Not a Sprinter Type
I sent in my DNA for one of the genetic testing services, and they told me that I was “not a sprinter/power muscle type.” Boy, did they get that right. I have never been fast. In PE I was consistently in the bottom quartile of sprinters. Behind the drums, I was never one of the fastest drummers in my peer group. Of course, this had a lot to do with bad technique. Now that I understand how to develop proper technique, my facility is improving daily. However, my slow speed is also partly genetic. I wasn’t built for speed.
Here’s the skinny: Each person has a mix of different muscle fibers called fast twitch fibers and slow twitch fibers. Fast twitch fibers, as you might imagine, are fast. Because force = mass times acceleration, they are also very strong. However, they also burn out quickly. They are the rocket launcher of muscles. Powerful, expensive, and with limited ammunition. They are the kind of muscle fiber that is required for any sport that needs maximum speed for a short period of time; sprints, weight lifting, or stealing a basketball.
What slow twitch muscles lose in speed they gain in endurance. They are what you’d use to go for a walk or a jog. That’s the trade off. Slow twitch muscles aren’t as fast, but they keep going and going. If you have heard of aerobic exercise then you are familiar with what slow twitch muscles do. Slow twitch muscles are aerobic or “oxygen-using” while fast twitch are anaerobic or “not oxygen using.”
While your starting ratio of fast=slow is genetically determined, you can turn one muscle type into the other. If you do a lot of fast anaerobic exercise – anything that requires short bursts of intense speed – then your body will respond by changing slow twitch muscles into fast twitch muscles. You have to really work hard, though because if you don’t move quickly enough, then the exercise is aerobic and your body will ironically turn the fast twitch muscles into slow twitch. For example, Jojo Mayer’s hand exercise that he describes in Secret Weapons I only works to build speed if you move fast, as he says. Otherwise, it works to build endurance.
It goes without saying that you probably don’t want to focus all your energy towards developing speed alone. To start with, aerobic exercise is good for you in ways that anaerobic exercise isn’t. It keeps your body and brain healthy. Behind the drums, endurance is important too. Endurance is the major weakness of fast twitch muscles. You can’t just keep using fast twitch muscles all the time or you’ll run out of steam.
There is something you can do about it, though – something I call “Building In Rest.” The idea is that if you incorporate moments of rest in your basic technique, you give your body time to recuperate as you are playing. More on this in a future blog post, but it is also explained in Anatomy of Drumming.
For me, however, the case is more than simply not having enough fast twitch muscles. Like nearly 1 in 5 of all humans, I also have two defective copies of the ACTN3 gene – meaning my body does not produce the right kind of protein to make my fast twitch muscles work properly. It is funny to say, but I can feel this lack sometimes. It sometimes feels to me that I can think my way to the drums but my body just isn’t able to get there – like diesel car accelerating uphill.
There’s nothing I can do abut this – there will be no World Records in my future. Only one known Olympian has ever had broken ACTN3 genes. No worries, though. I consider myself to be fast enough for most of what I want to do. My single stroke speed is nearly 1000 bpm on a good day, and that is more than enough to play musically. There are exceedingly few songs or styles that require speeds anywhere approaching my own meager capability.
This information is for your information only. It is not intended to be medical advice and should not be taken as such. The idea here is that the more you know, the healthier and more effective you will be. If you suspect you have a problem that requires medical attention, please see a reputable doctor who is knowledgeable about your problem.