Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Faster, Higher, Stronger

From "Can't we talk about something more PLEASANT?" by Roz Chast, page 103.
The question the author wishes to ask at the end is "ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR MIND?"

Once again, I have been in California helping my Dad. On the one hand, this interrupted my cycling. On the other, it gave me an opportunity for more reading, including a lot that ended up being related to cycling. The first book I want to mention relates to the most important factor affecting my cycling in 2014, caring for my 93 year old father. If any of you are caring for aging parent(s), "Can't we talk about something more PLEASANT?" is a must read! This biographical work of non-fiction uses the format of a graphic novel (see the cartoon at the top of the page for an example) and is both hysterically funny and deadly serious.

A second book I read was "Why People Believe Weird Things" by Michael Shermer. When I started this book, I assumed it had nothing to do with cycling. However, when the author started using cycling examples in the book and referring to his past as a cyclist, I realized he was the "Race Across America" Shermer, for whom the ailment "Shermer's neck" is named. Shermer's neck affects long distance cyclists, including randonneurs participating in the longer events such as Paris-Brest-Paris, and causes the muscles in the back of the neck fail, allowing the cyclist's head to flop forward so they can no longer see the road ahead of them, requiring them to abandon the event. Although "Why People Believe Weird Things" is a good book and the identity of the author is a lovely small world story, it is not about cycling.

The third book I wanted to mention, "Outliers", is also not about cycling in particular, or even athletics, but it does include some topics relevant to cyclists. This book is most famous for having popularized the "10,000 hour rule" which says that it takes about 10,000 hours of practice to get good at any skill, that people who excel at that skill are the ones who have the opportunity, inclination, and discipline to put in that many hours. I did not consider this the most interesting part of this book, a good thing because this rule has recently met with increasing skepticism. What I did consider central to "Outliers" is its thesis that people who are exceptionally successful, in addition to being genetically gifted and extremely hard working, are almost always present "at the right place, at the right time." One of the examples the author gives is that of amateur hockey in Canada, apparently set up as a pure meritocracy. Boys start playing at age 4 or 5, and the best players from around the country at every level are identified and funneled into elite teams where they have many more opportunities to play and receive extra coaching. The surprising finding is that at the top of this meritocracy, the very best amateur players in Canada are much more likely to have birthdays in January than in December. The explanation the author gives for this astonishing observation is that at the beginning of this process, at age 4 or 5, one year more or less in age has a huge impact on maturity and thus athletic ability. As a result, at the younger ages, players more likely to be selected for the elite teams are the ones who are born in January, almost a year older than their teammates born in December. Although the age advantage declines as the team gets older, the initial advantage of that early additional play time and coaching stays with these players who end up at the top of the pyramid.

And finally to the main book I wanted to blog about: "Faster, Higher, Stronger: How Sports Science Is Creating a New Generation of Superathletes--and What We Can Learn from Them" by Mark McClusky. Faster, Higher, Stronger builds on Outliers and quotes from it extensively; I found it particularly useful to have read Outliers first followed by Faster, Higher, Stronger. (Interestingly, Faster, Higher, Stronger is one of the voices questioning the 10,000 hour rule popularized in Outliers.) Though not just about cycling, Faster, Higher, Stronger is about athletics and has a substantial section on cycling. For example, major section of the book is devoted to explaining how the British cycling community went from being a non-contender in international cycling (no British cyclist had ever won the Tour de France for example) to becoming a major power that helped not one but two of their riders, Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome, into the yellow jersey. Mr. McClusky is a writer for Wired Magazine, and as such this book shares Wired's "gee-wiz" prose style and emphasis on extravagant ideas over solid conclusions. That said, many of the extravagant ideas in this book do, in fact, have some evidential support, and as I result, I felt that it was well worth reading.

I find it particularly exciting when I read about an issue that is already on my mind; something I don't understand, or a tentative conclusion I have reached. One such conclusion is the effect of rate of maturation on performance among young athletes.

Me and some of my competitors at the end of a bike race in 1967. I am the rider to the far left.
Some kids mature earlier than others. Look at the picture above. The kid in the red jersey is the winner of the race shown, and in fact of many of the races in which I competed in the 1960s. (I raced in the under-18, Junior category.) I didn't notice it at the time, but in retrospect, it is obvious that he is larger and generally older looking than the other riders; he is an early maturer. He was also an extremely nice guy and was a hard worker, if memory serves, so he earned his victories, but being an early maturer certainly gave him an advantage. This phenomenon is discussed in Faster, Higher, Stronger which then further notes that being an early maturer gives one no advantage as an adult. Thus, many of the best cyclists in the Junior category did not go on to be similarly successful as Senior (18 to 40 year old) racers.

Faster, Higher, Stronger discusses many topics. One, for example, is the impact of equipment on sports results. This is a topic of great interest to us cyclists who lust after the latest bicycles and components. What I had not appreciated is that changes in the rules governing the equipment allowed in a sport can change who the best athletes are; using one set of equipment will favor some athletes, and using a different set will favor others. Among all the topics discussed in Faster, Higher, Stronger, the one I found the most interesting is how dramatically one's ability in different sports is predetermined at birth by genetics. This is a very complicated topic and the previous sentence is an oversimplification, so let me take a few lines to clarify. (The impatient reader can safely skip to the next paragraph.) First, there is the difference between phenotype (what you are) and genotype (what your genes set you up to be.) The genetics of hair color a is relatively simple example. If you dig deep, there is plenty of complexity in this topic, but at a basic level, it involves only a handful of genes. As many of us learned in high school, if both your parents are blonde, you will be blonde, and if both your parents have black hair, you might have blonde or black hair. In addition, if you know your parents genotype, and if they have a large number of children, you can make a pretty good guess as to number of children who will have blonde or black hair. As it happens, I am pretty sure that my wife has one gene for black hair and one gene for blonde hair, so her hair should be black, but it's not. It's grey. Some of you may be rolling your eyes, thinking "Yes, but it USED to be black" which it did. Nonetheless, my point is that phenotype (what color your hair is) is a combination of genotype (having one gene for black hair and one gene for blonde hair) and your history (living 66 years.) Perhaps height will be a more persuasive example. In contrast to hair color, the genetics of height is extremely complex. As Faster, Higher, Stronger discusses, there are over 1,000 genes that influence how tall a person will become. Even though we now have the ability to sequence a person's DNA and determine exactly which genes a person has, we are not even close to being able to look at that sequence and determining how tall a person is destined to be. What we can do, by studying families, and especially by studying identical twins, is determine that about half of how tall a person is is determined by those 1,000 or more genes, and the other half is determined by environment, nutrition being a big factor. That said, once a person has finished their growth (usually in their late teens or early 20s), their height is fixed; there is nothing that can be done to change it.

One of the most important phenotypes for a distance cyclist is VO2 max. This is the maximum amount of oxygen your body can process. This can be thought of as the size of your "engine". According to Faster, Higher, Stronger, VO2 max is like height in that it is about 50% determined by genes and 50% by environment. As far as I know, the environmental factors that determine VO2 max are not known, but basically, whatever VO2 max phenotype you have as a result of your genes and your history, you are stuck with.

VO2 max actually can be divided up into two parts. Baseline VO2 max is the VO2 max you have without training. As most of you probably know, VO2 max can be improved significantly by training. However, some people can improve their VO2 max a lot by training (a 30% increase) and others only a little (5%). This is another fixed phenotype; whatever your ability to improve your VO2 max you have, you cannot change, you are stuck with it.

It is not the case that if you knew the VO2 max of every rider in the Tour de France, the rider with the highest VO2 max would be the winner; other factors matter as well. In fact, above a certain level, increases in VO2 max seem not to help that much. What does seem to be the case is that there is a minimum VO2 max that you must have to be a successful bicycle racer, to have a chance at winning the Tour de France. To achieve that, you must train intensively to maximize your VO2 max, but you also have to both start with an unusually high baseline VO2 max and have a VO2 max which improves with training much more than average. If you do not have these phenotypes, it doesn't matter how hard or long you train or what training protocol you follow, you are never going to win the Tour de France.

Although we are no where near being able to look at a person's DNA sequence and predicting what their athletic capabilities are, the day may be very near (according to Faster, Higher, Stronger) when, by doing a series of tests on specific phenotypes, things like body measurement (of which tallness is just one), VO2 max, and muscle strength, we will be able to accurately predict what that persons athletic potential is, what their best sport would be and how good they can expect to get in that sport if they are disciplined, train hard, and train smart.

I have already mentioned that how much you benefit from training is a fixed phenotype. Another phenotype (which is most likely fixed) is the training you should use to maximally improve your fitness. A training plan which is training smart for me may be training stupid for you. Thus, the same training tests that might be able to tell us our athletic potential would, at the same time, tell us what our best training strategy would be. Relevant to this point, Joe Friel's latest blog post suggests that cross country skiers fall into two groups; those who improve most when they do many hours of training at a relatively low level of effort and those who improve most when they do fewer hours of training at a very high level of effort. I read the study on which the blog post is based, and I have significant reservations about its methodology, but it is clear that the idea of "personalized training" is of great interest in the exercise community. That said, the day of precise, personalized training may be near, but I do not believe it is here yet.

Besides ushering in personalized training, the imminent understanding of the relationships between measurable, simple phenotypes (e.g. VO2 max) and athletic performance will make amateur athletic competitions much more predictable. At the Olympic or professional level, this will not be true; these competitors will all share the same optimal set of phenotypes and who wins will still hinge on effort, luck, and unknown factors, and suspense will be maintained. For the average, amateur bicycle racer, on the other hand, if they undergo a complete set of tests, they will have a pretty good idea about where in the pack they will be finishing. Won't this spoil the sport? It might! To restore the fun, Faster, Higher, Stronger suggests that athletes shouldn't compete against all comers, but rather against a group of competitors with similar abilities to themselves. Amateur bicycle racing in the US already has four or five categories based on performance to accomplish just this. Would it make more sense to base these categories on tested potential rather than performance? Faster, Higher, Stronger points out that, in one case, we already do that. The specific phenotype used to group virtually all athletic competitions happens to be one of the few where the genetic basis for that phenotype is known. Athletes with the genotype of two X chromosomes have the phenotype of "female", and compete in one set of competitions, and those with a genotype of one X and one Y chromosome have the phenotype of "male" and compete in another. The apparently radical proposal of grouping amateur athletes with similar potential is merely an extension of the centuries old, almost universal practice of having males compete against males and females compete against females. In fact, given a more extensive set of phenotypic classifiers, division into male and female competitions may become a thing of the past; one will compete against athletes of similar potential, be they male or female.

What does any of this have to do with me? As a spectator, a lot; I find all this new science about athletics fascinating and can't wait to see its impact on future editions of the Tour de France. As a participant, however, not so much. As I have oft said, my days of bicycle racing are long past. On top of that, Faster, Higher, Stronger makes another point. One of the optimizations the british cycling teams has started to use to improve their results is to spray their tires with alcohol at the beginning of a race to make them slightly tackier, to provide better traction. About this, the author says "the tiny percentage of improvement I might see in my weekend bike-riding speed by spraying the tires with alcohol pales in comparison to what I could see if I just, you know, trained harder and got myself in better shape." If I want to improve my bicycling, I don't need any advances in the science of training to take me most of the way there, I just need to lose the excess 40 pounds around my middle. Even that's not it, though. Even with the 40 pound handicap I give myself, I have demonstrated I can still complete a 200K brevet. The fact that I did not do so in 2014 has little to do with training or fitness and almost everything to do with having a life which includes 93 year old father who I love very much. As much as I might be looking forward to a particular bike ride, I will sadly pass it by when Dad needs help. But enough of that, can't we talk about something more pleasant?