Inside Lance Armstrong's Remarkable Success
Reigning Tour de France Champ Let Scientist Chart His Progress for Years
WebMD News Archive
June 16, 2005 -- Lance Armstrong is shooting for a record seventh-straight
victory in the Tour de France this July. Back home in Texas, researcher Edward
Coyle, PhD, has a bird's eye view on Armstrong's stunning success.
Coyle, a kinesiology and health education professor at the University of
Texas at Austin, is not just a fan. He studied Armstrong for years, starting
before the cyclist's first Tour de France victory.
Coyle shares his findings in the Journal of Applied Physiology.
It's an inside look at Armstrong's remarkable rise in muscular efficiency
despite cancer. It's also a case study in natural talent, hard work, and
"Clearly, this champion embodies a phenomenon of both genetic natural
selection and the extreme to which the human can adapt to endurance training
performed for a decade or more in a person who is truly inspired," writes
The Early Days
Coyle studied Armstrong from 1992 to 1999 -- the year of Armstrong's first
Tour de France win. In 1993, the 22-year-old Armstrong had become the youngest
winner of the World Championships in bicycle road racing. He had also been a
competitive swimmer, runner, and triathlete in his teens, says Coyle.
Obviously, Armstrong was an elite athlete when the two first met. But no one
knew what the future held.
Every year, Armstrong rode a stationary bike for Coyle's study. That bike
got the workout of its life. Armstrong pedaled for 25 minutes each time at up
to 90% of his maximal oxygen consumption, called VO2max. Meanwhile, he breathed
into lab equipment that measured oxygen output and gave blood samples
Putting Cancer in its Place
The yearly tests hummed along until October 1996. That's when Armstrong
learned he had testicular cancer, which had spread to his lungs and brain.
Draining treatments didn't sideline him for long. "During the third and
fourth month after chemotherapy, he cycled about five days per week for two to
five hours per day at moderate intensity," says Coyle. Armstrong ramped up
the intensity during the next two months before taking a six-week break from
Before his next session with Coyle -- eight months after chemo -- Armstrong
was cycling again for up to two hours a day, with heart rates of 120-150 beats
per minute. By the time he rode for Coyle, he showed "no ill effects from
his previous surgeries and chemotherapy," says Coyle.
Over the years, Armstrong cranked up his muscular efficiency by 8%, says
Coyle. Armstrong also became even leaner before the Tour de France, trimming
his weight and body fat before the race as planned. That added up to an 18%
rise in Armstrong's power-to-body weight ratio, says Coyle.
What's more, Armstrong's blood samples showed very low levels of lactate, a
natural by-product of exercise. Armstrong's posttest lactate levels were lower
than other competitive cyclists, says Coyle.
Armstrong's years of intense training may have changed his muscles' fibers,
says Coyle. He didn't take any muscle samples from Armstrong to check that.
This year's Tour de France runs from July 2-24. It covers more than 2,200
miles in 21 stages and finishes in Paris.