For many years I believed that Lance Armstrong was arguably the greatest endurance athlete of all time. Unfortunately, he was also one of the most notorious users of banned performance-enhancing drugs. Edward F. Coyle, professor at the University of Texas, tested him in his laboratory several times over the years and showed that he had 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. Armstrong'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 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
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