Phil Skiba: When Math Meets Sports Performance

In this episode of Inside Science Conversations, Phil Skiba discusses how he went from wanting to be an astronaut to working in sports medicine.
Chris Gorski, Editor

In this first episode of Inside Science Conversations, editor Chris Gorski talks with Dr. Phil Skiba about how he went from wanting to be an astronaut to working in sports medicine, including his experience working on Nike's Breaking2 project to help Eliud Kipchoge run a marathon in less than 2 hours.

Here are some excerpts of what Skiba said during the interview (the full transcript is available here):

"I always liked science. Growing up, it was kind of my thing. But as I got through my education, I It's funny, I ended up not thinking I was particularly good at math, because I didn't have any particularly good teachers until I was really a senior in high school. And I had a great precalculus teacher. And all of a sudden the penny kind of dropped. So I went away to college and as a biology major. And, you know, I started taking things like physics and calculus, and I was crushing them, you know, and my grades were getting sent home and my father were looking at me, like, my father is really a talented mathematician. And he was like, Who are you? What did you do with my son?"

"My first experiment was on myself. And I knocked about 10 minutes off my 5k time in about six months, which still didn't make me fast. I was still abysmally slow. But I was way faster than I used to be. And so I'm just thinking that this is something I could do. Because then my friends are saying to me, 'Hey, can you help me'? So I started helping some of my friends, they started winning things, and they got very excited."

[Regarding the limits to performance] There is "a dividing line between what's termed stable physiology, and unstable physiology. It's around 10k pace. So if you stay slower than that, and I watch you in my laboratory, what I find is that your oxygen use stays very stable. Your lactate production stays very stable, your body can maintain that level of exercise for a considerable length of time. But if we go just a little bit faster, and we cross that critical threshold, what happens is that everything goes off the rails. Slowly, your oxygen use rises, despite the fact that you are not running any faster. Lactate in your blood arises, despite the fact that you're not running any faster. And if you look inside the muscle, you can see a variety of things associated with fatigue, also trending towards maximum or minimum values. And eventually, all these things hit some limit, and you're forced to quit. But you can find out where this threshold exists, with nothing more complicated than a stopwatch."

In episode two, coming soon, Phil will discuss his experiences working at the COVID frontlines early in the pandemic and with athletes who have long COVID.

The Inside Science Conversations podcast showcases the human side of science. It’s about what makes scientists and researchers tick. We’ll cover a wide variety of subjects, from record-breaking running to the hidden history of science. Please join us as we talk to researchers and authors about their work, their lives and why science is important for everyone.

Author Bio & Story Archive

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