Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Limits to Performance

I went to an event last night at the Edinburgh Science Festival.  It was a fascinating lecture by 4 of the UK's (world's?) top exercise scientists.

The lecture was called How far, how fast how high?
What are the genetic, physiological, biochemical and psychological limits to the human body? Former UK Athletics Performance Director, Professor Dave Collins, joins sports scientists Dr Yannis Pitsiladis and Professor Andy Jones, and nutritionist Professor Ron Maughan to discuss the physiologic, genetic, psychosocial and economic determinants of success, and the limits to performance. Citius, Altius, Fortius is the Olympic motto, but how far, how fast and how high can we actually go?

All of the talks were excellent:

  • Dave Colins spoke about the psychology of winning - all things being equal, elite athletes are those who believe that they are the best.   He gave a fascinating report of a study he had done on powerlifters.  He told them they were getting steroids when in fact they were on a placebo.  They all got significantly stronger.  He really stressed that believing that you are on the right training system and that you will succeed is vitally important.  Yes talent and ability are fundamental but the winners are those that believe in themselves and their approach.  I've been thinking a lot about this area recently and the whole idea of the placebo.  Really interesting and under-appreciated.  
  • Andy Jones  talked about the physiology of champions.  He had worked with Paula Radcliffe and spoke about the unique nature of her body.  She is basically in the very top percentiles of the distribution.  Her VO2 max, velocity at VO2 max etc are all off te charts.  In testing her he was able to predict her times and indeed her world record times at various distances.  This stressed the importance of talent, of ability....but he also mentioned that a key thing with Paula was her ability to hurt herself, to push herself.  Again it is mental.
  • Yannis Pitsiladis talked about geneticsHe had looked at the DNA of the top runners in the world, all Africans.  Sprinters tend to be West African and middle / long distance runners tend to be East African (Ethiopian/Kenyan etc).  He had looked at certain candidate genes and also done GWAS but had  not identified any real genes that were responsible.  It was all pointing towards epigenetics,  environmental factors that activate the genes.
  • Ron Maughan talked about nutrition, but he key focus was that nutrition is really bottom of the pile - talent, trainability, training, psychology, social support etc are all much more important.  He also stressed that much of the key science is actually very old - he referred to papers from 1919 by Bainbridge.
It has long been recognized that the main seat of fatigue after muscular exercise is in the central nervous system. Mosso long ago stated that “nervous fatigue is the preponderating phenomenon and muscular fatigue is also at the bottom of the nervous system”. There appear, however, to be two types of fatigue, one arising entirely within the central nervous system, the other in which fatigue of the muscles themselves is superadded to that of the nervous system.
  •  This idea really reminded me of the ideas of Marcora
Anyway, a really interesting evening.


Steven Sashen said...

The question for Dave Collins is NOT "did powerlifters who thought they were on steroid but who were actually getting a placebo get stronger?"

The question is: "Did A CONTROL group of powerlifters on a similar training regimen get stronger as well?"

And, really, the other questions are: If so, is there a statistical difference between the two groups? And can we reproduce this study in another lab? And were the administrators of the placebo aware of what they were doing? And the trainers (did the trainers act differently, thinking the athletes were juicing)? And did all the trainees get equally stronger? If not, then are you prepared to say that the ones who got the most benefit were the ones that "believed" the most?

Since we can't measure "belief" before the fact, people use belief to explain away phenomenon that they have no other explanation for.

It's really hard to design a good study.

Chris said...

Hi Stephen

It was a pretty good study from what I recall. I don't have the full paper, but the abstract is here

Chris said...

Sorry - I meant Steven

Steven Sashen said...

Yeah, I'd love to see the full paper. The abstract, not surprisingly, makes the results seem unequivocal ;-)

SimonM said...

What strikes me is the idea that "elite athletes are those who believe that they are the best" juxtaposed with the information that Paula Radcliffe's V02max and vV02max are "off the charts".

Ok, you/Dave Collins did add "all things being equal"...whatever THAT means.

To complicate things further, I'd also love to see control group details, but here's the thing - I can guarantee that the control group, if there was one, was NOT controlled for their diet/nutrition/supplement intake to make sure it was a level playing field. Why is that important?

Yannis Pisiladis cotrectly (in my view) points at epigenetics as a key factor. The epigenetics factor gives FAST adaptations to the environment and - despite Ron Maughan's assertion that nutrition is bottom of the pile - we know that nutrition is one of the KEY promoters of epigenetic change. We also know that, through that mechanism, the mind exerts physiological effects.

Great report. What these type of symposiums need is an unashamed generalist to tell the specialists what it is they are actually finding :)