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The Hidden Mechanics of Exercise

The Hidden Mechanics of Exercise

Christopher M. Gillen
Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: Harvard University Press
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  • Book Info
    The Hidden Mechanics of Exercise
    Book Description:

    The Hidden Mechanics of Exercise reveals the microworld of the body in motion, from motor proteins that produce force to enzymes that extract energy from food, and tackles questions athletes ask: What should we ingest before and during a race? How does a hard workout trigger changes in our muscles? Why does exercise make us feel good?

    eISBN: 978-0-674-41991-9
    Subjects: Biological Sciences, Public Health

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[x])
  3. Prologue: Molecules in Motion
    (pp. 1-11)

    At a local park on a warm summer evening, a teenager nails a three-pointer while her parents complete a long run. A skateboarder grinds across a rail while his grandmother crushes a backhand down the line. A shortstop nabs a line drive while her brother drills a penalty kick into the lower corner. These routine athletic movements demand power, coordination, and control. If we carefully watch athletes—even amateurs at the gym or on the playing fields—we see synchronized limbs, balanced bodies, and precise timing. We also observe occasional moments of clumsiness and frustration, highlighting the difficulty of everyday...

  4. Chapter 1 Function Follows Form
    (pp. 12-32)

    Tension and tightness dissolve a mile into the run. My breathing evens out. My heart beats an easy cadence. My calm, detached mind enjoys the ride without interfering. I float along the bike path, legs limber, feet brushing the ground lightly, each step propelling the next, my movements effortless, integrated, exhilarating. I am—at least for the moment and at least in my own mind—a fluid, graceful machine.

    Efficient human movements require resilience, the physiological ability to store and return energy. Without resilient tendons, the threads of tissue that connect muscles to bones, human movement would be jerky and...

  5. Chapter 2 An Experiment of One
    (pp. 33-53)

    As I approached the vitamin store, I rehearsed my rationale for buying creatine. Though I didn’t expect the clerk to ask me why a middle-aged guy like me needs an athlete’s performance-enhancing supplement, I couldn’t help imagining how I might respond: “It’s never too late to start push-ups,” or “This is for my teenage son,” or “I heard this stuff improves brain power as well as muscle power,” or, most honestly, “I’m doing research for a book.” Needless to say, the bored clerk wasn’t interested in my motivation, and I left the store without needing to make excuses.

    Statements extolling...

  6. Chapter 3 The Gene for Gold Medals
    (pp. 54-75)

    At nine years old, I toed the line of my first “marathon,” planning twenty-six laps around the block. The other kids stopped after a block or two, but I kept plodding, emulating the Olympic marathoners I had just watched. Suffering soon set in. The block turned out to be longer than I thought, the day became progressively hotter, and my friends wandered off to more sensible activities. But I found joy underneath the misery of those lonely laps, and though I quit long before the twenty-sixth loop, I was hooked on distance running.

    In the twenty-five years that passed before...

  7. Chapter 4 Not Too Fast, Not Too Slow
    (pp. 76-97)

    When I was in middle school, someone gave my family a bunch of old wooden baseball bats. Though the bats were in rotten condition, I loved them. These were serious adult bats, not aluminum lightweights that made tinny clinks. I sanded the least damaged one and applied a coat of mahogany stain. In the backyard I swung the restored bat, picturing myself at the plate in Veteran’s Stadium, the Phillies’ home at that time. I would imagine a sharp crack as the bat’s graceful barrel met a hanging curveball, then the crowd’s roar, and finally the sustained applause during my...

  8. Chapter 5 Lactic Acid Acquitted
    (pp. 98-119)

    Bliss transforms to anguish in an instant. One moment, I’m running hard, enjoying the speed, my body on autopilot. The next moment, pain suddenly erupts, not only in my legs, but in my lungs and arms too. Now I need sharp focus to maintain form and pace.

    Every serious athlete has felt similar torment, and many blame lactic acid. According to widely held beliefs, toxic lactic acid floods the bloodstream during intense workouts and we feel the effects: a befuddled brain, shortness of breath, and burning agony in the limbs. Lactic acid, the usual story goes, also exerts wicked aftereffects....

  9. Chapter 6 Catch an Edge
    (pp. 120-144)

    On a sunny January morning, I watched my sons duck between trees, catch air, and carve graceful turns. Snowboarding looked easy. I began to wonder whether I should try it. My skiing experience must count for something, I rationalized. Still, I pledged to start slowly—no inverted aerials on the half-pipe until I got comfortable. And though I didn’t expect to need it, I grabbed a helmet from the rental hut to set a good example for the boys.

    What I really needed was thick tailbone padding. Novice snowboarders must lean back, weight the board’s uphill edge, and skid cautiously....

  10. Chapter 7 Your Brain on Exercise
    (pp. 145-167)

    Some people cry at the movies. I cry at finish lines. More than once, worried race volunteers have approached me. “Doing fine, these are tears of joy,” I say, and they scurry off to find someone whose problems are physical rather than mental. Though I’ve learned to deal with these crying bouts, they still embarrass me. I’m well aware that finishing fifth in my age group at a local half marathon doesn’t justify tears of any sort. But a hard thirteen-mile run definitely tweaks my brain chemistry.

    I don’t need a race to mess with my mind; a simple trail...

  11. Chapter 8 Live High
    (pp. 168-188)

    I do LSD most Sunday mornings. For me and other runners, LSD stands for “long slow distance”—the keystone of endurance training. A typical LSD run covers sixteen to twenty miles and takes about three hours. When I’m running alone, LSD often mesmerizes me. The calming cadence of my legs, lungs, and heart overtakes my awareness. In my semiconscious state, I sometimes visualize the molecular tempo too: the waves of calcium that trigger heart contractions, the pivoting of myosin that produces muscular force, and the pulsations of hemoglobin that deliver oxygen to hungry muscles.

    Max Perutz recognized the similarities between...

  12. Chapter 9 Run Like a Woman
    (pp. 189-208)

    For the past three miles, I have been running with a small group of men. Back at mile 20, we were laughing, chatting, and supporting each other. Now we’re grim, just barely hanging on, too tired to talk. We might finish the marathon, we might even still be running when we cross the line, but it’s not going to be pretty. Yet despite our distress, we’re still passing runners—mostly other men who went out too fast and are now shuffling.

    And then the women start gliding past us. Each one offers a smile, words of encouragement, and the chance—...

  13. Chapter 10 Drinking Games
    (pp. 209-231)

    Minutes before my first marathon, my wife, Kathy, sized up the competition and accurately noted, “Everyone here is skinnier than you.” Although unhelpful, this observation wasn’t as discouraging as her comment hours later as I passed the 18-mile post. The summer day had become muggy, and I must have been showing the effects. Kathy sent me out for the remaining eight miles with the admirably honest remark, “You always struggle in the heat.”

    For the record, despite these early missteps, Kathy has been remarkably supportive of my running. And in all fairness, nothing that she could have said would have...

  14. Chapter 11 More Gain, Less Pain
    (pp. 232-251)

    Ten days before the marathon, I complete the final lap of my last hard workout. The sacrifices of the past nine months—early mornings instead of late nights, carrots sticks instead of carrot cake, track workouts instead of fun runs—have paid off. I’m ready to race. Or, more accurately, I’ll be ready to race next week. Right now, I’m drained. My walk is a slow limp, and I doubt my sore legs could run three miles. When friends ask whether I’m OK, I respond with as much confidence as possible. But inwardly I struggle to control the self-doubt, even...

  15. Chapter 12 Chasing the Holy Grail
    (pp. 252-271)

    Most athletes have a holy grail, a goal lofty enough to seem heroic but realistic enough to motivate us to keep trying. Some casual runners aspire to finish a marathon. Many serious recreational runners hope to one day qualify for the Boston Marathon. For the nearly elite, going to the Olympic trials might be the goal. For many years, my holy grail was a three-hour marathon.

    Over a three-year span, I ran five marathons under three hours and twelve minutes but failed to break the three-hour barrier. Several times I passed the twenty-mile marker on track for a sub-three finish,...

  16. Epilogue: The Next Race
    (pp. 272-274)

    Shortly after crossing the finish line, many exhausted marathoners pledge to never run another 26.2-mile race. A day or two later, these same runners often start scanning the listings for their next race. A similar dynamic occurs among other athletes too. The World Series winners celebrate for a few days, then start planning for next year. The cellar-dwellers begin plotting for next season before the playoffs are over. When athletes fail to meet their goals, the next season offers a chance for redemption. When they succeed, new ambitions beckon.

    Scientists work much the same way, responding to both successes and...

  17. Appendix: Visualizing Protein Structures
    (pp. 277-280)
  18. Notes
    (pp. 281-322)
  19. Glossary
    (pp. 323-334)
  20. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 335-336)
  21. Index
    (pp. 337-342)