Ingredients that make an athlete elite might surprise you #ahcj14

Kristofor Husted

About Kristofor Husted

Kristofor Husted is a multimedia journalist and filmmaker specializing in science, environmental and health reporting. He received his B.S. in cell biology from UC Davis and earned an M.S. in journalism from Medill at Northwestern University.

Barry Bonds may be the best in history at hitting a baseball* (I’ll put an asterisk on that for the haters), but that doesn’t mean he is better than you at, say, hitting a softball. Just ask U.S. Olympic softball pitcher Jennie Finch, who struck him out.

Elite athletes have spent thousands of hours perfecting a skill. For Bonds, it was reading hardball pitches, not softball pitches.

But that premium on performance doesn’t mean parents should be rushing to shoehorn their young kids into a single sport to make sure they earn a trip to the Olympics, ProPublica reporter David Epstein says. In fact, he says many professional athletes practiced their eventual sport sparingly in their younger years or didn’t even pick it up until they became teenagers. Example: NBA star Steve Nash, who only started playing basketball at 13.

“Being best right away isn’t important,” Epstein says. “And don’t mistake early maturation as a sign. It can cause injuries and impair athletic development. It’s a massive problem.” Instead, Epstein says parents should let kids sample many sports and see which one clicks with them while they mature.

As far as training goes, Neal Henderson says it’s all about knowing an athlete’s performance threshold — and training above and below it. Henderson is the founder of Apex Coaching and the Olympic cycling coach of Taylor Phinney, among many other Olympic athletes. He defines the key threshold as the output an athlete can sustain for one hour. The factors used to help identify this level include heart rate, oxygen level and blood lactate measurements.

“It’s counterintuitive,” he says, but the research shows you should train above or below this threshold. Indeed, Henderson points to a study suggesting marathon runners with faster times actually trained more often at lower levels than the others. He says the final frontier of training athletes is psychology: the ability to execute what is physically capable.

Jennifer Gibson, a dietician with the U.S. Olympic Committee, says athletes are always eager to know what to eat to enhance their performance. Omega-3, vitamin D and iron have all gotten buzz. Gibson says the jury is still out on the role of omega-3 in concussion treatment. And a new intravenous iron supplement gives her pause. More research needs to be done with athletes, she says.

In the meantime, new diet trends are going to continue popping. Gibson says just look at the Los Angeles Lakers’ going low carb or Olympic athletes buying all the red beets available during the London 2012 Olympics. Ultimately, Gibson says athletes’ diets should reflect how their bodies respond to different foods.

“If you don’t feel good after eating bread, let’s take that out of your diet and see how you perform,” she says.

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