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Sports for Performance, or Sports for Health?

By K.N.*

The Running revolution as experienced by many in the 1970s proved to serve as a Health booster for many non -elite athletes. People from all demographics that were not registered in organized National athletics programs, were involved in what was once called a “movement” not a fad. Enjoying the benefits of running and other fitness activities carried over for many decades, and personalities such as Steve Prefontaine (running track and field star) , Bill Bowerman- an American track and field coach , Phill Knight -Nike CEO, Exercise Physiologist Kenneth Cooper-from the cooper Aerobics Center promoter of the cardiovascular training concept, boosted and backed up the movement’s allure.

It is no wonder that many decades later this movement still is alive and kicking and in North and South Europe activities through-ought are flourishing. With the sport of Triathlon enjoying accolades such as, “the fastest growing individual sport”, running half marathons is becoming a popular idea to travel for, active holidays are growing in demand, Training camps held in countries with milder climates populating hotels that have such facilities, it is no wonder outdoor activities and Fitness is very alive and kicking.

But looking deeper into the participants of such events, one understands that the median age is clearly over 30- 35 and for some events such as triathlon maybe even 38. Mature adults circa 35-40 years old, under the category of “Masters”, are understanding, and exploiting the benefits of such activities. The improved self esteem , the endorphins (hormones mimicking euphoria), the weight loss, the improved self confidence, the stress release deriving from such activities is an undisputed winner. With technology and marketing working hand in hand to bring such concepts fwd, the acceptance is growing rapidly. In fact there have been quite a few articles describing the new breed of men called “mamils” (middle aged men in lycra shorts).

Strava, a mobile app and website that connects millions of runners and cyclists through the sports they love, has published very interesting data for 2017. A few abstracts shown below as copied form the site:

“180,539 cyclists uploaded their ride for our second annual Global Bike to Work Day. This offset an estimated 1,580 tons of carbon — so take a deep breath of fresh air, because that’s enough to run about a million cars for 15 minutes.”

“Kelly Roberts came up with a scheme to motivate a few ladies to break the 2-hour half marathon barrier, and this turned into a near movement in NYC with Project 1:59. So much fun! “

“136 million runs uploaded in 2017, covering more than 700 million miles (both all-time highs).”

“627,239 recorded marathons on Strava”

“The fast run /hike of Killian up mount Everest recorded on Stava!!”


And that is just Strava, how about Garmin, or Polar , or Suunto, as leaders in the world of activity tracking. The numbers depicting activity are staggering. One out of many of the parameters Garmin is measuring is the steps taking on a daily activity by an individual, and by it’s tech power, it is compared with it’s thousands of users to come to a conclusion that activity is indeed up! Or in the sport of cycling, the comparison amongst other users of Garmin is also interesting with a categorization , and with a finding that more and more people do ride their bikes, and their speed can be compared.

The outcome manifested is quite prosperous, and with a point of view on general health in a community, this yields plenty of benefits. Activity in various widths and lengths will help reduce blood pressure, combat obesity, reverse sedentary lifestyles, get people off their couches and computer screens and launch a direct and potent attack over diabetes. This is a small list of benefits but enough to get people moving Vs sitting too long.

It is also interesting to observe the vigor and enthusiasm that surrounds certain individuals from all corners of the globe. Preferably the Masters category, which have big aim for “personal bests”, the 20 hour per week training regimes, the purchase of top shelf bicycles and fitness activity trackers, the hiring of top notch coaches, physiotherapists and personal trainers which is becoming more and more prevalent. In this fast paced “tsunami” undertaking the world, professionals need to shed light and guidance to activity-goers in the realm of what is acceptable and what is not. A good read for all professionals is presented in the position statement of ACSM – (copied in it’s full integrity below) :

“The position stand, titled “Quantity and Quality of Exercise for Developing and Maintaining Cardiorespiratory, Musculoskeletal, and Neuromotor Fitness in Apparently Healthy Adults: Guidance for Prescribing Exercise,” reflects current scientific evidence on physical activity and includes recommendations on aerobic exercise, strength training and flexibility. Consistent with the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, ACSM’s overall recommendation is for most adults to engage in at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each week.”

No gray area for what is considered too little, but plenty of misunderstanding can happen in the upper limits. Exercise professionals have been advocating and promoting physical activity , now care needs to be focused on to the upper limits. With the book “The Haywire Heart, How too much exercise can kill you, and what you can do to protect your heart, by Dr. John Mandrola and Lennard Zinn and Chris Case

One has to take into consideration the extremes in training. Electrophysiologists shed some
light as to pre-existing conditions and arrhythmias, either occurring due to extremes, or due to inherited characteristics. However no one can really identify what is considered too much and for who. An elite level cyclist can clock in up to 60-70 thousand km per year, that works out on an average 1200km /week!! An obscene amount of exercise for many of us, but most elites have this as “business as usual”. Scientists need to clarify the rate of arrhythmias or other consequences to this previous activity, in retired cyclists clocking in those km. And this answer is not very pretty, however people need to understand those impacts. Trying to copy
the training plan of Alberto Contador, or Chris Froome week by week as many fitness  enthusiast having the time and money to do so today, can potentially end up in the hospital a few weeks later.

What individuals new to the sporting endurance world need to understand, is that the 10 or 20 years of inactivity has a toll on their physiology and performance, and will not change with the flick of the button. Care needs to be given to progressively entering a more active weekly schedule and also to understand the preexisting conditions and your biology. Praise for the commencement of activity and behavior modification, but all taken in gradually. You don’t just start clocking in century rides just because you can “tough“ it out. You do not commence interval training at the age of 41 just because you know it can optimize and improve your running economy, for many reasons, one been the fact that at the age of 30 and you were totally inactive.

Health & fitness professionals deliver advice as to “what is appropriate and what is an acceptable scenario for you and only you”. The moto that running clubs, fitness arenas, or cycling clubs are following “do sign up – any level is fine” is a tight rope dangerous walk. Just because numbers of participants in a running or triathlon club have risen that is not the only conclusion arising. The group leader must know clearly how many of those new registrations are a ticking bomb (hopefully none). How many starters have done preventive work, and how many filled out activity readiness questionnaires, is the doctor’s ok a valid paper to show, how many obtained one, and most important of all, is each individual respected and treated as a different entity? Is the fitness program suggested a “one size fits all”?! The person in charge of this group activity, leader or coach of such an organized club, would be responsible & of course liable for the results.

Different outcomes arise when an elite athlete is undergoing training. That person is trying to reach a podium status and the dynamics and factors affecting such training are totally different when compared to a Maters athlete with a full time job , family and social obligations been juggled around in the weekly schedule. The podium in the latter case described is an exciting project to undertake, but at the same time a dangerous path to walk. The performance outcome in the two cases is totally different, one is fighting to gain professional status, top notch fame and commercial contracts via the results of his Worlds Championship meet, and the other is fighting to keep weight off, participate at the local town 10km run, keep activity at higher than before levels, and reduce stress via the modalities of exercise. Two different worlds two bipolar opposite approaches. Understanding this early on, and you are on the train towards your own personal success.

Enter your personal new world of activity with care and diligence, research what fits you and what is your future path and plan to follow. Question if this is right for you, but do not settle for an easy way out which is the selection to abstain from activity. Talk and analyze to Health & Fitness professionals, reputable coaches about what could be the right plan for you, and do select to try something outside of your “comfort zone”, but always with a progressive increase. Enter this new status for you but be knowledgeable that training for performance and training for Health are two very different paths.

Stay Healthy & Active.

*K.N. is an Exercise Physiologist, graduate of the University of Alabama, an ACSM certified Health & Fitness Instructor since 2000, he holds an ITU Level II Certification as a Triathlon Coach, and is a multiple Ironman & Half Ironman Triathlon finisher. Currently he coaches Triathletes online, teaches Functional Training at f/3dfts, and performs Exercise Physiology assessments at the Cyprus Sports & Research Center. e – kypros.nicolaou@outlook.com

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