Posted by: 4pack | September 16, 2008

Book Review: Eric Heiden, 50, Writes “Faster Better Stronger”


“…In fact, in his new book, “Faster Better Stronger” (Collins Living, $25.95, 312 pages), Heiden includes the lament of busy people everywhere: “My main goal right now is to schedule three or four workouts a week.”

At 50, Heiden juggles a sports medicine practice in Murray, Utah, his work as team physician for USA Cycling, and his responsibilities as a father of two young children.

Along the way, he and exercise physiologist Massimo Testa and Bay Area journalist Deanne Musolf found time to write a book that explains high performance athletic concepts in simple language and provides safe and sane training advice to the masses.

We spoke with Heiden, who left Sacramento for Utah two years ago.

I’m required by law – or at least by my editor – to ask you about Michael Phelps. Some say Phelps’ Olympic performance was the greatest ever. What do you think? Is it fair to compare?

People have asked that before, and it’s a silly question. Apples and oranges. Shoot, in swimming, without a doubt, what Phelps did is better even than what Mark Spitz did. In skating, I was one of the best skaters. But can I swim? Phelps would take two laps out of me in a three-lap race.

But what you accomplished in speed skating in the 1980 Olympics (five gold medals) was akin to winning the 100 meters and also the marathon. For versatility, isn’t it hard to top you?

The one thing people can fault about swimming is that the distances aren’t really that different from each other. That allows someone specialized to win a lot of medals. What I did as a skater was one extreme to the other. There aren’t many athletes who’ve done that.

Let’s talk about the book. You deal with elite athletes, so why did you and Max want to give everyday athletes a greater understanding of what the body can do?

Being in sports science, I know there’s a lot of information out there. The average person can’t understand it and probably gets poor information thinking it’s good information. Most important, there are so many fitness programs that try to slot everyone into one program. People get frustrated and give up. It’s sad to see that.

You write that you’ve had to ‘coax’ many athletes into the new science-based era of fitness. Has there been resistance from some athletes?

A lot of athletes and coaches have done things in ways that aren’t all that sound, but they’ve been successful at it. It’d be hard to change people’s habits if they’ve been successful. Why were they successful? Maybe they were lucky and had an outstanding athlete who did well despite the training.

You say in the book that a person’s perception of their fitness level is not always accurate. Do a lot of people think their oxygen capacity is lot better than it is?

It happens and sometimes they are disappointed to find out the score. Ultimately, it gives them a reason to buy into a scientific program to improve.

A lot is genetics, right? But you note that 15 to 20 percent of muscle fibers are available to transfer from one type (slow twitch for endurance) to another (fast-twitch for speed). With proper training, can you improve on genetics?

Some people may have a good aerobic engine. Some may have a good anaerobic engine. The key is to maximize the potential of that individual. Suppose you want to be a good endurance runner. Say you don’t have the best aerobic capacity, but you can challenge other parts of your engine to make up for that to be more competitive. The book allows you to identify your abilities and work with what you’ve got.

Will this help steer younger athletes toward the right sport for them?

It happens a lot in Europe. They don’t have the pool of athletes to choose from, like in the U.S. They identify kids at a young age with potential. We in America have thousands of athletes who get run through a common program and some guys will do well, but the majority probably won’t reach their potential. But we have such vast numbers that it doesn’t matter.

You talk a lot about setting realistic goals, based on genetics. But, if you train properly, can you make significant strides?

We give people self-assessments at the end of the book. It gives people an idea of where they stand and a good way to get from point A to B. But I emphasize there’s no magic pill. The bottom line is, you have to put in the time and effort. If you do it in an efficient way, you’ll get the benefits. But it takes time. Be patient.

Turning to your personal life,you left to work with more elite athletes than could be found in Sacramento. Is that happening in Utah?

The governing body of speed skating is here in Salt Lake. And Max and I are now the medical directors for USA Cycling. All the venues from the Winter Olympics are still here, so we get teams coming to train a lot. We’re more involved with Olympic sports than we were in Sacramento. But I tell you, I do miss working with UC Davis teams and the Kings and Monarchs.”


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