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Survival of the Fastest

The Multivariate Optimization of Performance Phenotypes


Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: February 2019 - Volume 51 - Issue 2 - p 330–337
doi: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000001788

Introduction Trade-offs are widespread in biological systems. Any investment in one trait must necessarily limit the investment in other traits. Still, many studies of physiological performance produce positive correlations between traits that are expected to trade-off with one another. Here we investigate why predicted trade-offs may often go unmeasured in studies of human athletes.

Methods Triathletes compete in consecutive swimming, cycling, and running events as a single competition, events whose physical demands may be especially prone to generating performance trade-offs. Performance variation in these three events interacts to explain overall variation in athletic performance.

Results We show that individual variation in athletic performance can mask trade-offs among disciplines, giving the impression that high-performance triathletes are athletic generalists. Covariance in race performance across the three disciplines was positive in the most elite athletes but became increasingly negative as race times increased.

Conclusions These performance trade-offs among the disciplines preclude the realization of a generalist athlete except in the most elite triathletes, a result similar to the “big houses, big cars” phenomenon in life history evolution. This distinction between trait combinations that are favored for optimal performance versus constrained by trade-offs was only apparent when accounting for individual level variation in athletic performance. Our results provide further evidence that meaningful trade-offs may be missed if individual variation in quality is disregarded.

1Department of Biological Sciences, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH; and

2Department of Biology, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, ON, CANADA

Address for correspondence: Ryan Calsbeek, Ph.D., Department of Biological Sciences, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH 03755; E-mail:

Submitted for publication May 2018.

Accepted for publication September 2018.

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© 2019 American College of Sports Medicine