Are competitive, professional athletes healthy? You may think unequivocally yes, of course, an athlete must be at peak health in order to perform his or her best at sport. Probably most successful athletes would be considered healthy as defined by “the absence of illness or injury,” at least most of the time and during their competitions. But what about if we consider a broader definition of optimal health, as in the fitness, activity level, nutrition, mental state, etc to best maintain a happy and long life? The World Health Organization website declares that “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” By this definition not all athletes may be necessarily healthy, at least not in a well-rounded and balanced way, because by their very nature, competitive sports encourage extremes.
A recent article from Outside Online (http://www.outsideonline.com/2087751/yes-professional-runners-are-weak) is a fascinating commentary on “health” versus being at the top of the competitive field. It’s not an extensive article, doesn’t encompass all sides of the issue or very many people’s perspectives, but it has enough content to be thought-provoking. The main point of the article highlights that former-pro-runner Ryan Hall has bulked up with weightlifting and feels much healthier in a whole-body way than he did during his running career. This point provokes several primary trains of thought for me (I’d highly encourage reading the short article before my commentary, to follow).
First, I can help but vocalize that I am happy to be pursuing the sport that I do: cross-country skiing. There are a variety of body types that seem to work for skiers, with the ideal physique blending both strength/power and lean endurance potential. Strength and endurance are hard to pair together, and the resulting outcome is that while the top skiers may not be the absolute best at raw strength activities (ie weightlifting) or endurance (ie long distance running or cycling) competitions, we are pretty well-rounded and balanced. Balance helps lead to health, not overcompensating or overdeveloping any one part of the body or body system too much, but striving for a dynamic mix of strength and endurance that will let us adapt to varieties of ski race lengths and terrain.
Secondly, I note that the assertion of the Outside article does ring true: being at the top competitive level and devoted towards that goal does not necessarily lead to optimal, full-body and mind health. We competitive athletes take things to extremes, in workout duration, intensity and repetition from day to day, pushing through soreness and tiredness. Then we also tread a fine line in areas like injuries, over-training, and calorie balance. Many people ask my teammates and I, “do you get to eat anything you want?” or make remarks that imply that we must get to eat to our heart’s content all the time, thousands of calories beyond the average diet. This isn’t really true. (Perhaps in a future post I’ll elaborate on the numbers, once I collect a few.) We’re careful, we try to be smart about nutritionally sound choices, yes we eat a fair amount, but it’s not limitless. We maintain fairly low body-fat percentages as a necessity of the endurance, lean and fast side of our sport, and at the same time as we train considerable volumes with plenty of hard muscle-tearing strength and intensity. So we have to fuel well and keep up our protein intake, but we can’t eat absolutely anything (or everything) all the time without consequences: we’re still human. And as part of being human, I certainly know I’ve over-indulged and felt guilt over food choices, as well as gained or lost weight inexplicably and had to be a little more careful. When excellence at a sport and overall physical fitness is your life pursuit, it can be easy to obsess over details and let it become stressful; just like all people, competitive athletes have to constantly search for balance. Like in any profession, there are stresses that can be associated with competitive athletics, from making ends meet financially to feeling pressure to perform from family or supporters or oneself. If an individual is not resilient enough to overcome obstacles, or if she takes aspects of training or life to extremes, it’s definitely possible for the athlete’s life not to resemble the epitome of health.
And finally, I find that this particular article is a bit sensationalist. It is an opinion of one case of a very successful runner. Runners are notoriously extreme in their pursuit of a particular ideal body – that is, strong legs but extremely lean and small in the upper body. I have to believe that the author indirectly or directly meant it to be reassuring to the public masses – ie, don’t worry, you actually might be healthier and feel better on an average day than the pros, since they’re kind of crazy and treading the fine line. From the Outside article, ‘“To be an elite marathoner with a body that’s light and lean: while you’re running, you feel amazing. You’re fluid and economical, floating along without having to carry a lot of muscle mass,” says Hall. “But the rest of the day, to be honest, is not a lot of fun. My energy was super low [throughout most of my career]. I took naps every day and felt pretty much useless when I wasn’t running.”’ There are truths contained, but it’s not a black and white issue and depends on the people, sports, ideologies involved!
So what do I get from all of this? I’m extremely thankful to be competing in cross-country ski racing, and I know that I’m a lucky person to get to pursue physical fitness and excellence at sport as my current life’s pursuit. I know that a balance, and consideration for mental and lifestyle well-being, is important even if it’s easy to get absorbed in the physical details of training. I’ll probably be a better athlete and healthier person in the long term if I keep my overall state of full-body health in mind. That doesn’t mean I’m going to scale back the extreme workouts or nature of this profession at all, just embrace the challenges and the ridiculously difficult training or race days, and to make sure to take care of the details like sleep, stretching, and mental happiness.