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11:35 AM

The Physical Stress of Elite Level Training

Written by Mark Sisson
Posted Jan 22, 2008

In a prior article, I introduced a notion that training for sports competition at the elite level was the antithesis of a healthy activity. Since many people seem to think that athletes are almost by definition healthy, I thought I might develop that idea a bit further in this follow-up article.

Please don’t misconstrue what I say here as advocating any sort abstinence from sports or from training. On the contrary, I believe sports of all types can play a huge role in personal development, self-awareness and self-image, and may even help mold long-lost community life-skills like sharing, mutual cooperation and loss acceptance. I will make a case that sports and other non-group recreational exercise activities can contribute greatly to health, longevity and the quality of life. But, as with all things in life, moderation seems to be the key.

I first became aware of the distinction between “fitness” and “health” when I was competing as a marathoner in the 1970s and later as a triathlete for a while in the 80s. From 1975 until 1980 I averaged between 75 and 110 running miles a week in my training. Much of that mileage was done at over 75% of my VO2 Max and a substantial portion at over 90%. During that period, I became extremely “race fit”, as defined solely by the ability to enter a race and run fast. On the other hand, in retrospect, I consider myself to have been very unfit in a true Darwinian (or EF) sense during that time. I would routinely get upper respiratory tract infections, irritable bowel conditions (probably cortisol and ischemia-related), chronic tendonitis in my joints, and I eventually developed osteoarthritis. I spent an average of 5-6 weeks a year sick or injured (running was a year-around sport in those days) yet I was considered extremely fit! My injuries got so bad in 1980 that I could no longer train at the level required to be a top marathoner, so I switched to triathlons for a few years, and raced quite well in that nascent sport. Unfortunately, the same illnesses and injuries continued to plague me and the set-backs piled up.

When I retired beat-up at the ripe old age of 29 in 1982, I decided to write a book on triathlon training and to focus on the idea of “quality” over “quantity” in terms of mileage and training time. I wasn’t the first to really delve into this, and much discussion about maximizing training has gone on since. But I came up with a theory that the human athlete is much like a helicopter. The old saying about helicopters (and it may have since changed) was that according to the laws of physics, they are not supposed to be able to fly. The fact that they can is great, but the wear and tear of overcoming this “natural order of things” requires that they spend an inordinate amount of time being maintained – up to an hour and a half of maintenance for each hour flown. Well, the same holds true for humans. We were not designed to run (or cycle, swim or skate) for hours each day at 90% VO2 Max, or to spend hours each day in the gym lifting heavy weights. The fact that we can and that we are able to derive some short-term performance gain or adaptation to these exercises is great – if your desire is to measure your performance against another human. But we must recognize that in so doing – in going beyond the “natural order of things human” - we need to spend an inordinate amount of time on maintenance, or we will break down just like a poorly maintained helicopter. Our bearings will wear out, our parts will oxidize and corrode and our engine will fail. Literally. Athletic performance may be impressive, but it comes at a huge cost.

Here are some real cases to review – and many of these are people I know: Greg Welch, arguably the greatest all-around triathlete of all times (he won Ironman Hawaii, the ITU Worlds and the world Duathlon Championship) was forced to retire at age 37 due to heart problems. He has had over 10 open heart surgeries and wears a pace-maker. My friend Mark Montgomery, who was a top pro triathlete for many years, had his pace-maker installed at age 46 as a result of V-tach issues. Chris Legh and Julianne White, each an Ironman winner, have each had entire sections of their colon removed immediately after a race due to “ischemic conditions” where the blood supply to the GI tract was rerouted for so long (as the body diverted the blood to its periphery to cool itself) that whole sections of the colon literally died from lack of oxygen and nutrients. John Walker, one of the greatest milers of all-time was diagnosed with Parkinsons at age 46. Bruce Balsh, Steve Scott and Lance Armstrong (all endurance athletes) all got testicular cancer after a few years of competing. Most of the top runners from the 80’s don’t run anymore; many can barely walk due to arthritic conditions. And we haven’t even gone into the hip and knee replacements occurring in the post NFL and NBA guys only in their 40s.

One of the most alarming trends in sports these days is the increase in EIA or Exercise Induced Asthma. In some countries, over 25 % of elite endurance athletes eventually develop EIA as a direct result of their superhuman training schedules. In many cases, the diagnosis requires treatment with otherwise “banned substances” such as salbutamol, salmeterol and corticosteroids under a special IOC “therapeutic use exemption.” Another phenomenon that has concerned me for a while is the prevalence of amenorrhea in younger female athletes who train at elite levels, particularly runners and gymnasts. This condition, along with cortisol output, can result in loss of bone density during competitive years and dramatically increase risk for osteoporosis later in life. The list goes on.



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