The Olympics are an excellent opportunity to see some of the world’s fittest athletes in action. Endurance events like the marathon, power events like sprints, team sports like soccer or basketball, and exhibitions of individual skill in gymnastics all highlight the dedication and training of these elite athletes. You may wonder what it takes to become an Olympic champion. In my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week that the answer is a combination of focused, intense training and some good luck.
First, the training. The key to performance in long-duration events like distance running, cycling, swimming, and rowing 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 (primarily fats and carbohydrates). 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 and blood volume expands, 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, permitting the athlete to sustain a higher intensity (running speed, for example) for a longer time without fatigue. These adaptations are consistent with a change in muscle fiber type from fast (type IIx) to slow (type I and IIa) fibers, which are rich in capillaries and mitochondria, making them resistant to fatigue.
These adaptations occur to some extent in everyone who participates in regular exercise. Olympic-level athletes who train for years or decades can maximize these changes. 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 genetics, which play an important role in performance. As much as 50% of performance in some events is attributed to genetics. Elite endurance athletes were fortunate to be born to parents who bestowed them with large hearts and muscle that was composed of a high percentage of slow fibers (the average person has about 50% slow fibers). Of course, years of training amplifies these attributes to result in a large, strong heart that can pump lots of blood to muscle that is made up of slow, fatigue-resistant fibers.
Genetics and training are the two major factors that lead to success in every other Olympic event, too. Sprinters and other power athletes have more fast (IIx) muscle fibers to generate high levels of force for a short duration. Genetics can provide a foundation of more fast fibers, upon which specialized training can build. Other events require a certain body type for optimal performance, which can be seen in female gymnasts (petite but strong) and swimmers (Michael Phelps’ arm span, for example). And beyond the physiological adaptations, years of training builds skill, technique, and mental focus that is essential for competition.
It is too late for most of us to become Olympic champions. But we can all experience many of the same benefits of training as Olympic athletes. And we can certainly appreciate the training, dedication, and good luck that the athletes bring to the games.