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A Career Spent in Study of Training and Exercise
by Gina Kolata

MUNCIE, Ind. - Dr. David Costill, a professor of exercise science at Ball State University here, has an unexpected conflict. An important donor has suddenly shown up and Dr.Costill and his colleagues must spend an hour with him. But in the meantime, a reporter has also arrived, to interview Dr. Costill.

So he asks the reporter how she would like to occupy herself for an hour or so. Professors at other departments might offer a cup of coffee or a stack of journal articles to read. But this is the Human Performance Laboratory, and so the suggestions are a bit different. Run? Swim? Lift weights? When she says she would like to run, several strapping graduate students quickly ask how far and describe the best routes.

Clearly, this is no ordinary academic department.

Those who work and study here are not just scientists, but athletes. The excessively fit graduate students all seem to be competitive swimmers or runners or bicyclists. In their spare time, they do things like rock- climbing. The Human Performance Laboratory is a male domain; for some reason, Dr. Costill says, women seldom apply.

Dr. Costill joins the swimmers each day at lunchtime. Tall and lean, with an athlete's easy grace, he swims as fast now as he did in college, more than 40 years ago.

He is, colleagues say, a legend in his field. One of the first, and still one of the few, to apply scientific methods to the study of exercise and training, he has published more than 400 papers and won awards from groups that include the American College of Sports Medicine, where he was president, and Runner's World.

"He's just a superb person as well as one of the top exercise physiologists," said Dr. Paul Ribisl, the chairman of health and exercise science at Wake Forest University. "He's certainly done some of the most interesting work and he had a powerful influence on the field." Dr. Costill's specialty, Dr. Ribisl added, was to apply the methods of science to a field that had often neglected them. "He's basically allowed the science to dispel the misconceptions," Dr. Ribisl said.

Dr. Edmund R. Burke, a former student of Dr. Costill who directs the exercise science program at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, said that Dr. Costill was one of the few who not only used scientific methods but asked the same questions as athletes and people trying to get fit. And then he gave them practical advice.

Over the years, Dr. Costill has asked questions like, Why are some people so much better at certain sports than others? Is there an inborn physiological difference between, say, a sprinter and a marathon runner? How should people train to maximize their performance? Why does the body adapt with training?

Now, at age 65, Dr. Costill is asking, Why do old people move so slowly? Can their muscles be trained to develop like those of someone younger? And what happens to the bodies of athletes as they grow old?

In a way, Dr. Costill's career is an unlikely one, graced by close friendships with scientists and athletes and strange occurrences that got him into graduate school and got him his first real job, as head of the Human Performance Laboratory at Ball State in 1966. Now semiretired - he spends his mornings at Ball State and his afternoons building an airplane - he no longer heads the lab, devoting himself to research and writing.

The son of an Akron, Ohio, machinist, David Costill started out thinking that he would teach high school science and coach a swimming team. But he soon grew dissatisfied. It was 1961, and he was working in Cleveland, teaching, coaching and increasingly restless.

"One day, I came home in the afternoon," he said. "I was sitting in our bare-bones apartment staring at the wall. My wife wasn't home - she was teaching English and Spanish. And I said, Am I going to do this for the rest of my life?" That night, he applied to the doctoral program in physiology at Ohio State University. His former college swimming coach was there and had encouraged him to come.

He was summarily rejected, Dr. Costill said, confessing that his college grades had been unimpressive. "I just was not focused," he said.

But then, five days later, to his great surprise, he got another letter, this one accepting him with no reservations. He suspects his former coach had something to do with it. In a year, he had crammed in all the required courses for his Ph.D., and he went to the State University of New York at Cortland to teach science and coach swimming and cross-country while he did research for the doctoral degree.

Cortland's cross-country team had not won a race in seven years. So Dr. Costill began searching for interested students who might turn out to be good runners, and he turned up three who were so good they ended up as all-Americans. One, Bob Fitts, a muscular former football player who had been in the Army, went on to become an exercise physiologist and is now a professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee.

Dr. Costill was puzzled. All the runners trained in the same way. But, he said, "One guy was the national champion and another guy would be lucky to finish the race." He wanted to find out why, but since Cortland was not a research institution, he soon realized that he had to go elsewhere.

With his newly earned Ph.D., he began looking for jobs. One day, he got an envelope in the mail with no return address. Inside was a newspaper advertisement for a job directing a new center, the Human Performance Laboratory at Ball State. He applied and was hired.

The university was about to offer the job to Dr. Ribisl but decided at the last minute to interview Dr. Costill, he later learned. He still does not know who sent him the ad. "The envelope had a Columbus, Ohio, stamp on it. That's all I could ever find out."

Arriving at Ball State, Dr. Costill learned that there was little money to study sports, so he decided to seek some. Gatorade had just come onto the market, he said, so he wrote to the company and suggested a study on dehydration among marathon runners.

A company doctor called him back. "He said, `I'm really excited by your idea but there is one problem: you asked for $800,' " Dr. Costill recalled. "I said, `Oh, gee.' Then he said, `You ought to add another zero to that.' "

Astonished, Dr. Costill did, and used the money to buy laboratory equipment. That was the beginning of a long career in which he pursued every avenue to scrounge money for research in a field that had never been lavishly financed. At the same time, he avoided making deals or giving endorsements.

When he did the dehydration study, in 1970, marathon rules forbade runners to have fluids before they ran 10 kilometers, or 6.2 miles. Fluids were believed to be equivalent to performance-enhancing drugs. But runners were becoming seriously dehydrated, and some were collapsing with body temperatures as high as 104, 106 or even 109 degrees in a man who, miraculously, was not killed, Dr. Costill said. "People would lose 12 pounds or more," he said. "They would lose a gallon of fluid."

The study did not show that Gatorade was any better than water for dehydration. But it did change marathon rules by documenting that runners were in dire need of fluids.

As his research got going, Dr. Costill came back to his question about what, physiologically, makes a good distance runner. "I wanted to find out why I was such a bad runner," Dr. Costill said. "The best I ever did in a marathon was 3 hours and 15 minutes. I was training 70 miles a week, but I just couldn't get any better. I wanted to know what made those other guys so good."

The answer, he discovered, is that champion runners had an almost freakishly efficient system to get oxygen-rich blood to the muscles and for allowing muscles to keep contracting for hours without tiring.

Distance runners tend to have huge hearts and muscles that just soak up oxygen. Many of the famous distance runners he tested, like Steve Prefontaine, the legendary runner from Oregon, had hearts that were one and a half to twice the normal size, probably, Dr. Costill says, because they had a genetic gift of being able to adapt to training. Since he never studied these athletes before they became champions, he points out, it is impossible to say for sure which came first, the large heart or the running ability.

"We found some really good distance runners who didn't have big hearts, but when their hearts would contract, they would empty more fully," Dr. Costill said.

They also had an unusual distribution of muscle fibers. Most people have about equal amounts of two types of fibers - slow twitch fibers, which are best for endurance events like marathons, and fast twitch fibers, which are best for sprints. Distance runners have mostly slow twitch muscles in their legs, Dr. Costill found, while sprinters have mostly fast twitch muscles.

When he tested his own muscles, Dr. Costill learned why he was not a champion distance runner.

"I'm built like a sprinter," he said. "I only had 35 to 40 percent of the muscles in my legs that were slow twitch. If you train a fast twitch fiber to do a lot of endurance work, it will eventually get a lot better, but it will never be as good as a slow twitch fiber." And that, he said, was his problem. "I was running the mileage and doing all the things right, but you can only adapt so far." But while most people are in the middle of a bell-shaped curve in ability, there are a few who could be great athletes but, without training, never know it, Dr. Costill said.

"We've seen some of these people," he added. In addition to the runners at Cortland, there was a bicyclist at Ball State.

"One day in a graduate class, I made a comment that the local cycling team was training wrong for an event," he said. It was a race like the one in the movie "Breaking Away," in which a team's members would take turns sprinting around a track for 80 laps. They were training by riding long distances, without training for speed.

Dr. Burke was a student in the class, and he told Dr. Costill that his fraternity team, which had performed miserably in the race the last year, would like to try Dr. Costill's method. Would he train them? Dr. Costill said he would.

One student that Dr. Burke recruited to join the team that year was his roommate, Tom Doughty. Mr. Doughty had never raced a bicycle before, but he turned out to be a natural, so good that he went on to become a national champion in individual and team trial bicycling and qualified for the 1980 Olympic bicycling team.

In the local race, Mr. Doughty rode the first 60 laps, putting the team far ahead. But other team members chafed to ride. So Mr. Doughty stopped, letting others take over. Soon the team was ahead by only one lap, so Mr. Doughty got back on his bike and finished the race, winning it for the team.

These days, Dr. Costill and Dr. Scott W. Trappe, the current director of the Human Performance Laboratory, are looking at aging. With training, they found, older and younger people gain the same amount of strength in their quadriceps muscle in the front of the thigh. But, the researchers also discovered, older people gain mostly slow twitch muscles, while the younger subjects gain mostly fast twitch ones.

"What happens when people get old?" Dr. Costill asked. "They get slow." They move slowly and their reaction times are slowed, contributing to falls when they trip, for example, probably because their muscles are so weak.

"Older people are not trying to win Olympic gold medals," Dr. Costill said. "Their goal is to maintain their independence and stay out of nursing homes."

He and his colleagues hope to figure out the molecular signals that tell younger people to build fast twitch muscles and older people to build slow twitch ones.

Maybe, Dr. Costill said, they can figure out the best way for older people to train, to maximize the quality of the muscles they build. Maybe, he said, "you can cheat aging a little bit."
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Taken from The New York Times, October 30, 2001
Copyright © 2001 The New York Times Company