The challenge of keeping athletes fit for Olympic Glory

Mark Alexander
Mark Alexander is a sports physiotherapist for the Australian Olympic team and lecturer in Health Sciences La Trobe University

There are enormous stresses on the human body during training and racing at the Olympic level.  I specifically work with the Triathlon team whose race consists of a 1.5km swim, 40km ride and then a 10km run.  In training they can swim 20-30km a week, ride 400-600km a week and run 60-100km a week.

The stresses are quite significant and the athletes and their coaches are always treading a fine line between pushing the envelope to improve performance and win medals but without breaking down and getting injured.  The body can only sustain a certain amount of training workload as every individual has a breaking point.

Virtually all the elite tri-athletes I have worked with over the last 6 years have had at least one stress fracture in one of their leg bones, usually their shins, at some stage of their careers.

A useful analogy is formula 1 car racing.  The cars are regularly serviced and fine tuned daily before and after every race or training session as are tri-athletes. Cars have a maximum speed but if the drivers push continually at that speed they will either break down or crash out and hit a wall.  If pushed too hard for too long in training, an athlete’s body will also hit the wall and break down.

So the key is to find the balance between training loads and rest and it is crucial that the athletes, coaches and physios like me, find out how much load an athlete’s body can tolerate.  As the athletes get older and more experienced, they have a better idea themselves as to how much training they can do without breaking down and sustaining an injury.

The advances over the past 15 years

Over the last 15 years, there have been enormous technological advances in equipment, biomechanics, physiology and strategy.

In swimming we are now seeing amazing space age speed suits that definitely enhance performance with over 15 world records falling already in 2008.  In cycling, the engineering technology utilising wind tunnel and computer modelling has enhanced bike and helmet design enabling improved efficiency and speed.  Running shoes are always being superseded by newer, lighter and faster designs that facilitate faster performances.  

At the same time there has been a huge explosion in research into training methods and exercise physiology which is enabling coaches to maximise the results of training to produce faster times.  There has also been extremely valuable research into recovery methods which allows the athletes to train longer and harder and recover faster which obviously leads to better performances as well.

From an injury prevention and management perspective, this research gives us a greater insight into why injuries occur and how to prevent them.  It also allows us to treat injuries more effectively, which reduces the time off from training caused by injuries.

The other significant change in sport over the last 15-20 years is the rise of professionalism.  The money in sport these days is staggering.  Two of our female Olympic triathletes heading to Beijing, Emma Snowsill and Emma Moffat, just came 1st and 2nd in a race on 22nd June and won US$200,000 and US$40,000 respectively.

With this motivation, and the amount of sponsorship money floating around with companies paying up to $750,000 - $1million for high profile stars, the drive to win has never been greater.  Unfortunately, these huge incentives increase the lure of athletes to cheat by using performance-enhancing drugs.  In both the Sydney and Athens Olympics, there were very high profile athletes either admitting to or being caught taking illegal drugs and having medals stripped such as Marion Jones.

Fair play: The sports industry of the future

I see a future of ever-increasingly faster and stronger performances due to the technological advances in all symbiotic components of sport.

Unfortunately I don’t see the original Olympic ideals being at the forefront of athletes’ or the publics’ minds.  I predict that money in sport will become even more important and that multi-national company’s power over sport will increase the more they use images of elite high profile sport to drive sales of their products.  No doubt, this in turn will motivate a very small yet destructive percentage of athletes to use performance enhancing drugs to win at all costs, for the money and the fame that result from getting on the podium.

And due to the success-focussed sporting culture we have in Australia, it is unfortunate that winning a silver or bronze medal or not even making finals is now widely considered to be a failure due to the very high expectations we have on our elite athletes.

I also hope that the tall-poppy syndrome that we secretly implement so easily in Australia, chopping down our successful citizens and applauding any failures, will not come into effect in Beijing.

As I retire from my Olympic role with the Australian team after 12 years working in elite sport, it would be a rewarding and satisfying end to see Australia as a nation, rightfully applaud and support every Olympic team member just as much as our gold medal winners for their endeavours to do their best and do their country proud.