Note: This post incorporates technical data & information is from the USATF Podium Education Program session presented by Randy Wilbur PHD USOC.
The average runner will have no idea what goes into getting a track team to the Olympics in an optimal condition ready to medal! This is a summary on some of the preparation for the Beijing Olympics 2008 by the United States Olympic Committee.
The key issues are: Heat, Humidity, Air Pollution and Time Zone Differential.
Fighting Jet Lag
One week prior to going athletes adjust workouts to times which are closer to competition times (adjusted for time zones). What you do on the flight over is a better strategy instead of adjusting sleep time each day gradually over the week prior to leaving. So, the goal is to stay awake the whole flight that leaves at 0530 and arrives at 1730 – accounting for the time zones you have about 20 hours of awake time. If they arrive at 1730 on Monday; they will go to sleep that night at their usual bedtimes. They will be up early on Tuesday & Wednesday and have BLE (Bright Light Exposure – this can be created however in this case it will be natural light) with an exercise session of modest intensity. By Thursday athletes are back to full training. This means that it will take less than 36 hours to adjust once you arrive. The rule of thumb using the old approach of waiting until you arrive and then “living” at the new time zone was one day of adjustment for each time zone difference.
There are ergogenic aids for jet lag. Some athletes use compression hose lower leg or even to upper leg to decrease edema and pooling of blood in lower extremities. On the flight some use an activated carbon filtration mask. It is a simple and effective way to avoid sickness on the flight. They do not advocate any sleeping pills. In fact, they absolutely advise against even “natural” sleep enhancewrs such as melatonin due to testing and impurities. Drink limited or no caffeinated drinks. Timing of meals is basic – if you’re hungry eat otherwise don’t. So there is no scientific basis for timing of meals and there is no special content – such as increased protein or carbs etc.
Coping with Heat, Humidity and Pollution
Now think about Beijing itself. It is flat. There are 13 million people. The marathon race is a pancake flat course that flows from Tiananmen Square to the Olympic stadium. During the marathon the typical conditions are as follows – 69-85F but can reach 100F, 75-81% humidity; heat index – 90-95F degrees caution on scale.
The facilities will be fabulous and greatly improved over Athens. A water purification system is being put into the university that USOC team will be living. The water will be tested and retested for purity. The USOC had developed a manual and DVD with marathon course and manuals on it.
In order to adjust to heat, upon arrival workouts will be adjusted to take place during the warmer times of day. They will start with lower intensity workouts and then replace with higher intensity over a two week period.
Since Beijing will be much like Athens (hot and humid) the plan to pre-acclimatize runners who are training and living at altitude (dry and cool) will be the same. While training at altitude wear layered clothing. The body does NOT know difference between artificial heat and real heat. So, athletes can maximize altitude training as well as heat acclimatization.
One tool that is used to monitor hydration status and avoid chronic low level dehydration is the Armstrong Urine Color Chart & refractometer. It can measure hydration status. The target is not to drop to Less than 1% weight loss. All athletes must practice hydration routines before going since there is high individual variability.
A second tool first used by marathoners Deena Kastor & Meb Kefleghizi at the Athens Olympics is the Nike ice vest. It is used for pre-cooling the body and it is worn right up to jumping on the starting line. It lowers core temperature but allows extremities stay warm up to race time. This Olympics, every outdoor athlete on teams (track and other teams) will have one by spring to use for training. There is an issue of getting large enough freezer(s) for all the vests.
Pollution: How bad is it? They could only say “unbelievably bad!” Carbon monoxide (car exhaust) attaches to hemoglobin far better than oxygen and so it reduces hemoglobin which reduces oxygen transport. In large dose will kill you. For a comparison scale, carbon monoxide readings in Los Angeles are at 4, Beijing is over 7! Other pollutants include nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, ozone & particulate matter. All of these can yield airway hyper-responsiveness, bronchial constriction and are major triggers of asthma. Even usual non-allergy/asthma people may suffer from symptoms in high levels. Much of pollution contribution comes from surrounding areas well outside of the city.
Remember Steve Ovett ’84 in LA? A medal favorite in both the 800 adn 1500, he had bronchial asthma and finished last in 800 finals in 1:52. He DNFd (Did Not Finish) in the 1500 2 days later… and Beijing is far worse environmentally.
They have measured what they call the “Effective Dose” during exercise. In eight (8) hours without exercising, the passive rating is 4.32. During a 30:00 run it is 4.5.
There is no such thing as acclimatization for air pollution. Don’t even think of it! It is unhealthy and unsupported. And no, nasal (nose) breathing does not help. Use of Asthma/EIB Medication with beta-2 agonists are restricted by WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency). An athlete must document with a valid medically administered pulmonary function test. You must have a clinically defined exercise induced asthma or you cannot use these inhalers! That means, athletes cannot obtain inhalers for use without the diagnosis.
Tidbit: One out of four Olympians have exercise induced asthma. 25% of US medals are won by exercise induced asthmatics.
Athletes will have a training option prior to the Olympics by going to a training center set up in Korea. It will have low pollution while being on the same time zone.
The advice is however that the athletes’ mindset is important – hope for the best prepare for the worst. They know that beyond the physical, the athlete who can cope best and persevere mentally will be the victor.
So, now when you watch the Olympics on TV this August, I hope you’ll have an appreciation for all the work done by the USOC, coaches and athletes in preparing. And an appreciation for the fact that it’ll still come down to everyone running their bests under the same conditions on the same course or track.