Olympics: How U.S. Athletes Fool their Bodies

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The Olympic athletes getting ready to compete in Sochi have put in thousands of hours of training to hone their techniques.

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At the same time, scientists working with the athletes are finding perfectly legal shortcuts to improve their physiological performance: special devices to restrict blood flow and increase muscle mass; new anti-gravity treadmills that allow downhill skiers to improve cardiovascular strength without putting stress on their often fragile knee joints; and manipulating the red blood cells of the athletes to give them maximum oxygen-carrying capacity by “living high” and “training low.”

These athletes are using the latest science to help them get an edge over their competitors. And while this focus on science seems like it's a no-brainer, not every Olympic team does it the same way.

“By living at altitude, we are trying to gain a hematological advantage,” said Bill Demong, gold medalist at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics and member of the 2014 U.S. team headed to Sochi. “Then by doing speedwork with supplemental oxygen, we are fooling our bodies to go faster than they can go normally.”

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Demong is currently at a training camp in the German Alps, getting in some last-minute training as a member of the U.S. Olympic Nordic combined team. That event combines ski jumping -- which requires intense focus, nerves and strength -- with a 10-kilometer cross-country race, which requires endurance, power and ski technique.

Demong and other U.S. athletes often shuttle across the globe to race and train. Elite Alpine skiers like Bode Miller and Ted Ligety, for example, trained at a 15,000-foot elevation ski resort in Chile before the World Cup ski season began to get the benefits of altitude. The U.S. cross-country ski team is currently staying high in the Italian alps just a few days before departing for Sochi, Russia, site of this year’s Winter games.

While living at altitude forces the body to produce more red blood cells, which carry more oxygen to the muscles, it also makes recovery more difficult. That’s why teams may spend part of their high-altitude training time carrying backpacks with oxygen tanks, or sleeping in special tents that simulate the richer oxygen environment at sea level, according to James Stray-Gundersen, science adviser to the U.S. Ski Team.

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Gundersen has become a guru of sorts for skiers looking for a way to maximize altitude training. He says its important to find the right place. Train too high and the body has trouble sleeping or recovering from hard efforts. Train too low and there’s no extra red blood cell boost.

“That sweet spot is probably between 2,000 and 2,500 meters or (about 6,500 to 8,000 feet),” Gundersen said. “What happens is that it is high enough for people to get a robust increase in circulating blood cells or hemoglobin, but not so high that they can’t recover from their training. We are using hypoxia (lack of oxygen) as a tool to get some effects at rest, other effects for training.”

Gundersen and colleagues published their findings of a study of 48 endurance athletes in the Journal of Applied Physiology in December 2013.

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He says there are other methods to help boost athletes' performance that don’t involve taking illegal drugs like the blood-boosting hormone erythropoetein, or EPO. Gundersen said many downhill skiers don’t like to run because their knees already take a lot of pounding. New anti-gravity treadmills allow them to built endurance without impact. Special Japanese kaatsu belts impede blood flow and end up causing an adaptation that builds muscle mass.

“It’s a short cut,” Gundersen said. “If we were doing it without the belts, they would have to lift heavy weights for hours and hours to get the same benefits.”

With the Olympics set to open this week, athletes are tapering their training. Demong says he’s resting more and allowing his body to feel the benefits of an entire year of intense training and racing.

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“At this point it becomes about allowing your body to recover and reach its highest point,” Demong told Discovery News. “The volume (of training) is being slashed, the volume is being focused in terms of days off. From massage to contrast baths, you allow yourself to be fully recovered. The net achievement is you can reach a plateau of fitness relatively easy and you will be fast.”

Demong likens it to a wave of fitness that he has been riding all year, now about to crest just before his Olympic race on Feb. 12.

Demong, 33, says that as he gets older, he actually does fewer ski jumps than when he was younger in preparation for a big race.

“My best jumps are when I have this good foundation and reduce my thought process to a bare minimum,” Demong said. “The key is being able to be in the moment. The Olympics Games is not the place to be fixing stuff.”