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Born fast

We can help you run longer but we can't do much about making you a sprinter. If you're not born with speed, stick to long-distance running, writes Deepti Patwardhan.

travel Updated: Dec 07, 2009 12:35 IST

There is no white man amongst the top-25 times in the 100m. There is only one in the top-25 timings for the 200m.

Experts believe that the statistic is not because white men won't, but that they just can't. The genes are just not in their favour. You can work on getting stronger or more powerful, but speed is something you are born with. "Speed is inherent," says Vece Paes, team doctor of the Indian Davis Cup team. "With proper training and nutrition you can help someone reach his potential. But you can't take him beyond that.

"Some people are natural athletes. It has been observed that the African race, wherever in the world they may be, have bigger thighs and limbs and more fast-twitch muscle fibres than any other. That's why they are better at the power and speed events." The point is that you are either born to run fast or you are not. If you want your child's speed potential to mushroom, you'd better tap it before the age of 14. Read on.

Muscle fibres
Muscle fibres are broadly classifies as slow-twitch and fast-twitch. Human muscles contain a genetically determined mixture of both slow (red) and fast (white) types. To put it simply, twitch is the trigger by the brain, which asks muscles to work. The number of fibres twitching faster is directly proportional to the potential speed of an individual.

The slow muscles are more efficient at using oxygen to generate fuel; hence they are better for long, extended muscle contractions. They fire slower and go on longer before they are completely fatigued. The fast-twitch fibres, meanwhile, use up anaerobic energy and are more suited for small bursts of energy.

"The sport you excel at or the style of play can be based on this," adds Paes. "In tennis, for example, someone with fast-twitch muscles will rely on quick movements and play a more explosive serve-and-volley kind of game. While people with more slow-twitch will have a baseline game. Someone like (Rafael) Nadal is a prime model -- he works hard, runs from side to side; his game is based on stamina."

The same goes for athletes. If you don't have the required genes to become a sprinter, you could try taking up distance running.

Can it be altered?
Early stages of development are supposed to be the best for nudging what genes were not too generous about. Paes informs that there are two windows while growing-up, 9-10 years of age and 12-14, when the way the fibres function can be influenced.

"Our coaches need to focus on these to help people develop speed at an early age. Below 10 there's generalised growth, but 12 to14 is where the neuro-muscular development happens."

But India's South African rugby coach, Hendre Marnitz and partner, Norman Laker believe it could only be a minimal change. "Even if I train very hard and develop more fast-twitch fibres, they may not be anywhere close to the number a better natural athlete has," says Laker. Marnitz adds: "95 percent of athletes are born. Either that or you go the communist way, like China has done -- bring in 10 year-olds, put them in a camp, and tell them they will represent the country in Olympics eight years down the line."

Need for speed
Speed can't be taught. But it can be enhanced with proper training to reach its potential. The two major factors that contribute to increased speed are strength and power. Training allows for potential to be harnessed. It will also go a long way in enhancing the two things that determine speed -- stride frequency and stride length. Technique can't overcome nature but you can use it to hone what you do have.

-Speed is inherent. It comes from your genes. If you are not born fast, there is little that you can do about it.

-Speed depends upon the amount of fast-twitch fibre. Twitch is the trigger by the brain, which asks muscles to work. The number of fibres twitching faster is proportional to your potential speed.

-By fast, we mean sprinter-fast. Most body types can be trained for the kind of agility required by a layperson. The windows to enhance a child's speed potential are before 14 years of age.

-If you don't have fast-twitch that does not mean you can't be an athlete. It just means that you can't be a sprinter. Slow muscles use oxygen more efficiently to generate more fuel.