What makes an elite athlete?

May 17, 2011


We all know that people of West African origin are good sprinters because they have more ‘fast twitch’ muscle fibers. Right? And people of East African origin, particularly those from Ethiopia, have muscles that are better for endurance running because of ‘slow twitch muscle fibres’. Correct?

No, wrong – according to Dr Yannis Pitsiladis, who’s Reader in Exercise Physiology at the University of Glasgow. There are no published studies comparing muscle biopsies between different ethic groups that can demonstrate such a difference. Certainly successful sprinters have more fast twitch fibres, and marathon runners have slow twitch, but this is not based on ethnicity.

“Our students would often ask us in class why is it that no white man up until last year has run 100 metres in under 10 seconds while there have been hundreds of individuals of black colour who’ve managed to do that? Why?” asked Dr Pitsiladis on a recent Health Report.

Of course, genes play an important part in determining athletic potential. If you want to be an athelete, it is better to have athletic parents. But this is independent of ethnicity.  Interestingly, in all the studies of the human genome, they have not determined the difference in genes that make someone look black and someone else look white. (nor tall, for that matter)

So what are the other important factors

Run lots when you are a kid. In Dr Pitsiladis’s studies, many of the kids in Ethiopia ran 5km to their primary schools, home at lunch, back to school and then ran home again at the end of the day. 20km a day! Ethiopians consider running a gift from God. If our kids have to walk a mile it is a Federal Case.

Run without shoes from a young age. Running bare feet, we land on our toes (it hurts too much to heel strike). This has greater shock absorber effect, reduces injuries and prepares us for a lifetime of running and for the hard training required to make it as an elite athelete. By the time we a adolescents, it is too late to change to bare feet running.

Have a hunger to do well. Many young people have to do well at sport or return to poverty. That is a strong motivator.

Too late for me, I’m afraid, but the shoes are coming off Millie tomorrow. A 5km barefoot jog to school each morning should be just the ticket.

You can listen to or read the interview between Norman Swan and Yannis Pitsiladis at the Health Report site.



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