CAN USAIN BOLT WIN A MARATHON?

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And other random thoughts…

By Raymond Onyango.

At the 2009 World Championships in Berlin, Usain Bolt attained a mind-bending top running speed of over 43 kilometers per hour en route to breaking the 100-meter world record. His astonishing time of 9.58 seconds accorded him the sole bragging rights to the title ‘The worlds fastest man’. Furthermore judging by his scorching form at the London Olympics, that title does not seem set to change hands any time soon. But how would Usain Bolt stack up against the other ‘worlds fastest man’ Kenya’s Patrick Makau? In 2011, in the very same city of Berlin, the then 26-year-old Makau beat, Ethiopia’s Haile Gabreselassie’s earlier record by a huge margin of 21 seconds to set a new marathon record of 2 hours 3 minutes and 38 seconds. His performance excited running pundits, and gave new impetus to the hope that we may yet see a sub-two hour marathon run, within our lifetime.

If the two were to run head to head in a marathon race, Usain Bolt should theoretically have the upper hand. Assuming that he maintains his world record pace all the way, the speedy Jamaican would be done with the course in  about an hour or so, by which time Makau should be just over the half way mark. That’s the theory; in reality Usain Bolt simply doesn’t stand a chance and, judging from past athletes that have tried switched sports, he would be lucky to even make it to the finish line. In November 2006, seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong, was forced to eat a hefty dose of humble pie, after crossing the finishing line of the New York Marathon in a positively pedestrian time of 2 hours 59 minutes. Armstrong who is now embroiled in an ongoing court battle over doping allegations was then revered as a gritty, hard-edged competitor and cancer survivor. A man whose insane level of fitness was legendary even among fellow cyclists on the tour; keep in mind that were talking here, of men for whom a 2420 kilometer bike ride, is all in a days work! In a post race interview with the Associated Press, he described the marathon, a ‘mere’ 42.2 kilometers, as the hardest physical thing he had ever done in his life.

What is evident from the examples above is the fact that even at the highest levels of professional sport, genetics and body type and choice of sport play a huge role in determining success. Usain Bolt’s unique genetic blue print makes him unbeatable over the 100 meter distance, but I can bet you he wouldn’t be anywhere near the podium at a marathon. Lance Armstrong has the physiology to be a great cyclist, but the very same traits that make him great at cycling – stocky legs, chunky calves and considerable bodily heft, work profoundly against him as a marathon runner; an event where leaner, lighter men have a clear advantage.

Slow Twitch Vs Fast Twitch Muscle Fibers

In his article ‘Usain Bolt Outruns Human Nature’ Barry Petchisky observes that human beings appear to be specifically designed for distance and endurance running. Given enough time, he notes, there is nothing we cannot outrun. This is in large part because human beings have a remarkable ability to cool down. Our body’s sparse hair and numerous sweat glands allow us to lose excess body heat very effectively, so effectively in fact that we can even out race a horse over a long distance.

Our muscles, on the inside look something like a bag of spaghetti – several individual strands of individual muscle fibers all encased in a tough outer layer of connective tissue that makes up the actual muscle. The muscle fibers are further divided into two kinds, slow twitch muscle fibers that are generally fatigue resistant at low intensities and fast twitch muscle fibers that generate large amounts of speed and power at high intensities but generally fatigue quickly.

Most of us have about a 50/50 distribution of fast and slow twitch fibers, in our muscles but the worlds best marathon runners generally have very high percentages of slow twitch muscle fibers as well as a unique ability to mobilize the energy stored in fat tissue and convert it into fuel for prolonged periods of exercise. The riveting London 2012 Olympic men’s marathon final was a classic example of how marathon runners rely not so much on muscular strength as they do sheer muscular endurance and cardiovascular fitness. Ugandan Stephen Kiprotich plotted his move wisely, feigning fatigue and lulling the Kenyans into a false security. When he made his move unexpectedly at the 37-kilometer mark, the Kenyans Kirui and Kipsang simply didn’t have the legs to match him and they could do nothing but watch the Olympic gold run away from them.

Sprinting on the other hand is a whole different animal that is powered primarily by the ‘fast twitch’ muscle fibers. Fast twitch fibers are responsible for quick reflexes and explosive type movements. All of the world’s best sprinters have a disproportionately huge percentage of fast twitch muscle fibers and this evident from their  lean and powerfully muscular physiques. Unlike slow twitch fibers, which derive their energy from the breakdown of fat tissue, fast twitch fibers are powered by the breakdown of an enzyme stored within the muscle known as Adenosine Triphosphate or ATP. ATP provides huge amounts of energy through anaerobic metabolic processes, but runs out quickly, which means its only good for the short-term -10 to 45 seconds or so.

These key physiological differences between sprinters and long distance runners are the reason why no single athlete has ever excelled at both the sprints as well as the middle or long distance events. So to answer our initial question  – Can Usain Bolt win a marathon? Probably not, but then again it is almost certain that Patrick Makau will never win an Olympic sprint final either!

Have an awesome week, will you!

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What Does ‘Fit’ Look Like?

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Why Being Thin Does Not Always Mean You Are Fit!

By Raymond Onyango.

Thin Is Not Always Fit!

It seems there are a lot of preconceived notions about what it really means to be fit. Television, Cinema and Print Media are all dominated almost exclusively by thin people. The Fitness Industry is no better; you will seldom see a gym advert featuring a heavy individual unless it is a ‘before’ picture. All this has helped to foster the widely held perception than thin people are fitter and healthier than their more substantial counterparts!

Jennifer Hudson Before & After Photos

As a fitness professional however, I am hardly ever swayed by physical appearances. It has been my experience from years of conducting Fitness Evaluations, that a thorough physical assessment can reveal a very different  internal picture from the rosy one that a tiny waistline conveys. I have come across a significant number or very slim looking men, who are plagued by elevated cholesterol levels or sky rocketing, blood pressure. This just goes to prove that overweight individuals do not have a monopoly on health complications. A slim individual living a sedentary life, fraught with high stress and poor nutritional habits is just as susceptible to heart disease, and other co-morbid conditions including diabetes, as his overweight counterparts.

In fact being slim can in itself be a major risk factor, because it encourages complacency and leads you to believe that you do not need to exercise in order to enjoy good health. Nothing could be further from the truth – read on and understand why:

How Body Types Influence Physical Appearance.

Male Olympic Athletes As Illustrated By Sociological Images

Watch any major athletics championship such as the Olympics and you will be floored by the variety of physiques on display. The 100-meter sprinters are almost always muscled and defined in contrast to the loose limbed, lanky  marathon runners. The Shot Putters generally have huge shoulders and prominent bellies, quite unlike the show stopping elegance of the high jumpers, who are more reminiscent of an Impala gazelle in flight! The only thing they all share in common is the fact they are the best athletes in their respective events, in the whole world and therefore some of the fittest individuals on the planet.

Their physical differences also reflect the 3 major body types, that define the physical shape that each one of us is bequeathed by our genetics at conception. Ectomorphs are like your typical marathon runner, skinny, long boned and narrow in the pelvis. Your average 100-meter sprinter is likely to be a Mesomorph, the natural athletes of this world.  They are the ones blessed with wide shoulders, powerful muscles and bags of athletic capacity. However they remain very likely to gain weight if they stop exercising or start eating poorly. The big guys and girls who throw the Shot Put are most representative of the Endomorphic body type. These guys are not lazy by any means; the Shot Put is one of the most technical disciplines among the field events, demanding a unique combination of intricate, elegant footwork and raw brute strength. Endormorps have big bones and tend to carry a higher percentage of body fat than either the Ectomorph and the Mesomorph even when they are really fit!

Body Weight Vs. Body Fat

Female Olympic Athletes As Illustrated By Sociological Images

As a part of my research for this article I posted a question on my face book page, “ Do the words ‘thin’ and ‘fit’ mean the same to you? The first response I got was from one of my regular contributors, Ben Okombo. He says, and I quote “ Ray this is my exactly my story. I am 108.5kg, stand at 6 2’. My BMI reads 31, which means I am obese.  I am not fat however, because I train hard in the gym. So how is this possible?”

It is possible because your weight on the scale does not tell you everything you need to know about your health. For instance it does not tell you what percentage of that weight is fat as opposed to lean muscle. This is another reason why the Body Mass Index Scale BMI is no longer considered the gold standard in terms of determining what our healthy bodyweight should be. A body builder, weighing themselves on the scale and having his BMI calculated, will most likely be classified as obese, despite the fact that body builders typically have very low levels of actual body fat.

Bioelectrical Impedence Machine

In contrast I often use a Bioelectrical Impedance Machine to calculate my clients body fat percentages. I only need to feed your height, weight and sex into the machine, and then have you hold onto the electrodes which send a mild imperceptible electric current though your body. Fat is an insulator and impedes electricity; muscle however conducts electricity readily because all nerve impulses are essentially electric signals. The machine uses this distinction in the physical properties of fat and muscle to calculate your percentage body fat. Men should have an ideal body fat percentage ranging from 10 to 20% while women should maintain a range of 20 to 30%. What is quite telling, is that very slim individuals will often turn out to have very high body fat percentages, especially in the case of women who are naturally slim but have almost no muscle. These sorts of individuals can actually be clinically obese and exposed to all of its potential health challenges and not even be aware of it!

Love Yourself For Who You Are

I personally believe that true fitness is not about being thin, it about being comfortable in your body and doing the best you can to consistently Eat Better and Move More! We must appreciate the fact that the human body comes in a huge variety of shapes and sizes, and we as a society need to pay attention to physical fitness and healthy eating habits much more than physical appearance. As a famous actress once said, ”You are not born second class, you have to learn to be that way”!

Have a first class week will you!

The Improbable Eating Habits Of Olympic Champions.

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By Raymond Onyango.

Fitness is a multi-billion-dollar business worldwide. According to the international current affairs magazine, TIME; Americans alone spend an estimated 19 billion dollars a year on gym memberships. In an article titled, ‘Why Exercise Won’t Make You Thin’, author John Cloud, notes that in spite of this colossal amount of money being poured into health club memberships, obesity rates in the United States Of America have continued on a seemingly uncontrollable upward spiral, with an estimated one-third of the entire American population now considered obese under the definition offered by the federal government.

The author’s argument against exercise is based on an interesting piece of logic. He reckons that the problem with exercise, is that it makes you hungry, and the more you exercise, the more hungry you get and thus the more you want to eat. As he puts it, a hard workout will burn maybe 200 to 300 calories, which you could put back with a single muffin, and so when you exit the gym and settle down to a sugary snack right after that hard workout, you are probably working against your very own weight-loss efforts.

His solution – and he quotes several experts to back it up – is that you should watch what you eat as the central core of your weight loss efforts, and he proceeds to caution the reader that ‘fiery spurts of vigorous exercise can lead to weight gain.

Predictably, this article caused a huge controversy, when it was first published in August 2009, attracting widespread condemnation from Fitness professionals all around the world, and triggering a raging debate in the global wellness community, dwelling on what the New York Times described as one of the most intriguing and vexing issue in physiology – Can Exercise Make You Thin?

Above the blaring cacophony of competing ‘expert’ opinions, a plausible answer to this question is to be found in the most befitting arena of all – the London 2012 Olympics.  Thanks to the British love for tabloid news, the media has been a buzz with the most trivial details of the games as well as the athletes themselves.  For instance, we got to learn about the dietary habits of some of the world’s most illustrious athletes, and boy! They are not exactly what you would expect from athletes of this caliber!

Michael Phelps the American swimming sensation, who made history at the London Games, becoming the most decorated Olympian of all time, with a total of 22 medals, 18 of them gold, not surprisingly eats like a horse. What is surprising is the amount of junk food the guy packs away on a daily basis – 3 fried egg sandwiches, choc chip pancakes, a 5- egg omelet, French toast and grits – just for breakfast. Phelps also consumes a whole kilogram (yes, a whole Kg!) of pasta everyday, plus ham and cheese sandwiches, pizza all chased down by a couple of liters of soda…and the guy is still as lean as a cheetah!

At a whooping 8,000 calories a day, Michael Phelps is taking in almost 4 times the recommended average calories for a male adult and yet he is still as lean as they come. There couldn’t be a better answer than this to the question – Can Exercise Make You Thin? Michael Phelps is living proof that Exercise Can Make You Thin, even if you must, like he does, train for up to 5 hours a day. Now that he is retired, one thing that is certain from this point forward is that even the great Michael Phelps, can gain weight, if he continues to eat like this, without a maintaining a commensurate level of exercise.

The fact of the matter is that neither extreme is sustainable. When you lose weight exclusively though calorie restrictive diets, the weight loss is indiscriminate and your body readily cannibalizes it own muscle tissue to bridge the calorie deficit. The result therefore is that as you lose weight, you also muscle mass which as you well know is the metabolic engine of the body and you further weaken key bodily organs and structures including your heart as well as your bones. Constant dieting for her demanding movie roles is believed to be one of the reasons why actress Gwyneth Paltrow was diagnosed with the degenerative bone disease osteopenia, a precursor to osteoarthritis – at the age of just 37!  Not to mention that the very moment you begin to eat normally again, you will rapidly gain back all the weight you have lost.

On the flip side, even if you exercise plenty, but eat too much junk; you are still not immune to the effects of lifestyle diseases such as diabetes, or the cumulative effects of over consumption of highly processed food, which while high in calorie value is utterly devoid of any real nutritional value. In the long run you will end up malnourished and probably obese, when work or family gets in the way of your exercise habit.

In my book, the most effective and sustainable approach to weight loss lies in finding balance between the two. You don’t have to subsist exclusively on vegetables and mineral water in order to lose weight and be healthy, but you mustn’t imagine that a single hours worth of gym 3 times a week gives you the carte blanche to eat anything you please – because it doesn’t! You have got to ‘eat better and move more’ if you hope to get thin and stay that way for a lifetime!

Have a balanced week will you!