Defying age? ‘U’ expert in exercise physiology explains Armstrong’s success

Lance Armstrong
REUTERS/Eric Gaillard
Lance Armstrong (left) cycling in the Alps earlier this week. “I would love to be eternally young, but I’m not,” Armstrong said. “That’s just the reality.”

Call it Armstrong vs. Armstrong, an extreme test of one athlete’s advancing age vs. his superb talent and training.

As American cyclist Lance Armstrong pedals toward Paris in the final days of this year’s Tour de France, he is racing against his own body’s biological clock at the same time he takes on the world’s mightiest cyclists.

After today’s stage, Armstrong held fourth place in the overall Tour with Spaniard Alberto Contador extending his lead, AFP reported

Even if Armstrong loses this tour — which he has all but conceded is likely — aging athletes and exercise gurus will analyze the race for years to come.

Armstrong invited the scrutiny when he came out of almost four years of retirement in January. At age 37 he is long past the time-tested prime for Tour winners. And he said this week that he plans to race again next year!    

MinnPost asked Stacy Ingraham, a University of Minnesota specialist in exercise physiology, for expert commentary on Armstrong vs. Armstrong.

In one corner: talent and training
Armstrong’s strengths are an old story to anyone who paid attention while the cancer survivor from Texas pedaled his way to seven Tour victories, more than any other human being.

So we’ll brush quickly through them here. Ingraham was schooled on the fine points by a colleague at the University of Texas in Austin who tested and analyzed Armstrong’s body for years. She hits the highlights in this audio report.

Stacy Ingraham
U of M
Stacy Ingraham

The story has taken two tracks over the years: 1) Armstrong is so naturally talented you could call him a lucky genetic freak. 2) Armstrong is so fiercely determined that he trains harder than almost everyone else on a bicycle saddle.   

Both are true, Ingraham said.

“He has a remarkable cardiovascular system, and that’s genetic,” she said. “And he has trained it in an extraordinary way, which is maximizing his potential.”

So he poses a chicken-egg scramble in several factors that are critical to top performance.

• Armstrong has a big heart, literally. He can pump larger than average volumes of blood and oxygen to the pedaling forces in his thighs and legs.

• Also big is his V02 max — the peak oxygen his lungs can take in. Training helps tremendously, but genetics plays large here, too.

• Muscle efficiency is another plus. Muscle fibers help convert food we eat into power we can use to rotate a pedal, stride through a marathon or stroke laps in a pool. Armstrong has more efficiency than most athletes.
 
In exhaustive workouts, there comes a point where lactic acid builds up in muscles. I’ve been there just enough times on long bicycle rides to know why many athletes quit at that point. My muscles felt like they were on fire.

“A lot of people quit because they think they are going to die,” Ingraham said. “That’s how awful you feel.”

But Armstrong gets rid of lactic acid faster than most of us. He also has trained to punch through the agony. And many experts think Armstrong’s battle with Stage 4 testicular cancer at age 25 probably increased his threshold for pain.

“In part it is genetic,” Ingraham said. “But a lot of it is will. You have to train the mind to get through that.”

Putting everything together, Armstrong’s fitness coach, Chris Carmichael, told Bloomberg last week that pre-Tour tests showed Armstrong’s heart rate, power output and blood lactate were “pretty doggone close” to when he quit pro cycling four years ago.

In the other corner: age
Carmichael also told Bloomberg that Armstrong has confronted his age with the same concentration he focuses on every other aspect of race readiness.

“We’ve been increasing protein in shakes to make sure he’s got muscle tone,” Carmichael said.

Armstrong also has used so-called compression boots to speed blood flow after stages and help his recovery, Carmichael said.

Riders older than Armstrong have finished many tours. But the oldest to claim the victor’s yellow jersey in Paris was Belgium’s Firmin Lambot, who was 36 when he won in 1922.

This year, Armstrong’s chief rival — Contador, who won the tour in 2007 — is just 26 years old. And it may take more than protein and boots to surmount that 11-year age gap, Ingraham said.

As Armstrong races some 2,175 miles in three weeks, recovery is his first major worry. Day-to-day recovery during the Tour is only part of the demand on his body this year. He has barely had time to recover from breaking his collarbone in March during a crash at the Vuelta of Castilla and Leon in Spain.

But with age we lose hormones that aid recovery. And whatever is left of Armstrong’s helpful hormones is being severely tested in the Alps this week.

More specifically, Armstrong has to worry about sagging testosterone levels. This steroid hormone speeds muscle repair, boosts strength and increases the explosive power needed for steep ascents where pro cycling’s winners and losers often are sorted out.

It gets worse. By age 37, most people’s fast twitch (Type II) muscle fibers are shrinking. Cyclists count on these for generating short bursts of strength and speed in the mountains.

The one thing Armstrong gains with age is savvy about himself and the sport.

Few athletes — even the gifted ones — match their talents with the right sport, train to peak performance levels and also master every technical aspect of the sport.

“It’s the Tiger Woods of golf and the Peyton Manning of football [three time NFL MVP],” Ingraham said. “They are very talented individuals, very bright individuals. They know all of the science out there.”

She counts Armstrong in that elite group of smart athletes. He pays meticulous attention to everything from the helmet shape to the dinner menu to the timing of any attacks he launches against his rivals.

In a pre-race interview with the Associated Press, Armstrong signaled that he is approaching age with the same savvy.

“I would love to be eternally young, but I’m not. That’s just the reality,” Armstrong said.

He acknowledged that it’s not going to be easy to win.

“In December and January, I thought it would be easier,” he said. “It ends up being more difficult than I thought. Perhaps because of the crash [in Spain in March], of the complicated season or simply because I’m older now.”

Then again, this is the Lance Armstrong who beat cancer and went on to shatter Tour de France records.

“They would say that my time has come and gone and that I’m too old, that it’s very complicated, that there are other riders now,” he said. “I know those things and you could use those for motivation. I know where I am. I’ve studied my performances in training very closely, and I’m excited to race. I’m not sure that I can win, but I can tell you that the person who thinks that I get 10th … he is dead wrong.”

We’ll know by Sunday.  

Sharon Schmickle writes about national and foreign affairs and science. She can be reached at sschmickle [at] minnpost [dot] com.

Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Tim Hayes on 07/22/2009 - 10:36 am.

    Armstrong is with out a doubt one of the strongest cyclists in the history of the sport. However, I do not believe it is just his “genetic” gift and amazing determination that has resulted in his tour wins and ability to make an incredible comeback.

    Perhaps we will one day hear the truth from Tyler Hamilton, Floyd Landis, Roberto Heras, Jan Ullrich, Ivan Basso, Michael Rasmussen, Alexander Vinokourov, Santiago Botero, and Francisco Mancebo. All riders that Lance has beaten in TdF’s, yet all were found guilty of blood doping.

    It is sad that America continues to turn a blind eye and fall for Mr. Armstrong’s PR campaign of “US versus them” when their are so many questions about his past associations (such as Dr. Michele Ferrari), and admissions (as witnessed under oath by Betsy and Frankie Andreu).

    Once again, Lance Armstrong is a great cyclist, but let’s not for a second think it is just due to his incredible desire and natural ability.

  2. Submitted by Chad Kulas on 07/22/2009 - 11:44 am.

    I completely agree with Tim and am surprised the article didn’t even mention the doping allegations. Minnesota cyclist and former TdF Champ Greg LeMond has been saying for years Armstrong is doped. If this is true and ever gets confirmed, I’m afraid the sting will be much worse than when we all found out about Bonds, Clemens, A-Rod, etc because of Armstrong’s great comeback story.

  3. Submitted by Carol Ferguson on 07/22/2009 - 03:40 pm.

    And on it goes… allegations without a shred of evidence. Each time a rider was busted for doping, their doped performance was so obviously different from their typical day of riding, it wasn’t hard to figure out something was up. The same with baseball, the doped players were suddenly “better” than before. Please show me where Lance’s rides were somehow different and “enhanced” from his norm. The guy has ability that sets him apart from the other riders, and so he wins. Secondly, having survived cancer, why would he take drugs that might take him out of remission? Lance rides to celebrate life, not doping to have a celebrity life.

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