DERVAL O'ROURKE: Poetry in motion when nature and nurture combine

If I could gift sportspeople one special offering, it would be speed.

Pure elite-level speed is one of the rarest commodities in sport. During the athletics season you can watch men breaking 10 seconds and women dipping under 11 seconds over 100m. These speeds are rare but speed isn’t a simple matter of breaking 10 seconds for men and 11 seconds for women. There are the very, very rare elites and then there are the rest of us. So how are the very elite athletes made to go faster than the rest of us?

Last week, RTÉ broadcast a brilliant documentary called Power in the Blood, the story of the Irish thoroughbred racehorse. From a standing start they can reach 45mph in 2.5 seconds, basically in about four to five strides. The Irish are world leaders in producing winning horses and the documentary investigated whether this is because of nature or nurture. The answer is unclear but it seems both genetics and environment play a significant role. During the documentary, racing historian Guy Williams said: “There is no finer sight than a racehorse who has speed,” which is something I agree with.

Anytime I’ve been to the races, the sight of the best horses at top speed amazes me. It is a thing of beauty. In a similar way, I love to watch the best athletes running fast. I know sprinting has been tainted by stories of performance-enhancing drugs but put these thoughts aside and consider the fastest humans in the world from a genetic and environmental viewpoint.

My career was based in speed but it was speed with technique. I knew from an early age my legs would never be fast enough over 100m flat to be world class. When I added hurdles to the mix the technical element gave me a chance to excel.

The Jamaicans are synonymous for producing athletes who dominate flat sprinting events. That’s why it’s interesting to consider genetics. Many people have researched and discussed the genetic makeup of elite sprinters and tried to establish the exact composition that may determine those gifted with speed. Is it as simple as the world-beating Jamaican athletes are genetically more inclined to speed than the rest of us?

I believe it isn’t. Although what has been suggested is that there are certain genetic compositions that exist in a high proportion of world class Jamaican sprinters. The two main genes are the ACE and ACTN3. Some research suggests this makeup is found in over 70% of the Jamaican population, not simply those who dominate on the track, but the population as a whole.

While it would be really convenient to think the answer to speed is genetic makeup, that is just part of the puzzle. There is a solid coaching system in Jamaica from primary school through secondary school, to professional athletics. While the coaches may not be doing anything particularly special, having the basic coaching methods all the whole way through to the professional ranks is hugely important.

I remember hearing years ago about the Jamaican athletes training on grass and thinking I would be incredibly slow if I trained most of the year on grass, but I was forgetting a really vital point, the weather. Most of the Jamaican training is done on grass in a warm climate. In Ireland, the weather makes it almost impossible to do quality speed sessions year round on grass.

The raw materials are important but genetics are simply the building blocks, added into the mix must be coaching, environment and a person’s ability to adapt to training. In Jamaica, athletics and cricket are the most popular sports and talent is directed to these sports. In Ireland our talents are generally directed to team sports where there isn’t a need to be at the super-elite sprinting level, although still speed is a huge advantage.

As the GAA seasons are building to the All-Ireland finals, I started thinking about GAA players and speed. I asked Joe O’Connor, physiologist in IT Tralee and Clare football fitness adviser, whether it is possible to make GAA players faster. He believes it is possible to make a GAA team faster. He focuses on three areas. The first is to develop the players’ base strength to physically handle moving at greater speeds. This is done through a solid strength and conditioning programme spread throughout the whole season.

The next is to develop players’ acceleration speed, which will get them to the ball first. The final area is to improve their speed of deceleration; the fastest GAA players can get to the ball first and change direction quickly.

While there is certainly no need to start testing GAA players to determine if their genetic makeup is built for speed, there is value in training them to become faster. No doubt when the All-Ireland finals are played in Croke Park, those who reach the ball the fastest and leave with the ball the fastest will be rewarded.

The sprinters will be hanging up their spikes for the season soon and with that will be gone the sight of the tiniest percentage of the human race who can run at incredible speed, but for the rest there is always room for improvement.

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