Tag Archives: Olympics

What you need to know about sports doping

The use of performance-enhancing drugs has been a serious issue in competitive sports for some time. Notably, the American cyclist Lance Armstrong was found to have “doped” during the years he won seven consecutive Tour de France races and, as a consequence, was stripped of those titles. With the Olympics underway, sports doping is something we are sure to hear even more about. The purpose of this column, which was published in my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week, is to explain what is meant by sports doping and describe how a few commonly used substances work to improve performance.
syringe


The use of performance-enhancing substances, also known as sports doping, is nothing new. Sports organizations around the world have launched a concerted effort to catch and penalize athletes, coaches, trainers, and physicians who use or promote the use of banned drugs and techniques to unfairly improve performance. Athletes are tested randomly, and those who are found guilty can be disqualified from events, have previously awarded wins and medals revoked, and even be banned from competing in future events.

The specific substance an athlete might use depends largely on the sport. Endurance athletes may use substances that improve oxygen delivery to the muscle, allowing them to exercise at a higher intensity for a longer time. Oxygen is transported through the blood by red blood cells (RBCs). Increasing the number of RBCs is called “blood doping.” Traditionally, this required an athlete to remove a unit of blood and then reinfuse that blood later, closer to the event. The body replaced the donated RBCs, so the reinfused blood carried extra oxygen to the muscle and improved performance.

There is a newer way for athletes to get the same result without having to donate, store, and reinfuse blood. After a blood donation, the blood oxygen level is lower than normal, causing the release of a hormone called EPO, short for erythropoietin. EPO causes an increase in RBC production. EPO can also be produced as a prescription drug that has the same effect. In fact, most cases of blood doping involve EPO administration rather than RBC reinfusion.

Athletes in events that depend primarily on strength and power need to develop a high level of muscle mass. Anabolic steroids like testosterone have been used for decades to build muscle. This works since testosterone promotes protein synthesis, the key step in muscle hypertrophy. Growth hormone (GH) is another natural hormone that, as its name suggests, promotes muscle growth. Both testosterone and GH can be injected to enhance the response to resistance training. Hormone precursors such as androstenedione or “andro,” which was famously used by the baseball player Mark McGuire when he broke the single season home run record, can also be used to achieve the same effect.

Knowing that the penalties for sports doping can be severe, why would an athlete take the risk and use performance-enhancing drugs? Athletes train year-round, usually for decades, to compete on an elite level. After this much training, additional gains in strength, speed, and endurance can be difficult to achieve. Considering that in most elite-level competition the difference between winning and losing can be as small as a few seconds or inches, depending on the event. Some athletes feel that the only way to gain an edge over the competition is to use performance-enhancing drugs.

Athletic competitions like the Olympics are a celebration of human strength, power, endurance, and skill. Hopefully, cases of sports doping in the news won’t overshadow the incredible accomplishments of so many athletes who succeed because of their talent, training, and dedication. We should be inspired, not made suspicious, by their performance.


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The Elite Runner: A glimpse at a day in the life of an Olympic runner, in a way.

With the Olympics starting this week I have been thinking about elite athletes and the training that goes into their remarkable performances.

So I was intrigued to see this interesting short film, by an Olympic runner, about Olympic runners. It wasn’t what I was expecting, but it does provide a glimpse into a day in the life of an elite runner.

Check it out here: The Elite Runner


Nutrition, exercise, and health information can be confusing. 
But it doesn't have to be that way.
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 drbrianparr@gmail.com | http://twitter.com/drbrianparr

Could you be an Olympic champion? Here’s how to do it.

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.

Olympic rings


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.


Nutrition, exercise, and health information can be confusing. 
But it doesn't have to be that way.
What can I help you with?
 drbrianparr@gmail.com | http://twitter.com/drbrianparr

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.