Podcast: How To Fine Tune An Athlete

Looking beyond "practice makes perfect."
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 Image courtesy of bogdanhoda via shutterstock

Chris Gorski, Editor

Below is a transcript of the podcast:

(Inside Science) -- Years ago many sports did not encourage strength training. In baseball, for example, some coaches thought lifting weights reduced flexibility, and therefore would reduce pitching and hitting performance.

But in the 1980s and 90s baseball players began working out more, some assisted by performance-enhancing drugs, and the home runs began to fly. The results spoke for themselves. Weight lifting became a larger part of the sport, as it did in many others.

The obvious way to get better at many endeavors is to practice more. Play your musical instrument more, dance more, ride a dirt bike more. What can scientists tell modern athletes besides the time-honored "practice makes perfect" mantra?

Earlier this year, in the crowded halls of the annual meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine in Orlando, Florida, I met several researchers exploring other sports and activities that might benefit from new approaches.

Lee Brown researches human performance at Cal State-Fullerton. He has been studying transportation skateboarders, the ones who use skateboards to travel from place to place. He suggests that skateboarders step off their boards and into the gym to improve their skating performance.

LEE BROWN: "They just skateboard. They don't go to the gym. They don't lift weights. They don't do the kinds of strategies that can enhance their performance. Probably because simply, they just don't know."

He's also studying an important physical test, the standing long jump. It's one of numerous measurements in the yearly NFL combine, which tests potential draftees on strength, agility and intellect. An athlete's results influence his draft position, and therefore his contract. Brown said that for the standing long jump, athletes are told to jump for distance, but no one really knows the best way to perform it.

People do know the shape of some of the pieces of the puzzle of jumping long distances -- like strong leg muscles, for instance. But when it comes to motocross -- the sport where riders speed around dirt tracks full of jumps and turns -- scientists knew very little about the physical attributes of top riders. Enter Florida State nutrition and human performance expert Michael Ormsbee and Clint Friesen, the former performance director of the Millsaps training facility in Georgia.

Ormsbee said they assessed the riders on all sorts of measures of strength and aerobic health.

MICHAEL ORMSBEE: "What do they look like? How do we characterize who the best motocross athletes in the world were?"

What they found was that riders had exceptional strength and endurance in their thighs and forearms, which help them control the motorcycle.

Friesen said that spending time enough time on the bike to become an expert is critical. That's the first necessary step to becoming successful in competitions. But, after riders reach a certain level, he said, they need to adjust their approach.

CLINT FRIESEN: "So as the athletes grow and become older, what we do off the bike is much more important because they already have the skill set. And as they're younger it's more about the skill set and developing that and trying to figure out if this guy's really going to have it or not."

Next, the researchers plan to analyze motocross riders in high heat. Because they wear so much protective gear, riders have almost no exposed skin and can become dehydrated, tired, and lose concentration. Friesen said that's when mistakes happen.

FRIESEN: "If you're mentally breaking down, if you're physically breaking down, you might have the skills to go fast, but you don't have the skills to last throughout the race without making bad decisions. Making bad decisions means you may lose your life."

This is where analyzing nutrition and hydration strategies can help improve performance, Ormsbee said.

ORMSBEE: "If we actually see a difference, then we can potentially feed these guys differently and have a better performance outcome, or at least make them finish feeling better."

In music, the stakes may not be as high, but performing can be strenuous, musicians can tire, and injuries are common. If you're a professional, keeping yourself in shape is critical.

TIMOTHY LIGHTFOOT: "Most professional musicians, when they're performing in public their heart rate is about 65% of their max, which, according to the American College of Sports Medicine, that's a moderate workout."

That's Timothy Lightfoot, the director of Texas A&M's Huffines Institute. Lightfoot studies a wide variety of physical activities. At the conference, he presented research on genetics, NASCAR pit crews, and the physiological stress of performing music.

There's an important question remaining in researching the physiology of musicians, Lightfoot said:

LIGHTFOOT: "Another one of these questions that someone needs to answer is: does physical training help musicians perform better? I know there are a couple of groups out there that are now starting to think about that, but that's certainly an interesting question."

And finally, one fast-growing sport that requires strength, endurance and safety measures is women's roller derby. And, according to orthopedic surgeons Peter Gerbino and Lindsey Dietrich, there's very little connection between the sports medicine community and that sport's athletes.

Gerbino's been working with roller derby skaters ever since he treated two women who both broke an ankle in the same evening bout.

PETER GERBINO: "It's a real sport, it's not theatrics, these women are getting hurt and for the most part they've had no pre-participation physical exams. There's nobody doing any kind of training. They're just getting on skates and skating."

And it isn't easy for roller derby skaters to find doctors that know enough about the sport to help them, said Dietrich.

LINDSEY DIETRICH: "Their access to providers that knew much about what they were doing three or four or five nights a week was limited as well. So I saw some need for, just to identify the sport to our profession, and also to start looking at how we can make it a safer practice for them, so far as their games."

Gerbino drew a comparison to the way medicine has begun to embrace dance in recent decades:

GERBINO: "And the dance community now, anywhere you go, any professional troupe has a physician, a trainer, physical therapists. People who are involved with that company that work with them and that's really only happened over the last 20 years."

It's a model for how knowledge and expertise can grow over time. An idea many sports and other endeavors can embrace.

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Chris Gorski is the Senior Editor of Inside Science. Follow him on twitter at @c_gorski.