PETER FRANCIS COLUMN - How many of us achieve our athletic potential?

In this week’s health and fitness column, our columnist Peter Francis looks at the various issues that help athletes achieve their full potential

In this week’s health and fitness column, our columnist Peter Francis looks at the various issues that help athletes achieve their full potential

London 2012 provided the world with similar viewing to that of Beijing 2008 in that we marvelled at Jamaican dominance in the sprints, East African dominance in the distance events and American success in the pool.

During each Olympics the world searches for an explanation for success. Is it that the Jamaicans have a gene for sprinting? Is it because the Africans live at altitude? Are coaching and facilities better in America? Is it that they start so young in China?

In reality elite sporting performance results from the combination of innumerable factors, which interact with one another in a poorly understood but complex manner to mould a talented athlete into a champion. Individual performance thresholds or ‘ceilings’ are determined by our genetic make-up and training can be defined as the process by which genetic potential is realised. The amount of us that actually maximise our athletic potential is probably relatively few, If we did, how far it would take us remains a mystery.

However, we can have no doubt that many Olympic champions in times gone by have had athletes of greater ability finish behind them due to not engaging in the relentless practice required at elite level. The extent to which practice can overcome genetic deficits is one of great debate.

Research into more fine skill based activities such as chess, darts and violin suggests a threshold of 10,000 hours practice to become elite at an activity regardless of talent or genetic profile. However, the variance within this theory is massive in that some tend to make it after 3,000 hours and others require 23,000 hours. Some may not make it all and the extent to which people are effectively coached is not standardised in these studies. When it comes to sports requiring our physiological engine such as running, cycling, swimming, rowing this theory becomes hazier.

Unfortunately in more recent times society has attempted to pin success to insignificant factors which alone become irrelevant - eg talent, altitude, diet, facilities.

In Jamaica, the national sport is athletics, better still the national sport is sprinting. In a population of just under three million, the majority of the talent pool is streamlined towards athletics, where they receive coaching of the highest standard and are everyday inspired by the greats of today such as Bolt, Blake, Fraser and Stewart.

This process is akin to one not too far away from us. Hurling is the national sport in Kilkenny. Success is created from early participation, drawing from an undistracted talent pool, effective coaching and inspiration from greats ahead of them like DJ Carey and Henry Shefflin to name two iconic characters from different decades. Jamaica and Kilkenny demonstrate to us that when talent and hard work interact success ensues. It begs the question how many of our 10 second 100m runners or 4 minute milers are playing GAA?

Now move from West Africa to East. Kenya’s David Rudisha, guided by Brother Colm O’Connell from Cork, ran a gun to tape world record in the 800m. Britain’s Mo Farah of Somalian descent completed a historic double in the 5 and 10,000m. Researchers have been at pains to discover the ‘secret’ to East African domination in events ranging from 800m to 10,000m.

As of yet they have found no significant difference in the gene pool, ability to use oxygen or blood profiles between elite African and elite European runners. Yet there is a well-documented disparate gap between performances in both groups.

What they do know is that Africans seem to be far more biomechanically and metabolically efficient than their European counterparts - ie it costs them less energy and effort to run a given speed; therefore they don’t tire as easily as European runners. As with the entire debate the reasons for this are part evolution - part man-made.

Kenyans particularly have a slender somatotype (body type) conducive to moving quickly over long distances. Their metabolic efficiency is more likely due to walking and running long distances from an early age at an altitude of 2,500m. This gives them the unique ability to be able to train exceptionally hard and recover quite quickly even at altitude.

The ability to train hard and recover quickly being the key elements to improving performance rather than simply residing at altitude. In fact most performance enhancing drugs are not magic bullets but simply allow athletes to train harder and recover faster. Some might say they are attempting to purchase what Africans have developed over centuries.

However, it is important not to become blinded by the issues raised above as like Jamaica the over-riding factor for success is that distance running is the national sport and with it comes honour and a chance of improved social and economic standing. Only 12% of elite African runners cite the glory of medals as their reason for running, 38% cite economic factors.

Occasionally we come across athletes such as Rupp from America who finished second to Mo Farah (pictured, left) in the 10,000m. His somatotype is Kenyan-esque; he started at a young age and has obviously been able to tolerate the training loads of the Africans to perform amongst them. These athletes are few and far between as most American and European runners breakdown through illness or injury when attempting a training load Africans have spent years building up to. That and the talent pools are not as deep in Europe or America because we have so many other sports to choose from. By the same token we would not expect East Africans to dominate in the pool either as most likely they would not have the required coaching or facilities to maximise their genetic potential nor do they engage in swimming from a young age.

I mention coaching here again as the extent we maximise our genetic potential is reliant on practicing in the correct way, without coaches our practice is misdirected. We are born with a certain ceiling of athletic performance; the question remains how many of us maximise our athletic potential or come even close?

How many of us receive adequate coaching and the right performance environment to do so? How many of us really want it?

>>> For information on training to reach your athletic potential check out Limerick Leader articles 1 – 5 on my web page Keep practicing!