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'Genetic freak'

July 21, 2009


Greg Rhodes racing on a bike.

Greg Rhodes, pictured here in a race from a few years back, is a graduate student in kinesiology at the University of Minnesota. His focus is on sports performance, so he's especially intrigued with Lance Armstrong's run at an eighth Tour de France title and the attributes that contribute to Armstrong's success.

Photo: courtesy Greg Rhodes

U grad student and professor explain the secrets to Lance Armstrong's success

By Rick Moore

Calling someone a "genetic freak" generally isn't regarded as the kindest—let alone politically correct—thing to do. But when applied to Lance Armstrong and his success in the Tour de France, that tag might be right on the mark.

According to Stacy Ingraham, a kinesiology professor at the University of Minnesota, Armstrong, who is currently shooting for an unprecedented eighth Tour title, happens to be built for bicycling, much as Michael Phelps is built for swimming.

"Let's just take it as it is that Lance is in fact a genetic freak," Ingraham says. "Part of it is, when you look at his anaerobic threshold, his threshold is somewhere between 78 and 82 percent (above 60 is excellent), which means he can work out at about 82 percent of his max capacity.... That also means that his ability to endure a high level of pain is also very remarkable, which means he can handle a higher workout than most of his competitors."

"When you can do that in practice," she adds, "obviously that transfers to performance, and when he needs to put the throttle down he can do it, and he basically will blow everybody away."

The heart of an elite athlete


Greg Rhodes is a graduate student in kinesiology who knows a thing or two about endurance and training. Rhodes was a two-time All-American in Nordic skiing at Carleton College and has been a triathlete for the last 12 years. His academic focus is on sports performance, so he's more than a casual follower of Armstrong's accomplishments.

In addition to the high anaerobic threshold, Rhodes points out that Armstrong has a larger than normal heart "in a positive volume capacity." It may not be two or three times the size of the average human heart, as some suggest, but it definitely helps with intense exercise. "His ability to pump blood through his system, because of his heart size, is one of those astronomical things," Rhodes says.

"That's what separates the best from everybody else," Ingraham notes. "He has utilized every aspect of the sports science field, from the ergo-dynamics on his bike to the exercise physiology, to the sports psychology. He has maximized everything, including his own body composition, to be the best of the best."


The larger heart likely contributes to a hump in Armstrong's back, which, ironically, makes him more aerodynamic, Rhodes says.

Having the chance to investigate topics like the aerodynamics of bicycle racing and the best ways to achieve optimum training are what excites Rhodes about his graduate work at the U. "A lot of these questions we're coming up with are just starting to be answered," he says. "That's what's pushing the field of kinesiology and this specific field of kinesiology that I'm interested in."

When you add together all of Armstrong's physical attributes—his anaerobic threshold, his heart size, his low percentage of body fat (and attention to diet)—you have a finely tuned cycling machine.

"That's what separates the best from everybody else," Ingraham notes. "He has utilized every aspect of the sports science field, from the ergo-dynamics on his bike to the exercise physiology, to the sports psychology. He has maximized everything, including his own body composition, to be the best of the best."

'The ability to suffer'

However, Rhodes also points out that Armstrong's amazing physiology isn't the only thing that's propelled him to greatness. The traits that other world-class athletes possess—hard work, determination, professionalism, being a team player—Armstrong also has in spades. Plus, there was his bout with cancer (he was diagnosed in 1997, two years before his string of seven consecutive Tour de France victories), which naturally realigned his perspectives.

"He's overcome cancer, so even on the worst day of training [or the worst day in a race], he'll say, 'This is nothing compared to lying on the bed and doing chemotherapy,'" Rhodes says. "The cancer part of it really plays into the professionalism, the mental toughness, and, as we say in training, the ability to suffer."

As of this writing, after 15 stages of the Tour de France, Armstrong was in second place overall. To hear an audio interview with Ingraham, visit Armstrong's edge.

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