me curious about the practicalities of running on a ‘real’ spaceship where astronauts have to put up with being in a zero gravity environment for prolonged periods.

I’m sure most of us runners clearly remember when British astronaut Tim Peake decided to run the London Marathon in space in April 2017. It took him about three hours and 30 minutes to complete it on the treadmill, whilst circling the Earth two and half times at an altitude of 250 miles (400 km) high. Impressive!

I found out that running is actually one of the exercises that astronauts are encouraged to do on a daily basis to keep fit and to mitigate damage caused to bones and muscles from living in micro-gravity.

Naturally, there are a unique set of challenges that they need to overcome until we catch up with the technology on Discovery…

Staying on the treadmill

Astronauts use a special harness to prevent them from floating off the treadmill. This bulky harness goes over their shoulders and around  their hips. This harness is then attached with clips or hooks to a set of bungee cords on the treadmill. This fools the legs into thinking they have gravity pulling them into the ground. Astronauts’ feet otherwise would not feel the force of their bodyweight in space. The nerve endings on their feet tend to go dormant whilst in space – the bottom of their feet actually start to tingle when they step onto the treadmill after a few days of not running!

Astronauts can choose how much of an impact they want to take by adjusting the straps that keep them in place to have more or less slack. More loading is more challenging, they describe it like trying to run with a heavy and clumsy rucksack. Astronauts need to combine the right speed and the right loading to make their run challenging but not too uncomfortable!

Avoiding causing damage to the delicate structure of the space station

The treadmill  itself is on a vibration-isolation system, so the runner doesn’t impart heavy loads on to the space station’s structure.

Pre-run fuelling

When we eat on Earth, food has weight, so it sits at the bottom of our stomach. However, in a micro-gravity environment it floats around. This means that astronauts need to consider their pre-run meal carefully, and need to avoid eating too close to the run itself or during the run. They also need to be careful not to eat too much before longer treadmill runs.

Sweating

In space, sweat behaves differently as it has no weight. Astronauts get a thin layer of sweat that just covers their arms and their neck and their head. The sweat may pool up around their eye sockets, for example. It sticks to the skin, so astronauts like to keep a towel close by to wipe off excess sweat.

Astronauts may also find themselves getting sweatier than usual due to the fact that the space station’s temperature is around 23C.

Ventilation and CO2

All the gases in the air are the same weight. While on Earth the air we breathe out is warmer than that we breathe in and so disperses away, this doesn’t happen in space. To stop an accumulation of carbon dioxide around the runners, the space ship needs good ventilation – so the treadmill room should be well ventilated.

Given how much I love running outdoors, I don’t think I could cope with being in such a confined environment for very long! However, there are times when the weather is not co-operating with our plans. In those situations it is always good to hop on a treadmill as the second best option to fit our workout in. To finish off this blog post, here is a fun treadmill workout that you can try if you get stuck indoors (or decide to become an astronaut and end up on the International Space Station one day):-

Bonus: Structured ‘Space’ Fartlek Workout

This is a great workout to help you build endurance and speed. The intervals get shorter, so try to increase the speed on each one! The treadmill is perfect for this session because you can easily set your speed and don’t have to second guess yourself.

  • 10 mins easy jog to warmup
  • 5 mins effort, 90 sec steady pace
  • 4 mins effort, 90 sec steady pace
  • 3 mins effort, 90 sec steady pace
  • 2 mins effort, 90 sec steady pace
  • 90 sec effort, 90 sec steady pace
  • 60 sec effort, 90 sec steady pace
  • 30 sec effort, 90 sec steady pace
  • 30 sec effort – all out
  • 10 mins jogging to cool down

Give it a try and let me know what you think. Also keen to hear from astronauts who have experienced the ‘pleasures’ of running in space!

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