The science of fitness – and what motivated us to learn about it

A cycling legend and a doctor share stories of struggle and inspiration — and how science illuminated a path to recovery

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Tour de France winner Greg LeMond andphysician Mark Hom share a passion for cycling. Their paths would cross underunusual circumstances, leading them to co-author TheScience of Fitness, just published by Elsevier.

In the excerpts that follow, LeMondshares his personal triumphs and struggles with cycling, fitness and health soothers might benefit from his experiences. Dr. Hom then describes how cyclinghelped him transform from "a scrawny kid" to one who was strong and fit. Heexplains the science behind fitness and athleticism, including his discoveryabout the crucial role of mitochondria and how they affect our health and performance.

Theseexcerpts are from the preface, which can be downloaded in full at the end.

Greg LeMond riding in the 1991 Tour de France

Greg LeMond: "At 25, I was on top of the world; nine months later, I was clinging to life"

I knew I was dying. Blood poured from my wounds, spurting wildly from my neck. I was trying to cry out, but with every breath I choked and gargled through the blood in my throat. Inside, I repeated over and over: Oh, my God, I'm shot! My strength seeped away into the scrub and brush of the remote northern  California ranch.

The shotgun blast was unbelievably loud, right in my ear. My brother-in-law accidentally fired just as I stepped out from the cover of a huge wild raspberry bush in front of him; then all I knew was noise and confusion. I thought my own gun had gone off, and I stared at it, utterly confounded. Our  small family hunting party was 40 miles from the nearest hospital, and I was bleeding to death. Oddly, I was not feeling any pain, but I wanted so badly to tell the others to get me an ambulance; I needed help, I was dying here.

It seemed hours until the California Highway Patrol helicopter arrived, although I learned it was more like 20 minutes. Paramedics secured me to the outside of the two-man helicopter. I watched the rotor blades cutting across the clear April sky. What a strange, strange way to go, gazing into the heavens.

We landed with a thump at theUniversity of California Davis Medical Center in Sacramento. The last thing Iremember was the emergency room physician slicing into me and inserting a chesttube. Pain had made itself known. I was not conscious again until some six hourslater, after a team of diligent surgeons saved my life.

The  Science of Fitness

The Science of Fitness coverIn The  Science of Fitness: Power, Performance, and Endurance, just published by Elsevier, authors Greg LeMond and Dr. Mark Hom explain the connection between exercise, nutrition and physiology in layman's terms for experienced and amateur athletes as well as trainers and those interested in developing  a serious exercise and fitness regimen. Athletes seeking optimal results are often enticed by the promises of the latest health, diet and fitness strategies, forgetting that science actually holds the keys to their success. This book includes medical and fitness advice about exercise and nutrition for  enhanced athletic performance, higher quality of life, disease prevention and slowing of the aging process.

Dr. Hom writes:

As a radiologist, I can see deep inside the human body using state of the art medical imaging ... I can see beyond the skin surface and see my patients' organs in great detail. I can see the heart beating, blood flowing, lungs billowing, muscles contracting, and joints flexing. The book will begin  with an organ system by organ system explanation of fitness, instead of the usual focus only on muscles.

LeMond writes:

I want you to unlock your full potential, just as I was able to do. You do not have to be the fastest, the strongest, the toughest, or even the smartest athlete in the world. But maybe you can be, with the right knowledge, enough willpower, and a little luck.

I lost 65 percent of my blood volume inthe field. Shotgun pellets had ripped through my back and side, puncturing mylungs, liver, kidneys, and the lining of my heart. Despite the surgeons' bestefforts, more than three dozen lead pellets remained embedded in my uppertorso, including three in my liver and two in my pericardial lining. But I wasalive. …

Myfirst athletic love was not cycling, as some believe, but freestyle skiing. Igrew up in Reno, Nevada, a bit of a wild child who spent as much time aspossible outdoors. Tearing down the ski slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountainswas exhilarating. I found that I loved pushing myself, testing my limits.

In1975, I attended a freestyle ski camp run by my hero Wayne Wong, who suggestedI try cycling to stay in shape and build muscle onto my 14-year-old frameduring the off-season. Bicycling is popular with skiers because it strengthensthe same hip extensors, quadriceps, and calf muscles required in competitiveskiing. I was sold on cycling as a way to exercise, and soon found it had manybenefits for me beyond the physical.

I was a boy who just could not sitstill. I had trouble focusing in school. Parents and educators then did nothave the skill set to diagnose and cope with what we know now was a classiccase of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). ADHD certainly was notthe frequently medicated childhood disease it is today. My triumph over thesymptoms was found atop two thin tires over many dusty miles. Even an hour ofexercise cleared my head and sharpened my focus. I was transformed. …

When I was just 17 years old, I made alist of cycling goals for myself. They were certainly lofty goals, by anyone'sstandard, but even as a teenager I knew I possessed the dedication and skill tomeet them. Here is my list from 1978:

  1. Win the Junior World Cycling Championship
  2. Bring home the Olympic gold medal in 1980
  3. Win the Professional World Cycling Championship by 23
  4. Win the Tour de France by 25

I met each of these goals except one,winning an Olympic medal.

In 1986, I won the Tour de France. Iwas the first and still the only American to claim the Tour de France trophy. …Atthe age of 25 years, I was on top of the world.

Nine months later, I was clinging tolife in Sacramento, California.

My recovery did not go smoothly. …

There I was, the acknowledged bestbicycle racer in the world, rapidly losing the physical accomplishments of mymonths and years of grueling training. Competing in the Tour de France has beenlikened to running a full marathon every single day for three weeks. The sheerbrutality of the experience is hard to fully convey. Now, at the age of 25, atthe pinnacle of my success, I was stretched out in a hospital room, wonderingif I would ever be able to get on a bike again.

My French team sent me a letterexpressing their relief that I had survived the shooting, and not-so-gentlyletting me know that my services would no longer be required. Kathy and I hadbeen married for six years, had two sons, Geoffrey and days' old Scott, and hadgritted our teeth through some tough early years in France. I struggled toconcentrate on getting well, not on the difficulties facing our little family.It was a long time before I could walk even 100 feet without stopping to rest.

As I got stronger, my determinationcame back. I was going to reclaim my rightful place in the cycling world. Itwas going to take every single ounce of stubbornness and grit that I possessed,and every single thing I knew about body mechanics and proper training to findmy way back to the Tour. The road back to Paris would be the greatest challengeof my life. …

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MarkHom, MD: "I was shocked when LeMond announced that his career was cut short bya mysterious illness called mitochondrialmyopathy."

Mark Hom, MD, sports his cycling gear.One of theearliest and fondest memories of my childhood was learning to ride a bicycle.The freedom, mobility, and expansion of my world were new and excitingexperiences at that highly receptive and impressionable age. …

My first bike was a blue Raleigh"Chipper" a single speed bike with a rear coaster brake, banana seat supportedby a sissy bar, a kicked out front fork, and "chopper" style chrome handlebars.Designed to mimic the Harley Davidson motorcycles from the 1969 movie Easy Rider, that firstbike vastly extended my world well beyond my neighborhood.

They say once you learn how to ride abike, you never forget. That is because the brain (and the cerebellum inparticular) makes new connections when you learn to ride. This rewiring of yourbrain or "muscle memory" can last your entire life. It was a simpler time then,and kids were expected to be physically active and playing outdoors, notsurfing the Internet or gossiping on cell phones.

It was about this same age when I hadmy first exposure to cell biology in the 3rd grade. …That first day we used ourmicroscopes to look at onion skin. They say odor induces the recording andrecalling of long-term memory, and I clearly remember the strong smell ofonions even decades later. Being one cell layer thick, the onion skin was agood demonstration of what constitutes a living plant cell (cell wall,cytoplasm, and nucleus). This was an epiphany. Before using that microscope,things were much simpler and easier to explain. I had assumed the onion skinwould be featureless like a sheet of cellophane. I had already taken my toysapart and was disappointed to find them hollow and empty inside. However, thistime seeing the array of cells and then the tiny parts inside each cell made merealize that the natural world was much more complex, fascinating, and worthyof study. This was probably the singular event that directed my life to thestudy of biology and eventually medicine. …

When I got to middle school, the boys'Physical Education (PE) class was divided into a high group and low group(which sounds awfully cruel by today's egalitarian standards). As a Decemberchild, I was nearly a year younger than some of my classmates, I was that muchbehind in adolescent growth and coordination, and I did not respond well to thepressure of team sports, so I was content when I was placed in the low groupthat first year. But at some point, I decided that I did not want to be ascrawny kid anymore. …

I began to bicycle as more than just away to explore but also to improve my fitness. On a bulletin board (mind you areal bulletin board, not Craigslist or eBay), I saw an advertisement for alightly used Schwinn Paramount 10-speed bike for $350. Although it drainedevery last penny of my life savings at the time, I had to have it. TheParamount was the ultimate ride of its day with hand-fitted chromed Nervexlugs, Reynolds 531 double butted steel tubing, and candy apple red paint. Mybest friend asked me why I was wasting my money on a bike when I would begetting my learner's permit to drive a car in a year.

Looking back, it is about this age thatmany discard the bicycle as a childhood toy and move on to other more adultinterests. They say you never forget how to ride, but unfortunately too manypeople forgot how much fun it can be.

Undeterred, I rode every day afterschool and tried to get in as much training as possible before sunset. Thatmeant strenuous, fast rides in a limited period of time. I sought out everychallenging hill and climbed them as fast as I could. I remember riding so hardthat my water bottles were empty, my shirt was drenched with sweat, and my legsfelt like rubber bands when I carried the bike back down to storage in thebasement.

One day while riding I looked down atmy leg and saw a swelling going down the outside of my calf. Oh no, what had Idone? I looked at the other calf and it was swollen too!

I later found out that I was developingmy soleus muscles, the deep calf muscles normally hidden by the more obviousand superficial gastrocnemius muscles. In trained cyclists the soleus muscle ineach calf becomes enlarged (hypertrophied) to be seen from the side. Myquadriceps muscles had also hypertrophied and I was starting to take the shapeof a cyclist. My heart was getting stronger too. …

I took every advanced biology class inhigh school and then majored in biology at Johns Hopkins University. I learnedthat the mitochondria in each of our cells generate the energy that drivesmuscular power and other vital functions in the body. At that level, we weretaught the normal functions of mitochondria, and we wrongly assumed that theyperformed their task perfectly and unendingly, needing no special attention.

One book stood out at the time, The Lives of a Cell: Notes of BiologyWatcher by Lewis Thomas (Bantam Books 1974). With a wide view of thebiosphere and specific microscopic detail, Thomas showed that all life on Earthis intimately connected, no more so than how mitochondria came to be inside ofour cells.

Although Lewis Thomas did not apply thissynergy to sports, the energy that mitochondria supply to our cells powers ourevery athletic endeavor. …

When I took up cycling, bike racing wasan obscure sport contested in faraway Europe with no local youth teams for meto join. There was not yet a modern American cycling hero of my own era. Butthen word got out that a blond-haired, blue-eyed American (with a Frenchsounding name: LeMond) was beating the Europeans at their own game. He even wonthe most grueling physical contest in all of sport, the Tour de France (1986).

Greg LeMond and I are about the sameage. While I was training to be a doctor, Greg was training to be the bestathlete in the world. …

Because he was considered one of themost physically fit athletes of his era (undoubtedly having superiormitochondria), I and many others were shocked when LeMond announced that hiscareer was cut short by a mysterious illness called "mitochondrial myopathy."

The shotgun pellets imbedded near vitalorgans were leaching elemental lead and poisoning his mitochondria. With hisdiagnosis, the general public (and many clinicians) began to realize thatthings could go wrong with mitochondria. …

Read the full preface

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Related story

Read Dr. Hom's article for SciTechConnect: "Mitochondria:  the source of inner power"

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The Authors

Greg LeMondGreg LeMond is apioneering bicyclist, three-time winner of the Tour de France (1986, 1989 and1990), three-time World Cycling Champion (1979, 1983 and 1989), author, ownerof GregLeMond.com, a bicycletechnology innovator and a fitness expert. He is the founder of LeMond Fitnessand a leader in the manufacture of the latest training equipment. He also worksclosely with leading sports physiologists (including Dr. Adrie Van Diemen,physiologist for Team Garmin) in the development of power training devices. Inaddition, he contributes in many cycling periodicals, most recently Cycling News.

Mark Hom, MD

Dr. Mark Hom is a Johns HopkinsUniversity-trained biologist, an award-winning medical illustrator, aninterventional radiologist applying high technology to the diagnosis andtreatment of his patients, an educator of young doctors, and an avid fitnesscyclist. Dr. Hom's work explains how the human body, various organ systems, andindividual cells function in the biologic process of exercise. He is a memberof the Department of Radiology at Virginia Commonwealth University.

They arethe co-authors of TheScience of Fitness, just published by Elsevier.

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