People often mention the size of my thighs back when I was speed-skating competitively, and, gosh, I can't deny it - at one time my thighs measured 27 inches.
This feature was an advantage to me in speed skating. Ironically, my long-time professional colleague, Massimo Testa, M.D. - a man who knows exercise and the human body better than just about anyone - had an interesting analysis of my body type the first time we met.
After speed skating, I joined the 7-Eleven professional cycling team in 1985. Dr. Testa, an Italian physician, was hired as the team doctor.
When Dr. Testa arrived at the hotel his first afternoon on the job, the hotel manager told him the team had returned from their training ride for the day and directed Dr. Testa to the room where we were all waiting for our customary post-ride massages. He walked into the room just as I was walking out. We had never met.
After one look at my enormous thighs, Dr. Testa assumed I was one of the masseuses. In his view, I was "too muscular to be a cyclist." The next day, when a journalist mentioned my name and told Dr. Testa I'd won 5 Olympic gold medals for "skating," he drew a blank. Coming from Italy, where only figure skating got any media attention, he'd never heard of me or speed skating - and had certainly never seen a figure skater with such a big build!
That night, over dinner with the team, we had a good laugh. The exchange launched a close friendship and professional partnership that endures to this day. Together, we co-founded the UC Davis Sports Performance Center, wrote a book on fitness together, and today are co-medical directors for USA Cycling. His story points up the fact that throughout the sporting world, certain shapes seem to dominate - and for good reason: Various physiological factors affect how you transfer power in sports, so certain body types do better than others. You may look at a champion cross-country skier and think that the sport gave his body that long, lean look, when in fact it's often the reverse. It's people with long, lean bodies who do well in cross-country skiing.
To identify the activities where you might be most successful, look at athletes who are successful in their sports and you'll get a good idea what anthropometric features allow them to do well. Experts (sports medicine doctors, orthopedic surgeons, family doctors) can help parents identify sports for which their child is best suited via nothing more than an X-ray of the child's hand. Other anthropometric measurements also yield clues. In fact, you can get a sense of "your sport" simply by looking in the mirror. If you have:
- Long femurs, try cycling, skating.
- Big feet and long arms, try swimming.
- Stocky body, short arms: Try weight lifting. (You don't have to push the weight up as high as someone with long arms.)
- Short with a stocky body: Try skiing. (Strong, thick, compact people have a lower center of gravity; the greater "lever arm" of taller people means more injuries.)
- Stiff joints: Try running. Stiff joints spring back better and help propel runners better than sheer muscle power.
- Good upper-body strength or overall fitness, try mountain biking.
- Lean body, try cross-country skiing.
- Hypermobility (great flexibility), try swimming, gymnastics, yoga.
Dr. Testa's vast understanding of how to maximize the athletic potential of every individual paid off. With his training of Team 7-Eleven, he ushered U.S. cyclists into the international spotlight for the first time and created a team of people who would become cycling legends.
With Max's help, even the skater with the big thighs made national champion and rode in the Tour de France (1986). I continue to skate, but, alas, still not figure skating. Now I love nothing more than to head outdoors and play hockey with my kids.
( Eric Heiden, M.D., a five-time Olympic Gold medalist speed skater, is now an orthopedic surgeon in Utah. He co-authored "Faster, Better, Stronger" (Collins) with exercise performance physician Max Testa, MD, and DeAnne Musolf. www.heidenothopaedics.com)