Scientists have discovered a technique that has made muscle information more readily attainable. What would you do?
There is a cruel joke shared by many in my neck of the woods. My parents and those of my peers grew up during the time of “The Guarantee.” In 1969, Broadway Joe Namath of the underdog New York Jets boldly predicted the stunning upset of the heavily favored Baltimore Colts in Superbowl III.
If the generation of football fans living in New York weren’t for the Jets before the miraculous win, they sure were after. A “gift” of hereditary fandom they passed down to their children to share with theirs.
Therein lies the cruel joke, for the gift is more of a curse.
The Jets have primarily been perennial cellar-dwellers ever since. They offer fleeting glimpses of glory, only to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory way too often. The inherited recipients, like me, are destined to live in heartbreak with no hope in sight.
My Cycling Career is a Cruel Joke
Unfortunately, “The Guarantee” analogy is also a metaphor for the cruel joke that is my amateur racing career. Or so it may seem. You see, I have always envisioned myself mixing it up in the sprint at the end of races.
Living on the flatlands of Long Island, crits and circuits are the only races around. In the lower ranks where I compete, most end in a bunch sprint. Try as I might, envisioning myself rubbing elbows in the finale is the closest I get.
I’m a Jet fan, and I should be good with disappointment. I’m not! What if I was a mountain biker or a time trialist? How about if I was a New York Giant fan, or better yet, a fan of the New England Patriots? Would my life be more enjoyable? Fewer “What ifs?” and more high fives?
What if there was a way to predict your success in different cycling disciplines? A recent study investigating the muscle characteristics of World-Class cyclists asks the same question. Advancements in non-invasive muscle fiber classification make the answer more attainable.
Scientists Invent a New Way to Study Muscle Fibers
Researchers from the Exercise Physiology Department at Ghent University in Belgium have pioneered a non-invasive method of muscle fiber analysis. Muscle biopsy is the recognized standard for study, but it involves extracting a sample of muscle tissue from the subject with a long needle. It is an invasive process that requires a significant amount of resources and is undesirable to most athletes.
The scientists invented a non-invasive technique for muscle fiber categorization. The researchers placed an athlete into a scanner and measured the level of carnosine in their muscles. Carnosine is a building block for protein and acts as a buffering agent for maintaining muscle pH.
There is a significant difference in carnosine content between fast-twitch and slow-twitch muscle fibers. Therefore, carnosine is an attractive candidate for estimating human muscle fiber composition (Lievens et al., 2021). Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy is a reliable and valid technique for measuring muscle carnosine (Eira Silva et al. 2020).
The scientists used this innovative technology in an exciting study. Is it possible to predict your success in different cycling disciplines using this method?
Researchers Determine Fiber Characteristics of Elite Cyclists
In the study published in April 2021, the researchers from Ghent University characterized the muscle fiber composition of 80 World-Class cyclists. Of the 80 cyclists, 4 were BMX racers, 33 were track athletes, eight were racing cyclocross, there were 24 road racers, and 11 were mountain bikers.
The track athletes were divided into sprint and endurance racers based upon their UCI ranking. The road cyclists were categorized based on their success in single and multi-stage races.
The researchers did a scan of the soleus and gastrocnemius muscles of the lower leg for each athlete. The authors compared the Carnosine content of each racer to a control population, and the results are thought-provoking.
Predominant Muscle Fiber Type Varies Across Disciplines
BMX racers have the most significant proportion of fast-twitch muscle fibers. Track cyclists possess a higher proportion than road racers and mountain bikers.
Track sprinters have a significantly higher ratio of fast-twitch fibers than track endurance cyclists. Road racers with more success in single-stage events possess more than multi-stage racers.
The explosive nature of the BMX race start requires the extremely high power output produced by a preponderance of fast-twitch muscle. The successful cross-over of road sprinters to track endurance events like the omnium is consistent with similar muscle characteristics.
Considerable overlap occurs between mountain bikers, cyclocross riders, and all-terrain road riders. The success of several top cyclocross and mountain bikers on the road is consistent with this finding. Armed with the information, the researchers offer reasons for its importance.
Cycling-Specific Implications of Carnosine-Derived Classification
According to the researchers, talent identification is a primary use. Knowledge of muscle fiber composition is a factor in distributing athletic talent among the various cycling disciplines. Consideration of nature versus nurture is essential in explaining this chicken or egg scenario.
While muscle fibers have the limited capacity to adapt through training, as described in this article previously posted on The ZOM, the likelihood is that successful athletes self-select for particular disciplines. Genetic makeup influences the discipline decisions of athletes from a young age.
Prior knowledge of your muscle composition is also valuable when developing a pacing strategy for a specific event. An athlete with a higher proportion of slow-twitch muscle is better suited to even pacing. A slow start and progressively faster finish favor the highly-fatigable fibers of the fast-twitch athlete.
The influence on our training decisions is also practical. Athletes with a higher proportion of fast-twitch fibers require longer recovery from intense efforts within and between sessions. A more extended taper period before high-priority events is also a consideration.
Conclusion - Now That You Know What Will You Do?
The ability to accurately determine muscle characteristics is nothing new. Muscle biopsy technology is tested and used in studies confirming similar findings to the one above. The non-invasive and anticipated to be a more readily accessible technique in the future is.
The utilization of carnosine-derived classification information when making training and pacing decisions is profound. Using the data for talent identification is where you lose me. Let’s put the ethical debate aside for the moment.
My beloved New York Jets break my heart. The undulating wave of emotions I have experienced as a fan often leaves me questioning my loyalty. I would have it no other way. As strange as it may seem, it makes me more proud to be a fan.
I’d have to think long and hard before giving my kid a gentle nudge toward a sport I know they will have a better shot at success. By overcoming adversity and responding to failure, we mold our character as athletes and individuals. It is what makes sports, mainly the sport of cycling, so great. I would never deny my child that opportunity.
Whether you want to believe it or not, it is a question you or your children will have to answer before we know it.
What Would You do?
Armed with the ability to predict success in certain sports or disciplines, what would you do? Comment below. Your fellow virtual cyclists want to know.
For more information on the cycling-specific implications of recent scientific advancements check out the Training & Performance page of The ZOM!
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Semi-retired as owner and director of his private Orthopedic Physical Therapy practice after over 20 years, Chris is blessed with the freedom to pursue his passion for virtual cycling and writing. On a continual quest to give back to his bike for all the rewarding experiences and relationships it has provided him, he created a non-profit. Chris is committed to helping others with his bike through its work and the pages of his site.
In the summer of 2022, he rode 3,900 miles from San Francisco to New York to support the charity he founded, TheDIRTDadFund. His “Gain Cave” resides on the North Fork of Long Island, where he lives with his beautiful wife and is proud of his two independent children.
You will read him promoting his passion on the pages of Cycling Weekly, Cycling News, road.cc, Zwift Insider, Endurance.biz, and Bicycling. Chris is co-host of The Virtual Velo Podcast, too!