Why superathletes are a step ahead

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Why superathletes are a step ahead : Body type, biochemistry and mental factors all play a part

By David Ropeik


Sept. 11  So you want to win an Olympic gold medal? Presuming youve already been born, it may be too late. But even if you were smart and chose your parents well, its still no sure thing that the genetic gifts they gave you will turn into a trip to the medal stand.

DID YOU EVER notice that high jumpers seem to have really long legs? High-hurdlers too. A really long inseam (the distance from the inside of the crotch to the ground) means two things:

1. You cant shop for a standard pair of pants.

2. The part of your body from the crotch up has less distance to travel to get over those bars or hurdles. You dont have to propel your heavy torso as high. Thats how those high-hurdlers manage to look like theyre not jumping over those hurdles. They arent. Their extra long legs mean they dont have to. They just stretch their legs and let their inseam do the rest.

Thats an obvious example of how genetic advantage can make the difference between an athlete, and a world-class athlete. Elite competitors are born with external physiology  body size, shape, and mechanics  that give them a leg up (or a hand or an arm or a back) over us mortals. It would be pretty tough to develop a longer inseam through training, short of some really uncomfortable time on the rack.

Basketball players need height. Weightlifters do better if theyre short so they dont have to clean and jerk the weight as far. The typical elite rower is a few inches past 6 feet. So are swimmers. The height gives them leverage. (Being born with long arms helps, too.) Distance runners are thin  ectomorphic body types, with less weight to carry. Wrestlers, decathletes, weightlifters and other athletes in sports more geared to quick bursts of power than long tests of endurance are born mesomorphs, bigger body types with more gross muscle mass.

Elite athletes also benefit from a genetically based body fat ratio that gives them more muscle, less fat than us couch potatoes. They also enjoy better mechanics. Their bodies work to run swim, jump, tumble  whatever  more efficiently. While good performance mechanics can be trained, elite athletes start out with superior mechanics, and then train to get even better.


But not everyone whos 6-foot-8 will play basketball. Not everyone under 5-foot-5 will lift weights. And not all 6-foot-8 basketball players or 5-foot-5 cleaner-and-jerkers rise within their sport to world-class level. Those who win gold have still more genetic advantages. They have the right kind of muscles, and a superior ability to restore internal biochemical energy.

Some of our muscles twitch quickly. They generate a lot of power immediately, but for only several seconds. Weightlifters legs, which can produce standing vertical leaps of more than 3 feet, are mostly fast twitch. Sprinters are also born with a higher-than-normal percentage of fast-twitch muscles.

Olympic athletes tend to have attributes that suit them especially well for their particular sport.

Predominance of "fast-twitch" muscle fibers for explosive speed. Low body fat in proportion to muscle mass.

Predominance of "slow-twitch" muscle fibers for endurance. Long limbs for long stride and economy of motion.

Large hands, feet and thighs for more force per kick. Long arms and legs for more pull per stroke. Body fat may enhance buoyancy and reduce drag.

Low body weight and short stature match well with gymnastic apparatus and provide for favorable power-to-weight ratio.

Short stature reduces the height to which weight must be lifted. Large muscle fiber size, large total muscle mass.

If, however, you have to twitch for more than two hours in a marathon, or participate in any sport that emphasizes endurance, you have an edge if you were born with more of the slow-twitch muscles that dont generate as much power as quickly but continue to produce energy much longer. The legs of Olympic marathoners are as much as 90 percent slow-twitch.

You can train the muscles you have, but youre pretty much stuck with the fast-twitch/slow-twitch ratio with which youre born.

Then theres the biochemical machinery deep inside those muscles. All of us depend on a molecule known as adenosine triphosphate to produce energy. There is ATP stored in our muscles before the gun goes off. But we dont store the stuff well, and we burn it in a hurry. If youre working hard, you use the 5 millimoles of ATP stored in every kilogram of muscle in about five seconds. Thats good for about half of a 100-meter dash.


We have three interrelated ways to produce ATP. The first comes from those fast-twitch muscles, that produce a molecule called phosphocreatine that breaks down into ATP. About halfway into the 100-meter sprint, the runners are out of stored ATP and switching over to their internal phosphocreatine system. You will not be able to notice this on TV!

But the phosphocreatine system is only good for another 5 to 10 seconds. After that, the body switches to an anaerobic (doesnt use oxygen) system called glycolosis that converts carbohydrates into ATP. But that produces the byproduct lactic acid. After two minutes or so, the lactic acid has built up so much that your muscles burn, impairing performance.

So the athlete internally switches to system three: aerobic (uses oxygen) metabolism, which converts carbohydrates and fat into ATP. Aerobic metabolism doesnt start until after a couple minutes of hard exercise. When it does, it puts the phosphocreatine and anaerobic glycolosis systems into standby, so we can call on them for quick bursts of energy in the middle of a game of water polo or soccer, or for a sprint at the end of a race.

We can all train to enhance the performance of these systems, but theyre more efficient in elite athletes. From the time he was first measured at age 15, Tour de France-winning cyclist Lance Armstrong had twice the ability to use oxygen during exercise, known as VO2max, as the average person.

But for all their inheritance, elite athletes cant just pop off the couch and sprint to gold. Cardiovascular systems can be trained to develop higher VO2max. The lactic acid threshold, when too much of the stuff starts to interfere with performance, can be improved. Weekend warriors hit their lactic acid threshold at 60 percent of VO2max. Olympians dont hit it until theyre at 80 to 85 percent.

Even blood can be taught to work better. Endurance athletes spend years Living High, and Training Low. Life at altitude, where there is less oxygen per unit of air, encourages the body to permanently produce more oxygen-carrying red blood cells. But while theyre actually running or swimming in training sessions, athletes at high altitude cant go as fast or last as long. So the actual training part is done at sea level. (To do this without racking up the frequent-flier miles, U.S. Olympic athletes who live at 9,000 feet in Colorado train wearing breathing apparatus that supplies sea-level amounts of oxygen. Athletes who train at sea level in California sleep in tents that simulate oxygen levels at altitude.)


Finally, there is mental capacity. Athletes maximize their performance using techniques like meditation, muscle relaxation, visualization (seeing yourself doing something before you do it, so you do it more the way you want) and tricks to help with concentration. Former Olympic diver Greg Louganis says he used to tell himself jokes just before diving, to clear his mind of distractions.

Genes dont seem to help here. You and I can train our brain as well as any gold medalist.

And mental training may be the most important of all. When every elite athlete at the starting line has the same body type, the same muscles, the same biochemistry and the same training, and when the average difference between gold and silver is less than a second or fractions of points on a judges score, the way to make sure its your national anthem they play may be more in your head than your body.

David Ropeik is a longtime science journalist and currently serves as Director of Risk Communication at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis. Send David Ropeik your suggestions for future columns via mysteries@msnbc.com.

-- (kb8um8@yahoo.com), September 14, 2000


And here I thought I'd never be an athlete because I hate Wheaties and drink too much Dew.

-- (kb8um8@yahoo.com), September 14, 2000.

On a related note...

Look for a number of swimming records to be broken in the upcoming olympics. And not necessarily because of physical abilities. Seems someone has created a new "super-fabric" swimsuit (full body?) which is even less resistant to water flow than that of naked skin. Apparently these swimsuits have been approved by the olympic rules committee and a number of athletes will be wearing them. I strongly disagree with this and feel it denigrates the "spirit" of the games. C'mon! Using *technology* to reduce the water resistance!? I thought swimming events were supposed to be about the athlete's *natural* ability. What's next? Bionic implants in wrestlers? Sheesh... Johnny Weismueller(sp?) is probably rolling over in his grave!

-- CD (costavike@hotmail.com), September 14, 2000.

After reading the article -- and taking a few personal measurements -- it dawns on me that I could have been born a kumquat and it would have made little difference, Olympics-wise.

-- I'm Here, I'm There (I'm Everywhere@so.beware), September 14, 2000.

Personally, CD, the women olympic competitors should swim sans suits of any kind. (Where did THAT thought bubble up from, Rich?)

I'm Here, how are we to know you weren't born a kumquat? The kumquat is known to be one of the more intelligent species...of fruit. Mebbe they (who are they?) performed a Steve Austin on ya. Food for thought, as it were.

-- Bingo1 (howe9@shentel.net), September 14, 2000.

I hope this isn't off-topic to this thread, but it pissed me off that my best friend at University could take a P.E. course in conditioning [sit-ups, running, etc.] where I was thrown into a P.E. course where I had to pretend I was the sun. What, exactly, does imagination [acting] have to do with P.E.? Yeah, I was more flexible than she was, but did this mean I had to be tortured by representing myself as the sun? [Who ever said the sun was flexible? Huh?] Sorry, but those memories come back to haunt me on occasion.

-- Anita (Anita_S3@hotmail.com), September 14, 2000.

Personally, CD, the women olympic competitors should swim sans suits of any kind.

I disagree, Bingo. Not that I wouldn't love to watch, but my fear is the sans-uniform movement would pick up momentum. Eventually we'd be subjected to "up close and personal" tv coverage of stark- naked 400 pound wrestlers, weight-lifters and shot-put'ers. And rest assured, there's not a petite lil' gymnastics princess alive in the world today who could compensate for that horrible image. I'll pass, thank you.

-- CD (costavike@hotmail.com), September 14, 2000.

Gotta disagree with you, CD. My take on the female form is that it is one of the Creator's greatest accomplishments. My list of beautiful women (theoretically) includes shotputters and weightlifters.

And what the hell are you doing looking at those 12 year-old gymnasts anyway??? (Something tells me you aren't buying the first round of beers in LV now, are you?)

-- Bingo1 (howe9@shentel.net), September 14, 2000.

>I was thrown into a P.E. course where I had to pretend I was the sun.

HUH? More details, Anita.

The last "real" P.E. class (volleyball and sailing that I took in college didn't count) was taught by the JV football coach, who called me a "Super Wussy." It makes me feel absolutely wonderful that my salary is triple his at this point, and that I don't have to deal with hormone-driven high school males day in and day out.

-- (kb8um8@yahoo.com), September 14, 2000.

CD, I share your sentiment regarding the intrusion of technology into sport. But this is not really new, for example, supplements and reactive resistance training machines have been around a long time. Maybe even long enough for Johnny Weismuller (?) to have rolled over before he died!

-- David L (bumpkin@dnet.net), September 14, 2000.

The athletes are born and then made. They have the physiological potential to take up the load required for the particular sports and further training helps to explore the genetic endowment.

-- Dr G L Khanna (glkhanna@usa.net), April 09, 2001.

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