Tag Archives: Olympics

What’s more important for athletes: training or genetics?

Usain Bolt, Michael Jordan, and Wayne Gretzky are arguably some of the greatest athletes of all time. You watch them on the television breaking record, winning titles or making impossible shots, and you can’t help to wonder, how are they that good? Do they use some secret training method, maybe even a special diet? Possibly, they are genetically gifted? Sports author David Epstein tackles this debate of training versus genetics in his book, “The Sports Gene”. Yes, athletes need to practice to become good, but some are just going to be naturally better than others. If you are 5’6” inches you are going to have to practice dunking a basketball a lot longer than someone who 6’6”. To see how some athletes are naturally better than others lets look at some talented athletes and see what makes them biomechanical specimens. First, we’ll look at Michael Phelps, an American swimmer who not only has multiple world records but also the most decorated Olympian of all time with 28 Olympic medals.

 

For swimmers, biomechanics have found the ideal body for performance. Body features that have been found helpful for swimming is a long torso and long arms.  The long torso reduces the drag on the swimmer and long arms allow for more powerful strokes. Michael Phelps’, who is 6’4”, has the torso proportions of someone who is 6’8” and the leg proportions of someone who is 5’9”, giving him an extremely high torso-to-leg ratio. Not only is Phelps’ torso long, but he also has a long wingspan, measured at 6’7”. Along with Phelps’ unreal proportions, his feet are another huge advantage when it comes to swimming. His size 14 feet help place more force into the water when he kicks. This is a benefit because 90% of a swimmer’s thrust comes from their feet. His ankles also hyperextend 15-degree when he kicks, creating more force. Biomechanically, Michael Phelps’s is a walking fish.

Modified from Hart Blenkinsop, Michael Phelps: The man who was built to be a swimmer 2014

You might be wondering, what would happen if you took someone who has trained to mastery and put them up against someone who is just perfectly gifted. David Epstein mentions this scenario in his book a battle between training and genetics. In the 2007 world high jump final, there are two jumpers left, Stefan Holm and Donald Thomas. Stefan Holm, has a personal best of 7’10.5”, only 2 inches off the world record. Holm has been training most of his life, since he was a child and even won the previous Olympic High Jump final. He is also 5’10” tall, which is very small for a high jumper. Donald Thomas, has a personal best of 7’8.5”. Thomas, on the other hand, is 6’3” and has been jumping for a little over a year and had started high jumping because of a bet with a friend. The two finish the completion and Thomas won clearing a 7’8.5” bar. Even though Holm’s technique was near perfect, Thomas just had the athletic edge. Being taller, Thomas already had a higher center of gravity meaning he had to travel less distance to get over the bar. Thomas also had much longer legs and Achilles tendon. This allows him to store and transfer much more energy into a jump. Thomas was just made to win.

 

For more information:

Michael Phelps: The man who was built to be a swimmer

Nature or Nurture?

The Unfair Advantage: Prosthetics and Their Role in the Olympics

In 2012, the “Blade Runner” Oscar Pistorius became the first double amputee to compete in the Olympics. Ever since this historic occasion, the issue of whether prosthetics should be allowed in athletics has been a topic of controversy in the media. Do prosthetics give amputees an advantage over able-bodied athletes? Are athletes with prosthetics capable of running faster and performing better than able-bodied athletes?

Oscar Pristorius strapped into a harness and being tested on a treadmill by Alena Grabowski's research team.
Photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice, ScienceDaily 2008

In a recent article, physiology and biomechanics professor Alena Grabowski attempts to answer some of these questions. Grabowski was part of a research group that conducted a study to see if Pistorius’s prosthetics gave him any advantages after he was banned from competing in the 2008 Olympics. The group focused on comparing the abilities of Pistorius to those of able-bodied track athletes. The study involved testing Pistorius’ energy cost in running, his endurance, and his general running mechanics. In order to test for energy costs, the researchers measured breathing and metabolic rates of able-bodied runners who were similar in ability to Pistorius as they ran a series of short sprints. To test endurance, runners were placed on treadmills set at their max speed to measure how long they could maintain that speed. To test the running mechanics, each runner was asked to continue increasing their speed on a treadmill until they could no longer take eight consecutive strides on the treadmill without maintaining their position on the treadmill. Based on the study, the group was able to determine that Pistorius’ running abilities are very similar to able-bodied runners, thus allowing his ban to be lifted and for him to ultimately compete in the 2012 Olympics.

The three variations of prosthetics used in Alena Grabkowski's prosthetic parameters research.
Photo from The Royal Society Publishing 2017

After the initial research, Grabowski decided to conduct research of her own into prosthetics. Her study involved how changing key parameters in a prosthetic affected a runner’s abilities. In order to conduct the tests, she first modeled the foot as a spring system. This allowed her to pick the key parameters to change: stiffness, height, and speed of a prosthetic. Five participants were chosen to be tested. The study consisted of a participant using a set prosthetic to run on a treadmill, increasing the speed on each trial until they could no longer hold their position in the treadmill. This was repeated for different parameter changes in the prosthetics until enough data was collected to compare. From her study, Grabowski found that the length of the prosthetic had no overall effect on running speed. However, stiffness did appear to aid runners, but the effects were negligible at high running speeds. Thus, the advantages of having prosthetics come into play more for long distance running than for sprints. Based on her research finding, Grabowski hopes that future prosthetic development can be more tailored to match the specific wearers abilities before amputation.

The world of prosthetics opens up the door for many amputees to compete in an able-bodied society: from being able to complete just simple day-to-day tasks to competing alongside able-bodied athletes in the Olympics. Though many may still be skeptical of the use of prosthetics in competition—namely running, the evidence says that the effects are minimal or even no-existent in the case of sprinters. With the help of researchers like Alena Grabowski, more athletes like Oscar Pistorius are and hopefully will be making great strides in the future.

For more information on this story, make sure to read The Daily Beast, Scientific American, and The New York Times.