Sports: Higher, Stronger, Faster

November 30, 2006
Performance potential: high-school runner, left, undergoes an oxygen uptake assessment while Mike Huff, center, and Greg McElveen, right, monitor his progress

Performance potential: high-school runner, left, undergoes an oxygen uptake assessment while Mike Huff, center, and Greg McElveen, right, monitor his progress. Megan Morr

Greg McElveen likes to run his athletes hard, real hard. McElveen M.B.A. '93 is compact, muscular, and always looks as if his hair has just been combed. He'd much rather be outside training with his clients than working at his desk. Fortunately, his job allows him to do a bit of both. As a senior exercise physiologist in the Sports Performance Program at the university's Michael W. Krzyzewski Human Performance Research Laboratory (K-Lab), he's responsible for helping elite athletes reach their full potential and for helping those of us whose careers are past their prime discover our physical limitations.

Today McElveen, still sweating from a morning workout, has offered to show me how he and his partner, Mike Huff, the program's coordinator and founder, go about designing custom training programs that bring out the best in their clients. "The first thing I ask people when they call on the phone is what they want to get out of it," says McElveen. "Then we go from there. I'm trying to find the thing that we can train that will make the biggest change the fastest, and to do that training in the safest way."

The Sports Performance Program is available to any aspiring athlete—from those who just want to lose weight to those who are training for their next Iron Man. Past clients have ranged from a nine-year-old figure skater to a ninety-one-year-old, 1,500-meter runner.

Although Huff sometimes works with Duke athletic teams, and McElveen is working with a professional football player this week, there's nothing to stop someone like me, age twenty, athletic ability dwindling, from making an appointment—nothing, that is, except the price tag. Ten, hourlong personal-training sessions would set me back $550. Then there are the costs of individual diagnostic tests, which range from $25 for a stamina test to $100 for a maximal oxygen uptake (VO2 Max) assessment.

But, for the right person, the Sports Performance Program services are well worth the cost. The machines can reveal things about our bodies that we would be unable to discover alone. A VO2 Max test, which measures how much oxygen your body can convert into energy, is a standard first stop at the K-Lab for endurance athletes like runners and swimmers. For the twelve-minute treadmill test, you put on a clear, plastic headpiece mounted with a hose that carries exhaled air to a computer. As McElveen adjusts the treadmill's pace and incline, the computer records changes in the air's composition and calculates maximal oxygen uptake.

McElveen also uses the "Bod Pod," a white, four-foot-high, egg-shaped chamber that measures body composition through air displacement. He recalls testing an athlete who had become frustrated because he had not lost weight after following his training schedule for six months. The body-composition analysis showed that the athlete had actually lost sixteen pounds of fat and replaced it with an equal amount of muscle. "I should have recognized that," McElveen recalls the athlete saying. "I definitely felt stronger." The Bod Pod's feedback can swing the other way, too. For example, those of us on the college diet (nacho and pizza intake, high; fruits and vegetables, low) might not be as excited by our results.

The good news is, ultimately, that doesn't matter. McElveen and Huff emphasize self-improvement rather than comparison with a set of performance norms.

"Norms are only good if they're motivating," says McElveen. "For someone who will never compare well to norms, it's best to gauge where he is today versus where he wants to be."

For example, comparing my vertical reach (I consider myself both vertically and gravitationally challenged) with that of, say, basketball star Sheldon Williams '06 wouldn't make me want to try to jump higher, because odds are I could never achieve the same results. Instead, McElveen and Huff measure success on an individual basis, conducting periodic tests to assess improvement.

"I always like to use the catch-phrase ‘closing the gap between potential and performance,' " says Huff. "Everyone has a certain God-given potential. Success isn't having a lot of potential. It's how close your performance comes to meeting that potential."