Sports Science at the Winter Olympics

So, the 2014 Winter Olympics wrapped up with the closing ceremony yesterday. If you have been watching the Olympics you have seen some incredible performances. The competitors are among the fittest and most highly trained athletes in the world, both in terms of laboratory measures of fitness and in subjective evaluations of skill. Competing in the Olympics requires years of focused, intense training and some good luck.

In my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week I take a look at the  physiology that goes in to training for and competing in the Olympics.

First, let’s look at the fitness. This is most evident in the endurance events like cross-country skiing and speed skating. The key to performance in long-duration events like these is for the muscle to contract repeatedly and forcefully without fatigue. In order to do so, the muscle must have a steady supply of oxygen and nutrients. These nutrients are delivered through the blood, which is pumped to the muscle by the heart. The muscle takes up and uses these nutrients to produce ATP, the form of energy used by the muscle.

After months and years of endurance training the heart gets bigger resulting in the ejection of more blood to the muscle. Within the muscle there is an increase in the number of capillaries, the small blood vessels that deliver blood to the muscle, and mitochondria, the part of the cell that produces most of the ATP. Together, these adaptations allow the muscle to produce more ATP without fatigue, allowing the athlete to sustain a higher intensity (skiing speed, for example) for a longer time without fatigue.

How fit are these athletes? In the laboratory we measure VO2max, the maximal rate at which oxygen can be used by the muscle to power exercise, during intense exercise. While we don’t have test data on most Olympic athletes, cross-country skiers tend to have the highest VO2max values, followed closely by distance runners and cyclists.

While all Olympic athletes are all very physically fit, other events rely more heavily on skill including figure skating and freestyle snow boarding. For example, in figure skating completing a triple axel involves leaping into the air, spinning three and a half times, and landing backwards. On a 4 mm wide blade. On ice. Or think about the triple cork 1440, a snowboarding trick that involves flipping three times in the air while doing four 360-degree turns.

The athletes who are able to successfully complete these maneuvers have practiced for years to develop the skill and confidence needed to perform them consistently in competition. These are some of the most obvious displays of athletic skill, but all events require good technique. The development of skill in addition to fitness is the main reason why athletes specialize in one area and you don’t see people competing in both downhill skiing and speed skating, for example.

Of course, there is a psychological aspect to Olympic performances. The motivation to put in the training time alone is remarkable. Even more impressive is the ability to focus on an event despite the distractions of the crowds, media, and pressure of competition. This combination of physical and mental preparation is rare—as rare as Olympic gold medalists!

The training and preparation followed by bobsledders provides a good model for what goes into creating an Olympic athlete.

But is training alone sufficient for Olympic-level performance? Could anyone who trains enough make it to the Olympics? The answer is no, because there is another important factor in athletic performance—luck. Luck refers to genetics, which determine potential for attributes like heart size and muscle characteristics. As much as 50% of performance in some events is attributed to genetics. One sports physiologist famously answered the question, “How do I become an Olympic champion?” with “pick the right parents!”

There is more that I am missing (on purpose, because I have a word limit in my column). One additional key factor is nutrition. Despite what Subway would have you believe, Olympic athletes don’t really eat a lot of sandwiches with Fritos on them. In fact, this is a good overview of what US Olympians eat to fuel their training and competition.

Even though most of us will never become Olympic champions we can still experience many of the same benefits of training. All athletes train to develop strength, endurance, and flexibility, which is exactly what we should do, too. And those attributes will help us perform better at work (and play) and help us live a longer healthier life. It will also help us appreciate the training, dedication, and good luck that the athletes bring to the Olympic games.

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