Tall and Lanky vs. Small and Lean: How Does Body Type Affect Athletic Performance?

Each sport favors a particular body type.

This article is from Racing Weight,¬†Matt Fitzgerald’s proven weight-management program designed specifically for endurance athletes.¬†

body typeDuring the Olympics, we stumbled across a blog post on a photo book called The Athlete by sports photographers Howard Schatz and Beverly Ornstein. This book is a collection of photographs of Olympic athletes wearing very little–and perhaps a bit more oiled up than is strictly necessary. Nevertheless, to see a tiny figure skater next to a weightlifter is a fascinating reminder that the elites in our sports are elite in part because of how they are built.

The BBC picked up on the fun of this during the London Olympics with this “body type matcher” where readers could enter just two variables–weight and height–to be matched with an Olympian of the same stats. Obviously, this little web app is so simplistic that it’s really for entertainment.

Racing Weight explores the average body types of athletes in cross-country skiing, cycling, rowing, running, swimming, and triathlon. Why? To show how the demands of each sport enforce body composition types.

Racing Weight explains why each average body type makes sense for each sport, but here’s the basic message: the best athletes in any sport tend to be built in ways advantageous to that sport’s demands.

The best basketball players are tall because the point-scoring method involves a 10-foot high basket. The best football linebackers are massive because their job is to be immovable.

So what’s the best body type for endurance sports? Mostly, one that is light and lean.

In fact, weight and body-fat percentages are more strongly correlated with finish times than training variables. That’s right, the fastest elites also have the least body fat. Why?

  • Because they are more efficient (less gravity to overcome),
  • dissipate heat better (less insulation), and
  • can send more oxygen to muscle when there’s less oxygen demand from fatty tissue.


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