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Lance Armstrong: Champion athletes are born AND made

Lance Armstrong is arguably the greatest endurance athlete of all time. Edward F. Coyle, professor at the University of Texas, has tested him in his laboratory several times over the years. We can be certain that Lance has extraordinary genetic attributes. A laboratory measure of a person's genetic ability to compete successfully in endurance events is called the VO2max, the maximum amount of blood the heart can pump in a given time span. Lance's value was 6 liter/min (expressed per body weight as 75-85 ml/kg/min). Of the hundreds of athletes he has tested, Coyle has found only two other athletes in that range. To have great endurance, (and a high VO2max) you have to have a large heart that has to be able to pump huge amounts of blood with each beat. You also have to have a dense collection of blood vessels to deliver oxygen to the muscles and the types of muscle fibers that can generate, power efficiently and resist fatigue.

This doesn't mean that training is not important. An athletic, lean 20 year old usually has a maximum oxygen uptake of around 40-50. If he stops exercising, it may drop to 30. If Lance becomes a couch potato, his VO2max would drop, but only to about 65. That means that he would still be able to beat most bicycle racers, even when he stops training.

Now we know that if you want your child to grow up to be a champion athlete, he or she must have the right genes, choose the right sport and train very hard in that sport from an early age. With few exceptions, the time of multiple-sport athletes is gone. Champion gymnasts, runners, swimmers, and power athletes usually start training before age 10 and specialize in their chosen sport 12 months a year. Before you expose your child to such intense specialization that it limits his other interests, it is reasonable for you to see how he compares to other children at the same age and experience. A test of VO2max may help you decide if your child is spending his energies in the right place; if the base VO2max is less than 40, he has little chance of being a world-class athlete in an endurance sport.

Journal of Applied Physiology, March 17, 2005

Checked 9/28/08

May 11th, 2013
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About the Author: Gabe Mirkin, MD

Sports medicine doctor, fitness guru and long-time radio host Gabe Mirkin, M.D., brings you news and tips for your healthful lifestyle. A practicing physician for more than 50 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, Dr. Mirkin is a graduate of Harvard University and Baylor University College of Medicine. He is board-certified in four specialties: Sports Medicine, Allergy and Immunology, Pediatrics and Pediatric Immunology. The Dr. Mirkin Show, his call-in show on fitness and health, was syndicated in more than 120 cities. Read More
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