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Books | Science | Sports

November 9, 2014

Beyond Athleticism

In his new book, editor Mark McClusky reveals how science is making sports stars even better.

David Goldenberg

The Aggregation of Marginal Gains is not a super sexy title, so perhaps it’s better that Mark McClusky’s new book is instead called Faster, Higher, Stronger: How Sports Science Is Creating a New Generation of Superathletes—and What We Can Learn from Them. But McClusky compellingly argues that the incredible performance of modern superathletes comes not from latching on to one big idea, but rather from their implementing the results of hundreds of experiments across the hugely varied field of sports science.

Mark McClusky. Photo by Glenn Glasser.
"If supplements are the icing on the cake, most of us haven’t even mixed up the right batter."

Mark McClusky. Photo by Glenn Glasser.

That’s why there was a run on beet juice in the general London area during the summer of 2012, why NBA players sleep in the afternoon before night games, and why some of the best rowers in the world are new to the sport. And it’s why the newly dominant British cycling team—whose riders dominated the Olympics and the Tour de France—actually has a position called the "head of marginal gains."

In the following interview, edited for length and clarity, McClusky tells Gelf why his take on performance is different from Malcolm Gladwell’s, why sprinters of West African ancestry are so fast, and why data collection is key for all levels of athletes.

Gelf Magazine: Coffee, baking soda, and creatine. You say they are the only supplements that work. Should every athlete and wannabe athlete be taking them?

Mark McClusky: They aren’t the only supplements that work—in the book, I also talk about beet juice and beta-alanine. The things that I look at in the book come from the list of supplements that the Australian Institute of Sport gives to its athletes in competitive situations—one cool thing is that the AIS publishes a list of supplements that it uses with Australia’s best athletes, and the recommended dosages that they’re using. Most of the time, it’s hard to get that sort of information from elite athletes.
Should every athlete be taking them? No. They’re the supplements that have the strongest evidence of positive effects in the right performance environment, but for most weekend warriors, supplements are one of the last things that we should be worrying about. They’re a way to find small margins of improvement by hacking some of the body’s systems, but for most of us, we need to be doing much more basic stuff. Training more, and more effectively. Sleeping more. Getting our weight where it needs to be. If supplements are the icing on the cake, most of us haven’t even mixed up the right batter.

Gelf Magazine: How should weekend warriors decide when they’re ready to move out of the batter stage and onto the icing?

Mark McClusky: That’s a really excellent question—I’d say that once you have the basics down, you’re ready to move on to more advanced things. So when do you have the basics? When you’re working out four or so days a week, with really clear goals and a training plan, and measuring your progress. I don’t have any hard and fast rules to offer here, but I’d suggest that most athletes, once they’re serious, know when they’ve really buckled down and done the baseline work.

Gelf Magazine: Very small—but not tiny—towns produce a far larger number of elite athletes than you’d expect given their populations. How could big cities change their sports programs to mimic those results?

Mark McClusky: I love this research, which comes from Jean Côté, Dany Macdonald, Joseph Baker, and Bruce Abernethy—a group of Canadian and Australian researchers. (They also looked at the US in their analysis). They point to a couple of important factors. First, in big cities, sports programs tend to be more structured, whether it’s through schools or youth leagues. Smaller towns offer more opportunities for unstructured play and sports, and there’s good evidence that a less-regimented environment is better for the long-term development of athletes.
There are also some cultural factors—in big cities, there are hundreds of things to do, while in smaller towns, there are fewer leisure options. And in many smaller towns, sports is a part of the cultural identity of a town. Just think of the highway signs on the way in that tell you when the local high school might have won a state championship a decade earlier. Those sorts of cultural things are hard to replicate in a big city, but I think that a shift of a less structured system might help close the gap.

Gelf Magazine: Almost all sub-10 second 100-meter dashes have been run by African-Americans and African-Caribbeans. Why is that and do you think it will change in the future?

Mark McClusky: Why is that? Not to be glib, but, it’s because they’re faster. Now, why are they faster? For a whole host of reasons. Some of it genetic, from how they are built to the prevalence of fast-twitch muscle fibers to how their energy systems work. Some of it is cultural—Jamaican sprinters, for instance, come out of a system that treats track sprinting as the highest aspiration for an athlete. Some of it is individual and internal, with all the practice and hard work it takes to reach the highest level of track.
Ability, opportunity, work—all of these have to intersect to create the best athletes. Are sprinters of West African ancestry more genetically inclined to be great sprinters than other broad populations? It certainly seems so. But we’re nowhere near being able to really drill down into why that is, specifically. We know that things like height are broadly determined by genetic variation, but when you try and find the actual genetic variation that causes those difference, it’s massively complex. There was a study that found that looking at nearly 300,000 polymorphisms could only explain about half the variation in height that we see between people. And height is relatively straightforward. The idea that there are simple genetic explanations for something like sprinting ability seems naïve to me.
Will it change? Let’s take another example—distance running. If we had been talking about countries dominating distance running in the 1920s and 30s, we would have been talking about Finland. In the five Olympics from 1920 to 1936, Finns won 10 of the 15 available Olympic medals in the 10,000 meters and 9 of the 15 in the 5,000 meters. Now, we look at Kenya and Ethopia—but even then, we’re talking only about certain tribes in those countries. So, if I had to guess if it will change, I’d guess that it will.

Gelf Magazine: Malcolm Gladwell has gotten a lot of flak for the sports parts of his book-length theories on success and achievement. Why do you think he’s gotten it wrong so often?

Mark McClusky: Everyone who writes about research science for a popular audience faces a central challenge—translating what can be highly technical and dense academic material into something that a layperson can understand. And through that synthesis and translation, sometimes nuance is lost. What’s so alluring about Gladwell’s writing is the way that he draws narratives threads together to then introduce the science, but what can be frustrating about it is how he simplifies the science to fit the narrative. So, when he brings something like the 10,000 hours rule to the fore, he doesn’t dig into the extensive literature in the sporting world that refutes the premise. Also, he sort of invented the idea that 10,000 hour is some sort of line in the sand. The original research papers written by Anders Ericsson don’t make that claim.
This isn’t easy work—I think that every writer who tackles material like this worries that they aren’t capturing it just right—I know that I really feel a responsibility to represent the work that these scientists do as accurately as possible. But I also know that things that sometimes the researchers feel is most important is actually a sidelight to what a non-scientist would find fascinating about their work. There are definitely some researchers, by the way, who don’t like to have their work written about in this way, and who don’t show any interest in helping a journalist understand their work. That’s their prerogative, of course, but I’m always a little surprised when it happens.

Gelf Magazine: You mention that many athletes are able to not only subvert the 10,000 hour rule, but almost hack it as well by starring in new sports where they not only have the phenotype but also lack bad habits. That seems to work for rowing and volleyball, but I haven’t seen it much in football or baseball. Any thoughts why?

Mark McClusky: This is called talent transfer, taking an athlete from one sport to another, and fast-tracking them to an elite level. I think the reason you don’t see this nearly as much in team sports is the importance of tactical and strategic understanding in those sports. A rower’s performance largely depends on his or her physiology—things like VO2 max and aerobic threshold. Certainly there are tactics involved in racing, but they’re relatively straightforward. But mastering a sport like soccer at the elite level doesn’t just require great physical fitness and skills; it requires a deep understanding of the game and its tactics and strategy. You don’t just need to be able to run fast and dribble and kick the ball. You have to understand how to combine your play with that of the other ten players on your team.

Gelf Magazine: You present an interesting theory: fatigue is a mental state, not a physical one. Does understanding that theory make one less fatigued, and should it?

Mark McClusky: Understanding that fatigue has a mental component doesn’t lead to being less fatigued. Just because we know something about a process doesn’t mean we can directly control it. But it does lead us to interesting avenues for future research. We humans are endlessly manipulatable. The past several decades have brought dozens of insights about how our perceptions of the world are faulty, about how we can convince ourselves of things that aren’t true while plainly missing things that are right in front of us. Our brains, for all their wonder, have their own shortcomings.
But athletes might be able to use those shortcomings to their advantage. If mental fatigue can lead to physical fatigue, as some studies have shown, then brain training—using exercises to increase the brain’s "fitness" so that you won’t get mentally fatigued as quickly—might be a way to improve athletic performance. If you could find a way to postpone mental fatigue, you would have a physical advantage.

Gelf Magazine: Who’s the most physically impressive athlete you profiled?

Mark McClusky: It would have to be Ashton Eaton, the world record holder in the decathlon. He’s not super imposing, physically, but the different ways that the decathlon tests you as an athlete are just really profound. He’s very fast, and a great long jumper. But he’s also a spectacular hurdler, which is a very technical event, and a very good pole vaulter as well. And his throwing is solid, and improving. It is an event that asks you to do a lot of different things, and to have the ability he has in so many of them is just mind-blowing to me.

Gelf Magazine: How has researching for this book changed the way you approach working out? What specifically has worked best for you?

Mark McClusky: The irony of researching and writing a book on sports on nights and weekends while still working a day job is that I’m probably in some of the worst shape of my life! But the biggest change I see in my approach is when it comes to setting goals and gathering data. I'm much more clear about the goals I'm trying to reach—not just "get into shape" but "do five deadlift reps at 300 pounds." Once I've got those very specific goals, I can chart my progress toward the goal, and see if I'm being effective in my work, or if I need to re-evaluate my training. That combination of clear goals with data collection to see if you’re getting there is, to my mind, the bedrock of a scientific approach to performance. I’d argue that when it comes to athletic performance, we’re all doing an experiment with one subject—ourselves. And without collecting all the information we can, and benchmarking it with our desired outcomes, we’re not really conducting a thorough experiment.

Gelf Magazine: Without regards to tech constraints, what biostats should the next generation of wearables collect from athletes in order to help their performance the most?

Mark McClusky: No constraints, cool! I’d want to have constant analysis of all macro and micro nutrient levels, heart rate, blood oxygenation, GPS, accelerometers, gyroscopes to measure movement and acceleration. Sleep measurement. Weight. Hydration. Basically, I’d want real-time telemetry of every aspect of the body’s functioning, and its position in space and time. Should be a piece of cake.

David Goldenberg

David Goldenberg is the co-founder and editor of Gelf, and the host of Geeking Out, Gelf's monthly science speaking series.

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Article by David Goldenberg

David Goldenberg is the co-founder and editor of Gelf, and the host of Geeking Out, Gelf's monthly science speaking series.

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