Peter Snell winning the 1500 m in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics
The scientific basis of human performance has been of great interest to me since I submitted to the treadmill of Drs Fred Kasch and John Boyer at San Diego State University in 1965 just prior to running the mile in 3 m 55 s. The subsequent publication in Research Quarterly (one subject, six authors), in which my maximal oxygen uptake was recorded as 72 ml kg-1 min-1, clearly indicated that there was more to mile running than possession of a high maximal oxygen uptake. The other physiological characteristics that might account for superior performance are anaerobic capacity and the efficiency of running at race pace. Experience of top runners indicates that as they reach peak form, the sustained fast-pace running demanded by middle-distance events seems almost effortless. Subtle changes in mechanics and metabolic machinery induced by repeated race-pace interval training may contribute to improved overall efficiency and explain this effect. However, the biomechanical and physiological mechanisms explaining the changes remain to be identified.
The San Diego State treadmill experience led to my devouring books on exercise physiology and, ultimately, in 1974 led to my pursuit of education at UC Davis and Washington State University, which I hoped would provide me with a greater understanding of how the body responds to the stimulus of training that varies in intensity, duration, frequency and mode. I became acquainted with the glycogen depletion studies performed in Sweden by my mentor, Philip Gollnick, who showed how fast-twitch fibres were recruited during moderate-intensity exercise of up to 2 h duration and provided a rationale for this form of training that was the basis of renowned coach Arthur Lydiard's training programmes.
In my experience, physiologists are not noted for new innovations in training, but they often provide valuable insight into why a particular training technique is successful. It seems, with hindsight, ridiculous that in the early 1950s, many thought that a sub-4-min mile was impossible. Now, thanks to the efforts of scientist contributing to the symposia on the Biomedical Basis of Elite Performance, reported in this themed issue of Experimental Physiology and in The Journal of Physiology, we can predict with great precision the limits of human performance.