Friday, July 01, 2005

USA Today and Lance Armstrong

USA Today has a front-page article on Lance Armstrong. If you don't know who Lance Armstrong is, you live in a cave. He's the most popular biker in the world.

Lance has unbelievable strength and stamina for his weight class and, in biking, that means that you're going to win. That plus a supportive and excellent team means he wins most of the time.

USA Today says that Lance's "secret" is his total concentration and devotion to the sport.

USA Today is full of shit.

Lance is dedicated, certainly. But so are literally THOUSANDS of cyclists, none of which reach his level of skill. Dedication is a requirement, not an advantage, at that level of the game.

So what is his secret? Some incredible innate talent?

Well, Lance has always been good at biking. He even competed in the Olympics. But he was a one-trick pony, which meant that he did well, but not good enough. He wasn't the best in the world. He was simply ONE of the best in the world, and not able to challenge the top competitors.

So what made him go all Tiger Woods?


That sounds harsh, and it isn't PRECISELY true. Let me be more clear.

Back before his bout with cancer, he was BULKY. He had thighs like slabs of beef. He was a titan! He had trained up to this incredible strength, but he was so HEAVY.

Many people don't realize that the SIZE of your muscles is only one component in their strength. As you train, in addition to gaining more longitudinal cells (bulk), your muscle cells divide, shortening and giving dramatically more oomph per cubic inch. This happens during a standard rigorous training program. Your muscles both bulk up and also bulk IN, making you stronger in many ways at once. It's also the reason that some people with fairly small muscles are astonishingly strong. This density has many advantages over bulk, including a better rate of contraction and a more efficient power/energy ratio.

His body, trained to this peak, also had a number of other advantages. A very powerful circulatory system built for his heavy body. A very powerful set of lungs built to power the slabs of beef he called legs.

Then he had cancer. I'm sure that his mental focus and physical conditioning helped him through the excessively risky treatment, but during that treatment, his muscles atrophied away.

But they DIDN'T recombine into long cells. Those muscles cells, they stayed SHORT. His muscles were small, but their oomph per inch was huge! And, once training re-began, the cells would split again and again as they were challenged from the beginning.

Once he had recovered and trained himself up, he had an excessively good strength-to-weight ratio combined with the circulation and respiration of an athlete fifty pounds heavier.

It's sort of the same idea as training with weights on, except that it includes both his heart and lungs, whereas standard weighted training only affects muscles. (And joints, unfortunately.)

THAT is why he is so incredible. NOT his focus, which I'm sure is no better than the other thousand top bikers. NOT his talent, which is also no better than the other thousand top bikers. The very thing which nearly killed him quite literally made him stronger.

At least, that's my theory.

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