The Outside Blog

Adventure : Fitness

The Chromosome of Champions

South Africa’s Sport and Recreation Minister, Fikile Mbalula, said something so upsetting, the statement sparked a Twitter war, multiple news stories, and demands for an apology.

A journalist had asked Mbalula about the issue of racial equality on South Africa’s national teams, many of which are mostly white. His response, the Mail & Guardian reported, was this:

"You can't transform sports without targets," said Mbalula, who has battled with the issue of racial quotas for some time. But at the same time, South Africa wouldn't be like Kenya and send athletes to the Olympics to “drown in the pool."

For Kenyans and members of other African countries, the statement was political, another example of endemic South African arrogance toward the rest of the continent. For researchers around the world, the backlash showed just how taboo it’s become to generalize about athletic performance according to race. Perhaps that’s one reason why genetic testing is heralded as the future of sports science: it takes the touchy issue of race out of athletics.

Take the case of the head of a physiology department at a big research university who David Epstein, author of The Sports Gene, interviewed. “He basically confessed to me that he was withholding data from publication because he found differences in his black and white subjects,” Epstein says. The study looked into exercisers’ response to a dietary supplement. The researcher told Epstein he was afraid that by saying there were biological differences between black and white subjects, he’d be implying there might be intellectual differences, an old, wrong, and highly inflammatory stereotype. “By falling prey to that notion, he might be perpetuating it,” Epstein notes. The result of this scientist’s fear: athletes are left without the knowledge of a potentially useful or harmful supplement.

But imagine if that researcher could specify the gene responsible for the response he found. Then he could say the gene causes a certain issue and, by the way, it happens to be more prevalent in white or black people. A perfectly PC result.

That’s what the researchers who discovered the ACTN3 or “sprint” gene were able to do. The ACTN3 gene has been shown to contribute to “the muscle’s ability to generate forceful, repetitive, muscle contractions,” as the University of Melbourne writes. In other words, writes Jon Entine, author of Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We’re Afraid to Talk About It, it helps make fast-twitch muscles fast.

A study of 32 Olympic sprinters found that all of them had a functional variant of that gene. The study took the approach outlined above. That is, researchers identified a gene related to sports performance, then remarked on how frequently a deficiency of this gene occurs in certain populations, like Europeans (18 percent) and the African Bantu population (less than 1 percent).

“This raises the possibility that ACTN3 genotype confers differential fitness in humans, under certain environmental conditions,” the researchers wrote. A nice way of saying, essentially, that some black people may be more inherently gifted at sprinting than some white people.

Unfortunately, identifying specific genes, like ACTN3, and their purposes is tough to do. So at this point in time, relying on what little genetic knowledge we have to guide an athletic career can have disastrous consequences.

“There are some cases where a single gene causes a huge effect all by itself,” Epstein explains. The brain disorder Huntington’s Disease, for example, is caused by a single defective gene. “But in most cases, genes work in huge networks and each one only has a tiny effect.” Researchers don’t have a great idea of how that network works yet. So even if they find a gene related to athletic ability (and they have, in fact, already found at least 200) it’s still too soon to do much with it.

“To make a decision based on that gene would be like having a puzzle—you don’t even know how many pieces there are,” Epstein says, “and making a decision based on only one of them without any of the others. You might need that piece to finish the puzzle, but you have no idea what that puzzle looks like without all the other pieces.”

The ACTN3 study led people to conclude that it’s impossible to run super fast without a functional variant of that gene. That’s a dodgy deduction, and because now that it’s easy to drop $169 on an ACTN3 test, athletes who find they lack it may turn away from sports at which they could excel.

So while genetic testing has much promise—in both mitigating Mbalula-like controversy and maximizing an individual’s athletic talent—it still has a long way to go before it’s truly helpful. Right now it’s silly, Epstein says, to test for an athletic trait like sprinting ability indirectly through genetics “when you can test it directly with a stopwatch.”

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Cyclists: Motorists See You as Moving Targets

Late last week, a young woman from Danvers, Massachusetts, tweeted something that had cyclists and non-homicidal people up in arms:

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Thanks for the emoji visual, @Erikamarquis143. Unfortunately, this tweet is just the latest edition of cycling hatred spewed through social media. Take Emma Way, for example. Last year, the 21-year-old pixie-faced blonde from the UK tweeted this gem:

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Way had swiped a 29-year-old with her side mirror, “sending him off the bike and into the trees where he was banged up, but wasn't seriously injured,” Jalopnik reports. Way didn’t stop, and the cyclist only came forward to cops after Way’s tweet went viral. (He didn’t want his girlfriend to worry and start putting his bikes on eBay.) Way repented—after local police found her tweet and she was suspended from her job.

Then there’s Keith Maddox, the 48-year-old man from Alabama who released a series of videos in which he filmed himself endangering cyclists earlier this year. Local police found his posts, too, and charged him with a misdemeanor for reckless endangerment. 

So what's with these people? Many experts have tried to pin down just what it is about the bicycle that ignites so much rage in drivers. What creates that us-versus-them mentality that some experts have likened to racial discrimination

As Bath University’s traffic specialist Dr. Ian Walker wrote in The Psychologist, drivers overgeneralize cyclists’ “negative behavior and attributes—‘They all ride through red lights all the time.’” They never follow the rules! They’re always causing accidents! Those constant generalizations make it “hard to escape the conclusion that something of this sort is going on.”

But statistics tell another story. As The Guardian reports, according to “research published in February this year by Monash University, in accidents between cyclists and motorists, the motorist was found to be at fault 87 percent of the time.” And drivers run red lights, too. Frequently. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, in 2012, “683 people were killed and an estimated 133,000 were injured in crashes that involved red-light running.” All of this hatred toward cyclists assumes drivers always follow the rules. 

I have another theory I’d like to add to the mix. People like to categorize other people. It makes life easier. As About.com psychology writer, Kendra Cherry, explains,

In the social categorization process, we mentally categorize people into different groups based on common characteristics. Sometimes this process occurs consciously, but for the most part social categorizations happens automatically and unconsciously…Using social categorization allows you to make decisions and establish expectations of how people will behave in certain situations very quickly, which allows you to focus on other things.

People seem to have a tough time creating new categories for things that already exist. Like cyclists. In most states, lawmakers have decided to categorize them as vehicles. This makes drivers feel violated when they see a cyclist breach an auto law. But a bike isn’t a car. Cyclists are much more nimble and have greater sensory perception on the road. The damage they can do to other people, in almost all cases, is much less than any vehicle could. 

If drivers and lawmakers were able to see cyclists as they truly are—an entirely separate category of transportation that’s neither car nor pedestrian—perhaps the hatred would subside. Creating bike lanes is a start, but there’s a long way to go before cyclists bust out of their current social category, created in a car-centric society, of a hate-worthy nuisance.

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Winning the World’s Toughest Bike Race

The hardest bike race in the world is currently underway, and we’re not talking about the Tour de France. Started on June 13, the Tour Divide is a single-stage, self-supported mountain bike race along the Continental Divide from Banff, Canada, to Antelope Wells, New Mexico.

Most racers are still on course (or have dropped out), but the winner, Jefe Branham, is already home. Branham, a 41-year-old bike mechanic from Gunnison, Colorado, sprinted the 2,745-mile course in 16 days, 2 hours, and 39 minutes. That’s an average of more than 170 miles per day. (For comparison, riders in this year's Tour de France will cover 2,276 miles in 21 days.)

It’s not the fastest the course has ever been covered (the official record is some 10 hours quicker), but given that rain and snow strafed the racers for the first five days of the event, it’s an impressively fast, tenacious run. To wit, Branham finished over two full two days ahead of second place. 

We caught up with Branham at his home in Gunnison to find out what it took to pull off the win at this year’s Tour Divide. For vivid firsthand accounts of the race, don’t miss Branham’s excellent blog.

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OUTSIDE: How do you prepare for a race this big?
BRANHAM: To be honest, it’s more about years of experience than the miles you put in. It’s how you deal when it’s not so much fun and things fall apart. After the first 24 hours, it’s mostly a mental battle. The more physical base you have, the easier it is. But when the race starts to hurt and you’re tired and you don’t really want to keep pushing, it’s the years of experience that keep you going.

You had a new bike for the event, right?
Yeah, I rode the Ibis Tranny 29, which Ibis launched as I finished the race. It was definitely a little stressful. Ibis wasn’t sure if they were going to be able to get it to me in time. Leading up to the race, I actually built up my old Salsa El Mariachi, which is what I did the Divide on before. It’s a good bike but it’s heavy. I only got the new bike a week and a half before the race, so I didn’t have much time on it. I slapped it together and got a few rides. But it did awesome. I didn’t have any mechanicals. I basically changed my brake pads and lubed my chain.

Your kit seemed incredibly light. You didn’t even have a backpack.
I don’t think I went ridiculously light, but most people probably thought that. I had a homemade bivy/sleeping bag/pad combo made from cuben fiber and Climashield insulation that weighed less than a pound.

I used an Exposure Revo light wired to a Dynamo hub and a Fenix LD22 on my helmet. I had a Garmin eTrex 20 for navigation, a few hygiene items like toothbrush, sunblock, and Handi Wipes, and basic bike repair items including two tubes, brake pads and chain links, and a small bottle of Stan’s. For hydration, I had two one-liter bottles and one 750ml bike bottle.

I wore a jersey, shorts, gloves, and a helmet. For extras, I carried a rain jacket, Salomon XC ski pants cut to knickers, a homemade puffy vest that weighed 115 grams, arm warmers, a wind vest, soft shell gloves, a Buff, and a wool Walz cap. I definitely wished that I had more clothes, especially those first five days. It was the coldest and wettest I’ve ever been over a sustained period.

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How did the atrocious weather at the start affect your ride?
The morning of the race it started raining. Once we were riding, rain turned to snow, and it was a bit of a slushy mess. There were maybe three or four hours it didn’t rain that first day, and I barely got out of my rain gear. I ended up pushing the whole first night, and it rained all night. It did that for the first four-and-a-half or five days. It mostly rained, sometimes it misted, and it snowed some. I wasn’t stopping for long, but when I did, it was miserable, with everything wet, no way to stay warm.

Leaving Butte, Montana, was the worst. Everyone was saying that it was going to snow that night. But no way was I going to stay in Butte because I figured others would catch up with me, and all that lack of sleep in the first few nights would be for nothing. So I went out anyway and rode all night. Coming over Fleecer Ridge, there was considerable snow, like six inches. Below the snow line it was raining, and I was just freezing. I rolled into Wise River around 5:30 a.m. and nothing was open, so I took refuge in the Post office 'till a restaurant opened. I couldn’t even hold a hot cup of coffee. I think I was borderline hypothermic.

It’s hard to say how those first days affected the rest of my ride. I was still keeping pace, but I just dug a hole that I couldn’t get out of. By day four, I couldn’t keep my eyes open.

Your capacity to race without sleep is legendary, like your first sub-four-day CTR with less than four hours of sleep. How do you do it?
Good question. I don’t really know why. I guess I’ve just done it a lot. I kind of know what to expect. For the most part, sleep deprivation is kind of just a weird head-trip. That being said, the whole race was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I think the sleep deprivation was a big part of that. The first few days, I was so bent on getting 200 miles a day that I just wasn’t letting myself sleep. I think it was a tactical error. I should have slept more at the start. That was the plan, but I also wanted to get out front, so I just kept pushing.

I don’t know that I’m going to be doing any races that require sleep deprivation in the near future. I might be done with it completely. It just really hurt.

What's the longest passage between food and water resupply? How do you deal with it?
Water isn’t too bad until you get into New Mexico. From Atlantic City to Rawlins, all in Wyoming, is around 170 miles. I hit it at night, so even though I was tight on water, I made it okay.

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New Mexico, on the other hand, is a huge challenge. I made some big mistakes here last time I rode the Divide. Between Grants and Silver City, which I think is 250 miles, I ran out of food and water and it basically shut me down. This time I was determined not to make the same mistake.

I was okay on water this time, but I didn’t have enough food. You buy $60 of food and you think, “There’s no way I can run out.” There’s so much that you have a hard time finding places on the bike to put it. And then 10 hours later you look down and you’re like, “Where did it all go?” I never ran out, but I was rationing after Pie Town, and when I got to Silver City I was starving.

I imagine that the mental aspect of being out alone and pushing yourself day after day is even harder than the logistics, right? 
For sure. It was incredibly difficult. Once I blew off a lot of my steam at the start and settled into a pace where I was sleeping more, like five hours a night, you’d hear that alarm and it was really hard not to find excuses to re-set it. In the shorter races, three or four days, it’s easier to make yourself get up and keep going. But there’s a big difference in going hard for 16 days straight.

I had that conversation with myself a million times. “Why am I doing this?” “Because you’re racing.” “Why am I racing?” “Because you think it’s fun.” “Why do you think it’s fun?”

Mornings were the hardest. From when I got up until noon, I’d be thinking, “This sucks. I can’t ride. I’m exhausted.” But then in the afternoons, I’d come around and I’d be like, “This is awesome. I’m flying. I love being here.” The highs and lows were difficult. I just had to remind myself that I chose to be out there, nobody was making me do it.

Did you enjoy the racing?
At times, for sure. There were so many amazing moments. There were enjoyable moments, but mostly it was head down, in the pain cave, get it done. I was definitely racing.

There’s a video of you arriving at the finish, and it looks like such an anti-climax: Just you riding into a lonely, dusty fence-line on the border. Did it feel like a letdown?

It’s definitely anticlimactic. If someone were to organize a new race, it would be the worst finish ever. It’s 65 miles of straight, flat, hot pavement. I was so tired that I was falling asleep. It’s kind of an insult at the end. You try to be present most of the way. But on that last section, you just think about being at the finish, taking off your terrible shoes, getting out of your chamois. I was so glad to have someone there to meet me. I think it would be heartbreaking if you rolled up and there was nobody there. The border guards don’t even come out because it’s too hot.

Does it bother you that the Tour Divide doesn’t get more recognition?
I don’t do it for recognition, so no it doesn’t bother me. Sometimes I wish it wasn’t so hard to pull off. Financially it was tough for me to even get to the start. I carpooled with three other guys who were doing it. And when I was out there racing, I probably spent $1,200 just on food. And I was doing it cheap: I got one bed during the whole race, and other than food, all I bought was chain lube. So yeah, if I was going to try to keep doing these types of races for a long time, I guess it would be nice if more people knew about them so it would be easier to support yourself.

That makes it sound like maybe you’re finished with endurance racing?
I’m not going to say it for sure. Last time I did the Divide, I said for sure I’d never do it again. Then you can’t help but look at your mistakes and want to make them better. But I think my desire to do races that involve sleep deprivation is waning.

I know you went out chasing a record time. Do you think it’s fair to compare efforts year to year given the disparity in conditions?
It’s a really good question. I read an interview with Jeff Oatley after he won the Iditabike, and it was awesome to hear him talk about how records don’t really mean anything. It made sense to me. That’s the thing about a route this large. So much stuff happens. Construction zones, snow, rain.

But I still think records are interesting because they provide motivation. And I’m not blaming the weather for missing my goal. I’m not making excuses. I just didn’t have the legs. I couldn’t go faster and I couldn’t keep my eyes open.

Do you look back and think, “Wow, if I’d just done this or that, not stopped here, I could have broken the record?" 
When I was out there, I made myself crazy thinking, “Just go a little faster. Just do six miles more a day.” That doesn’t sound like much. But then you’re at your limit, pushing as hard as you can, and it’s a lot harder than it sounds. I wasted more time than I should have getting in and out of towns. So yeah, there are things I could have done better. But at the same time, I rode my ass off out there. I rode my heart out.

So you’re not disappointed with your result?
I’m content. It would have been awesome to break the record. But I think it’s better to have lofty goals and not accomplish them than to not set big goals for yourself. I left it all out there. I have to be happy with that.

Are you done with the Tour Divide?
I’m still having dreams about it. I’m still having trouble sleeping. But no, I don’t think I want to go back and do it again. The only reason for me to go back would be to go faster, and that would just be so painful. It already hurt so much. So yeah, I don’t think I’ll do it again.

[Branham laughs.] But who knows? I’ve got a year to think about it.

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How to Run in a Foreign Land

Running in another country is a high-risk, high-reward endeavor. Set off from your hotel, hostel, or Airbnb without a clue where you’re going and you can just as easily find yourself in an idyllic Vietnamese village waving to villagers as an unhospitable neighborhood populated by pit bulls and potholes.

When you’re home, running takes on a meditative quality: Your legs take care of the route while your mind can stew on more pressing matters. When traveling, every turn, fork, and intersection becomes a conscious choice, which can make some people decide to skip their workout altogether.

But adventure is part of the fun of travel, even if it’s just a 45-minute jaunt. Figuring out how to run safely and successfully in unfamiliar terrain is an art form cultivated with practice and a generous dose of street smarts. You can do better than traveling to another country to run in the hotel gym. Here’s how:

Don’t be flashy.

Avoid collegiate or logo-heavy clothes (nothing screams “I’m American” like a college T-shirt). If you’re running in a developing country, don’t wear hi-res vests or heavily technical gear (you’ll just look rich, and also like a kook). If you’re a woman, be modest. Plain black running tights or long shorts and a loose-fitting, logo-free T-shirt do the trick for either gender. Notice if you’re in an area where running is just not done (somewhere like the Medina of Marrakech) and consider getting up early so you’re not dodging donkey carts and getting stared down.

Ask around.

If you’re staying with someone, start there. Taxi drivers are also a helpful resource; ask them if there are any parks or footpaths nearby. Finding out where people play soccer—the world’s most unifying activity—always helps, especially if you’re looking for a place to run laps or intervals. Bodies of water almost always attract runners, so if you can find a nearby canal, lake, river, or ocean on a map, that’s usually a safe bet. It’s always a good idea to ask the hotel concierge or your host if the city has any “no-go” zones” and adjust your route accordingly. Running along highways and freeways is generally not a comfortable experience no matter where you are, so try to avoid those, too.

If you’re in a city or a place where running seems to be popular, check apps such as Strava or MapMyRun to see where other locals are running. You can also search for any nearby race routes that you can follow. Better yet, participate in a race; you’ll get the flavor of a new place and perhaps meet some local friends.

Run prepared.

The perennial runner’s safety question is, “Should I bring a phone?” If it’s a traveler’s pay-as-you-go phone, why not? But your new iPhone 5 should probably stay at home—it just makes you a target. Ditto to iPods when running in a new place for the first time; it’s best to have all your wits about you (or at least wait until you get to the park to put your earbuds in).

To avoid calamities, bring your hotel’s business card or jot down your accommodation’s address and put it in your pocket. When asking for directions, it’s easier to ask someone the direction to a well-known establishment rather than the tiny side street of your rented flat; mentally record a few landmarks or street names before you head out (a metro station name, major thoroughfare, or street market are good ideas). Bringing a small amount of cash never hurts and can be used for bus fare, a partial taxi ride, or, if all goes according to plan, a coffee when you’ve finished your run.

Be sensible.

Sometimes a well-meaning host will insist the route she or he is describing is of the “can’t go wrong, really, you can’t miss it” variety. Next thing you know, you’re running on a single-lane road in the English countryside with horse trailers careening around blind corners. Realize that what’s foolproof to others may look different to your eyes. Out and backs are a safer bet than loops since you always have the option to retrace your steps. While you’re on the “out,” continually clock landmarks or indicators, like a street name, a weird rock, a yellow fence, or something you can recognize when you turn back on the same route. Your watch also helps you note how long you ran along a given path before a turn.

Don’t forget to tell someone you’ve headed out and how long you might be gone. If you’re traveling solo, a quick nod to the concierge as you head out or a note in your room is better than nothing.

The good news: The simplicity of running means it’s a universally translatable activity. Depending on where you are, people may look at you like you’re a bit mad, but that’s half the fun. And nothing is better than getting that almost imperceptible but always appreciated “runner’s nod” from a local in a foreign land. You’ll be glad you headed out.

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Why We're Obsessed with the 10,000-Hour Rule

Americans are in love with the 10,000-hour rule. First proposed in 1993 by Florida State University psychology professor Dr. K. Anders Ericsson, the rule held that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become an expert in just about anything, from violin-playing to typing to sports. (“Deliberate practice” meaning participation in structured activities meant to optimize performance in a specific domain.)

Journalist Malcom Gladwell popularized the theory in Outliers, a case study of successful people and how they got that way, including Bill Gates and Mozart. The bestseller was published just two weeks after Obama won the 2008 presidential election with a strong message that Americans can do whatever they set their minds to, something akin to Walt Disney’s "If you dream it, you can do it." That ubiquitous inspirational poster quote might as well be our national motto. The 10,000-hour rule was made for our optimistic nation of self-improvers. Unfortunately, science doesn’t care.

A new study from Princeton researcher, Brooke Macnamara, and her colleagues declares that golden 10,000-hour rule is, in fact, a myth. Their meta-analysis of 88 deliberate practice studies suggests that “the amount of practice accumulated over time does not seem to play a huge role in accounting for individual differences in skill or performance in domains including music, games, sports, professions and education,” Princeton University writes. In music, deliberate practice accounts for a 21 percent difference in individual performance; in sports, the researchers conclude, it accounts for just 18 percent.

The scientists behind this new study aren’t saying training is pointless—eighteen percent is the difference between a four-hour marathon and a 3:17, after all. (A huge accomplishment, but still not an Olympics-worthy run.) They’re just saying that training volume, measured in time, is not a great indicator of performance. In other words, that American dream of training your way to the top isn’t always possible. “Deliberate practice is important,” the researchers wrote, “but not as important as has been argued.”

That shouldn’t faze athletes. We’ve always known that the 10,000-hour rule was a fairytale, even if we didn’t want to admit it. We’ve been neck-deep in the nature versus nurture debate for decades, talking about Jamaican sprinters and East African distance runners and their apparent genetic predisposition toward greatness in their respective fields. We know 10,000 hours of training, or 20 hours per week for 50 weeks a year for 10 years, may improve our performance, but it doesn’t guarantee that we’ll beat Usain Bolt in a 100-meter race.

So scientists took away our prescription for peak achievement while they work on writing a new one. (The age at which an athlete picks up a sport may play a large role in performance, as might certain cognitive abilities, such as working memory, Princeton writes.) But we still love the idea that the more we try, the closer we’ll get to glory. It’s part of our American culture, not just in sports, but in everything we do. The 10,000-hour rule just isn’t realistic, and that should be a liberating revelation: 20-hour training weeks may not be necessary to dominate at whatever we’re doing.

So keep training. You may not become an expert (or as we say in sports, a pro), but you’ll be a better athlete for it—even if you never hit 10,000 hours of training.  

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