February 11

Ancient Athenian athletes more fit than elite athletes of today


Research appearing in the next issue of New Scientist indicates that athletes that rowed the giant Athenian warships were at least as fit as today’s elite athletes, and maybe more so.

Dr Rossiter measured the metabolic rates of modern athletes rowing a reconstruction of an Athenian trireme, a 37m long warship powered by 170 rowers seated in three tiers. Using portable metabolic analysers, he measured the energy consumption of a sample of the athletes powering the ship over a range of different speeds to estimate the efficiency of the human engine of the warship.
By comparing these findings to classical texts that record details of their endurance, he realised that the rowers of ancient Athens — around 500BC — would had to have been highly elite athletes, even by modern day standards.

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  1. well I’m not surprised by that at all just look at what our athletes eat today ………..carbs for energy !!
    back then & even 40 years ago in all our modern sports they loaded up on steak or eggs before a match not spagehtti. I read a article where Margaret Court a famous Aussie tennis player said she was fitter in the 60’s than any of the female tennis players these days & when you think of it she probably was. Then saturated fat & meat were not the evil 2 back then. Protein & fat for energy not carbs.
    Hi Helen–

  2. Way back when he was a teenager, my hubby was a top state level swimmer – trained twice a day, held records etc. What did he eat? Steak for breakfast, steak for lunch (he lived right near his school & came home for lunch), steak for dinner. Sure he ate potatoes & bread, but with a piece of steak you couldn’t jump over. His mum knew that you fed athletes with protein. I have photos & there was not an ounce of fat on him and he tells me he used to swim a mile of butterfly “just for fun” in addition to all his other training!
    Hi Lynne–
    Thanks for the report.

  3. Weren’t the rowers in the past slaves? Do you think some of their drive was just to stay alive or at least not beaten. Good incentive to work out.
    Hi Dave–
    I don’t know.  I’m not an historian of ancient Greece, so I don’t know if the rowers were slaves or Athenians.  It probably wouldn’t have anything to do with their conditioning, though.

  4. In reply to David, the men of hunter-gatherer tribes are also found to be in “elite athlete” condition. They can run long distances in times similar to those of our top marathoners. They can pick up animals that few Americans could and carry them miles. Athleticism is merely rediscovering what the body has evolved to do and using it for sport.
    Hi Scott–
    Thanks for the info.  I would recommend a book called The Paleolithic Prescription written about 20 years ago by an anthroplogist and physician that describes the unbelievable feats early man could perform.  Unfortunately, the authors took the data on early man’s diet and tried to squeeze it into the low-carb diet mold that held sway at that time.  So ignore the dietary advice, but read the rest of the book.  It’s truly fascinating.  It’s out of print now, but can be easily found from online book dealers.

  5. How reliable are the classical text that are being used as records of the times etc. Are they stories, which might exaggerate the feats they describe? Were they efforts to record accurately, i.e., race results etc.? Or were they something in between, casual observations?
    Hi Tony–
    I don’t have a clue.  I’ll put your comment up and maybe one of the readers will know the answer.

  6. Um, well, DUH!! What exactly were they expecting to find with this? Certainly men who rowed these boats for hours a day, days on end etc would be equal to elite athletes. If your navy’s success depended on rowing, would you not take pains to have good ones and keep them trained?
    Back to that old bias that somehow we modern humans are significantly better than the genetically identical humans of old.
    Hi Dean–
    Good point.

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