Sports Scientists Train Athletes to Defy Old Limits

Article. Sports Scientists Train Athletes to Defy Old Limits

By analyzing many neuromuscular functions with treadmills, test tubes and computers, researchers are learning what it takes to win.

Smithsonian

Published on Tuesday, July 1, 1980 by Jay Stuller

By Jay Stuller

Sports scientists train athletes to defy old limits

The timeless striving of athletes to break records of the past and extend limits of human performance

By analyzing many neuromuscular functions with treadmills, test tubes and computers, researchers are learning what it takes to win

is symbolized in this painting, by Guy S. Fairlamb,

of a runner who is competing in a race against himself.

The skies above Olympic Stadium in Mexico City threatened a mid-afternoon rain as long jumper Bob Beamon, representing the United States in the 1968 Olympic Games, sucked deep breaths of the thin air and gazed at the takeoff board more than 100 feet away. 1-Ie had fouled twice during the previous day’s qualifying round, and he told himself one thing: “Don’t foul. Don’t foul.” Accelerating clown the path, he reached a speed of approximately 24 mph, hit the board perfectly and converted his speed to an upward and outward thrust, the torque and force lifting his body five and a half to six feet in the air. He kicked his legs, running in space, raised his knees to an awkward, froglike position and then stretched them forward as lie hit the sand in the pit. “It felt like a regular jump,” Beamon said later. But it wasn’t.

According to Dr. 1?rnst Jokl, a neurologist and professor emeritus of physiology at the University, of Kentucky, it was “a mutation performance.” Other physiologists claim it took forces that could have torn the athlete’s muscles and broken his bones. Beamon’s jump carried him an amazing 29 feet, 21/2 inches, smashing the old record by nearly two feet. Jokl calls it the greatest single feat in the recorded history of athletic competition.

Was it? Did Bob Beamon reach the limits of human athletic performance on that October day in 1968? In the past, questions like these were likely to be settled by an argument and a wager. But a new field of research into the nature of athletic performance is providing a more scientific basis for the answers. Sports an([ exercise scientists are measuring and testing everything from athletes’ muscle twitches to their mental traits, redesigning their diets and analyzing their physical movements by computer. Although sports science cannot yet predict whether a record like Beanlon’s will ever be broken, the information accumulated by analyzing outstanding athletes is benefiting aspiring athletes and improving their performances at all levels of competition.

In a sense, the development of sports science is an extension of the older discipline of sports medicine, which can trace its origins to the ancient Greek Olympics. Greek physicians called “gymnasts” were involved in all aspects of an athlete’s training. One of the most renowned was Herodicus who was, purportedly, the teacher of Hippocrates, the father of medicine. The American College of Sports Medicine, founded in 1955, continues this tradition with a wide range of physicians and other specialists as members (including dentists, podiatrists, osteopaths, even veterinarians).

But sports scientists are now interested in far more than the prevention and treatment of injuries. At laboratories from coast to coast, they are studying athletes’ physiology, biomechanics, biochemistry, psychology, kinesiology (the science of movement)-from toe to teeth.

An underlying assumption of sports science is that by analyzing the elements of athletic prowess, it should be possible to teach athletes to perform better. But how much room for improvement is there?

In 1934, young Brutus Hamilton, later the track coach at the University of California, Berkeley, set forth what he thought would be the “absolute ulti

Jay Stuller is a free-lance writer Whose sports career as a college basketball player lasted two years.

A device in Clein’s lab shows weight distribution on feet, seen in mirror; test is for posture problems.

There are many other traits Clein looks at, such as differences in muscle fibers, termed “fast-twitch” and “slow-twitch” fibers. A fast-twitch fiber reacts well to sports that require fast work of high intensity and short duration, such as sprinting; a slow-twitch fiber is better for sports that require endurance, such as marathon running.

In his Denver laboratory, Clein carefully studies an individual before recommending any performanceimproving program, because each athlete has distinctly different needs. It may involve the kind of fine tuning needed by the Cleveland Indians’ third baseman Toby Harrah, who had thigh muscles in one leg that were weaker than those in the other. Or Clein may work a complete transformation, as in the case of Leslie Covillo, a gangly 14-year-old when she came to him three years ago.

She wanted to be a runner and was hoping to go out for her junior high track team, but at first glance that hope appeared futile. She didn’t know how to run and could not sprint efficiently in a straight line. She was tall and awkward, with painfully weak legs. “Those long legs are long levers,” explains Clein, “but Leslie didn’t have the muscle mass to move them properly. But as our tests progressed we found she had the things that gave her a mechanical advantage on the track: a great nervous system and the perfect body build for running.”

These traits were not, however, obvious at a glance.

Clein put Covillo through a series of tests, checking neuromuscular functions such as her “righting” reflex, seeing how quickly she could catch her balance when her equilibrium was disturbed, and her reaction time, seeing how fast she could respond to visual or auditory cues. There were exams on how she processed such information and psychological tests of her aggression, need for dominance and self-assuredness. “We also looked into her family background,” says Clein, “to determine if it was supportive and encouraging. Which it was.”

There were also measurements of the physical characteristics that separate the champions from the ordinary. “We looked at the length of her lower leg in relation to her tipper leg,” says Clein. “The width of her shoulders and hips, the length of her waist. All these factors have to be compared with her body mass. And then we compared her characteristics with what sprinters must do and the mechanical advantage they need for their sport.” Covillo qualified.

“We had to evaluate her strengths and weaknesses,” Clein says, “and then consult the research to see what she should do. First, she didn’t have the muscle mass to move those levers, so we put her on a resistance program to increase her overall body power.”

Curiously, not once during the six-month laboratory workout did Clein put Covillo on a track or time her in a race. “It was best to build that physiological base of success here,” lie explains. It also helped her psychologically, not allowing her to go to a track and have a bad experience. “As we retested her, she could make goals for herself here.” Clein also taught her the art of dissipating nervous tension and relaxing.

Running while lying down

Because tension affects motor performance, Clein prescribed a special exercise for Covillo, a visualization of the races she would win. With his student lying on the floor, eyes closed, arms relaxed at her sides, Clein talked:

“You’re tense, Leslie,” he said. “You see the other competitors next to you. You feel the pressure, but you start to let it go. Feel the tension leave your body.” Covillo’s hands tensed, she relaxed her fist and wiggled her fingers. “You can feel it leaving your neck. Your shoulders get loose.” Covillo twitched her shoulders, then rotated smoothly. “Okay, now you don’t see the other runners, they disappear. They’re not there anymore and it’s you on the track. You’re in the blocks. Ready, go!”

Covillo’s knees pumped furiously as she flopped on the floor in an imitation of running while lying on her back. The style of the mimicry did not matter, for the race was in her inind. Then she stopped, and

The science o f sports

Tb improve her figure skating, Lynn Smith runs on treadmill for Dr. Ogilvie’s biomechanical evaluation.

Clein told her she’d run a good time, won the race.

“This programs the body and the mind for a race,” explains Clein. “It sets a pattern of good things happening so she can get rid of that nervous tension in a competitive situation.”

When Covillo did go out for her junior high squad, she set five records in her first year. She won the 100and 200-meter races in the Amateur Athletic Union’s Rocky Mountain Division and qualified for the junior Olympics in three events. Now 17, she intends to go on running at the University of Oregon next year. “Her progression has slowed down,” says Clein, “but she does have all the characteristics to be a high-class runner. She might have done OK if we hadn’t tested her and put her on a special program, but she would not have done as much with all that innate talent.”

The psychological factors that are a critical part of the training iii Clein’s lab become even more important in competition at the top of a sport. The psychology of record breaking is obviously inexact, but it is a terrible and sometimes frightening factor.

Dr. Bruce C. Ogilvie, a 59-year-old sports psychologist and professor emeritus at San Jose State who frequently works with Clein, has probed the minds of thousands of athletes, in questionnaires and lengthy interviews. I-Ic has consulted with numerous professional, college and Olympic teams and conducted personal counseling sessions with athletes who felt they had a mental block. In the 1980 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid, U.S. figure skater David Santee expressed effusive and public thanks for the help Ogilvie had given him.

The art of mental skating

“Athletes are basically an emotionally healthy group,” says Ogilvie, “but the main mental interference in performance is self-doubt. And I don’t think there is any athlete, gold medalist or not, who hasn’t experienced self-doubt at one time or another.”

When necessary, Ogilvie will sit with an athlete in exhaustive sessions that may last 18 hours. “The block is often subconscious,” says Ogilvie, “but what we do is create a routine of positive actions where everything goes perfectly. We have the athlete rehearse this in the mind, a visual image of the performance.”

Santee went through mental skating programs, including the one that nearly won him the bronze medal at Lake Placid. “David had experienced a near-total collapse in self-confidence,” explains Ogilvie. “He’d had a series of unfortunate performances in a row, which build up in intensity. In this situation, one starts pressing, which makes it quite difficult to capitalize on motor gifts. And David has wonderful motor gifts, a beautiful set of genes for the sport.”

Ogilvie relaxes San Jose State baseball player Mitch Buich jr. as part of mental batting practice.

Santee, however, had lapsed into an attitude of passivity, and had lost his once-commanding presence on the ice. “We wanted to regenerate that deep feeling of self-affirmation,” says Ogilvie. “We wanted to eliminate anything tentative in his approach.” In the Gaines Santee fairly sparkled with ebullience.

For other athletes, improvement may come from understanding physical problems they could not see themselves. Dr. Gideon Ariel, who has specialized in both computer science and exercise science, is training the athlete’s neurological patterns and functions as well as the traditional muscular functions by applying computer technology to sports.

The 41-year-old Ariel, a former discus thrower and member of the Israeli Olympic team, has a sports research center near Trabuca Canyon, California, and also conducts studies at CBA (Computerized Biomechanical Analysis, Inc.) in Amherst, Massachusetts. A current prize pupil is Al Oerter, the 43-year-old, four-time Olympic gold medal winner in the discus, who retired after the 1968 Games and is now making an amazing comeback. Oerter’s longest Olympic throw was 212.6 feet (the current record is 233.5).

When he came to me 14 months ago,” says Ariel, “we took some high-speed film of him throwing and compared his performance with those of previous years. He is slower, of course; age has slowed him down. But what we noticed was how inefficiently he had been throwing. He released the discus at the wrong angle, causing the throwing forces to be misdirected. The angle of his arm relative to his trunk was wrong for maximum leverage and his feet were leaving the ground when he needed maximum contact with the throwing circle. He was throwing only 180 feet when he came to us.”

Ariel made a computer model of the Oerter film, which appears on a graphics display screen like a complex stick man. From this, Oerter could see on the screen right in front of him the elements of his throw. “Coaches can’t see the subtleties of where technique is wrong,” claims Ariel. “Your eyes can’t ‘see’ forces or velocities. You have to calculate the results of numerous equations and present these graphically on the computer display to see the movements, to see what the athlete must change to optimize his actions and get the most from his force.”

Using the computer and exercises to work on Oerter’s neurological patterns-you train the muscles and the nerves, says Ariel-Oerter is much closer to his optimal performance. That may not be as high as some of the younger throwers, who may have a better biological advantage, but Oerter is now throwing 221.4 feet, far better than he did during his “prime.”

If sports science has already begun producing better athletes, it is still a relatively unsophisticated science, and its developing techniques will undoubtedly produce even better results in the future. The use of steroids is an example.

Pill parity in the steroid race

Anabolic steroids are basically androgens, or male hormones, which help build muscle bulk and strength and are favored by athletes in many events from weight lifting, the shot put and discus to, more recently, running. Although illegal by international athletic rules (testing is conducted at all major international meets and during the Olympics) and available by prescription only, many athletes take them indiscriminately, with the attitude that “if two pills (or injections) are good, ten can get them a medal.”

And this has them flirting with potentially dire consequences; prolonged and overuse of steroids can lead to sterility and sexual dysfunction. In some Eastern European nations, elite young female athletes are said to be given hearty doses of the substance at key points in their careers. In the United States, athletes take steroids by choice, but the effect is quite similar to an arms race; if the Soviet throwers are getting so many steroids a day, an American must have pill parity or lose. “You can’t be world-class without steroids,” says one flatly. But Ariel sees sports science as only at the first stage of understanding such chemicals. “Next is looking at the chemistry of the body,” he says. “And I hope it can be done naturally.

“The muscle cells store fat and carbohydrate [the latter as glycogen] which break down chemically to

The science of sports

restore ATP [adenosine-triphosphate], the body’s immediate source of energy for muscle contraction. You only have so much ATP in your body and in a sprint, for instance, you burn it up. A 100-meter nian can exhaust his supply, accelerating all the way. But a 400-meter man must pace himself or lie will exhaust his supply too early in the race and slow down.”

Ariel feels that there may be a nutritional way to stimulate ATP production naturally, to give an athlete more to work with. “Then there is no reason a sprinter can’t go all out in a longer race.”

Another exercise physiologist agrees that the field is in its infancy. “In talking about the limits of human performance-how good can you get?-it leaves the impression that we really know, and we really don’t,” says William J. Fink of the highly regarded Human Performance Laboratory at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. “In a sense, we lag behind the superb athlete and the superb coach because they are at a level of performance which we could not predict, but we can study them and find out or describe what’s going on in their bodies and draw up some general conclusions that would be helpful for the average athlete. Sometimes we wonder whether we can create a champion,” Fink muses. “When you get a group of worldclass competitors together in any given sport, and test them, you find that they become indistinguishable from each other. So it becomes impossible to predict which one is going to be the winner. I still think we arc a long way off from making champions.”

So there is still no very sure answer to the questions posed by Bob Beamon’s record-breaking jump in the 1968 Olympics. There have been efforts to discount Beanion’s leap, put an asterisk next to it for “altitude.” Indeed, a lower drag coefficient of the air in Mexico city nay have accounted for some of his performance, as well as the fact that the city sits on a spot on the Earth that has a gravitational pull about one-sixth of one percent under what Beamon might have expected, say, in Los Angeles. Some analysts have factored in an environmental advantage of nearly nine inches, which still leaves a foot in the “mystical” category. “Beanion’s performance was extraordinary,” says Ernst Jokl. “But if it happened once, we can’t ignore the possibility that it could happen again.”

Ariel’s computer analyzes athletic performance into elements, displays stop-action motion on screen

Images opposite, made from films, show nature of

championship golf drive, tennis swing, marathon pace

Dr. Ariel gives colleague a workout on computerized exercise device that provides readouts of performance.

Jack Nicklaus’ doll drive Jimmy Connors’ tennis serve

Bill lZoclgcrs’ marathon pace

The timeless striving of athletes to break records of the past and extend limits of human performance is symbolized in the painting, by Guy S. Fairlamb, of a runner who is competing in a race against himself.

By analyzing many neuromuscular functions with treadmills, test tubes and computers, researchers are learning what it takes to win.

The skies above Olympic Stadium in Mexico City threatened a mid-afternoon rain as long jumper Bob Beamon, representing the United States in the 1968 Olympic Gaines, sucked deep breaths of the thin air and gazed at the takeoff board more than 100 feet away. He had fouled twice during the previous day’s qualifying round, and he told himself one thing: “Don’t foul. Don’t foul.” Accelerating down the path, he reached a speed of approximately 24 mph, hit the board perfectly and converted his speed to an upward and outward thrust, the torque and force lifting his body five and a half to six feet in the air. He kicked his legs, running in space, raised his knees to an awkward, froglike position and then stretched them forward as lie hit the sand in the pit. “It felt like a regular jump,” Beamon said later. But it wasn’t.

By Jay Stuller

Sports scientists train athletes to defy old limits

According to Dr. Ernst Jokl, a neurologist and professor emeritus of physiology at the University of Kentucky, it was “a mutation performance.” Other physiologists claim it took forces that could have torn the athlete’s muscles and broken his bones. Beamon’s jump carried him an amazing 29 feet, 21/2 inches,

SMITHSONIAN July 1980

Using the computer and exercises to work on Oerter’s neurological patterns-you train the muscles and the nerves, says Ariel-Oerter is much closer to his optimal performance. That may not be as high as some of the younger throwers, who may have a better biological advantage, but Oerter is now throwing 221.4 feet, far better than he did during his “prime.”

If sports science has already begun producing better athletes, it is still a relatively unsophisticated science, and its developing techniques will undoubtedly produce even better results in the future. The use of steroids is an example.

Pill parity in the steroid race

Anabolic steroids are basically androgens, or male hormones, which help build muscle bulk and strength and are favored by athletes in many events from weight lifting, the shot put and discus to, more recently, running. Although illegal by international athletic rules (testing is conducted at all major international meets and during the Olympics) and available by prescription only, many athletes take them indiscriminately, with the attitude that “if two pills (or injections) are good, ten can get them a medal.”

And this has them flirting with potentially dire consequences; prolonged and overuse of steroids can lead to sterility and sexual dysfunction. In some Eastern European nations, elite young female athletes are said to he given hearty doses of the substance at key points in their careers. In the United States, athletes take steroids by choice, but the effect is quite similar to an arms race; if the Soviet throwers are getting so many steroids a day, an American must have pill parity or lose. “You can’t be world-class without steroids,” says one flatly. But Ariel sees sports science as only at the first stage of understanding such chemicals. “Next is looking at the chemistry of the body,” he says. “And I hope it can be done naturally.

“The muscle cells store fat and carbohydrate [the latter as glycogen] which break down chemically to restore ATP [adenosine-triphosphate], the body’s immediate source of energy for muscle contraction. You only have so much ATP in your body and in a sprint, for instance, you burn it up. A 100-meter man can exhaust his supply, accelerating all the way. But a 400-meter man must pace himself or he will exhaust his supply too early in the race and slow down.”

Ariel feels that there may be a nutritional way to stimulate ATP production naturally, to give an athlete more to work with. “Then there is no reason a sprinter can’t go all out in a longer race.”

Dr. Ariel gives colleague a workout on computerized exercise device that provides readouts of performance.

smashing the old record by nearly two feet. Jokl calls it the greatest single feat in the recorded history of athletic competition.

Was it? Did Bob Beamon reach the limits of human athletic performance on that October clay in 1969? In the past, questions like these were likely to be settled by an argument and a wager. But a new field of research into the nature of athletic performance is providing a more scientific basis for the answers. Sports and exercise scientists are measuring and testing everything from athletes’ muscle twitches to their mental traits, redesigning their diets and analyzing their physical movements by computer. Although sports science cannot yet predict whether a record like Beamon’s will ever be broken, the information accumulated by analyzing outstanding athletes is benefiting aspiring athletes and improving their performances at all levels of competition.

In a sense, the development of sports science is an extension of the older discipline of sports medicine, which can trace its origins to the ancient Greek Olympics. Greek physicians called “gymnasts” were involved in all aspects of an athlete’s training. One of the most renowned was Herodicus who was, purportedly, the teacher of Hippocrates, the father of medicine. The American College of Sports Medicine, founded in 1955, continues this tradition with a wide range of physicians and other specialists as members (including dentists, podiatrists, osteopaths, even veterinarians).

But sports scientists are now interested in far more than the prevention and treatment of injuries. At laboratories from coast to coast, they are studying athletes’ physiology, hiomechanics, biochemistry, psychology, kinesiology (the science of movement)-from toe to teeth.

An underlying assumption of sports science is that by analyzing the elements of athletic prowess, it should be possible to teach athletes to perform better. But how much room for improvement is there?

For other athletes, improvement may come from understanding physical problems they could not see themselves. Dr. Gideon Ariel, who has specialized in both computer science and exercise science, is training the athlete’s neurological patterns and functions as well as the traditional muscular functions by applying computer technology to sports.

The 41-year-old Ariel, a former discus thrower and member of the Israeli Olympic team, has a sports research center near Trabuca Canyon, California, and also conducts studies at CBA (Computerized Biomechanical Analysis, Inc.) in Amherst, Massachusetts. A current prize pupil is Al Oerter, the 43-year-old, four-time Olympic gold medal winner in the discus, who retired after the 1968 Games and is now making an amazing comeback. Oerter’s longest Olympic throw was 212.6 feet (the current record is 233.5).

Ariel’s computer analyzes athletic performance into elements, displays stop-action motion on screen.

Images opposite, made from films, show nature of championship golf drive, tennis swing, marathon pace.

When he came to me 14 months ago,” says Ariel, “we took some high-speed film of him throwing and compared his performance with those of previous years. He is slower, of course; age has slowed him down. But what we noticed was how inefficiently he had been throwing. He released the discus at the wrong angle, causing the throwing forces to be misdirected. The angle of his arm relative to his trunk was wrong for maximum leverage and his feet were leaving the ground when he needed maximum contact with the throwing circle. He was throwing only 180 feet when he came to us.”

Ariel made a computer model of the Oerter film, which appears on a graphics display screen like a complex stick man. From this, Oerter could see on the screen right in front of him the elements of his throw. “Coaches can’t see the subtleties of where technique is wrong,” claims Ariel. “Your eyes can’t ‘see’ forces or velocities. You have to calculate the results -of numerous equations and present these graphically on the computer display to see the movements, to see what the athlete must change to optimize his actions and get the most from his force.”