On Genetic Advantages, Doping, and Sports

Malcolm Gladwell, in my opinion, has published the best piece he’s written this year in “Man and Superman.” The central question he posits: do genetic advantages make sports (in particular, cycling) unfair compared to those who choose to dope? Paraphrased: what qualifies as a sporting chance in athletic competitions? He goes through a brief comparison of elite athletes in skiing, long-distance running, but his primary focus is on cycling.

When Hamilton joined Armstrong on the U.S. Postal Service racing team, he was forced to relearn the sport, to leave behind, as he puts it, the romantic world “where I used to climb on my bike and simply hope I had a good day.” The makeover began with his weight. When Michele Ferrari, the key Postal Service adviser, first saw Hamilton, he told him he was too fat, and in cycling terms he was. Riding a bicycle quickly is a function of the power you apply to the pedals divided by the weight you are carrying, and it’s easier to reduce the weight than to increase the power. Hamilton says he would come home from a workout, after burning thousands of calories, drink a large bottle of seltzer water, take two or three sleeping pills—and hope to sleep through dinner and, ideally, breakfast the following morning. At dinner with friends, Hamilton would take a large bite, fake a sneeze, spit the food into a napkin, and then run off to the bathroom to dispose of it. He knew that he was getting into shape, he says, when his skin got thin and papery, when it hurt to sit down on a wooden chair because his buttocks had disappeared, and when his jersey sleeve was so loose around his biceps that it flapped in the wind. At the most basic level, cycling was about physical transformation: it was about taking the body that nature had given you and forcibly changing it.

“Lance and Ferrari showed me there were more variables than I’d ever imagined, and they all mattered: wattages, cadence, intervals, zones, joules, lactic acid, and, of course, hematocrit,” Hamilton writes. “Each ride was a math problem: a precisely mapped set of numbers for us to hit. . . . It’s one thing to go ride for six hours. It’s another to ride for six hours following a program of wattages and cadences, especially when those wattages and cadences are set to push you to the ragged edge of your abilities.”

Hematocrit, the last of those variables, was the number they cared about most. It refers to the percentage of the body’s blood that is made up of oxygen-carrying red blood cells. The higher the hematocrit, the more endurance you have. (Mäntyranta had a very high hematocrit.) The paradox of endurance sports is that an athlete can never work as hard as he wants, because if he pushes himself too far his hematocrit will fall. Hamilton had a natural hematocrit of forty-two per cent—which is on the low end of normal. By the third week of the Tour de France, he would be at thirty-six per cent, which meant a six-per-cent decrease in his power—in the force he could apply to his pedals. In a sport where power differentials of a tenth of a per cent can be decisive, this “qualifies as a deal breaker.”

A must-read if you’re at all interested in sports, genetics, and the doping as cheating debate.

This sentence in the concluding paragraph is telling:

It is a vision of sports in which the object of competition is to use science, intelligence, and sheer will to conquer natural difference. 

Dean Karnazes: The Man Who Doesn’t Tire of Running

Most runners have to stop when they reach their lactate threshold, but Dean Karnazes’ muscles never tire: he can run for three days and nights without stopping. What’s his secret? The answer: he doesn’t have a lactate threshold.

When running, you break down glucose for energy, producing lactate as a byproduct and an additional source of fuel that can also be converted back into energy. However, when you exceed your lactate threshold, your body is no longer able to convert the lactate as rapidly as it is being produced, leading to a buildup of acidity in the muscles. It is your body’s way of telling you when to stop – but Karnazes never receives such signals.

“To be honest, what eventually happens is that I get sleepy. I’ve run through three nights without sleep and the third night of sleepless running was a bit psychotic. I actually experienced bouts of ‘sleep running’, where I was falling asleep while in motion, and I just willed myself to keep going.”

A brief explainer on the lactate process:

Your body clears lactate from the blood via a series of chemical reactions driven by the mitochondria in your muscle cells. These reactions transform lactate back to glucose again and they are enhanced by specific enzymes. The clearance process also works more efficiently if your mitochondria have a larger capacity, increasing their ability to use lactate as a fuel.

Years of training will improve both your enzymes and mitochondria and so improve your clearance, but there is a limit to how much you can improve your lactate threshold by training alone. If you inherit these enzymes and a larger mass of mitochondria genetically, your personal limits will be far higher.

In this 2006 interview with Outside Magazine, Dean offered his thoughts on pursuing his passion:

Outside: I know you just ran a marathon and want to get back to the bus to relax, so I’ll jump right in. The theme of our story is how to take your life from a seven to a ten. How did you decide to do that for yourself? 

Dean Karnazes: I made the commitment to turn my passion into my vocation. I’d always thought if I start making my life what I love, I might hate it. I might not enjoy it as much for some reason. I think that was an excuse more than anything else, because now that I’ve decided to do exactly what I love to do, it’s been the most rewarding, fulfilling experience of my life.

The Workout Routine of Julien Farel, U.S. Open Hairstylist

The Wall Street Journal reports how Julien Farel, official hairstylist of the U.S. Open, works and keeps in shape. Mr. Farel has an intense schedule, cutting the hair of some 30 to 50 people a day. So he needs a routine to stay in shape:

Mr. Farel is up at 5 a.m. on weekdays so he can run before work. He runs year round, in rain or snow. “I never check the weather because it is only an excuse not to run,” he says. He’ll run between 6 to 9 miles along the West Side Highway. When he stops to do upper body and core exercises, he’ll do three sets of 10 push-ups and three sets of 10 pull-ups. “I found an eating kiosk where I can hang from the roof and do pull-ups,” he says. “If it is raining, I can do my crunches and push-ups under cover there.”

Post-run, he stretches in a hot shower. He is religious about stretching his hands and fingers. “My hands are my job so I need to maintain flexibility and avoid arthritis,” he says. “I need as much dexterity as possible.” He might squeeze a small ball 30 times to strengthen his fingers, sometimes using just four fingers or two.

A lot of what Mr. Farel does I have been able to do over the last six months. For instance, many days I skip lunch entirely (all hail intermittent fasting) and have a thirty or forty minute run at the gym. I also skip breakfast. So this was interesting:

Mr. Farel takes in nearly all of his daily calories at dinner. He dines at restaurants with clients and friends at least three nights a week. “I go all out and get an appetizer, an entree, and dessert,” he says. “I don’t feel guilty at all because I need the calories to carry me on my run the next morning.”

Who knew you needed so much stamina to style hair!

The Science of Fat

This is a fascinating article in Outside Magazine on fat and muscle.

Not everything about fat is bad, of course. Fat tissue under the skin, known as subcutaneous fat—the kind that makes young people look succulent and ripe—is essentially padding that protects the body from injury, and it also helps fight infection and heal wounds. “Sub-q” fat produces an important hormone called adiponectin, which appears to help control metabolism and protect against certain cancers, notably breast cancer.

The bad news is that, as we age, we gradually lose this good fat, which is one reason why our hands get bonier. Instead, men and women alike tend to build up blobby fat on our midsections. Over the past decade or so, Kirkland and other scientists have discovered that this so-called visceral fat infiltrates our vital organs, bathing them in a nasty chemical stew that wreaks havoc in the body. Visceral fat produces an array of cell-signaling proteins called cytokines, including interleukin-6 (IL-6), which causes chronic inflammation, and TNF-alpha, for tumor necrosis factor, which has been linked to cancer.

Kirkland and other researchers have come to believe that, in addition to the problems associated with diabetes and heart disease, fat may actually help accelerate the aging process. In a 2008 experiment, scientists at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University surgically removed abdominal fat from obese lab rats and found that the rodents lived significantly longer than their chubby cousins. In a more recent study, not yet published, the Einstein team found that surgical fat removal prevented some colorectal cancers in mice that were genetically predisposed to those tumors.

I had no idea there was such a system in place in the human body:

One newly discovered myokine even tries to convert fat itself into an energy-consuming system like muscle. In 2012, a Harvard-based team identified a hormone called irisin, secreted during exercise, that tricks plain, blobby, “white” fat—and even deep visceral fat—into acting like “brown” fat, a far less common form that is dense with mitochondria and burns energy just like muscle does. Bruce Spiegelman, the Harvard scientist who led the team that discovered irisin, is now looking for a drug compound that might trigger its release.

Worth reading in entirety.

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(via Paul Kedrosky)