What makes an Olympic athlete?

The Olympics is a great time to advertise to get more clients if you own a gym. Every 4 years we see people who don’t normally or regularly visit gyms begin to flock to the local (Gym that is) to join up and blow 3 months membership. So I thought it was a very opportune time to look at what really makes a truly great athlete. Firstly without getting to technical (that little treat will bore you to death towards the end of the article), you are born with certain attributes that make you better for particular sports. Sadly most of us sickly white kids will never have the strength of certain races. When I was visiting the Australian Institute of Sports I was amused, to say the least, that the average athlete’s strength testing stopped at the point where other gifted ethnic races across the world started. So yes a good genetic background of having the ability to build muscle mass (should your sport require that), is definitely an inherited gift you could say. We all have what we call physiological limiting factors that will prevent us ever reaching this standard. Gender responses also play a part particularly on a hormone level between male and females. The phenomenon of plasticity is common to all our vertebrates both human and animal, but there exists a huge variation in the ability and adaptability among the different species including the “human race”. These variables can in part explain the various differences in all aspects of physical performance when we look at things like endurance and or strength between various athletes and a good example is the relationship of skeletal muscle fiber type and compositions. These conditions or predispositions also accounts for certain disease states in our population when we look at those who are more susceptible to obesity and insulin resistance disease. It is also important to point out that we can’t change the type of muscle fibers we are born with. It is true however that we can to a certain degree make them mimic the other type of fibers by introducing certain training. So what makes you a better long distance runner or a great sprinter is what we believe are people that having more fast and slow twitch muscle fibers. These will determine what sports athletes excel at and how they respond to training in these areas.

Our Skeletal muscle is made up of individual muscle fibers known as myocytes. Each myocyte contains lots of myofibrils which are strands of proteins know as actin and myosin that can reach out to each other and pull. This shortens the muscle which causes our muscles to contract.

Muscle fibers can be broken down into two main types: slow twitch (Type I) muscle fibers and fast twitch (Type II) muscle fibers. Fast twitch fibers can be further categorized into Type IIa and Type IIb fibers.

These distinctions influence how muscles respond to training and physical force and each fiber type is unique in its ability to contract in a different ways. Human muscles contain a genetically pre-determined amount of both slow and fast fiber types. In the average person we see about 50 percent slow twitch and 50 percent fast twitch fibers in most of the muscles used for movement. Often in great athletes we see a difference of course this is only beneficial if sports men and woman compete in sports where this can be an advantage.

Slow Twitch (Type I)
Slow twitch muscle fibers are more efficient at using oxygen to generate more fuel (ATP) for where continuous and ongoing extended muscle contractions are required over a long period. They fire slower than fast twitch fibers and can go for a long time before they fatigue. Therefore we see slow twitch fibers being excellent at assisting athletes perform in marathons and long distance bike rides that go on for many hours. Another component is our VO2 max reading. While we can increase this many athletes are also born with, research shows us that VO2 max also has a genetic component. VO2 max, or maximal oxygen uptake, is one factor that can determine an athlete’s capacity to perform sustained exercise and is linked to aerobic endurance. VO2 max refers to the maximum amount of oxygen that an individual can utilize during intense or maximal exercise. It is measured as “milliliters of oxygen used in one minute per kilogram of body weight.”

To see where such inherent changes can affect ability in a little more technical terms a study was done ( Gian Gastone Neri Serneri, Maria Boddi, Pietro Amedeo Modesti, Ilaria Cecioni, Mirella Coppo, Luigi Padeletti, Antonio Michelucci, Andrea Colella, Giorgio Galanti) which looked at Physiological hypertrophy that represents the adaptive changes of the heart required for supporting the increased hemodynamic load in regularly trained healthy subjects. Abstract:

Mechanisms responsible for the athlete’s hypertrophy still remain unknown. In 15 trained competitive soccer players and in 15 healthy men not engaged in sporting activities (sedentary control subjects) of equivalent age, they investigated the relationship among cardiac growth factor formation, cardiac sympathetic activity, and left ventricular morphology and function. Cardiac formation of insulin-like growth factor (IGF)-I, endothelin (ET)-1, big ET-1, and angiotensin (Ang) II was investigated at rest by measuring artery-coronary sinus concentration gradients. Cardiac sympathetic activity was studied by [3H]norepinephrine (NE) kinetics. Cardiac IGF-I, but not ET-1, big ET-1, and Ang II, formation was higher in athletes than in control subjects (P<0.01). NE levels in arterial and yet peripheral venous blood did not differ between groups.

All with all these inherited factors goes the dedication of training regimes, good well educated trainers, and a mind set to win and train hard. So all this does not mean the average punter should throw the towel in. What it does mean is join a gym and be the best your body will allow you to be. It will definitely extend your life and quality of life. So go join the local!!!

By: John Hart

Master’s In Education” (Disability/Rehab) Newcastle University Australia

“Grad Cert Education” Newcastle University Australia

“Diploma Fitness/Recreation”

“Diploma of Sport and Recreation”

“Cert 4 Personal Training”

“Level 1 Strength and Conditioning Coach”

Member of ASCA (Australian Strength and Conditioning Association)

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