Image via London 2012
Olympic athletes can spend years training for an event, only to have all of their hard work undone by an injury days before the competition. Anna Li, a gymnast from Aurora, IL on the United States Olympic team, found this out the hard way when she suffered a torn ligament in her neck after a fall in practice last week. But are Olympians more susceptible to injuries than any other athletes?
With the games in full swing and the high-profile track and field events beginning this week, I spoke to J. Martin Leland, MD, an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine physician at the University of Chicago Medicine, about common injuries plaguing Olympic athletes, and how they can alter their training regimens to prepare for the biggest stage in sports.
What kinds of injuries are common in Olympic athletes?
Overtraining injuries are very common. That’s called tendinopathy, which means a disorder, or pathology, of the tendon. Tendonitis, a previously used term, actually means inflammation of the tendon. Inflammation actually isn’t present in the tendon so now we use the term tendinopathy. Tendinopathy is very common in Olympic settings because they’re training for continuous periods for years. You see it when the body gets weakened and overused, much like a baseball pitcher who has to shut down 3-4 months at the end of a season to overcome fatigue. The body is just exhausted. These athletes are doing their sport 4-5 hours a day at least 50 weeks a year, so it leads to chronic tendinopathy, swelling and partial tendon tears from overuse.
Does it matter that Olympic athletes are often younger? Are they more susceptible to injuries than older athletes?
No, because evolutionarily, we’re closer to our peak physical capabilities in the 17-25 year range for men and 14-22 year range for women. Really young athletes, like a 14-year-old female gymnast, might be able to compete like an adult, whereas younger boys can’t. Evolutionarily, we’re probably in the prime of our strength from years 18-25, with the understanding that it can stretch a few years in either direction. But people can still be amazing athletes when they’re older—look at Lance Armstrong, Dara Torres, etc. Older athletes just have to train harder to stay competitive with their younger rivals. Experience can also sometimes give the edge to the older athlete.
Are shorter, high intensity events like sprints harder on the body than team sports that play longer games?
You need to train appropriately for your race, i.e. training for a sprint by doing sprints. I wouldn’t say that someone who runs a longer event or plays a game is at a lower risk for an injury. The important thing is that everyone needs to warm up properly. I don’t really think the length of the event is as much of a factor.
One thing athletes with shorter events might work on is called tapering. Tapering is when you start to focus on the short bursts of racing if you are a sprinter instead of doing long training to work on endurance. As you get closer to an event, your training distances may get much shorter like the actual event, and do those sessions multiple times a day. When you’re six months to a year out from your race, you might do longer distance training to build up endurance, then start tapering and going shorter when you get closer to the event time.
How does the travel and changing time zones affect athletes?
A lot of athletes will try to get to where they’re competing as far ahead as possible to acclimate to the time zone and climate. However, in the Olympics, this is not feasible since there are thousands coming to the same city to compete.
You have to acclimate your body to the same altitude and time zone. The time change alters your circadian rhythms and your body won’t be ready to race if it thinks it’s the middle of the night. If you’re off schedule on your circadian rhythms, you need to make sure you’re warming up and stretching because it is similar to being fatigued. It means you can’t perform at your highest level. You might be more prone to ankle sprains, etc. because your muscles are tired and you’re more likely to become injured.
In the United States, our athletes are trained at such a high level that the team doctors are always thinking about these issues. These athletes are trained specifically so that they can acclimate faster than a recreational athlete. A normal person might need at least a week to fully adjust to a big time change, but an Olympic athlete might need only a few days. The team physicians might give them supplements to help reset their circadian rhythms to get their bodies back on schedule. Olympic teams do massive amounts of research just in hopes to shave half of a second from the times of their athletes. I even heard a story that sometimes, once an Olympic site is announced, the teams will send representatives to the location for years ahead of time just to test the conditions daily. That way, they can try to better predict the temperature, wind conditions, etc. on race day so their athletes may have a slight advantage. If they’re doing things like that, testing outside conditions five years ahead of time, you know they’ve put extensive time into researching how to get their athletes ready for a new time zone.