My fitness goals this year are about understanding my limits. Benchmarking myself by other runners and cyclists is as disheartening as it is inspiring, but it’s also a way to understand whether the limits on my pace and speed or in my head or my genes.
The new world records being set in Beijing are good evidence that plenty of it is really in my genes. Two decades ago, world class swimmers were supposed to be lanky, long-legged spiders with incredible reach. Michael Phelps showed us, four years ago already, that if you want to be great at swimming, you need to look more like a dolphin. His feet and hands are huge and he has a six foot four inch torso on his five foot nine inch legs. He may find it difficult to buy a suit off the rack, but he’s practically made for the water.
Usain Bolt is easy to pick out of the starting blocks. He’s the one who’s a head taller than all the other sprinters. The world record holder for 100 and 200 meter sprinting is going to change the face, well, height, of sprinting. Years from now, all those lanky young men who were guided to other sports will be funneled into sprinting to see if they can take advantage of the same mechanics that helped Bolt.
I am not very tall (about five foot nine) so I’ve seen these limits before. Most sports select for height. Basketball and volleyball are obvious examples, but it helps for many others as well. Taller people have a longer stride and offer relatively little extra wind resistance for their increased power. I see this in cycling all the time. My larger riding partners blow me away on the flats, easily cruising at 20 miles per hour. The only time I can catch up is on the hills where being smaller means I have to put out far fewer Watts to do climb to the top.
In a recent example, I beat a strong riding partner of mine up a four-mile hill. Knowing our average speed, altitude change and distance I calculated our average power output. His was around 350 W/hr compared to my measly 250 W/hr. Even Tour de France riders don’t maintain much more than 400 so my partner should be commended for his superb performance as an amateur. More importantly, he’s actually able to support 350 W/hr which is why he crushes me on the flats. It’s not just that he’s in shape (he is) but that his size means that just climbing stairs now and again, his body is used to putting out more energy, so his baseline is so much higher than mine.
It’s not really good news for me (because I am way too lazy) but most of these height advantages reverse as the sport turns into an endurance challenge. My cycling friend above may be able to put out 350 W/hr, but his body probably doesn’t digest food much faster than mine. At some point, he just won’t be able to nourish himself enough to keep going. It’s too bad we’re not competing in any double centuries…I might just have a chance (except that would be just dumb!) Compare those tiny marathoners to Bolt’s six foot five in frame.
Unlike my weekend warrior fitness plan, world class athletics is a very effective sorter for characteristics of success. Coaches can try to guide young Phelpses and Bolts into sports based on what they think is more suited to their bodies, but when everyone is training at such an elite level, what separates them becomes tiny little advantages like big feet and fancy swimming suits. Inexorably, the Olympics and other elite sports will become a freak show of bodies and minds perfectly formed for the sport in which they compete. Future Olympics won’t be inspiring in an ‘if I just tried hard enough that could be me’ sort of way and, to be fair, they probably weren’t in their debut in ancient Greece. Instead, like this year in Beijing, it will be absolutely fascinating to see what humans can do—and how their bodies will adapt—to break new records.