Saturday, November 18, 2017

Finding Your Optimum Sport

If you are participating in a sport for fun and enjoyment, then do what makes you happy, do what you love. However, for many people, being happy means participating in a sport that suits them best, one in which they can excel. And for those individuals, I will offer some suggestions today for choosing the optimum sport based on your physiology, which is largely influenced by your genetic makeup. To determine the sport in which you may excel, examine your physiology and that of your biological parents and siblings. Are members of your family tall or short, slim or stocky, muscular or scrawny? Hard work and training are crucial to any sport; however, this will get you only so far. Our genes largely control our physical attributes.

This is going to seem obvious, but if you are very tall, you are best suited for basketball. 17% of American men aged 20 to 40 that are over 7-feet tall are in the NBA. Shorter-than-average NBA players usually have other traits that compensate for their height. For example, Spud Webb, who is only 5’7”, has long, stiff Achilles tendons that allow him to jump high. Also, shorter NBA basketball players usually have longer arms, which give them a greater reach.

Distance Running (and Endurance Sports)
Long-distance runners, such as marathoners, have long legs, slim torsos, and small bodies. Long legs give a person a longer stride and a faster top speed, and slim torsos are lighter and produce less load on the legs. The longer your legs, the better you tend to be at running longer and longer distances. And a smaller body means there is a larger skin surface area to body volume ratio, which allows the body to disperse heat more effectively. This is crucial in endurance sports, such as distance running.

Successful distance runners also have a higher percentage of slow-twitch muscle fibers. The average person has a 50-50 mix of slow-twitch and fast-twitch muscle fibers. However, it is not uncommon for marathoners to have over 75% slow-twitch muscle fibers. Slow-twitch fibers have a slower response time and provide us with the endurance we need to run long distances. You can be tested to find out your precise mix of muscle fibers. However, you can figure it out for yourself, based on how quickly you develop muscle, for example. If you develop muscles quickly, you have more fast-twitch fibers. If you have trouble developing muscles, you likely have more slow-twitch muscle fibers.

Sprinting (and Fast-Action Sports)
Shorter legs are better suited for sprinting because short legs have less inertia, enabling them to accelerate quickly from a standing start. Leg length seems to be correlated with the runner’s optimum race distance, as I alluded to above. For sprint distances, the shorter your legs, the shorter the distance at which you will be most successful. In the NFL, for example, where quick acceleration is needed, running backs and cornerbacks tend to be short. And whereas the height of other NFL players has been on the rise, the height of running backs and cornerbacks has been steadily decreasing over time.

Sprinters also have a higher percentage of fast-twitch muscle fibers. Olympic-level sprinters generally have at least 75% fast-twitch muscle fibers in their calves. Fast-twitch muscles respond very quickly and are good for sports that require fast, explosive movements, such as sprinting and weightlifting.

Successful swimmers also have short legs, as well as long arms and long upper bodies. Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps is 6’4”, but he has very short legs. Despite being 6’4”, he wears pants with a 32-inch inseam!

Today’s blog was not meant to discourage anyone from pursuing the sport of their dreams, but rather, it was meant to help you optimize the sport, or even the position that you play, within a particular sport. For example, when I was younger, I played soccer. My short, muscular legs were best suited for explosive bursts of speed, so I often played right-forward where I was able to sprint to the far corners of the field with the ball and set up great plays for other players. I really enjoyed playing a sport that I was good at. 

When I got a little older, I began training for marathons and endurance races. Okay, I’ve probably lost half of you right about now. Well, as I grew older my goals changed. I knew I would never win a marathon because it is physiologically not possible. However, I was only competing against myself. It was not that important for me to win a race or to even place in my age group. I just wanted to see what I was capable of accomplishing. 

So, please use the information provided here as a starting point to determine what physical activity might be the most rewarding to you. We generally stick with things that we are naturally good at. The important thing is to get some type of physical activity every day because it is so important to a healthy body and a healthy mind.

For more information on how genes affect your suitability in different athletic endeavors, I encourage you to read “The Sports Gene” by David Epstein. It goes into much more detail than what I provided here. Epstein even discusses how motivation level and sensitivity to pain are affected by our genes and can impact our success in sports.



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