Studies: Heart Strength At Heart Of Champs

Laila Ali
The Journal of Physiology dedicates its entire issue this month to exactly what makes a champion.

And who better to look at that then Early Show contributor Laila Ali, herself a boxing champ, and daughter of the man many consider the greatest heavyweight champ of them all, Muhammad Ali.

Researchers have studied champion athletes for decades, she says. Everything from genetics to training methods has been considered.

But, Ali points out, the Journal of Physiology makes it clear that the fundamental trait shared by every elite athlete is really the strength of his or her heart.

She notes that, earlier this month, more than 17,000 people turned out for Houston's Half-Marathon, though only a handful had a real shot at winning.

To find out why, Ali headed to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., to meet with Dr. Michael Joyner, a professor of anesthesiology, who writes about what makes a champion in the recent physiology journal.

Ali says he feels there's no gene that says someone will be a champion, "but in my personal opinion, I believe bloodlines have a lot to do with my success. I have a lot of the confidence, focus, and just the will to win that my father has."

Joyner told Ali, "I liken it (what makes a champion) to what makes a fast car. You've got to have a big engine. You've got to be able to operate at high RPMs, and if you're lucky, you've got to be able to get good gas mileage at the same time."

Getting that good gas mileage, Ali observes, requires a powerful heart, one that's built for endurance. An athlete's endurance is measured by something called "vo2 max" which, simply stated, is the maximum amount of oxygen consumed by your heart per minute.

"The average person would have vo2 max value of 40, maybe 35 for women, but we have elite athletes who have values in the 80s," Joyner says.

That means the elite athlete can be twice as efficient as even the occasional runner, Ali says.

Chris Pronger, captain of the National Hockey League's Anaheim Ducks, doesn't run much at all -- but his sport is all about endurance.

He told Ali, "You've got to be in top shape to play the game at the highest level."

Pronger leads the NHL in time on the ice, helped his team to its first Stanley Cup last year, and played in his fifth All-Star Game just last weekend.

"Do you believe you either have 'it' or you don't" Ali asked Pronger, "or is it something that can be taught?"

"I think you either have the talent or you don't," Pronger responded. "I think you could be taught hard work."

But hitting the gym, no matter how hard you work, still won't get most people to the level of a champion athlete, Ali says.

"Could the average person in a gym, working really hard, with a lot of drive, achieve elite athlete status?" Ali put the question to Joyner, who replied, "Probably not. Probably what they could do is become very good in their age group and very good in their community."

Which is, Ali says, exactly what 35 year-old Thomas Baider has done. He's an average athlete who trains like a pro, and has played in an adult soccer league for 11 years.

"I'm closer to 40 than I am to 20, but I'm faster and stronger than I've been in a long time," Baider remarks.

"The good news," says Joyner, "is that, anybody, just the standard couch potato, the average citizen and member of the general public, can make their engine bigger, can get so they can operate at higher RPMs, and become more efficient."

Intense exercise has helped give Baider the kind of longevity enjoyed by professional athletes, Ali says.

Minnesota Viking fullback Tony Richardson also knows endurance - he's played in the NFL since 1994, and was selected to his third Pro Bowl this year.

He says, "Half of these guys coming into the league now were in third or fourth grade when I started playing."

Richardson credits his 14-year career to the right training. The average NFL play lasts less than ten seconds, and his body is tuned for power and speed, rather than distance. His vo2 measured "well over four liters a minute," Joyner says. "What we know from this is Tony's cardiovascular system is in real good shape, especially for a big man with a lot of muscle mass. I think that's one of the reasons he's been able to play as long as he has, is he must have kept himself in pretty good shape."

Ali says results like that prove Richardson can endure more time in the NFL, though he probably won't win any marathons, which is among the only sports where you can find elite athletes running with the rest of us.

If you want to find out if there's a champion in you, Ali advises, it's a good idea to have your vo2 checked. It's a test that can be performed at many hospitals or high-end fitness centers. And of course, you want to check with your doctor before starting any exercise program.

For more information on intense training, visit the Web site of Chelsea Piers Bluestreak Sports Training.