As much as I love running and cycling, the simple fact of the matter is that physics works against me in these endurance-oriented sports. At just over 5’10” (178 cm) and a buck fifty (68 kg), I’m more of a draft horse than a thoroughbred. According to science, the principles of basic physiology dictate that my body type is better suited to tennis than triathlon.
While watching the Sochi Winter Olympics over the past couple of weeks, I was surprised to find that many of the female athletes share in my relatively larger build–and in sports I wouldn’t expect. In many of the winter sports, height and weight are relevant factors–think about how dependent events like downhill skiing, bobsled, and luge are upon gravity and momentum–and so athletes’ proportions, along with their ages and representative countries, are flashed up on the screen next to their names.
Imagine my surprise to find that the women in luge and skeleton are all around my height and weight. Firstly, I had wrongly assumed that these sports would favor shorter athletes–something about soaring down an icy track, face-first, at 80+ mph on a tiny sled just intuitively seems more possible with a smaller build–but what do I know about skeleton anyway? Secondly…could skeleton and luge be any greater a departure from distance running?! I had quite a laugh at this realization. No wonder some of my long runs feel so awkward, I found myself thinking aloud–and since this weekend, I’ve found myriad excuses (“It’s the laws of physics!”) to justify my bumbling, eternal middle-of-the-pack status in the endurance world.
As an osteopath, my curiosity was piqued by the finding that athletes within certain disciplines have started to cluster around certain heights and weights. Certainly there are outliers, superhuman exceptions to the rule, but generally speaking it’s favorable to have long, gangly limbs (read: wingspan) in sports such as tennis and basketball, and also favorable to have a smaller, lighter frame for distance running (but thanks to Paula Radcliffe, who stands at a “towering” 5’8” [173 cm], marathoners clearly can be giants after all, right?). Much of this is elucidated in a fascinating foray into the overlap between genetics, innate talent, body structure, and environment: David Epstein’s book, The Sports Gene, which I highly recommend.
Determined to find out what sports my body type might truly have a chance at excelling at, I stumbled upon a couple of awesome interactive websites–websites in which the user can simply type in his or her height and weight and be met with a roster of Olympians of the same build (and their respective sports), as well as a visually intriguing scatterplot of height (Y axis) vs. weight (X axis) that can be pared down based on specific sports and genders using a host of toggle buttons below the plot. Unfortunately, these sites only describe the sports of the Summer Olympics, however it’s still an intriguing insight into how specialized athletes have become.
So what was the verdict? What does science say my body type is best suited for? Well, beach volleyball–with crew and tennis coming in close seconds. In winter sport, given that skeleton racer Noelle Pikus-Pace and alpine ski racer Lindsey Vonn are both exactly my size, I’ll gladly accept these daredevil events as my true Olympic calling.
Skiing, sledding, and beach volleyball all seem like an awesome time. But what’s my heart’s true calling? It’s still those darned running shoes. Awkward or bust!