for National Geographic News
As Lance Armstrong cruises to a probable seventh consecutive victory in the Tour de France, the world's premier road cycling event, most of us are left to marvel: How does the man do it?
Is there something in the 33-year-old Texan's genetic makeup that makes him superhuman? Not if you ask Ed Coyle, director of the Human Performance Laboratory at the University of Texas at Austin.
Coyle has been testing Armstrong, who will retire from cycling after this Tour de France, for 13 years. The result is a rare comprehensive study of an athlete over his entire career. Coyle's findings were reported in a recent issue of the Journal of Applied Physiology.
Armstrong clearly has some great genetic advantages.
His oversized heart can beat over 200 times a minute and thus pump an extraordinarily large volume of blood and oxygen to his legs. His VO2 maxthe maximum amount of oxygen his lungs can take in, an important measurement for an endurance athleteis extremely high.
But other elite athletes have similarly powerful hearts and lungs. Instead, Coyle says, smarter training may have contributed to giving Armstrong an edge over his competitors.
Early in his career Armstrong showed only average muscle efficiencythe percentage of chemical energy that the muscles are able to harness to produce power. Higher muscle efficiency means greater production of power.
From 1992 to 1999, the year of his first Tour de France win, Armstrong was able to increase his muscle efficiency by 8 percent through hard and dedicated training. Coyle says Armstrong is the only human who has been shown to change his muscle efficiency.
"It was believed that muscle efficiency is something you're born with, that you can't change," Coyle said. "But we've documented that Armstrong has indeed changed it while training intensely."
By making his muscles 8 percent more efficient, Coyle said, "Armstrong is 8 percent more powerful on the Tour de France"enough to get his competitors off his wheel.
To become a great athlete, a person must first fit the physiological requirements of a given sport. Great basketball players, for example, generally need to be tall.
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