“You look like you’re faster than that.”
It was both a compliment and an insult at the same time. It was the summer of 1994, I was 21 years old, and living in Boston for an internship with the Boston Athletic Association—the event management team and host of the Boston Marathon.
Every Saturday that summer, I ran a 2.5-mile race around Fresh Pond in Cambridge. It cost 50 cents to race and they handed out popsicle sticks with finishing places written on it as each runner crossed the finish line. No medals, no T-shirts. The good old days.
At one of the races, Olympic bronze medalist Lynn Jennings showed up to run the race as a workout. Her coach, John Babington, was looking around the start line area for someone to pace Lynn in the race. He approached me while I was warming up. “What pace are you running today?” he asked. “About 5:30 pace,” I responded.
“You look like you’re faster than that,” he said, moving on to find someone else who could pace his prized athlete.
We ran the race, I ran 5:35 pace, and Lynn was ahead of me the entire time.
From a young age, I realized that it’s not what your muscles look like that matters; it’s what they can do. That is such an important concept to me that I have returned to it in many of my writings and have devoted much of my life to the study of muscle function. Even my master’s thesis a long time ago examined motor unit recruitment during eccentric contractions. (That was fun, because I got to electrically shock my subjects.)
It’s hard to not focus on what our muscles look like. After all, the human experience is physical. And the visual medium of social media amplifies the perceived importance of our physical appearance. Although I never was (and still am not) as fast of a runner as I wanted to be, I look the part, as Coach John Babington not so subtlety pointed out to me with his comment at Fresh Pond in Cambridge in the summer of 1994. His comment has stuck with me for 26 years.
But it’s not what your muscles look like that matters; it’s what they can do. Train them to do amazing things.