Ed Burke's Got a Rocket in His Pita Pocket

Sick of protein shakes and energy biscuits? Meet the exercise physiologist who has revolutionized sports nutrition with a radical new diet for athletes—real food.

May 1, 2001
Outside Magazine

I MET BURKE FOR THE FIRST time a few days earlier, in his cramped office on campus. He is the quintessential man in motion, a true hater of wasted time, and plunged immediately into my schedule for the next few days—a battery of physical tests, dietary analysis, and, finally, a crash course in recovery nutrition. As I jotted times and places, I tried to size up the man who would be showing me how to eat my way to athletic perfection. Eyeing Burke, I began to understand why he isn¹t exactly ready for prime time. Rangy and fit-looking, with gray-flecked brown hair and a squarish face, wearing plain glasses, a work shirt, and jeans, Burke comes across more like your high-school shop teacher than the Jack La Lanne of sports nutrition. He talks too fast, with a high-pitched voice and New York accent, and seems unable to sit still. And, somewhat surprisingly, he has almost no patience for the mechanics of self-promotion. When a magazine photographer and his assistant finally showed up lugging several hundred pounds of equipment, Burke seemed mildly annoyed by the modest amount of trouble even though their sole purpose was to make Burke look smart and savvy. "What kind of story is this, anyway?" he fussed. "Why don¹t you just snap some pictures and get on with it?"

If Burke is ill at ease as the next sports nutrition celeb, it¹s hardly surprising, given the backdoor way he¹s gotten here. He grew up in the Bronx, not as a curious boy chemist, but as a hell-raiser and C student whose main interest was football and whose vision of himself in the future, when he stopped to consider it, was as a PE teacher. In 1967 Burke enrolled at Ball State University, then an Indiana teachers' college, largely because he could play football there. But after a shoulder injury in his sophomore year, he hung up his pads and joined a fraternity that happened to field a team for a local marathon bike race modeled after Indiana University's classic, the Little 500. Burke signed up and soon found himself racing bikes seriously, eventually doing well enough to imagine a spot on the Olympic cycling team—at least until his coach sat him down for a chat. "I asked him what I should do next," recalls Burke, citing his coach¹s quip about Burke¹s genetic shortcomings. "And he said, 'Take two weeks off, then quit.'"

But Burke, though not quite gifted enough to enter the ranks of the elite, wasn't through with sports. Returning to Ball State in 1973 to earn his master's degree in exercise physiology, he lucked into a class taught by Dave Costill, the veritable dean of American exercise physiologists. Costill, director of the school's Human Performance Lab, was not only turning Ball State into a breeding ground for sports scientists, but popularizing sports science itself by translating his research into books and magazines for lay readers and consulting with sports-drink companies (among them the makers of Gatorade, one of the first products designed to replace the carbohydrates and minerals lost in exercise). Enthralled, Burke switched his focus to exercise science with an emphasis on cycling, a sport that few other researchers were bothering with. That year Burke wrote his first column, on fluid replacement, for the now-defunct Bike World magazine.

In 1976, looking for a new challenge, Burke had an audacious idea: He would offer his services to the national cycling team. To his surprise, he was accepted, and accompanied the team to the Montreal Olympics. After that, Burke spent summers with the team, helping the coaches with VO2 max testing and turning research into practical advice for the athletes, including a young Chris Carmichael. "Ed knew his stuff, but it wasn't just in a theoretical way," Carmichael recalls. "He always gave real advice and recommendations, as opposed to just some jumbled reference to research. Most sports scientists just quote the research, about what it indicates, etc., but they won't stick their necks out and say, 'This is how to use the information.' Ed would."

Over the next decade, Burke leveraged his knowledge of exercise research, his racing experience, and his rapport with athletes into jobs that kept him at the center of his field. In 1980 he was promoted to staff physiologist for the U.S. Olympic Cycling Team, which included a young Greg LeMond. Anxious to learn the business of sports science, he also began developing his entrepreneurial side. He wrote his first book, a training manual called Inside the Cyclist. He helped develop a carbo-loading drink called Exceed while working on his Ph.D. (also at Ball State). He consulted with Polar, one of the first manufacturers of heart-rate monitors, and then wrote Precision Heart Rate Training, which sold 29,000 copies—a best-seller in the modest canon of sports-training literature. He penned magazine articles about hydration and was hired as a consultant by the inventor of the CamelBak. ("This guy called me up," says Burke, "told me he was riding around Texas with an IV bag full of water strapped to his back, and asked if I thought this could be a real product.") It would not be until the 1990s, however, when Burke's star—in the guise of recovery nutrition—would begin to approach its zenith.


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