The human body is better than anyone thought

Trent Frayne December 16 1961

The human body is better than anyone thought

Trent Frayne December 16 1961

The human body is better than anyone thought

Since about the time when the four-minute mile became commonplace, medical researchers and athletic coaches have been discovering new ways to train athletes — or anybody else — to get more out of their bodies. Using methods like interval training, isometric contraction and acceleration training, athletes are breaking world’s records as never before. There is apparently no absolute limit

Trent Frayne

ON A DAY IN May in 1931, a high-domed Harvard physiologist named Prof. D. S. Lyon took a long, hard look at the athletic world's runners and jumpers and decided they'd gone about as far as they could go. Throwing down his calipers, he wrote in a scientific journal that it was beyond human capacity to jump higher than six-feet-nine or broader than twenty-six feet, to pole-vault higher than fifteen feet, or to run a mile in less than four minutes.

The professor's predictions seemed to be foolproof for nearly two decades, give or take a Jesse Owens leaping broadly. Then a new generation of athletes began a new assault on the clocks and the pull of gravity. Indeed, as even non-Harvard intellects are aware nowadays. it's a slow week when some young man running in his underwear doesn't crack the four-minute mile. Any pole-vaulter who can't clear fifteen feet finds himself suddenly a spectator. A broad jumper named Boston in the U. S. says he'll be low-flying thirty feet any day now, and whenever American high jumper John Thomas climbs seven feet or seven-feetone or -two. he discovers that he's still an inch or two below the Russian Brumel. That's

a long way to go up to find frustration.

It's that way in other sports, too, most notably in Canada in the unprecedented competitive swimming of a lissome, bubbling youngster with braids in her hair, bands on her teeth and pure magic in her water style. This is Mary Stewart, of Vancouver, who turned sixteen in December, two months after setting a world's 110-yard butterfly-stroke record of a minute and nine seconds. Time like that, in the porpoiselike plunging of the butterfly, would have won the women's 100-metre freestyle in the 1928 Olympic Games, in the era when the Harvard professor decided where it all had to end.


What's behind the recent, regular smashing of long-standing marks? Why are today’s performances incredible when judged by the professor's standards? Some of the accomplishments, of course, can be put down to improved, or at least altered, equipment. In the repeated heated controversies over the construction of baseballs, at least half the tests proved that the balls Roger Maris knocked out of sight in 1961 were more generously endowed with "hasenpfeffer" than the ones Ruth used to lose in

1927, and Arnold Palmer’s precision - tooled golf clubs make the hickory shafts Walter Hagen was compelled to use forty years ago look like hawthorn walking sticks. But, as Canadian coach and athletic researcher Lloyd Percival put it after one of Mary Stewart's record-making swims, “The water hasn't improved one damned bit."

The revolution is attributable to two main factors: (a) the development of a technique called interval training which radically altered all previous philosophies of preparation, and (b) Russia’s sudden and explosive interest in athletics in the late 1940s and the almost fanatical manner in which the U.S.S.R. went about it. The Russians, subsidizing athletes in undertakings of immense scope, have employed sports as a propaganda weapon.

In the late 1940s they began to import top European coaches and to export their own observers to learn new training techniques. Canada’s Percival recalls being queried by several solemn Russians at the 1948 Olympics in London. Later, he was deluged with mailed inquiries from a Soviet director of sports and physical culture. Parenthetically, it's ironic that Percival. founder of Sports College, has never been appointed to coach or even help coach any of Canada’s Olympic, British Empire or Pan-American games teams, and yet has been sought out as a coaching expert by the overwhelmingly successful Russians.


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One gold medalist quit swimming when she was 17. “I’m too old,” she said.

The Russian zeal is also recalled by Alec Stermac, forty-one-year-old former Yugoslav Olympic swimmer and water polo star. Stermac now coaches swimming at Toronto's Etobicoke Memorial Aquatic Club. He remembers discussing water polo in Yugoslavia in 1949 with a Russian, a man whose country had never seen, much less played, this vigorous and demanding sport. "Three years later the Russians were third in the water polo event at the Olympics.” says Stermac. "1 hey bring the same incredible application to other sports, including hockey, a game entirely foreign to them.”

Ehe Russians’ new breed of superathleles has forced other countries, notably the U. S.. to make much greater efforts to keep pace. The U. S. once prided itself on developing the world’s greatest athletes. but in the last two Olympics, the U.S.S.R.. which before 1952 had never competed in the Olympics, snowed the U. S. under by sheer numbers of skilled competitors. Ten years ago, to combat the Russian surge, the U. S. began to place a new emphasis upon the scientific aspects of its coaching techniques, and since has been spending millions of dollars to send its athletes to highly competitive international meets and tournaments, to pay coaches and to build pools and gymnasiums. A junior Olympic training program, started a decade ago, has produced every swimming champion in the U. S. today. Now, nearly half a million swimmers are involved in the program which has been so effective that seventeen-year-old Chris von Saltza, w'ho won the 400-metrc free-style event in the I960 Olympics in Rome, was defeated in the 1961 U. S. nationals by a fourteen-yearold. Whereupon Miss von Saltza announced her retirement, pointing out calmly that at her age she was getting too old for competitive swimming.

World champions, particularly in swimming. are younger because only the very

young are prepared to make the sacrifices and offer the dedication demanded of international competition these days. The training program is rigorous and, as long as the goal is to win, endless. When vivacious Virginia Grant, who was fifth for Canada among the world's best free-style swimmers at the Melbourne Olympics in 1956. decided to try for the team, she spent three years under the supervision of Alec Stermac. training twice a day for six days a week and once on Sundays. She was in the water every morning, summer and winter,

by seven, and in bed every night by nine-thirty. She was scrupulously careful of her diet. Such a regimen was hardly conducive to dating or. for that matter, very much else. After the Olympics, when she was eighteen. Virginia had had enough. "I realized there was a lot I’d missed.” she says.

Mary Stewart, who may become the greatest swimmer ever developed in this country, started competing in meets when she was six. Coached by Howard Eirby, a commercial artist devoted to swimming, she trains the year round, spending at least twelve hours a week in the water, and competing at Vancouver, Victoria, Kelowna, Seattle, Portland and Tacoma. Eirby, like every other successful coach, uses the interval training method for Mary. In addition, she trains at home, lifting weights, doing pushups and running up and down stairs. She is an expert acrobatic dancer, an accomplished gymnast, a good student at Kitsilano High School and the mascot for the B. C.

Lions’ football team. She says she loves swimming—an indispensable word apparently. if one is to become a champion.

"If there’s any water around Mary’ll likely be in it." says her father, a former competitive swimmer in Scotland. "Her mother drives her to Empire Pool every morning, getting up at five o'clock. But even before that. Mary is awake, studying in bed. Mary’s a pretty hard worker.”

And a pretty good swimmer. Right now, she holds twelve Canadian senior free-style, butterfly, and backstroke records. Her coach still doesn't think it’s extraordinary that she accomplished all this before she turned sixteen.

“Most of the good women swimmers today still have braces on their teeth,” he says.

Kids have proved the most successful guinea pigs for new training techniques because they are eager, have a high play-instinct, are willing to try anything with enthusiasm, are not bored by the necessary repetition, and are fearless emulators. It’s significant, however, that youth is served principally in the sprints. In middleand long-distance swimming and running, and in field events, the strength of maturity is a necessary adjunct. Such exceptions as runner Bruce Kidd and swimmer Marilyn Bell may be cited as refutations, but a counterargument is that both reached maturity early.

Medicine has played an important role in the new wave of achievement. In 1939, the International Sports Medicine Association was founded in Germany to conduct research into the effect of all forms of exercise on the vital organs, there was a pause in Germany, and everywhere else, in the following six years, but when the war ended the association was reactivated and has been conducting regular seminars at British Empire and Olympic Games since. Not the least important conclusion drawn by the association is that strenuous physical exertion cannot harm a sound heart. Millions of televiewers who watched the British marathoner, Inters, totter, stumble and eventually collapse in the bright sunlight of Vancouver’s Empire Stadium in 1954 may dispute this, but Sir Adolph Abrahams, Britain's leading authority on the medical and scientific aspect of athletics, deals thoroughly with the subject in the book. The Disabilities and the Injuries of Sport.

“At the end of a strenuous physical effort the picture of distress may be alarming," he writes. "There is evjdence of suf-

fering, the face is distorted, pinched and pale or alternatively, congested to the color of a beetroot. The subject gasps for breath. The pulse is weak and rapid, cold perspiration may be present. Giddiness. nausea, vomiting, collapse, fainting and even unconsciousness may occur.

"But all of these, however distressing

to the sufferer and alarming to the onlooker, are not the features of cardiac failure . . . Some very efficient athletes are prone to fainting and collapse through a special susceptibility of the nervous system; an exalted imagination if you will. I have frequently encountered this during so trivial an ordeal as taking the blood pressure, or from the prick of a needle for a blood examination.”

It was the knowledge that strenuous physical effort could be borne without danger that led to the development of interval training — the second major reason for the surge in athletic achievement. Several coaches and physiologists began experimenting with the rigors of this technique in the late 1940s, among them Gusto Holmer in Sweden, Forbes Carlile and Percy Cerutty in Australia, the great distance-runner. Emil Zátopek, in Czechoslovakia, and Lloyd Percival in Canada. Holmer worked with milers Gunder Hacgg and Arne Andersen; Carlile developed a flock of Olympic champion swimmers for Australia, among them Dawn Fraser and the brother and sister combination. Jon and I Isa Konrads; Cerutty guided the marvellous John Landy and Herb Elliott; and Percival, working in Canada with a group of youngsters he called the Sports College Testing Group, produced Rich Ferguson, who ran a four-minute mile in finishing third to Roger Bannister and John Landy in the so-called "miracle mile" at Vancouver’s British Empire Games in 1954. Percival also was responsible for George Lynch and Don McFwan who. with Ferguson, accepted athletic scholarships in American universities, and excelled. Lynch, then the best junior in Canada from half a mile to three miles, went to Michigan and became the Big Ten’s two-mile champion. McFwan, also at Michigan, won the national intercolle-

giate oneand two-mile championships. Ferguson, following McEwan to the U. S. where he attended Iowa, succeeded him as oneand two-mile intercollegiate champion and also won the four-mile national crown.

The essence of interval training, the technique that produced these achievements, is repetition. Interval training is the antithesis of the old-fashioned notion that if you're training for a distance race you should run or swim long distances— perhaps ten miles to build the endurance required for a one-mile race. The new method’s pioneers, aware that virtually no amount of work could damage a vital organ, broke the race-distance into segments to accommodate greater effort, and repeated them numerous times.

"If you’re training an athlete to run. say, a mile in four minutes,” explains Lloyd Percival. "you might break his work intervals into segments of 440 yards at a pace of seventy seconds, followed by a rest period of four minutes for body recovery. Slowly the number of work intervals is increased until the athlete can handle maybe ten or twelve. Then you increase his pace to sixty-eight seconds, thus increasing the work load. You continue this until he can run his work intervals at fifty-eight to sixty seconds. Along the way. further progress is achieved by cutting the rest period gradually to two minutes. Obviously, when he can put together four quarters at an average of sixty seconds, he’s covering a mile in four minutes.

"The principal of interval training, which is not just a track-and-field conditioning but one which can be applied to all sports, is based on the fact that by interspersing periods of rest between periods of effort, the athlete can sustain a heavier work load for a longer period and thus can achieve a higher level of performance. Progression into higher and higher levels is achieved three ways: ( 1 ) decreasing the time allowed for the rest interval. (2) increasing the number of work intervals. (3) increasing the pace or intensity of each work interval."

These exercises help strongmen, ball players, fat businessmen and blondes

Percival emphasizes that the principles of interval training must always be adapted to the idiosyncrasies of the individual athlete. For example, he recalls that when he was training Rich Ferguson for what became the "miracle mile" Ferguson grew fretful as he raced quarter-mile after quarter-mile.

"How do I know I'm going to be able to run a mile if 1 never run a mile?" Ferguson asked.

Whereupon Percival introduced a measure of psychological therapy by occasionally having Ferguson run a mile and a half.

"He realized then that he was developing a true capacity for distance even though he wasn’t racing distances." says Percival. "Just before the Games, we had his work intervals down to 150 yards. W'hat he literally ran in the miracle mile was a whole bunch of 150-yard bursts placed end to end."

One of interval training's earliest exponents was Emil Zátopek, the great Czech distance runner. After he won the 10.000-metre event at the London Olympics in 1948 by farther than a strong Russian lady can throw a pomegranate, waving to the crowd as he trotted towards the finish line, it was found he'd trained for the grind by racing quartermile spurts as hard as he could run. resting, and repeating as many as forty and fifty of them in a session. Skeptics were reluctant to accept his method, insisting it was a superman rather than a revolutionary training system tnat had produced the record run. Claims that Zátopek had an exceptionally large heart, able to handle strain too great for most

runners, were refuted by medical examination. His heart was well conditioned but completely normal. He had simply worked harder than his opponents.

Six years later Roger Bannister improved on Zatopek’s principle of all-out quartermile segments by varying both his work intervals and the pace of each. Bannister, a medical student, was convinced no amount of effort could damage his heart, the old bugaboo, and when he broke the four-minute mile at Oxford in 1954 in three minutes, fifty-nine and four tenths seconds he gave practical proof of the medical theory. Six weeks later in Finland. John Landy ran the mile in 3.58 and milers have been bettering four minutes regularly since.

Sit-ups for sagging stomachs

Interval training has been showing its effects in other fields. The Russian high jumper. Brumel. employs it to develop strength in his arms and legs, doing repeated series of running and weight-lifting exercises to increase the power of his approach to the crossbar and to help him make the violent transition from a lateral to a vertical surge at the point where he takes off.

In 1952 Lloyd Percival took over the training of two Toronto paddlers, Ken Lane, who was thirty-three, and Don Hawgood. who was thirty-six. After a period of progressively more difficult exercises, they earned places on Canada's Olympic team and won a silver medal for second place in the 10.000-metre-tandem at Helsinki.

Strenuous training has revealed an unsuspected potential in the human body, one that seems to be limited only by man's aspirations. Even for the nonathlete a sensible application of interval training can do for the average man what it does, comparatively speaking, for athletes.

according to Percival. Three years ago Sports College conducted a progressive exercise program on thirty-five employees of the Bell Telephone company, their ages between thirty-nine and fifty-two. Later, in an unrelated medical examination, one was asked by his doctor if he'd been a professional athlete. The Bell employee said he hadn't. The surprised doctor said he’d never tested a heart as strong in a nonathlete.

Dr. Ernst Jokyl. a South African physiologist who is professor of geriatrics at the University of Maryland, claims intelligent exercise can keep a man as physically fit in his sixties as in his forties. Dr. T. K. Cureton of the University of Illinois has proven by conducting a group of middle-aged men through progressive training that even sedentary people can regain physical fitness.

Recently. I asked Lloyd Percival to prescribe a segment of interval training that could benefit a nonathlete.

"Nothing personal." he said, "but a good exercise to flatten a sagging stomach is the bent-knee sit-up. Lie on your back, with the knees bent, the feet flat on the floor, and the hands clasped behind the head. Pull yourself to a sitting position, using a brace for the feet if necessary. Making a reasonably courageous effort, find out how many you can do. Divide the number by four. Do that many, and then rest, repeating until you can't do any more. Do them daily. After a few days, increase the number, and keep at it. The bulge will vanish for three reasons: The exercise pulls in all the abdominal muscles, it increases the blood circulation in that area, thus carrying away fat. and it produces a caloric burn-up."

As man goes onward and upward, new techniques are being developed to spur him. A recent system to cause a stir is one called isometric contraction, or IC; it includes any kind of exercise in which the muscles are repeatedly pressed against an immovable object for a few' seconds. The system builds muscle and has been employed with success in team sports (baseball's Pittsburgh Pirates and football's San Francisco Forty-Niners) and individual sports (Lou Riecke. a weightlifter who last November stopped weight training and began IC. tugged at an immovable bar for fifteen minutes a day, including rest periods. At the end of six months he could press 300 pounds, fortyfive more than his previous high in fourteen years of weight-lifting). Pro basketball's Bob Pettit, a veteran in his midthirties. heaved against a stationary crossbar for six weeks last summer and became measurably stronger, as indicated by w'eight-lifting feats. 1C takes off weight, too. An attractive blonde named Patricia Miller says she lost thirteen pounds in six weeks of pushing against a stationary bar.

An even newer technique, acceleration training, is one in which, as an athlete grows more tired, he strives to accelerate his effort rather than slow it. Decline running is still another, in which a sprinter running down a long descending track learns to propel his legs faster than he can on a level track. I he theory is that the sprinter will become so accustomed to moving his legs swiftly dowmhill that he II be able to move them that fast on a flat track.

And so it goes. Man’s muscles, honed by new medical anti training breakthroughs, are taking him higher and faster than seemed possible even a decade ago. And no one is placing limits on physical capacity these days, not even the learned men of Harvard. -fc