Most of the athletes competing at the Olympic Games this summer will have spent years training to get their shot at a medal. Greg Wells, a professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education, studies high-performance athletes. He spoke recently with U of T Magazine about how they train – and the health lessons for the rest of us.
What has changed in recent years about how high-performance athletes train?
Previously, the focus was fitting in as much training as possible. Recovery was not an issue. The focus now has shifted to achieving higher level levels of performance during practice. For example, Canadian kayaker Adam van Koeverden broke the world record in practice on several occasions before winning a gold medal at the Athens Olympics. We’re pushing people to do higher-quality training more often, while also allowing more time for rest and recovery.
You recently worked with an extreme athlete who was running two marathons a day through the Andes Mountains. What did you learn about how the body adapts under such tough conditions?
The athlete, Ray Zahab, has the unusual ability to recover very quickly. We measured his blood glucose levels in the morning, afternoon and evening. By the evening, after a strenuous day, his blood glucose levels were extremely low, bordering on diabetic. But by the next morning they would be normal again. An average athlete might be expected to take several days to recover from that level of exertion. Ray is also able to operate at very close to his maximum capacity for up to an hour without having his body produce waste products, such as lactic acid. This is similar to other great athletes, such as five-time Tour de France champion Miguel Indurain. Average athletes can perform at this level for only a few minutes.
Kevin Vallely, who is Ray’s running mate, badly injured his foot on the second day of the expedition. Interestingly, he was able to heal himself as he ran a marathon a day across South America. Seeing his foot heal so quickly – despite the fact he kept running significant distances – was quite unexpected. This was one of those little things that you see when you’re doing science in the field that makes you wish you had a full lab with you. How he did it will unfortunately remain a mystery for now.
Is recovery time something we can work on ourselves?
To train and perform at a high level consistently throughout the year, people need to sleep well, eat nutritious food, use exercise to charge up their brains, stretch and get massages. The idea is to work hard, then recover well, and work hard again. I call this “work cycling.” If we apply the same recovery principles that athletes use to our own lives I believe that it can improve our health and performance tremendously.
Are Ray’s unique abilities a result of training, or are they genetic?
Ray, who is in his early 40s, was a two-pack-a-day smoker not very long ago. He quit smoking, started running and became very successful at it, so he seems to have a genetic predisposition to athletic success. But he also runs and trains almost every single day.
Does Ray’s experience offer any lessons for how to approach exercise as we age?
We used to believe that our bodies inevitably deteriorate. But the thinking now is that people deteriorate mainly because they become inactive. Studies have demonstrated that you can change the way your body ages by incorporating exercise and great nutrition into your life. One recent study provided a specific example of how exercise protects DNA. On the end of DNA strands are telomeres, which act like shoelace caps to stop DNA from fraying. Exercise seems to protect these telomeres. That’s why the DNA of someone who’s been exercising for 30 years is very similar to a young person’s, whereas people who don’t exercise exhibit greater damage to their DNA.
Are there are any greater health benefits or risks to intense training versus light exercise?
The critical factor for improved health seems to be the total volume of physical activity. Having said that, research has shown that intense exercise is important as well. The analogy I like to use is children in a park. They walk around, they sit down, and every once in a while they sprint. That’s what we need to do: mix brief spurts of high-intensity exercise with more low-intensity activities. The number one international health challenge right now is obesity – partly because we lead sedentary lives. If people can find ways of getting movement into their day, even if they have a desk job, that’s critical. My rule is 20-20. For every 20 minutes of sitting, stretch or move for 20 seconds.
Over time, exercise itself can put a strain on the body. What’s the best way to protect yourself against injury and ensure that you can keep exercising as you get older?
It comes down to leading a healthy lifestyle. This means exercising every day ideally for up to six hours a week – and doing different kinds of exercise: cardiovascular training such as running, cycling or swimming; strength training and flexibility training, such as yoga. It means supporting all of these by eating foods that are high in nutrients and low in calories. Exercise and good nutrition are both beneficial, but the combination of the two is more powerful than either one alone. Everyone is going to sustain an injury from time to time. The challenge is to manage that against a background of exercise and nutrition.
We have heard a lot recently about people collapsing during marathons and sometimes dying. What precautions, if any, should people take if they are planning to get involved in high-performance or extreme sports?
People should always check with their physician first. A small percentage of the population has a genetic problem with the heart that can cause a sudden cardiac death while doing intense exercise, such as running a marathon. This is different from cardiovascular disease, which is associated with inactivity, smoking and bad nutrition. With the genetic problem, you can usually track it through your family history. The person or a close family member will probably have previously experienced fainting or dizziness during exercise. A short questionnaire screens for it and a family doctor can do an electrocardiogram to test for it. For more information on sudden cardiac death, visit www.sads.ca
Will you be commentating at the London Olympics?
Yes. We’ve done 12 pre-recorded segments that analyze the sport science behind a particular event, such as gymnastics, track and field, soccer, volleyball and basketball. I’ll also be doing live analysis on the prime time show with CTV’s Brian Williams every day.
Any predictions for the London Games?
We may see the first Paralympian to complete in the Olympics. Oscar Pistorius from South Africa is very close to qualifying for the 400-metre event, despite the fact that he runs on prostheses. If he does qualify, this destroys the concept of disability. There are also some great young Canadians who may do well, such as Mark Oldershaw in canoeing and Tera VanBeilen, who is second in the world in the 200-metre breast stroke right now.
How important is mental preparation for success in a top international competition?
Once you’re fit and trained and you arrive at the Olympics, mental preparation really is the differentiating factor between those who succeed and those who don’t. Athletes who stay calm under intense pressure are the ones who perform best. I recommend The Inside Edge, a book by Peter Jensen, for people interested in learning how to apply this on their own life.
Greg Wells is the author of Superbodies: Peak Performance Tips from the World’s Best Athletes.
A shorter version of this interview appeared in the Summer 2012 issue