Koji Murofushi’s career has been a mix of tradition and innovation in sports science. He shares his thoughts on a new training approach.
By Tim Hornyak
Sports science is the study of the body as a performance machine. Its specialties span biomechanics and psychology, and demand for its experts is growing. Whether it’s helping everyday people with their physical wellbeing or training elite athletes to react faster endure longer or jump farther, sports scientists and performance consultants are playing an increasingly important role in exercise and competition.
Evidence of growing demand for sports science mavens can be seen everywhere from new university programmes such as the University of Michigan’s Exercise & Sport Science Initiative, launched in 2016, to mass media events. In one example of the latter, before Irish mixed martial artist Conor McGregor went up against boxing champion Floyd Mayweather in a much-hyped showdown in August, he trained at the UFC Performance Institute, a $12 million facility that opened earlier this year in Las Vegas. McGregor used altitude chambers to improve aerobic capacity and ran on an underwater treadmill to build endurance. That may have helped him go more than nine rounds with Mayweather, the overwhelming favorite and eventual winner of the bought.
As seen in our Spotlight on sports science, the discipline uses some of the latest technologies to track performance and process data. But Japanese hammer thrower Koji Murofushi advocates a combination of old and new in order to be at his physical and psychological best. Murofushi is a former Olympic hammer throw champion and a sports scientist. One of his latest studies suggests the phenomenon of parametric oscillation in the motion of the hammer inspired him to create a series of exercises for core stability.
Murofushi comes from a track and field family. When he was 15, he wanted to start throwing the hammer – a 7.26 kg steel ball on a 121-cm wire. His father, himself an Olympic hammer thrower, refused. First, he had to master the footwork and all the other proper body movements, even imagining the hammer’s weight, while revolving. In Japanese, that would be described as learning the kata, or correct form, a tradition based around discipline, self-awareness and self-control. Kata is an ancient concept in Japan, preserved in modern Japanese culture in everything from flower arrangement and tea ceremony to making sushi and sumo wrestling.
In scenes that might evoke The Karate Kid, Murofushi practiced casting fishing nets, throwing Japanese folding fans and pouring with traditional teapots to master throwing and grasping. When he finally earned the right to throw a hammer, he let the kata be his guide. It worked. He was soon able to throw farther than young athletes who were bigger and stronger than him. Murofushi went on to build a career out of throwing hammers and he won a gold medal at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens. He also took up traditional Japanese calligraphy as another mental and physical discipline; one of his recent works bears the Zen-style inscription in Japanese ittou ichinen, or “one throw, one intention.”
Murofushi’s gold medal-winning throw at the 2004 Athens Olympics
Now the director of Tokyo Medical and Dental University’s Sports Science Center as well as sports director for the Organising Committee for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, Murofushi has retired from competition but still holds the record for the fourth-farthest throw in the sport at 84.86 metres. He shares his thoughts on how athletes who feel they’ve passed their physical prime can deal with fatigue through science-based exercise.
The science of keeping your body guessing
By Koji Murofushi
To throw a hammer, I spin my body 360 degrees four times and then release a wire that’s attached to a 16-pound ball. To throw a hammer 80 meters, I have to increase the tension on the wire to around 700 pounds — the same weight as a grand piano — as I let go.
I’ve been throwing hammers for more than 25 years, winning an Olympic gold medal along the way, but as I grew older I found that it was becoming increasingly difficult to recover from the fatigue and injury. Athletes begin to lose their ability to recover at 30, and that capacity deteriorates significantly after 35. That’s when many athletes feel they’ve reached their physical limits — many consider retirement.
I began to feel like a paperclip; weakened after too many bends — it’s the repetitive movement that causes fatigue and injury. But I was surprised to find that after I experimented with different training exercises I’d created (I call them Hammerobics), the stress on my body decreased dramatically.
The aim is to get the body to respond quickly to ever changing stimuli. It challenges both muscles and mind. The athlete performs standard exercises, such as squats, bench presses or step ups, but with hammers attached to either end of the barbell.
As the hammers swing back and forth, they move in a chaotic pendulum motion called parametric oscillation, which is also seen in a hammer throw before release. The unpredictable motion requires quick compensatory muscle movements, reducing the stress of repetition.
An example of chaotic motion
Hammerobics can be incorporated into training regimens two to three times a week. In order to further develop these exercises, I’m investigating how specific areas of the brain react to repetitive and non-repetitive motions. For instance, I’ve been using functional magnetic resonance imaging to study how brain activity differs when I simply squeeze a sponge over and over with one hand compared to crumpling a newspaper into a ball with one hand.
The latter task requires quick control of hand movements depending on the shape of paper, which is constantly changing. Our experiments have shown how this strongly stimulates the brain area responsible for motor planning and body perception. I believe that Hammerobics can have a similar effect. By avoiding repetitive strain, Hammerobics could benefit both professional athletes and everyday people.
Tim Hornyak is a freelance science and technology journalist based in Tokyo, Japan.
Koji Murofushi is a sports scientist and ex-Olympic athlete also based in Tokyo.