Building the Athlete of the Future

Article. Building the Athlete of the Future

Researchers are deciphering the Biomechanics of Motion and the Chemistry of Strength

Science Digest

Published on Friday, September 1, 1989 by Patricia Loverock


Building the Athlete of the Future

Researchers are deciphering the biomechanics of motion and the chemistry of strength

By Patricia Loverock

Adapted from the Los Angeles Times Magazine

A research subject by the name of Orel Hershiser appears on a movie screen in a hospital laboratory. Hcrshiscr is pitching the ball for the sake of science, so rather than Dodger blue he wears only a baseball glove, shorts, socks, shoes. and an array of electrodes and wires. As he throws, the upper body that looks slightly skinny on the mound is remarkably muscular and fluid. He uncoils and explodes across the screen in slow motion-frame by frame-hands, wrists, arms, trunk, hips, and legs flowing together in perfect synchronization as he winds up and lets the baseball go.

Sixteen-millimeter cameras are filming front, side, and overhead views of the pitch at 500 frames per second. On an 8-foot-high console, 2,000-foot reels of quarter-inch magnetic tape record microprocessed signals from every twitch of Hershisei s muscles. An oscilloscope’s electrical wave traces his muscular activity, and a printer simultaneously spews out a copy of the image appearing on the scope.

Hershiser’s cooperation with the scientists at Centinela Hospital Medical Center is helping to define the path of athletic excellence to come. On film and on an electrical energy graph. Hershiser is part of a study of human movement that may enable doctors to understand how muscles function-and malfunction. The information they’re gaining could allow them to diagnose and treat injuries without surgery and ultimately help prevent sports injuries. It’s just one of the experiments being conducted in biochemistry, biomechanics, psychology, and genetics that may change the way American athletes are trained, treated, and expected to perform in the next century.

Athletes are feeling the pressure to turn to science-not for steroids but for safe ways to reach their potential.

Surprisingly, in this country “the whole idea that science has something to do with the performance of athletes is new,” says Harmon Brown, chairman of sports medicine and science for the Athletic Congress, the governing body for track and field in the United States. Americans, he says, have been slow to accept the idea of sports as a legitimate



focus for research. The Soviets pioneered the field before the 1952 Olympics: they traveled around the world to film outstanding athletes and study their training programs. Then in 1952, instead of just copying, they began designing their own research.

The stunning performance of East-bloc athletes in the 1970s spurred the U.S. Olympic Committee to fund scientific research.

The results were dramatically apparent in the 1972 Summer Olympic Games, when Soviet athletes, who just four years before had won 29 gold medals to the United States’ 45, came away with 50 gold medals, besting the 33 won by the United States.

Equally striking was the improvement of the East German team, which won 9 gold medals in 1968 but took home 20 in 1972 and 40 in 1976. That showing helped jolt Congress into passing the Amateur Sports Act of 1978. giving the U.S. Olympic Committee the authority to fund research and create an organization to raise money for scientific support programs.

As the U.S. sports-research program begins to bear fruit, it is changing the shape and psyches of American athletes, who are feeling increasing pressure to turn to sports science not for the quick fix of steroids and illegal performance enhancers but for safe. sophisticated ways to reach their potential. What follows is a sampling of the ideas and experiments that could help create the American sports superstars of the next generation.

The science of biomechanics is based on observation. Watch the body perform a movement. analyze that motion, and use the findings to adjust the next performance. Increasingly, scientists and coaches are using advanced technology to observe activity that is not readily visible to the eye. breaking a single motion into finer and finer parts and, theoretically. perfecting it. In coming decades, experts say, they’ll be watching athletes move from the inside out.

Biomechanical computer analysis established its place in sports training when the U.S. women’s volleyball team won its first Olympic medal, a silver, in 1984. Head coach Arie Selinger gave much of the credit to Gideon Ariel, a biomechanics researcher and computer expert at Coto Research Center outside Los Angeles.

Using technology he developed in 1968 when he “married WordStar to ‘Rocky,’ “Ariel converted videotape images into colored stick-figure drawings that moved in three dimensions. The simple images on the computer screen allowed Selinger and Ariel to see what a trained human eye missed: the precise angle of the players’ joints as they jumped. served, blocked, and spiked.

Movement of the joints is a clue to the workings of the muscles, showing which muscles are working the hardest and pinpointing possible weaknesses. Selinger and Ariel used the computer data to adjust the team’s training programs and. Ariel says, to make medalists of what might have been a fifteenth-place team.

Such computer models are being used to answer specific questions-for example, how far do an athlete’s hips move above the hurdles during a race? That information might tell a coach that the hurdler needed to lower his lead leg to clear the barrier more efficient

The Soviets were the first to use scientYk- technology in sports training. The electrodes attached to this weightlifter helped researchers understand how he used his m,Scles during each ll.



ly. It cannot, however, reveal exactly what is happening in the body. Providing that internal view is the next phase of sports biomechanics. Part of this effort is the study involving Hershiser, which analyzes and compares the movements of seven professional and six amateur pitchers.

Hershiser learned that “no-pain, no-gain” can apply in the lab as well as in the gym

The Centinela scientists record not only a slow-motion visual image of Hershiser but also a map of the electrical impulses produced by his shoulder muscles from windup to follow-through. An active muscle will fire (transmit an impulse) frequently. A muscle that is working less hard, perhaps because of weakness or injury, fires less frequently. Once scientists know how the muscles fire when one of the best pitchers in baseball history throws a ball-and exactly which muscles are used in pitching-they can use that model to help treat pitchers who are injured or in pain. By

contrasting Hershiser s graph and those of other healthy pitchers with one produced when an injured pitcher throws. they can pinpoint the site of an injury by spotting muscles that aren’t firing as a healthy muscle would. This

will allow them to spot an injury long before surgery is necessary.

‘Me “no-pain, no-gain” maxim applies in the lab as well as in the gym: Before the film is shot. a lab technician uses hollow needles as thick as toothpicks to inject fine nickel-chromium wires into eight sites in the pitcher’s shoulder. At each site, a 22-inch-long wire is carried by the needle directly into the belly of the muscle, as far as an inch deep. (There is a cot in a corner of the room for those who faint during the process.) The technician gently pulls out the needles, but the wires remain. For a few seconds, the muscle aches–it feels like a charley horse.” says lab director Marilyn Pink-until the wires find a comfortable place to lodge. Once they do, they act as antennae. conducting signals to a radio transmitter

Her shiser wears on a belt. The transmitter amplifies the signals and broadcasts them to an antenna across the room. which relays them to a receiver on the computer console. Every muscle twitch is recorded on tape. then appears as a glowing green jagged line on the oscilloscope screen. High, frequent peaks on the screen show the firing of the most active muscles; smoother sections with lower, less frequent peaks show when muscle activity is winding down or impaired.

“If you combine the patterns we get from the computer screen with the high-speed film. you can see how the muscles are interacting with each other,” says Robert Gregor. an associate professor of kinesiology at UCLA who conducts high-speed film research on college athletes. “We can slow it down tremendously, and this allows you to go through the parts of the movement, quantify it, and provide an analysis that might be helpful in strengthening and rehabilitating.” The goal: to be able to give athletes a kind of “instant replay” analysis so that they can make immediate adjustments in technique and training. The Dodgers are using the results of the recently completed pitching study to tailor injury-preventing conditioning programs, says Bill Buhler, Dodger head trainer.

Ariel hopes to give added scope to movement analysis by using holograms, three-dimensional laser images. Sitting in his office, he envisions a scenario from the 1990s: “If I want to see Carl Lewis jumping right on this table now, using laser technology, I could push

On the floor is a’ force platform” that will record how strongly this athlete rebounds from a jump.

a button and he will jump. I will look at it again and again. I will stop him in the air. Then I will take my jumper, and I will superimpose him. and I will see where there is a difference.”

Electrical analysis of movement may take the guesswork out of training.

Ariel adds that while his two holographic jumpers are leaping across a tabletop, a computer will analyze information such as the strength of each jumper’s takeoff leg, how high each raises his arms and legs, and how altering technique would change the performance. He may discover that if his jumper improved his leg strength by 10 percent he could outjump the champion. Combined with electrical data on muscle functioning, 3-D analysis such as this may take the guesswork out of training.

As Ariel and his peers search for ways to quantify and perfect the movements of tomorrow’s high-performance athletes, biochemists are tracking the chemical mechanisms that underlie strength and motion. For some athletes, the chemical key to improved performance has been anabolic steroids. But the Ben Johnson scandal-which blew the lid off a system in which coaches look the other way or help athletes break regulations-along with new evidence of harmful side effects casts some doubt on how long that will continue.

Michael Yessis, an exercise physiologist and a professor of physical education at California State University at Fullerton, edits and publishes Soviet Sports Review, a quarterly magazine that publishes translated articles on Soviet sports medicine. He says that the Soviets already have reduced their use of steroids, not because of drug testing but because they have found that the drugs cause injuries.

“They found out that, yes, steroids are effective for getting bigger and stronger muscles, but the muscle grows so fast the ligament and tendon can’t keep up with it.” The rapidly growing muscle stresses connective tissues to the breaking point.

“If you have a high-level athlete, you don’t want to expose him to something that could ruin his career very quickly,”

Yessis says. For that reason. it’s likely that future athletes will be seeking strength along different chemical pathways. Doctors with the U.S. Olympic Committee are particularly interested in the question of how to fuel a super-athlete. “We see nutrition as probably the main area of performance enhancement,” says Robert Voy, former chief medical officer of the Olympic Committee.

Although training tables and special diets have long been part of many American athletes’ regimens, basic nutrition for the athlete is one of the least understood areas of sports science. “We continue to use nutritional research that was done in the forties,” says Ann Grandjean, director of the International Center for Sports Nutrition at the University of Nebraska Medical Center and chief nutritional consultant to the Olympic Committee. “That basically told us that if you have a person who is deficient, you can enhance his performance through proper nutrition.” But once the deficiency has been treated, pumping

Researchers at Centinela Biomechanics Laboratory record the muscle activity of a gofer. They hope to determine what causes certain injuries by comparing the muscle activity of healthy and hurt players.

nutrients into an athlete won’t boost performance and may actually be harmful.

So instead of striving to find a single superstar-producing supplement, researchers are concentrating on the basics: determining the precise nutritional needs of individual athletes. One can envision a small computer set up at the training site. Blood tests would establish before- and after-workout levels of trace elements and other factors such as hormones and amino acids that become depleted during a typical workout. The computer then would calculate the athlete’s needs instantly.

Steroids will become passe when their effects can be achieved through more sophisticated training.

Ideally, computer models will work from data bases begun in infancy and will track the normal nutrient levels in healthy athletes throughout their lives.

Voy is certain that within the next decade, advances in nutrition “will have convinced [athletes] that a peak performance in sports can be gotten without the use of drugs. And it will be a lot safer and a lot longer lasting.”

Steroids may become passe for another reason: Researchers are zeroing in on the chemical processes that determine how much force muscles can produce. Eventually, they may be able to create steroidlike effects safely and legally with training alone.

The key to muscle-building is a protein called myosin, which affects a muscle’s ability to contract slowly or quickly, explains V. Reggie Edgerton, chairman of the UCLA kinesiology department. When a muscle has more of what is called slow myosin, it burns its fuel slower and contracts slowly. This type of myosin is associated with muscles involved in endurance events. Fast myosin creates powerful contractions that result in explosive movements.

Currently, it is possible to increase slow myosin through training, but not the fast myosin. Gymnasts, it seems, are born, but long-distance cyclists can be made. And researchers such as Edgerton are trying to find out exactly what activity is needed to signal muscle cells to produce the kinds of myosin that will enable them to contract in ways that will enhance performance.

Yessis believes that the way superstars are created in the future will be much the same way they have always been created: through the individual desire to win. That will bring coaches and athletes to science in search of the latest techniques and information.

Already, Yessis has spent five years working with USC sophomore quarterback Todd Marinovich. He met Marinovich and his father, former Oakland Raiders player and Los Angeles

Rams scout Marv Marinovich, when Todd was 13. They have worked together since, applying Yessis’s knowledge of biomechanics, exercise physiology, and Soviet sports research to Todd’s training. As a student at Capistrano Valley High School, Todd passed the football for a total of 9,194 yards, more than any other high-schooler in history.

If Todd stays healthy and continues his march through the record books, Yessis predicts that there will be greater interest from athletes, coaches, and parents in what it takes to build talent such as his.

“Since that young Darwin fellow was here, their species certainly has evolved.”