After we left the audio-video room, we stood and watched Potts as he churned out a hard swim. I asked Doane if Potts is a lab rat. Doane paused. “If he is a lab rat, then he’s a different kind of lab rat—one that’s dictating what’s going on,” he said. “We’re just doing what his body is telling us to do.”
Potts’s Olympic obsession had previously expressed itself in competitive swimming, a low-tech sport in which life revolves around the pace clock. He finished fourth at the 1996 Olympic trials in the 400 individual medley and retired in 1999. He floated around, worked in carpentry, and quickly found that his life had no structure. In June 2002, Potts trained for two weeks and competed in an amateur triathlon in Colorado Springs. He placed only 28th, but he made sure to let the national team coach know that he would soon be joining her squad. Nearly two years later, he qualified for the 2004 Olympics in a fluke; he had an unexpectedly great race, while some of his competitors were injured or performed poorly. He placed 22nd at the 2004 Olympics, a strong showing for a rookie.
Two months later, his wife was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. She underwent radiation treatment throughout 2005. At one point, Potts had to stay 25 yards away from her so that he wouldn’t get radiation poisoning. “It actually committed me to my training,” Potts recalls. “She had four tumors that spread to her lungs, and the news just got worse and worse and worse. I remember running and thinking, You know what? We want to live on our own terms. We want to do what makes us happy without being dominated by outside forces. And that’s when I sat down with Mike and said I wanted to see how good I can be at triathlons. And Mike said, ‘I’m here.’ ” Lisa was betting her life on science (and won—she’s been stable for almost three years), so Potts figured he’d bet his career on it too.
Working with Doane was risky. Although he was the resident swim coach for triathletes at the OTC, he wasn’t trained to evaluate runners and cyclists. He did, however, know the basic principles of endurance training—increase stress and force the body to adapt by improving aerobic capacity, lactate threshold and strength—and figured that if he could measure the body’s stress load, he’d see what needed to be done.
At first, Potts was skeptical about the constant monitoring. But Doane convinced him that, at his age (then 29), feedback was essential, particularly for a guy who thinks four-hour half-Ironmans are fun. Over time, Potts grew to enjoy being freed from the athlete’s usual obsession with time and distance. “I’ve found that my inner gauge has married what I’m told by my watch,” he says.
What neither Doane nor Potts anticipated was that their made-up program might provide a template for future endurance training. Joe Friel is already working on software that will automatically translate feedback data into workouts, much like Doane does each night. And because a feedback loop can be created from just about any data source—stress-hormone and lactate levels, muscle-tissue testing—programs similar to Potts’s could work for any number of sports. The Austrian gold-medalist skier Hermann Maier, for example, has tried monitoring neuroendocrine and lactate levels for signs of muscular fatigue. Maier’s program requires constant access to a blood lab, so for most athletes it’s overly invasive and prohibitively expensive.single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.