Have we reached the limits of sports performance?

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As of September 2017, new Sweat Science columns are being published at www.outsideonline.com/sweatscience. Check out my bestselling new book on the science of endurance, ENDURE: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, published in February 2018 with a foreword by Malcolm Gladwell.

- Alex Hutchinson (@sweatscience)

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Further to yesterday’s post about the incredible amount of work ski technicians do to squeeze an extra half-second out of downhill skis, a reader sent me this link to an article in the L.A. Times titled “Have Olympic athletes done all they can?”:

Some scientists say so. Papers published in the last few years indicate that human performance has already peaked, and the only way to improve is with technology — or cheating.

The article takes a look at the various biomechanical and statistical arguments suggesting that world records aren’t going to progress much further. There are, of course, some holes we can poke in those studies. For instance:

A French researcher who analyzed a century’s worth of world records concluded in a recent paper that the peak of athletic achievement was reached in 1988. Eleven world records were broken that year in track and field. Seven of them still stand.

It’s hard to believe anyone could write this with a straight face. Of the seven records still standing from 1988, four of them were set by women from Eastern Bloc countries with well-established state doping programs, and two were by Florence Griffith-Joyner. If the year 1988 represented the “peak” of anything, it was unfettered doping, not human performance. Not coincidentally, that was the year Ben Johnson was busted, and authorities, however reluctantly, started tightening doping controls.

But to be honest, I think poking these sorts of holes in the article is missing the broader point. Are we reaching a regime of diminishing returns in terms of performance? Of course! In 1900, the world record for the men’s mile was 4:12.75; 100 years later, it was 3:43.13. Unless we expect to be running two-minute miles in 300 years, it’s obvious that the curve has to gradually flatten out.

Does this mean we’re reaching “The Limit” of human performance in the mile? This is where I think the conceptual framework of the L.A. Times article is a little shaky. There is no limit, there’s just statistics. The farther we push towards the extreme edge of the distribution, the less likely we are to find an outlier with even better characteristics, and the smaller the margin of improvement will be. But the distribution never just stops. Even if Usain Bolt turns out to be a once-in-five-generations talent, there’s still the possibility, 10 generations from now, of someone just like him but with, say, slightly quicker reaction time.

Training and technology are the two other X-factors. In a sport like swimming, if you reinvent the swimsuit, you’re essentially moving the finish line. Is Michael Phelps better than Ian Thorpe? I have no idea, because they’re competing under different circumstances. To me, the resulting debate is less interesting, because we end up discussing the rules and bylaws of sport rather than human performance (which is why, as I argued here, I think sports governing bodies should be reactionary and conservative in their approach).

As for training, it’s impossible to separate training from talent. (One major aspect of talent, after all, is having an abnormally large response to training.) It’s advances in training, far more than track surfaces and better shoes, that separate today’s milers from Roger Bannister. Have we optimized the science of training? Far from it, though we’ve certainly picked most of the low-hanging fruit.

So if the message of the Times piece is that humans have reached their “peak,” I think they need to revisit their statistics. If it’s that athletes, especially in “mature” sports, will improve less frequently and by smaller margins than in the past — well then, yeah. Of course.

Tuning the perfect ski for Olympic competition

THANK YOU FOR VISITING SWEATSCIENCE.COM!

As of September 2017, new Sweat Science columns are being published at www.outsideonline.com/sweatscience. Check out my bestselling new book on the science of endurance, ENDURE: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, published in February 2018 with a foreword by Malcolm Gladwell.

- Alex Hutchinson (@sweatscience)

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From a nice, detail-packed two-part post at Wired’s Playbook blog about how Matthew Schiller, the head technician for the U.S. Ski Team, prepares ski bases and edges for downhill competition, a lovely kicker that sums up the technological arms race:

After all this work, the endless coats of wax, the scraping and filing and polishing — what’s the difference between a perfect ski and one that’s totally missed the mark?

About half a second, according to Schiller.

Months and years of work to find a half a second? That’s the Olympics, and not just for the athletes.

The “fat-burning” zone for weight loss and performance

THANK YOU FOR VISITING SWEATSCIENCE.COM!

As of September 2017, new Sweat Science columns are being published at www.outsideonline.com/sweatscience. Check out my bestselling new book on the science of endurance, ENDURE: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, published in February 2018 with a foreword by Malcolm Gladwell.

- Alex Hutchinson (@sweatscience)

***

I exchanged a few e-mails last week with Canadian Running blogger Rebecca Gardiner about weight loss and exercise. It’s a hot topic these days, thanks to Matt Fitzgerald’s recent book Racing Weight and the subsequent media coverage, including this piece by Gina Kolata in the New York Times.

But if you have a little time to spare and you’re looking for a well-informed scientist’s perspective on weight loss, I’d recommend taking a look at Ross Tucker’s series at the Science of Sport blog. (Here’s part 1, part 2A, part 2B, and part 3. The series has been stalled for a few weeks, but may resume soon.) He gives a very basic explanation of the essential facts about losing weight, keeping it simple while acknowledging the complexity that lurks behind many of the statements.

In particular, he takes aim in part 3 at one of my favourite pet peeves, the “fat-burning zone” that encourages people to take it easy during cardio workouts. It’s true, he notes, that you burn about 80% fat (and 20% carbohydrate) when you exercise at low intensity, and those ratios are reversed at high intensity.

So, what you’re probably thinking is that theory that low intensity exercise is better if you want to burn fat is correct. Well, think again. It is true that at low intensity, when you walk, most of your energy comes from fat, and that as you increase the intensity, less and less comes from fat.

But what is missing in this picture is the TOTAL amount of energy.

It turns out that you burn about 50% more fat per hour at moderate intensity than you do at low intensity. So the rationale for a low-intensity fat-burning zone is spurious, unless you have time to exercise for several hours a day. But really, the most important message comes later in the same post, and I hope people don’t miss it:

[P]erhaps most significantly, the key is still to create a calorie deficit, which means that you need not worry too much about whether your energy use is coming from fat or carbs – the key is to create that deficit, because in the long run, the energy will have to be provided and you will achieve similar results regardless.

Another point Tucker makes is that it’s really hard to provide general-purpose weight-loss advice, because there are so many different things that can be going on physiologically. He advises consulting a dietitian to get personalized advice if you’re struggling to lose weight. The corollary that I’d add is that anyone who tells you they have The One True Answer to your weight-loss problems without knowing in detail about your history is kidding themselves.

Is hiring a personal trainer worth it?

THANK YOU FOR VISITING SWEATSCIENCE.COM!

As of September 2017, new Sweat Science columns are being published at www.outsideonline.com/sweatscience. Check out my bestselling new book on the science of endurance, ENDURE: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, published in February 2018 with a foreword by Malcolm Gladwell.

- Alex Hutchinson (@sweatscience)

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Hiring someone to tell you what exercises to do seems like a reasonable proposition — after all, there’s a big difference between a well-planned exercise program and just puttering around the gym. But what about after you’ve learned the details of the program: is it still worth paying someone to come and watch you work out?

According to a new study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, yes. (And yes, I’m aware that JSCR is the official organ of the National Strength and Conditioning Association, which may have a vested interest in promoting this idea.)

The study, by researchers at the University of Brasilia in Brazil, builds on previous studies that have found that people doing weight training build more muscle and gain more strength when they’re supervised than when they’re on their own. In this case, the study compared 124 untrained young men, and had them undertake an 11-week training program with either a coach for every five athletes or a coach for every 25 athletes. Sure enough, the more highly supervised athletes gained significantly more strength in bench press and knee extensor exercises.

As the paper explains, personal trainers “may help to control important training variables such as load, rest intervals, and exercise technique and to provide motivation and psychological reinforcement,” so it’s hard to nail down exactly what’s happening. But the data provide some interesting insights.

One initially confusing fact is that the total volume of weight lifted was pretty much the same between the two groups. On closer examination, what happens is that the less-supervised group picks a slightly lighter weight and lifts three sets in a nice, controlled manner. The heavily supervised group picks a more ambitious target, reaches failure during the third set, and has to stop a few reps earlier. Total volume is the same, but the guys reaching failure get bigger training benefits.

I certainly don’t discount the effect of knowledge and supervision (e.g. to ensure correct form, especially in inexperienced exercisers), but my interpretation is that motivation is the key differentiator between the two groups. I think most people would agree intuitively that personal trainers can help people push harder than they would otherwise. But for those who can’t or don’t want to spring the cash, it seems to me that a good training partner can help serve a similar role — especially if you’re close to the same abilities, and you don’t want to have to re-rack the weights between each set!

If heel-striking is so unnatural, why do apes do it?

THANK YOU FOR VISITING SWEATSCIENCE.COM!

As of September 2017, new Sweat Science columns are being published at www.outsideonline.com/sweatscience. Check out my bestselling new book on the science of endurance, ENDURE: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, published in February 2018 with a foreword by Malcolm Gladwell.

- Alex Hutchinson (@sweatscience)

***

In the wake of Dan Lieberman’s foray into the barefoot running debate, there’s an interesting counterpoint in the newest Journal of Experimental Biology from David Carrier of the University of Utah — the man who anticipated Lieberman’s 2004 “endurance running” evolutionary hypothesis by 20 years.

muybridge-walkingIn a nutshell, Carrier’s paper points out that heel-striking — a.k.a. “the devil,” as far as Lieberman is concerned — actually has advantages in some contexts. As the Utah press release puts it:

Humans, other great apes and bears are among the few animals that step first on the heel when walking, and then roll onto the ball of the foot and toes. Now, a University of Utah study shows the advantage: Compared with heel-first walking, it takes 53 percent more energy to walk on the balls of your feet, and 83 percent more energy to walk on your toes. […]

Economical walking would have helped early human hunter-gatherers find food, he says. Yet, because other great apes also are heel-first walkers, it means the trait evolved before our common ancestors descended from the trees, [Carrier says].

The main point of the paper is that it’s curious that our foot anatomy is adapted to heel-strike while walking (i.e. we have a big, prominent heel), unlike most other mammals. But it’s a trait we share with all the other great apes, so it’s not something that was only created by the advent of thick-heeled modern shoes. As both Carrier and Lieberman have argued, many of our anatomical features seem to have evolved precisely to favour endurance running — but our heels, in contrast, seem better suited walking. This isn’t that surprising, the authors argue, given that both running and walking were likely essential to early hunter-gatherers.

Ultimately, none of this conflicts with the arguments put forth by Lieberman. Even if it’s natural to heel-strike while walking, the evidence suggests that early humans didn’t heel-strike while running. (Though the new study confirms earlier findings that there’s no difference in efficiency between heel-foot and fore-foot striking for running.) But as the barefoot running debate heats up, it’s interesting to note that heel striking has an evolutionary origin.