When you watch games from even 50 years ago, it’s hard to imagine that the athletes involved did any training at all. Their bodies look weirdly out of shape. Nothing like the highly tuned machines that we see today. It’s easy to think that we are somehow just getting better as a human race, but its not like we have evolved into a new species in under 50 years. Then why do the athletes of today look so different to those from even 25 years ago?
The answer is a messy combination of nature and nurture. In this article we focus on the spread of sport to new bodies and to new populations and to changes in training.
1. Spread of sport
While we haven’t evolved into a new species in a century, the gene pool within competitive sports most certainly has changed.
In the first half of the 20th century, the ideal athlete was based on classical human proportions. Athletes that were neither short, tall, skinny, muscly – just ‘average’.
But this has all changed. Now we know that the ideal body type varies from sport to sport, and it is an athletes highly specialised body type which allow him or her to succeed in a world of growing competitiveness. This understanding lead to artificial selection – a self sorting for bodies that fit certain sports.
For example, in the 1920’s the elite high jumper and the elite shot-putter where the same exact size. Today, rather than the same size as the average elite high jumper, the average elite shot-putter is two and a half inches taller and 130 pounds heavier. And this happened throughout the sports world.
In sports where height is prized, like basketball, the tall athletes got taller. Today, one in 10 men in the NBA is at least seven feet tall, but a seven-foot-tall man is incredibly rare in the general population – so rare that if you know an American man between the ages of 20 and 40 who is at least seven feet tall, there’s a 17 percent chance he’s in the NBA right now! And that’s not the only way that NBA players’ bodies are unique. The average NBA player is a shade under 6’7″, with arms that are 7 feet long. So not only are NBA players ridiculously tall, they have ridiculously long proportions.
Over the past 50 years it has become increasingly difficult to find athletes of the size and shape required to compete successfully at the highest level. And the search for sporting bodies led to new populations of people that weren’t previously competing at all, like the perfectly ‘designed’ Kenyan distance runners.
Sport is Darwinian in that only the ‘fittest’ reach the highest level of participation. And professionalism just helped to accelerate the artificial selection for specialised bodies.
2. Changes in Training
Still, the changing gene pool doesn’t account for all of the changes to athletes bodies. Athletes today have a much greater understanding of how our bodies work – which has in turn changed the way that we train for sport.
It is easy to forget that most of what we do for training today, only started in the past 50 years:
- Training principles of overload and specificity
- Specialised gym and fitness equipment to train specific muscles and specific movements
- Sports nutrition and supplementation
Consider that the winner 1904 Olympic marathon (who finished in three in a half hours), was drinking rat poison and brandy while he ran along the course, and that was his idea of a performance-enhancing drug.
Or Sir Roger Bannister, the first man to run the mile in under 4 minutes in 1954, trained 45 minutes at a time by skipping gynecology lectures in Medical School. Remember that before professionalism, athletes did not have the luxury of being able to focus on their training….
Today sport science (and professionalism) helps us to further specialise, our already highly specialised, athlete’s bodies.
Cameron is the Director of Pro Training Programs