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The Physical Stress of Elite Level Training

Written by: Mark Sisson
Posted: Tuesday, 22 January 2008
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Clearly, training and competing at the elite level has huge costs. We weren’t designed to train that hard for that long. We were built to migrate – at low level aerobic pace - across the plains foraging for food, scavenging leftover meat some carnivore had already killed and finished, maybe having to sprint for a few seconds to the safety of a tree. Even later when we became hunter-gatherers, we probably relied more on methodical tracking skills than on trying to outrun our prey. Nothing in my research indicates that earlier humans spent regular long periods of time at a high VO2max output other than in periodic games.

The intense and voluminous training regimens used by elite athletes today and over the past few decades - in an effort to perform ever higher, faster, and farther - have resulted in the accumulation of stresses far greater than the human body was designed to withstand. As a result, the adrenals - the body’s primary stress organs – pump out cortisol and other corticosteroids at a very high rate in an effort to “survive” what the HPA axis perceives as life-threatening events, even though we might think they are healthy stresses. We know that while some cortisol is necessary for life, chronic excess cortisol causes muscle wasting, increases deposition of fat, decreases the uptake of calcium by bone, dramatically suppresses the immune system, shuts down digestion and reproduction and has a deleterious effect on other neuroendocrine functions in general. All of these cortisol effects are exactly what a healthy person tries desperately to avoid, and yet an athlete often lives in a veritable cortisol bath – until the adrenals finally fatigue and a whole host of new problems arise. Moreover, revving up the metabolic rate by a factor of 10-20 times normal for hours at a time results in oxidative fallout (free-radical output) sometimes 100 or more times the normal output and gets to the point where an athlete’s feeble antioxidant systems are simply overwhelmed. Oxidative-based inflammatory processes start occurring not just in joint and muscle tissue, but in the circulatory system and in and around nerve cells. (NB: most models of heart disease now look at inflammation as a critical component). And we could have yet another whole side discussion on the typical athlete diet too high in simple carbohydrates and its effects on insulin, advanced glycated end-products and epinephrine/norepinephine.

I think we are starting to see the first signs of damage in a generation of athletes who trained too hard for too long without proper maintenance (to go back to my helicopter analogy). And it’s not just among the elites anymore, but also among the millions who tried to emulate their heros’ training regimens - all because they thought more was better or more was healthier. I made a point in a prior article that I thought it was ironic that the Federations and Leagues that established the high level of performance and outrageous pay scales in the first place are the same ones now suggesting that athletes should not use performance-enhancing substances. After researching the physical destruction that elite training can produce at many different levels (see all above), I am left believing we should give elite athletes (and those who train like them) every possible means of avoiding injury, illness or future life-threatening conditions. If that means that we have sports medicine doctors administering high-potency multi-vitamins, antioxidant cocktails, the occasional shot of testosterone, EPO or local cortisone injections, so be it. If an athlete has a cold and needs Sudafed to sleep the night before a big race, s/he should be allowed to do so. I’m not suggesting that drugs are the only answer – good diet, better attention to rest and periodicity in training, biofeedback and other forms of “maintenance” can help. But if athletes were simply given access to the same tools that we would give anyone else who was stressed out, exhausted or injured on the job, in the end we could eliminate the current untenable hypocrisy and at the same time allow for a healthier generation of athletes to wow us with their latest feats.

As for the recreational athlete who is not competing at any level, my advice is to limit your hard training to less than an hour a day, with complete days off. Vary your exercise and other forms of play as much as possible. My own epiphany came at 40 when I decided I would train to “look fit” rather than “be fit.” Of course, the irony is that I look fitter now than when I was one of the fittest guys on the planet – because I am the healthiest I have ever been. And in the end, health and your total enjoyment of life are all that matter.

Mark Sisson is the former head of doping for the ITU and the founder of Primal Nutrtion.

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Copyright (C) 2007 Alain Georgette / Copyright (C) 2006 Frantisek Hliva. All rights reserved.