The Science of Running

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They’re a meet day mainstay, though the faded, burgundy leather boat shoes befit a man who owns a closet full of Bermuda—rather than running—shorts. But to Naugatuck High cross country and track coach Bill Hanley, nautical footwear is as essential as a pair of Nikes.

“What I’ll do is when I go to meets, I’ll wear Sperry Topsiders because they don’t have a lot of support,” he explains. “So on Saturdays, as I’m running around the course … I’m strengthening my lower legs.”

And all this time I thought it was a fashion statement. I should have known better. See, Hanley, a special education science teacher at NHS, is a man of reason, and there’s a very good reason why he rocks those white-soled, bow-tied beauties.

“The latest discussion [in running] is with the shoes, the shoe technology,” he says. “They’re finding that we have more injuries to kids running, now that the shoes are better. And it’s almost like it doesn’t allow the body to strengthen up appropriate to that one runner’s limitations or characteristics. And so the latest craze is running barefoot or running in flats.”

Hanley bases much of his coaching strategy on his scientific knowledge.

Hanley bases much of his coaching strategy on his scientific knowledge.

Hanley thinks that’s a bit extreme—“When I’m doing my long run, I’m wearing the best shoes I can get my hands on,” he says—but he abandons well-formed arches and gel-cushioned heels whenever possible.

Shoe selection is but one element in Hanley’s periodic table of running. He fuses his two passions in a way that makes the sport equal parts athletic and academic. Just listen to him describe the benefits of a training regimen.

“Training is going to improve someone’s ability to—so many things—to acquire oxygen,” he says. “The alveoli in the lungs and the blood vessels; by exercising, the body is making more capillaries and developing ones you have, so they’re getting that nutrition in and the nutrition out.

“And then on the cellular level, in biology we talk about respiration. We talk about it taking place in the mitochondria. When an athlete trains, the body adapts to the stress and it overcompensates for it. So these runners, their cells are making more mitochondria, they’re making them bigger, and they’re locating them closer to the surface of the cell, so again, the nutrients and the water can get in and get out more efficiently than someone who doesn’t exercise.”

Hope you brought your notebooks to practice, kids.

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He was already a challenge, this sprinter-slash-soccer-player who was trying to become a cross country runner. Now this: “I can’t eat during daylight hours, Coach.”

It was 2007, and Mohamed Hrezi, then a junior, was explaining to Hanley that throughout the month of Ramadan he would fast from sun-up to sun-down, in keeping with Islamic tradition.

“No water, no gum. Nothing,” Hrezi put it to me later.

That’s not exactly what Hanley means when he talks about runners giving up certain foods. But the coach applied his scientific knowledge to manage Hrezi’s unique circumstances: He pushed Hrezi, who wasn’t a big breakfast guy, to eat sizeable meals before dawn, so he’d “get a long burn.”

“It was hard to wake up, eat, then go back to sleep, and I didn’t always do it,” Hrezi admits now. “But it definitely made sense and helped a lot.”

On hot days, Hanley knew enough to scratch Hrezi from races or to let him work out on a belt in the high school pool.

“One thing we see is on a hot day, Mo, maybe on some days his blood was like sludge because there wasn’t a whole lot of water in it,” Hanley says. “There might have been the hemoglobin, but his heart had to pump faster to pump his thick blood around on those hot days.”

By Hrezi’s senior season, the combination of deft planning and cooperative weather allowed him compete at all seven of Naugatuck’s meets during Ramadan. Even more impressive, he broke the school record on each course.

Hrezi went on to win the 2008 Class L state championship and is now a scholarship runner at Central Connecticut State University. He recently broke the school’s 800-meter record.

Monday afternoon, he was back at Naugy, working out on his home track. He says Hanley’s scientific approach to running was so infectious that he now demands rational explanations from his Blue Devils coach, Eric Blake.

“I’m always like, ‘Why? Why do you want me to do this?’” Hrezi says. “Now, he doesn’t even wait for me to ask. He just says, ‘I want you to do this because.’”

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Science-running-William Hanley: It seems like the purest bond since hydrogen-hydrogen-oxygen.

“If you had told me, when I was a sophomore student [at NHS] who ran and my favorite subject was biology, that someone would pay me to teach science and coach running, I would have said, ‘You’re kidding. It’s just too good to be true,’” Hanley says.

But if not for a sort of athletic Darwinism, the bond might never have formed.

In the early 1970s, every boy in the borough dreamed of playing football for legendary coach Ray Legenza, and the young Hanley was no exception. He suited up for the freshman squad and when the season concluded, joined the track team only because he’d been ordered to run, if he had aspirations of stepping onto the gridiron the next autumn.

But soon, Hanley was the Greyhounds’ No. 2 distance runner.

“Spring football practice came around, and I’m lining up against two guys about the size of [current NHS defensive coordinator Mark] Swanson,” Hanley recalls. “For the length of spring football, I’m getting knocked into the dirt, going home bloodied and battered. And then all over the summer, I’ve got a choice to make: varsity cross country or blocking dummy for varsity football. And since I didn’t continue to grow, the decision was easy.”

The decision also has lasted a long time—unlike coaches in most other disciplines, Hanley remains active in his sport four decades after he began it.

“When I was training for my marathon a few years ago, my resting heart rate was 28,” he says. “Normal is 70-90. And now, I’m kind of out of shape, so it’s 38. But over the years, the heart is just able to pump and get done in 30 strokes a minute what maybe a non-runner has to do 70 strokes a minute.”

Twenty-eight beats per minute. Hanley calls it in-shape. I call it practically comatose.

Terminology aside, that absurdly efficient heart has logged enough miles to make its owner a veritable running textbook.

“I’ve been running for 40 years,” he says, “and there’s not a mistake out there I haven’t made.”

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When he’s in a teasing mood, Naugatuck High Principal Fran Serratore, himself a former basketball coach, reaches for an old joke: “The easiest sport to coach is track,” Serratore recites, as Hanley waits for the familiar punchline. “Tell ‘em, ‘Stay to the left, and come back as soon as you can.’”

Both men laugh.

But if you ask Hanley for a serious description of what makes great runners great, the answer is much more complicated.

Hanley (far right), pictured at the 2008 New England cross country championships with, from left, assistant coach Matt Basile, Hrezi, Hrezi’s father, Fuad, and Moriello (seated), calls his top runners “students of the sport.”

Hanley (far right), pictured at the 2008 New England cross country championships with, from left, assistant coach Matt Basile, Hrezi, Hrezi’s father, Fuad, and Moriello (seated), calls his top runners “students of the sport.”

“Biomechanics is big—how efficient are you?” he offers. “The energy you put into running, how much of that energy do you get out of running? We spend a lot of time working on technique for that very reason. …

“What else makes a runner a good runner is genetically how proficient are they at obtaining oxygen and processing oxygen and eliminating waste? And that’s a physical characteristic that’s inherent to some. …

“The muscle makeup—fast-twitch fibers in your muscles; you’ve got slow-twitch fibers. Everybody’s got a different combination of either. And generally the sprinters, if you did a biomechanical test of their muscle fibers, they’d have more fast-twitch fibers, and you take some great distance runners, and they’re gonna have more slow-twitch. …

“How much oxygen can you move? And that’s a factor of how much hemoglobin you have in your blood and how viscous your blood is.”

That’s a lot of science behind something as ostensibly simple as running, perhaps the most natural of all sporting pursuits. In an era when elite performances are as frequently engineered in laboratories as they are earned in practices, even high school athletes must pay attention to science. That’s why Hanley and fellow Naugatuck coach Ralph Roper often call their best runners “students of the sport.”

“Rosa [Moriello] is like a sponge—she wants to know everything,” Hanley says. “Mo, to an extent, was like that. Josh Perry: He went to running camp in upstate New York. He was in the company of Olympic athletes and very successful coaches, and he could not get enough out of that experience. Tim Steiskal, who was a cross country runner for us and clearly a successful runner at Southern Connecticut, he was like that too. He couldn’t get enough.”

Still, Hanley asserts, there is a point at which science just isn’t enough, a point at which he might as well tell runners, “Stay to the left, and come back as soon as you can.”

“We can have all the science behind running, but if a kid’s got desire, the kid’s got mental toughness, they’re gonna get a whole lot out,” Hanley says. “And conversely, I think all the science in the world, you get a person who’s unmotivated, it’s not gonna do much good.”