Muscular Prose

Even if you’re not training to win the Boston Marathon, a running (and writing) biologist says that we all rely on the same fundamental mechanics and molecules to move.

The Hidden Mechanics of Exercise: Molecules That Move Us. Christopher M. Gillen. 352 pages. Belknap/Harvard University Press.

Muybridge_RunnerWhen the Olympics roll around every couple of years, we marvel at feats of athletic prowess and inevitably wonder if the participants are somehow different from us mere mortals.

Likewise, elite marathon runners can make the casual jogger feel as if they’re standing still. Surely those who run sub-five-minute miles, hurtle themselves down mountainsides, or spin themselves into a blur on a thin steel blade are cut from different cloth, we think. But biologists are here to remind us that we all rely on the same fundamental mechanics and molecules to move. Christopher Gillen’s The Hidden Mechanics of Exercise aims to inspire recreational athletes to dig into how the functions of genes and proteins affect athletic performance and to explain phenomena such as runner’s high, muscle memory and recovery after exercise. Gillen, a lifetime runner who has competed in ultramarathons (distances of 50 to 100 miles or more) uses his experiences to illuminate the athletic endeavor with a biologist’s eye for molecular detail.

By understanding the hidden properties guiding our movements, Gillen reasons, we can enhance both our athletic performance and our appreciation for the exquisite precision of how our bodies work.

Lactic acid is profoundly miscast as limiting our ability to go the distance.

In 12 chapters, he covers the forces that shape athletic performance, from the collagen that makes a runner’s hamstrings taut as a strung bow, to the creatine that stores energy for release during a run, to salts that, when out of balance, can break even the most fit runner.

Each chapter includes anecdotes and experiences many athletes will relate to, interwoven with explanations of how and why, for example, training at higher altitudes can lead to better performance and why sweat is a good thing.

The author intends to enrich our understanding of human physiology as it relates to athletic performance, and to some extent he succeeds. I learned, for example, that lactic acid is profoundly miscast as limiting our ability to go the distance. Rather, lactate provides energy for exercise at its most intense, and we couldn’t exert ourselves for long without it. But attempting to exercise beyond our body’s ability to process metabolism’s byproducts is a fruitless endeavor.

However, some readers may be put off at the tale’s start. In his prologue, Gillen promises the reader he will not “get lost in an abstract molecular world.” Four pages into the first chapter, though, Gillen does a deep dive into basic protein structure, throwing out terms such as “carbolic acid groups” and “amino acid motifs” with little narrative to hang them on.

If the intrepid reader pushes beyond that shaky start, though, he or she will find engrossing sections detailing why male and female physiology explains differences in endurance, complete with funny self-deprecating anecdotes about many women passing Gillen during marathons.

The text falters somewhat in its narrative structure. The author has an academic’s at-times-tiresome habit of repeating and summarizing material, and he loses me with some truly awkward transitions. But he shines when describing his lifelong passion for running and inspires when relating how training can and will translate to improvement—if we work with our bodies instead of at cross purposes.

For many casual athletes and weekend walkers, reading the intimate details of muscle contraction, nerve conduction or metabolic pathways may hold little interest. Indeed, the level of detail provided here may bog down less motivated readers. But for athletes who have maxed out on sales pitches promising enhanced performance and are ready to arm themselves with a better understanding of our biology’s potential and limits, this book provides a thorough layman’s survey of the molecules underlying exercise physiology.

Karyn Hede is news editor for Genetics in Medicine and has written for Science, Nature and Technology Review.