Sports science in the 2018 Winter Olympics

The winter Olympics start later this week so we will soon be seeing some remarkable athletic 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. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

Cross country skiing


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 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.

While all Olympic athletes are very physically fit, some 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!

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 different parents!”

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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