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BOOK REVIEW: Faster, Higher, Stronger by Mark McClusky

Faster, Higher, Stronger: How Sports Science Is Creating a New Generation of Superathletes—and What We Can Learn from ThemFaster, Higher, Stronger: How Sports Science Is Creating a New Generation of Superathletes—and What We Can Learn from Them by Mark McClusky

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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McClusky’s book tells us how advances in sports science and technology are producing a new class of elite athlete. More usefully, it discusses which practices of high-level athletes can reasonably be emulated by amateurs. One may think that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. In this case, not so much. If shaving a hundredth of a second off your time isn’t going to affect your life’s course, there are many activities of elite athletes that simply aren’t worth the cost (in whatever terms.) For example, the loss of friendships due to rampant flatulence resulting from consuming large quantities of baking soda isn’t worth it if you just want a little bit stronger Sunday cycling ride. (Baking soda [sodium bicarbonate] counteracts blood and muscle acidification during exercise and makes it possible to keep moving strongly when fatigued would normally degrade performance. Incidentally, this practice has been shown to be effective only for events that last between one and seven minutes.) On the other hand, some of the lessons of sports science are relatively low-cost and high benefit, and might be just what one is looking for to improve one’s performance. (e.g. Replacing a pre-workout stretching routine with one of rolling out the muscles.)

Faster, Higher, Stronger consists of twelve chapters, each addressing a different aspect of the application of science and technology to sport, including: training methods, genetics, nutrition, recruitment, practice, performance enhancing substances (legal and illegal), elevation training, and the limits of performance.

One question that has always been of great interest is how much of a top athlete comes from his or her genes? In other words, can anyone can do it–given a willingness to work like a maniac of course. As with many other questions about heredity, it was once thought that there would be a precise answer to this question in the wake of the decoding of the human genome. However, the success of the human genome project showed only that the situation was vastly more complex than we’d imagined. It turns out that having certain genes isn’t the end of the story because there are many factors that influence which genes are expressed. Attempts have been made to put numbers to the influence of genetics. For example, one scientist is quoted as claiming that 50% of oxygen processing capability (i.e. VO2 max) is heritable. This translates to the fact that, while the average Joe has a reasonable chance of engaging in athletics at some level, only a 0.1 to 0.3 % can summit the pinnacle of elite level athletics.

In many ways, science has encouraged coaches, trainers, and recruiters to think outside the box—and to look beyond the traditionally engrained approaches. One fascinating story was that of how the British national rowing team held tryouts based only on height, with experience with the sport being not required. They ended up with a champion rower who’d first entered a boat only four years before. This is part of the evidence that controverts the once popular 10,000 hour rule that was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell–though Anders Ericsson is more properly considered the father of the idea. It turns out that 10,000 hours of practice aren’t required for most activities if one goes about it right.

McClusky spends a considerable amount of space on the questions of what athletes should and shouldn’t consume. In emulating elite athletes many amateurs are working at cross purposes. This is readily seen with the issue of sports drinks. If you’re guzzling down a Gatorade or snacking on Cliff Bars after your run, you may only be ensuring that you continue to gain weight despite working out. On the other hand, you may decide that chocolate milk or beet juice are good choices for you.

I’d recommend this book for those interested in the heights of human performance.

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