If you are anything like me, you simply cant get enough of the Olympic Winter Games. I could sit on my couch the entire 16 days straight -although the irony of being so sedentary to watch sport isn’t lost on me.
So what is it about the games that is so intriguing and awe inspiring? Yes, part of the allure is the competition itself – watching the best in the world go head to head, the elite talent, the raw emotion, and the pressure of competing with so much on line. But for me, and my inner exercise physiology nerd, its also what the Olympic sports offer that you just don’t find in traditional North American sports – the display/test of the raw attributes of fitness at the highest level. In fact, I can think of no better examples of the different types of strength, endurance, and power than we are currently seeing on display.
Take, for example, the bobsled. Sure, we all think of it like NASCAR on ice, but really bobsled represents one of the most pure examples of an all out speed/power sport (CP-ATP energy system). How so? Along with the start order and ice temperature (which are beyond athlete’s direct control) the bobsled push has been shown to account for 50% of the variance in performance. That’s right, the first 50m of pushing the sled (lasts <5sec) is amongst the biggest determinants of success. And the athletes don’t just need to be fast, they need to be strong as the sleds weight 400-500lb.
On the other end of the spectrum in the Nordic skiing sports we see pure “aerobic animals” (see Kreb’s Cycle / aerobic metabolism). Cross-country skiers have the highest VO2max scores ever recorded, and although technique/tactic is surely important, many races really come down to “who can push themselves harder for longer.” Add to that the fact that you need to propel yourself using both your upper and lower body and even compared to other long distance sports, the demands go up. During the biathlon, participants not only have to ski, but also periodically stop and shoot small targets from a distance. Being in good shape certainly helps with the skiing and also with recovery when it comes time to shoot; but biathletes also use carefully timed breathing to stabilize their shots by engaging the parasympathetic nervous system and slowing their heart rate. Yeah, that’s a cool application of physiology knowledge.
And somewhere in between, we find the sports like speed skating, alpine skiing and freestyle skiing and snowboarding. These are the sports that require athletes to work at the highest possible intensity they can until their muscles are screaming at them to stop as the bi-products of anaerobic metabolism accumulate (Glycolytic pathways). Often times, these sports not only require high intensity repeated output, but also the maintenance of good form to avoid losing efficiency, style, or control -which could lead to a high consequence crash.
If you watch carefully, the Olympics will bring your textbooks to life. On the simplest level, the Olympics show that the competition is all about who can understand (and best manipulate) the science of what’s happening in the experiment that is the athlete’s body.