By Aaron Sheinin
WebMD Health News
Feb. 8, 2018 –Faster. Higher. Stronger.
That is the motto of the Olympic Games. The way athletes get there, obviously, has changed dramatically. The original Olympians in ancient Greece competed naked, for goodness sake.
But, even over the past decade, Olympic athletes’ training has changed considerably. Technological developments in equipment and clothing, advancements in medicine that bolster recovery, understanding of how the body processes exercise, etc., have all made today’s Olympians dramatically different than most of their historical counterparts.
With the Winter Olympics beginning Thursday in South Korea and to better understand those changes, we spoke with Pam Peeke, MD, a physician, coach, trainer, author and Senior Olympic athlete who holds multiple degrees in public health and policy.
WebMD: What are some training/exercise techniques that today’s Olympian does that would never have been considered 30, 20 or even 10 years ago? That is, do they focus on building different “types” of muscles, do they use techniques like pilates more than weight training?
Peeke: You have to put this in context. The technology has changed in many of the sports. Because the technology has changed you’re able to get faster, stronger and all the rest of it. You can clearly see that in the days from (sprinters) Jesse Owens to Usain Bolt for instance.
It’s made the ability to excel and enhance performance ridiculous. Technology is a huge monster here.
WebMD: How has that changed things?
Peeke: Many years ago, when the Olympics were put together, the best body, physical body, that was identified was one that was fairly average across all sports. It was an average size guy, average size gal across all sports. They tried to keep it almost uniform as in there is an ‘athletic body.’ Everything is fairly even. The length of the arm, length of the leg etc.
Well, a huge change took place over the course of the 25 years, 20 years now. What we’ve found is that in each Olympic sport we started customizing and matching the actual body for the sport. Look at someone now like a swimmer. Really long and with an arm span that’s absurd. A very different kind of body. The ice skaters for females used to be much taller. Now they’re smaller and smaller. The average height of a gymnast, it was 5-3, now it’s 4-9.
WebMD: What about training itself. How has that changed?
Peeke: Look at how the Greeks trained. They didn’t even start training until several months before the Games.
The biggest joke was they had to run a marathon to get to the Olympic city.
It’s much more sport-specific (now). Clearly we have a much better idea about how to push the muscles, much further. We take a lot of the exercise we do and we take it to muscle fatigue. This is really important.
The ability now to actually give name to things like plyometric, sport specific exercises and drills. We now fully understand the science of high intensity interval training. So instead of having to kill yourself by having to do constant long distance cardio, now we understand that you can actually get tremendous benefit by incorporating, no matter what kind of cardio you’re doing, high intensity interval training.
What we’re really trying to say here is we have terms and schedules and methodologies that are much more distinct. You’re not just throwing boulders at each other for 3 or 4 months. Now what you’re actually doing is you’re breaking it all down into essential elements that you can actually integrate and refine.
WebMD: With physicians and trainers on hand every step of the way, are today’s athletes better able to extend their training?
Peeke: It’s mindset. In the mindset, as we’ve gotten smarter, knowledgeable, as our database has extended, people now are becoming less afraid of pushing the performance envelope. I, as an athlete and so many others, we have a fear factor. We don’t want to tear a hamstring or whatever so we mentally hold ourselves back.
We can now add women to so many sports because there was also a big bias there, too, in regards to what could women do, what can we not do?
WebMD: Nutrition must play a major role, too.
Peeke: Clearly right now, nutrition science has just exploded. With that explosion has come an extraordinary amount of experimentation with nutrients, with individualizing, customizing (diets).
Each athlete sits down and says what feels right to me. Use both fat and glucose most optimally based on what your sport is. If you’re a sprinter, speed skating, these are explosive sports and you need immediate access, optimally, to that fuel and you have to be able to eat around that and train around that, versus someone who is going to do cross country skiing, for example. It gets down to science. The majority of athletes are their own science fair projects. What works for you may be ridiculous for me.
We now have vegan and vegetarian athletes. We have people with type 1 diabetes who are Olympic champions.
We now have a different vernacular. The vernacular is all about clean eating.
Put all those elements together and what you have is a lot more thought going into this, more science, more data. And a different mindset on the part of the athletes and coaches and a real individualizing and customizing we didn’t have before.
Peeke is a fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine, a trustee of the National Senior Games Foundation and founder of the Peeke Performance Center for Healthy Living.