Superbodies: Peak Performance Secrets from the World's Best Athletes

Date Reviewed
December 8th 2015

With a embossed colour cover and glossy pages, this volume has the look and feel of a textbook. The impression is further reinforced with a compartmentalized layout, large colour photos and the use of technical descriptions and terminology.


But this professional sterility is tempered by a sometimes colloquial style and the author's regular use of personal anecdotes. Through this 2012 book, by Greg Wells, there is a good chance your favourite sport is mentioned, less likely if it is included in professional entertainment sports. A physiologist, Wells' personal sports background features high level competitive swimming and some strenuous cycling challenges.


While the title suggests the book could be aimed at, and about, aspiring and elite athletes, its technical detail suggests a more professional readership such as coaches, trainers, other physiologists and maybe most importantly, those running their own training regime.


But despite the title, the book is geared to people of all fitness levels and aspirations. One just needs to plug in their exercise intensity, duration, activity and goals into the basic format laid out by the author.


The amount of material and the depth of detail makes the book more of a resource than a quick once through read. However, the boxed sections called “Greg's High Performance Tips” offer a less intimidating way of gleaning the information.


Additionally the book could be read as a dietary and health guide, where the value of specific food elements is paired with the organ and systems functions they relate to.


The seven chapters highlight the cardiovascular and aerobic system, the musculoskeletal system, the nervous system, the immune system, the endocrine system, recovery and regeneration and a putting-it -all-together chapter.


Traditionally elite athletic training seems stereotypically reduced to hard work, a rigid diet regime and proper rest. And this book doesn't deny this, but points out that smart training and planning may be more effective that just plain hard work and lots of it.


One of the best examples of this is to 'taper'. It is the the protracted rest period before the anticipated performance whether athletic, public presentation or academic exam. This hiatus from training, sometimes as a long as a month for high performance athletes, can lead to improvement of one to 4 per cent, an improvement that can take years relying only on hard training, says Wells.


The rationale is that recovery from fatigue at the cellular level occurs faster than loss of fitness. In essence people may continue getting stronger several days after they stop training as cells continue to repair and muscles grow. Timing the taper and the length of it is the key. Internal responses that occur during taper include improved blood, muscles getting stronger, nervous system more responsive and improved psychological state. The immune system is also bolstered during 'taper'.


About 40 years ago athletic trainers and coaches began to accept the benefits of progressive resistance training through the use of weights for building skeletal muscles.


Wells talks about using progressive resistance training to increase both lung capacity and the efficiency of breathing. Traditionally lung capacity was believed to be primarily hereditary and largely immutable, except for decrease with age. This, the first chapter in the book, was the most revealing of new information, at least for me, with suggestions on how one could improve lung function and capacity. Breathing exercises employing progressive resistance had never occurred to me.


Lung limitation is pushed to the highest stress with free diving (non scuba) where divers go up to 200 feet deep holding their breath for several minutes. The most noted origins of this are the centuries old pearl diving in Korea and Japan. Some of these divers have seven and eight litre lung capacity compared to normal 2.5 to 4 litres.


Muscles involved in breathing account for 15 per cent of the muscle mass in a human body. And air exchange is provided first for the brain, then the heart and then to breathing muscles and other organs in relation to their urgency. Essentially musculoskeletal activities get what is left over and maybe reproductive after that.


Along with the role of the lungs, Wells discusses changes in blood chemistry that enhance the cardio system. Again there are dietary tips related to organ function.


He briefly discusses effects at altitude and for athletes the concept of living high and training low. Blood chemistry and breathing adapt at high altitude, but performance of muscles is better at lower levels.


Along with this and the more obvious musculoskeletal system, Wells delves into athletic improvements that can be made through efforts to improve the less obvious nervous, immune and endocrine systems.


His discussion of these latter three enhances the book's value for those especially interested in 'health'.


Also on the health front resting heart rate is associated with lifespan and the lower the better. It seems related to incidence of chronic disease, adds Wells.


There is a strong association between stair climbing and bone density in post menopausal women. In addition, stair climbing can lead to weight loss and reduce likelihood of falling in elderly.


And an interesting caution on the health front. All adaptations the body makes to exercise can help the body resist disease. However, says Wells, there is a limit to exercise from this perspective. Beyond five or six hours per week, too much energy may go to recovering from exercise at the expense of maintaining the immune system. As a result highly trained athletes may have a reduced immunity. The increased risk of 'catching something' is of great concern, setting training back or derailing a competition.


Of practical use for air travellers are his suggestions on how to limit the effects of jet lag. Essentially it involves 'tricks' to control the activity of pineal gland, which is responsible for the condition.


His suggestions include drinking a litre of water every three hours during the flight. Stop caffeine. Exercise in the morning on arrival in a new time zone. On the day prior to flying eat snacks and small meals rather than large ones. On arrival eat normal meals according to the time in this zone. Expose yourself to natural light in the new time zone and keep your room as dark as possible at night. A hot shower followed by a cool shower lowering body temperature before sleep also helps. These tend to manage melatonin, since jet lag is a function of the activity of pineal gland.