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The Ten-Sport Trade-Off

Decathletes' excellence in one event comes at expense of another

WEDNESDAY, Feb. 13, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Sports biologists have long thought that an athlete needn't excel at all 10 sports to win an Olympic decathlon.

New research from Belgium may bolster that contention. The research, reported in tomorrow's issue of Nature, is the first to provide clear evidence that there are performance trade-offs.

Study co-author Robbie Wilson, a postdoctoral fellow in biology in Antwerp, Belgium, and his colleagues at the University of Antwerp examined decathletes' differing degrees of success in various parts of the decathlon, which involves 10 track-and-field events that draw on strength, speed and endurance.

The researchers suspected that a decathlete's success in certain events would have a negative effect on his performance in other events. For example, an athlete who excels in the 100-meter sprint might not place as well in the 1,500-meter endurance race.

The reason, the researchers suspected, was that those athletes excelling in speed events would have muscles specialized for fast, short bursts of energy, rather than muscle suited for running long distances.

Using a unique set of data-performance results from 600 world-class decathletes, the researchers were surprised to find first that good sprinters were also good endurance athletes.

But the team suspected that each athlete's abilities were hiding the trade-off effect. To try to correct for this, the scientists then looked at the 100 best decathletes.

"Lo and behold, when we just look at the top end of the spectrum, we find that the really good sprinters were actually poor endurance athletes," says Wilson. "We were finding these [trade-off] effects."

They returned to the data from all 600 decathletes. In order to compare two disciplines, the researchers arranged the athletes by their average performance in the other eight disciplines. Once that was done, the researchers found the same evidence of performance trade-offs.

"The predominant [trade-offs] were speed versus endurance," says Wilson, referring specifically to performance in the 100-meter dash and the 1,500-meter run. Natural sprinters also excelled in the long jump, 400-meter run and 110-meter hurdles, but struggled on the endurance run. They found similar evidence of a trade-off between the shotput and the 1,500-meter run.

"This sort of information is quite important for athletes today, to know that this sort of trade-off is occurring within each individual," says Wilson. "Whether you're a good sprinter or a good endurance athlete, it's going to come at the cost of some other performance variable."

But as long as the underlying mechanism that causes this mechanism remains unknown, says Wilson, there isn't much that athletes can do to correct this imbalance in their performance.

The researchers also looked at the effect of an athlete specializing in a specific discipline, and found that those that excelled in one sport did poorly across the remaining nine.

"The best decathletes were the ones that didn't really excel in one particular discipline, but were just damn good at all of them," Wilson says.

Dr. Harmon Brown, the chairman of the U.S.A. Track & Field Sports Medicine and Sports Science Committee, says that of the decathlon events, the 1,500-meter run is the only discipline that demands such endurance.

"Most decathletes, with a few exceptions, despise it," says Brown, who also coaches throwing events at the San Francisco State University, "They don't train for it, particularly, because it's only one of the 10, and it takes a lot of time to train well for 1,500m. It reflects choices in training."

Brown says that most decathlon coaches use a combination of intuition, experience and a background in exercise physiology to try to balance an athlete's training.

Wilson and his colleagues plan to continue studying the decathlete data, and will also turn their attention to similar information about women's heptathlon results. He says he expects to see the same pattern in female athletes.

What To Do

Learn about the decathlon from Decathlon U.S.A. or the International Association of Athletics Foundation.

You could also check out this mini-biography of Bruce Jenner, the last American to win the gold medal in an Olympic decathlon, from the U.S.A. Track and Field Web site.

SOURCES: Interviews with Robbie S. Wilson, Ph.D., postdoctoral fellow, Department of Biology, University of Antwerp, Belgium; C. Harmon Brown, M.D., chairman, Sports Medicine and Sports Science Committee, U.S.A. Track & Field, Foster City, Calif.; Feb. 14, 2002 Nature
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