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No matter what their game, professional athletes make a job of going faster, farther, and longer, setting world records inch by inch, second by second. But stripped away from artificial enhancements like steroids, how do these power-machines differ from the everyday athlete -- or the average Jill, for that matter? Are they just born with innate talent, or is it all learned ability -- and, if that's the case, are these preternatural skills something we can all develop?What Makes an Elite Athlete?
"There are five components that have influence in human performance," says Phil Cutti, an exercise physiologist and Director of the Human Performance Laboratory at the Stanford University School of Medicine. Genetics is the top factor, he says, comprising roughly 25 to 30 percent. The next largest factor is one's body size and composition, then athletic and training history, then age, and finally gender.
"That 30 percent umbrella of genetics -- some people are going to be more coordinated or adept at certain sports," Cutti concedes -- which is why we aren't all Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods. "But I think if you take your average Joe or Jane and find out where their performance [level and] variables are, then address those strengths and weaknesses, you'll have marked improvement."
Ah -- the loophole.
Lord knows I'll never be able to dunk a basketball, hit a homer, or break a six-minute mile. Hell, as someone who last ran laps in the '90s by way of high school P.E., I doubt I'll ever break a 10-minute mile -- and that's only if a pack of wild dogs is chasing me. But for people who are committed to reaching their own peak performance, you've got a running shot (no pun intended).
"The whole 'practice makes perfect' adage is true, but perfect practice is perfect. That's more accurate," says Cutti, who's been in the endurance, coaching, and training world for more than a decade. This means that lifting reps or running laps till exhaustion isn't necessarily the best practice -- instead, it's assessing where your strengths and weaknesses lie, and customizing your workout specifically for your body.
When a basketball player towers over the court at 7-foot-something, his advantage is clearly genetic. Nobody can argue that some athletes have biology to thank -- a volleyball player with incredible arm span, a runner with super-long legs. But sometimes, the genetic advantage comes from being an abnormality, like hot dog-eating champion Takeru "The Tsunami" Kobayashi.
The poster boy for competitive eating, Kobayashi was the king of the famous Fourth of July Nathan's hot-dog eating competition on Coney Island, New York. A six-time winner, the Japan native ate 53.75 hot dogs in 12 minutes during the 2006 competition, breaking all his old world records to set a new one. In fact, up till his 2007 dethroning by Joey Chestnut, who wolfed down 66 in the contest, Kobayashi had only been beaten once in hot-dog eating -- by a 1,089-pound Kodiak bear (seriously), whom he competed against for the Fox TV show Man vs. Beast.
Part of Kobayashi's secret is his technique -- the man breaks the wieners and buns in half, dunks them in water, then shovels them into his mouth, all the while doing the signature "Kobayashi shake," where he wiggles his body to force food down his esophagus into his stomach. He also attributes his physical stamina to gradually eating larger amounts of food, which stretches his gut, and doing intense workouts to keep his fat level down.
However, Kobayashi's success is also partly genetic. The competitive eater has admitted to having gastroptosis -- medically defined as an abnormal sagging of the stomach into the lower abdomen, which gives his stomach more room to expand. In this way, his body provides him an edge purely independent of any talent, technique, or training.
Independent of genetic advantages, though, all athletes depend on rigorous training to get them to the Olympic level. Many sports hinge on muscle mass -- baseball, rowing, even tennis (have you seen the size of Serena's guns?). But the most obvious of all would be weightlifting.
According to the International Weightlifting Federation, the current women's world record holder for the clean and jerk (lifting a barbell from the floor to chest-level, then jerking it above their heads) in the +75kg class is Gonghong Tang of China, who lifted 182.5 kg at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. That's 402.3 pounds -- roughly 50 pounds more than the average weight of an adult female grizzly bear. And for someone who's 5'8" and 265 pounds, that's certainly a feat.
Boiled down to the simplest terms, muscle strength is dependent on two factors: the weights you're lifting and your body's response to the exercises. But which of these components is the primary determinant?
A 1999 study suggested that the mechanical load was the primary factor, since the amount of weight lifted had a strong correlation with rapamycin (commonly known as mTOR), which regulates cell growth and proliferation. Moreover, a 2008 study in The Journal of Physiology showed that while hormones certainly play a key role in the size of our muscles, it's really the chest flyes and triceps dips that'll increase mass, not your bodily response to it.
The short answer: The more weights you lift, the stronger you get.
In fact, Cutti is a proponent of weight training for any athlete, regardless of whether you're a runner or a wrestler.
And you should still be diligent when out of the gym, too: "Nutrition plays a huge component in building the proper muscle density," says Cutti. That third set of bicep curls isn't going to get you very far if you're still chowing down on doughnuts.
Former professional cyclist Lance Armstrong is no stranger to the medal podium, having won the Tour de France -- the world's largest cycling tournament -- a record seven times before retiring in 2005. The race is not for the faint of heart -- it takes place over 23 days and 21 stages, generally crisscrossing more than 1,864 miles through France and neighboring countries, and requires an almost inhuman amount of endurance.
Whether it's for running, cycling, swimming, or myriad other sports, scientists have boiled human stamina down to three main factors: maximal oxygen consumption, the lactate threshold (the intensity at which lactic acid starts accumulating in the blood stream), and efficiency (i.e., the amount of oxygen one needs to do the task -- in Armstrong's case, pedal his bike). A researcher tailed Armstrong for 13 years to figure out which of these three components was the most important for him.
Even after having undergone chemotherapy and surgery for testicular cancer, Armstrong still had an elite athlete's body: his maximal heart rate topped out at 200 beats per minute, pumping huge quantities of blood and oxygen to his legs; and his maximal blood lactate concentration was "remarkably low" in the trained state. However, the notable improvement made over that decades-plus period was Armstrong's muscular efficiency and a reduced body fat. Considering the Tour de France involves much uphill biking, these two changes contributed to an 18 percent improvement in his power-to-body-weight ratio, and that efficiency is thought to be what pushed Armstrong ahead of his competitors.
So what can we mortals do to realistically improve our muscle endurance?
Train these three areas, says Cutti: aerobic conditioning, power and speed, and competition-specific challenges. "If you're looking to build endurance, the focus is not to go as hard as you can for 30 seconds," he says. Instead, you can view your training from the "triangle approach": switch up between a lot of low-intensity exercises and a few high-intensity exercises. In other words, as the time spent working out decreases, the intensity of your exercising should increase. Vary your workouts -- athletes build up their endurance by targeting their weaknesses (and maintaining their strengths) from all angles. "You never want to just focus on one level," Cutti adds.
As any gymnast or pole vaulter knows, precisely calibrated motor movements are necessary to get to the elite level. But you need more than just exhaustive practice to clear a 6-meter vault or execute a complex uneven bars routine -- and a recent study says it's just as mental as it is physical.
A 2008 study in the Journal of Physiology reports that whenever a person perfects a task through repetition, that person's primary motor cortex initially expands, or there's an increase in motor cortical excitability devoted to the same muscles involved in the task. All of this results in a form of muscle memory.
Though the klutziest among us aren't likely to win gold medals any time soon, "you can become more coordinated," says Cutti, who suggests doing agility drills. Some research suggests that daily practice can even lead to permanent changes in the brain.
Even for sports that require mental nimbleness -- like tennis and Ping-Pong, which rely heavily on anticipation and perception of the opponent -- one can strengthen one's anticipatory reflex or mentally ingrain a routine just by watching the same performance over and over. That's one reason why physiologists like Cutti recommend that athletes film a practice or match and replay it.
This is not to say that all sports are created equal. "In the realm of gymnastics and figure skating, all of those more fluid, coordinated, specific events, I think that you might have a more genetic component and less of a training component," Cutti says. But though some everyday athletes may never reach Olympic caliber, that doesn't mean you can't reach your own peak performance.
Originally published on FitnessMagazine.com, July 2008.