SI Vault
Dan Levin
October 19, 1981
Dr. Robert Arnot sleeps three hours a night to have time to board-sail, speed-skate, run, bicycle, doctor, dance, romance and play the trumpet
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October 19, 1981

What's Up? Doc.

Dr. Robert Arnot sleeps three hours a night to have time to board-sail, speed-skate, run, bicycle, doctor, dance, romance and play the trumpet

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All sorts of athletes came to the lab, cross-country skiers, runners, speed skaters, cyclists, oarsmen and lugers, to name a few, and if the work Arnot did with them was ad hoc to a degree that enraged conventional medical opinion, it was also pertinent. As Dr. Allan Ryan, now editor-in-chief of The Physician and Sports-medicine, says, "He has trained himself, which draws criticism from the classic exercise physiologists who want him to have a formal training, but his Lake Placid lab was active and useful."

No group was as well represented there as the cross-country skiers. Arnot had brought home from Europe the realization that in the off-season such skiers had to train the legs and upper body simultaneously. After the Games, Hall, now Canadian National coach, said, "I'm a lot smarter coach for having been involved with Arnot's work."

Arnot rigged a device to simulate poling—a pulley, adjustable for tension, and a cord with handles extending from each side—and had the skiers speed hike on an elevation-adjustable treadmill. He tried various combinations of arm-and-leg tensions and ultimately was able to prove that the skiers' isolated leg and upper body exercising had not been the most effective method of training.

Arnot also tested the athletes on a piece of sports science equipment called a breath-by-breath pulmonary gas-exchange system, which he linked up to a computer. It enabled him to determine each athlete's anaerobic threshold, the level of exertion at which lactic acid in the blood increases suddenly, causing breathlessness and burning in the muscles. That is the level at about which all endurance athletes should train to optimally increase their race pace, and no athlete benefited more from this testing than Doug Peterson of Hanover, N.H., a 28-year-old skier on the U.S. cross-country team, who says that he improved more in the last two years, having worked with Arnot, than in all the previous seven years. "Bob Arnot," he says, "has done more for elite athletes, in my sport, at least, than anyone else in the country."

Olympic competition began in February of 1980, and activity in Arnot's lab ended. Although the experience cost Arnot the $150,000, he says that it was worth that much and more to him, and he continues to be fascinated by the role of science in improving athletic performance. After Lake Placid he also had a new nickname to go with Doctor Ben Gay; a lot of people were starting to call him Doctor Sport.

One night late last April Arnot met his 29-year-old for dinner in New York, and soon thereafter he began a typically hectic five-week slice of life. He kicked off, characteristically, with a sleepless night in a hospital, followed, equally characteristically, by a 60-mile bicycle race in the a.m. That night, with a windsurfing race on Long Island ahead of him the next day, Arnot attended a formal dance given by Boston's Alliance Française. The band played '40s jitterbug music, and Arnot's date spent a good part of the evening and early morning in defiance of various Newtonian laws, whirling dizzily about his chest, shoulders and neck. Most of the other partygoers were content to watch, as Arnot, rarely known to resist an audience or a pretty girl, failed to resist again.

The next afternoon, windsurfing in the second of three triangle races, Arnot fell from his board and finished last. He had slept only three hours the night before, and he seemed to be having difficulty concentrating. But maybe that had something to do with the presence, just off his stern, of a photographer in a launch.

Three days later Arnot received a call from the U.S. Olympic Yachting Committee denying his request, made weeks earlier, to attend the Olympic windsurfing (board sailing) training camp in June. It had nothing to do with the results of the Long Island race; the committee said there was little chance of anyone weighing more than 140 pounds—Arnot weighs 185—doing well in Olympic competition. Arnot had raced creditably in heavy seas off Maui, a big man's game; as for competing in small waves, he was disappointed with the committee's decision but had to agree with its reasoning.

Now it was 7 a.m. at Claremont's hospital. Arnot was completing a 24-hour shift during which he had administered intravenous therapy to a truck driver with an acute asthma attack, X-rayed and examined a local millworker who had caught her arm in a machine, and examined a woman who had suffered a massive stroke, then confronted her family with his diagnosis and his opinion that the prognosis was poor. He had also put in some time with the Tartini and "worked the phones," as he puts it, running up a phone bill of $97 while arranging with his 29-year-old for jaunts to various Hamptons and calling all over the West to determine "the hot wheels" for an upcoming roller-skating race.

As a weary nurse asked, "What does he use for fuel?" Arnot could hardly wait for the day's activities to begin. He had had eight hours sleep, after all, only three nights earlier. At eight he was telling a breakfast gathering of the Newport, N.H. Chamber of Commerce, "...your overall life expectancy, and how you feel from day to day, is largely determined by what you do for yourself, by how fit you are." He was about to begin what he calls a Health Sports Day, in conjunction with the Newport Hospital, an NES affiliate. It would be his 10th such day in 1981.

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