Human Limits

Exploring performance and health with Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

Photo of Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

Archive for July, 2012

Motivation: Great Coaches Meet Daniel Pink

There was a great article on U.S. Olympic swim coach Teri McKeever in the NYT a few days ago.  The article describes her empowering approach and some of the unconventional and innovative things she has done like challenging ideas about mindless high yardage training in swimming.  She sounds a lot like the great track coach Bud Winter who I wrote about earlier this month.

In this Olympic season we are hearing a lot about the twentieth anniversary of the 1992 Dream Team and its legendary coach Chuck Daly.  Daly won in the Ivy League, won with the “Bad Boy” Detroit Pistons in the NBA and won with the Dream team.  From what I can tell Daly was also about empowering people and not micromanaging the super talented players he worked with.

The great UCLA basketball coach John Wooden developed his Pyramid of Success to teach his players how to empower themselves.   Legendary track coach Bill Bowerman did many similar things using a more free-wheeling, individualistic and profane approach.

When I read about McKeever, Winter, Daly, Wooden and Bowerman it seems to me they knew exactly what Daniel Pink is talking about in the video I have included on motivation.

 

 

Read about the great coaches and ask yourself how you can use their ideas to get the best out of yourself and the people you work with.

 

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Genetics of Elite Performance

Today, I want to do a little more on the genetics of elite athletic performance.  A couple of days ago I briefly reviewed the genetics of height.  The bottom line is that while 80% of height is heritable (runs in families); it has been very hard to figure out the genetics of height.  Hundreds of gene variants with very small effect sizes contribute to height and when all of these genes are considered the consensus among the statisticians is that somewhere between 5-20% of the variation in height can be explained by simply “reading” differences in the genetic code.

What happens if we zoom out and think about athletic ability in general and what makes an Olympian or even an Olympic champion?

1)   To be a champion at anything you have to practice, practice, practice and this has been popularized as the 10,000 hour rule by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers.   10,000 hours is a debatable number but the idea of practice and commitment is not.

2)    Like height the genetic components that make up what might be called ‘talent’ have been really difficult to decipher.  How various gene variants that might give someone an edge in some element of the mental or physical aspects of a given sport remains mostly a mystery.  Jonatan Ruiz and colleagues have some ideas about the perfect genotype for endurance sports, and it is really rare.

3)    Remember the role of environment and culture.  Based on their success in distance running one would guess that the Kenyan and Ethiopian tribes that dominate distance running might also do well in cross country skiing and endurance cycling.  However, we will never know until it either starts to snow in East Africa or the roads there get good enough for cycling to take off.

4)    Success runs in families.  So does early exposure and access to coaching and perhaps a competitive environment at home.   Early exposure also starts in East Africa as young kids run to and from school and play soccer at high altitude all day long.

So, success in sports is multifactorial.   Ross Tucker and Malcolm Collins have come up with a model that explains how a bunch of these things might interact.  I don’t agree with every element of their model but it is a good start.   They also offer an excellent critique of the 10,000 hour concept.

Along these lines, in elite competition like the Olympics, the margin of victory is tiny and there is no way we can measure any variable in the lab accurately enough to predict who might win by less than 1%.   If you ask me for a rough guess I will tell you for most sports, 80% or more is about practice and commitment and that means that almost any young person has the physical ability to get really good at something (say breaking 3 hours for the marathon or becoming a low handicap golfer).  However, the closer you get to truly outstanding the more important that ill defined thing called talent is, and the less we understand about the genetics of it.

Finally, it is pretty clear that we are a long way away from a blood test to identify which child might do well at what.  Practical approaches like considering body size, measuring vertical jump, running various distances for time, tests of strength, and tests of coordination are probably a much better way to go.

Then there is the equally complex matter of the psychology of desire and commitment…..

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Eat (a lot) to Win?

Hi folks, I am doing a sprint Tri this morning and taking a break from a major post. For a little brain candy, see this article on how much some Olympians have to eat just to get the calories needed to keep training by Gretchen Reynolds in the NYT.

Next week there will be more on genetics and elite athletes, high tech training, what the great coaches have in common, and just how fast Usain Bolt is.

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Opening Ceremony 1948 vs. 2012

The opening ceremony of the Olympics was quite a spectacle last night with the Queen, James Bond, and the Sex Pistols essentially performing at the same gig. London is the first city to host the Games three times.  In 1948 London was rebuilding and recovering from World War II and things were much simpler. 

In that year the Olympic Oath was given by British high hurdler Donald Finlay.  Finlay was 39 years old and had won a bronze medal in the 110m high hurdles at the 32 Olympics and silver in 1936.   He was the favorite to win in 1940 at Tokyo, but the games were canceled due to World War II.  During the war Finlay was an RAF fighter pilot in the Battle of Britain and one of the few thousand people who saved European civilization from itself. 

After the war Finlay remained in the RAF and attained the rank of Group Captain.   He continued to compete at a high level into his early 40s and if you look at his results in other events perhaps he should have tried the decathlon.   Early in his career he competed against Lord Burghley, who was the model for the aristocratic high hurdler in the movie Chariots of Fire.

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Size Makes a Difference: Gymnastics and Swimming

Today’s post is a bit more technical.

During the first week of the Olympics gymnastics and swimming will be two of the featured events.   I get a lot of questions about how much of elite athletic performance is due to genetic factors and how much is due to environmental factors: the classic problem of nature vs. nurture.

So why not start with gymnastics and swimming.   Gymnasts tend to be short and swimmers tend to be tall.   In the case of gymnastics it is important to have a high strength to body weight ratio.   A major factor that determines the strength of a muscle is its cross sectional area.

As people get taller the cross sectional area of their muscles gets bigger and they get stronger.  However, their body weight (essentially body volume) goes up faster.  Area is essentially a squared function of height and volume a cubed function.  There is a whole area of biology called allometry or scaling that considers these relationships for all sorts of things.

The practical effect is that as people get taller on average their strength to weight ratio gets lower and that makes it harder to do all of the tricks that the top gymnasts do.   This is one of the reasons that the top women in gymnastics have gotten younger and as a result shorter and lighter as the tricks required to compete at the highest level have gotten harder.

In 1968 26 year old Vera Caslavska dominated women’s gymnastics at the Mexico City Olympics.  She was reportedly 5’3’’(160 cm) and about 128 pounds (58 kg).  Caslavska, a Czech, was also a hero in resisting the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.

Watch this video of her and compare it to what you will be watching on TV during the next week.

In swimming, a bigger surface should slow things down and make it harder to move through the water.   However, streamlined body positions like that seen in the Michael Phelps video posted yesterday, can limit the negative effects of size.  Swimmers are also in the water and essentially floating so there isn’t much penalty for getting heavier.

This general line of reasoning also applies to oxygen transport systems and when you add that to more muscle strength, taller swimmers have an advantage.  In general smaller people do better in things that are weight dependent and taller people do better in things that are weight independent.  This is especially true in endurance sports.  Compare the size of the distance runners with the swimmers and rowers you will be watching over the next couple of weeks.

So how much of this is “genetic”? It is known that height is about 80% heritable and there are excellent equations that use parental height and other factors that are pretty good at predicting the adult height of children.   However, at this time, there are no clear genetic explanations for why some people are tall and some people are short.  This has been studied extensively in hundreds of thousands of people and no answers have emerged.

I am attaching a link to a summary article on this topic and also a recent scientific article.   One idea is that as we learn more about how genes are turned on and off and how they interact with environmental factors the genetics of height will become clearer.  The other idea is that so much of what and who we are is so complex that there will never be clear genetic answers for most of it.

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Relax and Win – 2

Yesterday I wrote about how elite athletes have an ability to focus and relax while at the same time putting forth great effort.  In skill sports like golf or hitting a baseball this is a version of Yogi Berra’s classic quote “how can you hit and think at the same time?”

This concept was stated more elegantly a couple of days ago in the NYT by the great Ichiro Suzuki about his first at-bat (he got a hit) at Yankee stadium after being traded to the Yankees.  “My 11 1/2 years here is a long time and I was thinking what I would feel like in my first at-bat, I really didn’t think anything. Nothing came to me. It was just a wonderful day to experience that.”

In sports associated with fatigue no one is better than Michael Phelps at keeping his rhythm and form at the end of a race.  There is an incredible video of Phelps swimming freestyle that shows just how skilled he is.

Terry Laughlin, the Total Immersion swimming guru, has a number of ideas that can help us all learn to do what Ichiro and Phelps do so well.   There is also a great interview by Amby Burfoot of Kim Conley who ran a perfect race to make the U.S. Olympic team in the 5k.  Her story exemplifies the Relax and Win approach.

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Relax and Win – 1

Today we shift gears from doping and focus on the positive.

Willie Williams was my head track coach at the University of Arizona in the late 1970s.  Coach Williams had been a great sprinter in the early 1960s at San Jose State where he was coached by the legendary Bud Winter.   Coach Williams frequently encouraged people to relax instead of simply trying harder.  Where did this come from?

It came from Bud Winter who had developed a philosophy of high level performance that can be summarized as “relax and win”.   Some of this had to do with specific form and technique drills he advocated, and some of it was about a mental approach to competition.  It also has striking parallels to the psychological concept of Flow.

Nose around budwinter.com and you will get some insight into Winter’s approach.  There is also a video of him at practice conducting his iconic form drills.

During the Olympics we are going to see many examples where the margin of victory will be incredibly small.  In many of these cases, the winner will be the athlete who can retain their focus, form and rhythm when their whole body essentially feels like it is on fire.  In 2008 Michael Phelps was the poster boy for this.

This concept was also covered by Mary Pilon in the NYT in a recent series on 400m runner Amantle Mashto.  I was also struck by another piece by Mary in the Times on Wesley Williams, a superb blind long jumper and how committed he must be to the type of relaxed focus taught by Winter.

The question for us all is how to apply these concepts throughout the day.

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The other scandal with EPO

Recent posts have focused on how elite endurance athletes might be manipulating their red blood cell counts to get a competitive advantage.   About 10 years ago I did a brief article that provides a scientific explanation for why blood doping and EPO work.  The article is still current.

In my 7/22 post I also expressed optimism that the biological passport system might be able to keep doping in check.   My colleague Ilkka Heinonen forwarded a link to a recent paper that paints a less optimistic picture.

While we are on the topic of EPO, there was a major expose in the Washington Post on the overuse of EPO to boost blood counts in patients with anemia.   The story points out that the development of EPO was a major breakthrough in biotechnology and a triumph of converting basic research into improved clinical care.

However, like a lot medical innovations, overuse is a problem and a major driver of health care costs in the U.S.  The best estimate is that about 30% of medical care costs have something to do with use of technology in ways that do not improve patient outcomes.

No matter where you are on the U.S. health care reform debate, the issues related to technology overuse need to be addressed.   During the next few weeks I will be focusing on the Olympics, but let’s not forget the real world while we are at it.

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