Syracuse Online


Dr. J. on Running

Kim Becker

The Shape of Things to Come

Published July 26, 1999 in The Post-Standard.

By Dr Kamal Jabbour, Contributing Writer

At the end of the 1999 USATF Indoor Track and Field Championship, the picture of pole-vaulter Kim Becker grabbed my attention. Becker's body shape was uncommon among track and field athletes. Her wide shoulders, narrow waist and sculpted quads did not resemble those of jumpers or runners.

I wondered whether Becker was an exception or a case of form following function. My curiosity led me to the pictures of other elite pole-vaulters. US champion Stacy Dragila and world champion Emma George enjoyed similarly shaped bodies.

In 1940, William H. Sheldon introduced the theory of Somatypes, which proposed three basic body types and associated them with personality traits. Sheldon's body types were the endomorph, the mesomorph and the ectomorph.

The endomorph is characterized by a preponderance of body fat. He has a soft, round-shaped body, underdeveloped muscles and an overdeveloped digestive system. Among field athletes, weight throwers come closest to resembling Sheldon's endomorph.

The mesomorph carries a well-developed musculature. He has a hard, rectangular-shaped body, thick skin, mature appearance and an upright posture. Sprinters are stereotypical of Sheldon's mesomorph.

The ectomorph lacks both fat and muscles. She has a thin, delicately built body, a flat chest, a young appearance and a large brain, according to Sheldon. Distance runners and high jumpers are fine ectomorph specimens.

Pole-vaulters seem to defy the basic three categories, somehow combining an upper mesomorph body with a lower ectomorph. This observation highlighted an apparent deficiency in the form of many distance runners, to the detriment of their function.

While runners do not need upper body strength to propel us 10 or 20 feet up in the air atop a skewer, we need that strength to keep our bodies straight for 10 or 20 miles. The wiry efficient bodies of Bill Rodgers and Mary Decker that inspired the seventies have gradually given way to the powerful looks of Bob Kennedy and Suzy Hamilton in the nineties.

A certain amount of upper-body strength training is necessary for all runners. Strong toned muscles help maintain good form in the long run, prevent stitches, and delay the onset of fatigue. In addition, a strong upper body permits a continuous proper pumping action of arms, thus maintaining a steady forward motion.

At a minimum, runners should exercise their biceps, triceps, pectorals, and abdominal muscles. A strength program includes lifting weights or using Nautilus equipment twice or thrice a week. The emphasis is on toning muscles with numerous repetitions, rather than building bulk with heavy weights.

Biceps curls with dumbbells gradually develop and tone the arms, and provide the strength necessary to carry them during long runs. The weight of the dumbbells should permit about 10 repetitions with each arm before the onset of fatigue.

Triceps and pectorals can be strengthened with half-body or full-body push-ups. Alternatively, bench presses with an empty, or lightly loaded barbell, can achieve the desired effect.

There is no substitute for sit-ups to strengthen abdominal muscles. Done properly with slightly bent knees to protect the lower back, sit-ups develop a strong abdomen, and provide insurance against the dreaded, PR-spoiling side stitch. Elite runners and supermodels alike brag about the number of their daily sit-ups. Todd Williams and Elle MacPherson are rumored to do over one thousand sit-ups every day.

As women's pole vault becomes an Olympic event next year in Sydney, scholastic, collegiate and elite athletic programs are crowded with Olympic hopefuls. Twenty minutes of weightlifting each week will hardly give us bodies like Kim Becker's or Emma George's. However, it may help us hold our heads straight as we run past the pole vault pit and admire the shape of things to come.

Kamal Jabbour practices biceps curls with 3-gallon ice cream buckets, while watching women's pole vaulting on the Internet. His RUNNING Column appears in The Post-Standard on Mondays. He maintains The Syracuse Running Page and receives email at

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