As I write this, I’m on a plane to Atlanta to watch the Olympic Marathon Trials which take place Saturday afternoon (and are televised on NBC). The top 3 male and female finishers will make the Olympic team that will go to Tokyo this summer. I’m excited to watch runners traverse a hilly course that cuts much of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics infrastructure and monuments.
I love watching the Olympics. I vividly remember being 12 years old during the 1992 Barcelona games and watching the original “Dream Team,” cheering for eventual gold medalist, boxer Oscar De La Hoya, and falling deeply in love with gymnast Kim Zmeskal (more aptly, infatuation). I also remember organizing a meeting in my bedroom with my two brothers and a few neighborhood friends in which I laid out a detailed plan that involved us saving our allowances for the next four years and, having just turned 16, driving to Atlanta together to watch the 1996 Olympics. Needless to say, that never materialized. Nevertheless, I find myself glued to the TV for a two week period every Olympiad and I’m equally excited about watching the marathon trials tomorrow to see who will comprise our Olympic team. Watching the runners tomorrow afternoon will inspire me. In the midst of that inspiration emerges an important fitness lesson (a lesson that most well intended fitness enthusiasts are often completely unaware of). The lesson is this: We should never trust or follow any of the training strategies or interventions that we hear or read about Olympic athletes following. Why? Because the fact that a high level athlete performs “x” exercise or eats “y” food doesn’t mean that it was “x” or “y” that CAUSED the athlete to be successful or even contributed to the athlete’s success. In fact, often times the athlete was successful IN SPITE of these training interventions. The athlete could have been even more successful if they would have implemented a different training strategy or variable. This is the lesson of Correlation and Causation. Just because a training strategy is correlated with a great performance does not mean it “caused” the performance. As previously stated, most people ignore this principle and instead, utilize the “copy the star mentality.” We integrate the training practices of athletes that are faster, stronger, better than we are in hope that we can improve our performances. A few examples from the 2008 and 2012 Olympic games:
- Numerous clips show swimmer Ryan Lochte performing a tire flipping exercise. The viewer assumes, “Hey, it must be working, he won a gold medal.” The truth is, this exercise violates almost every principle of exercise physiology and motor control and carries an incredibly high risk of acute injury. Lochte was a great swimmer before he ever performed a single tire flip and these tire flips provided no benefit to his performance.
- Sprinter Usain Bolt went on record that he ate a diet of chicken nuggets for lunch and chicken nuggets for dinner for a number of weeks leading to his world record performances during the 2008 Olympic games. We should not assume that eating chicken nuggets “caused” these super-human performances.
- Virtually every male swimmer in the Olympics has a long, lean, and toned appearance. The viewer would assume that swimming for hours a day helps develop a long, lean physique (I used to assume the very same thing). When in fact, this is an inverted cause and effect relationship. Swimming didn’t make the person longer and leaner; instead, having a long, lean physique to start out with predisposes a person to be a better swimmer (playing basketball doesn’t make a person taller; but tall people gravitate toward basketball because it fits their genetic predisposition). Swimming is a great form of cardiovascular exercise, but is a very poor way to become leaner and more toned.
When I watch the Olympics, I am inspired by the hard work, dedication, perseverance, and incredible athletic ability of the competitors. However, I do not watch and hope to glean anything of value about exercise, fitness, or performance. Where do we turn for that information? Science. Science seeks to identify the “independent variable” in the great physiques and performances that we witness.
One important note: This does not apply to learning about the “tricks of the trade” pertaining to a sport or event. From that standpoint, learning from successful competitors IS incredibly valuable. The discussion above pertains to the specific elements that impact our physiology. And of course, great performances are about a lot more than physiology.