What does it take to be an Olympian?

August 2, 2021

RESEARCH & INNOVATION

From Sunisa Lee nailing her uneven bars routine to Katie Ledecky’s surgical like freestyle strokes, the precision with which Olympians conduct themselves is scientific. UR experts said competing on the world stage requires intense mental resilience and perseverance.

The training and performance take massive amounts of physical energy, said Christine Helms, associate professor of physics. And each sport has different mechanical demands.

“As Olympians train, the materials composing their bodies change. Their body adapts to better perform the task that is being demanded of it,” Helms said. “Endurance events such as long-distance running, soccer, and basketball can lead to changes in blood properties. Blood volume increases, and red blood cell mass increases. These changes are only the beginning in a complex series of events leading to optimal performance. The walls of the blood vessels expand, allowing more blood to flow to the muscles.”

But for high impact activities like weightlifting or gymnastics, it’s a completely different reaction.

“These sports supply stress to bones, which encourage bone growth and increases bone density,” she said. “The changes strengthen the bodies of these athletes and allow them to function under high forces.”

Without the right kind of energy, none of the Olympic feats could happen.

“Proper nutrition is one of the fundamental components of an athlete’s training and performance plan,” said Karen Hensley, a registered dietician at UR. “Getting sufficient amounts of calories along with micronutrients is key to fuel the body of an Olympian. It also provides the body with the necessary nutrients to recover.”

She says high-level athletes are packing in the calories, with up to six meals a day rather than the typical three.

“An Olympian eats frequently, about every three to four hours for a regular meal schedule, and then adds in pre- and post-workout snacks. Properly fueling prevents glycogen depletion, enhances immune function, reduces injury risk, reduces muscle damage, and speeds muscle recovery.”

Beyond physical stresses, world-class athletes also face daunting mental challenges.

“There is certainly social risk, with athletes under the scrutiny of hundreds of millions of viewers around the globe,” said Scott Allison, who researches the psychology of heroism and leaderships. “Reputations and legacies are at stake — failure can mean worldwide embarrassment for years to come. And with COVID, there is significant health risk now.”

The Olympics demand a level of self-discipline that’s hard for most people to comprehend.

“There is enormous self-sacrifice involved in preparing, practicing, and training for the Olympics,” he said. “These athletes literally put their lives on hold while they do what it takes to build their minds and their bodies to compete at the highest level.”