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Now in the News: The Olympics

Exercise and Sport Studies Prof Comments on Training, Michael Phelps

James H. Johnson, Smith College professor of exercise and sport studies, and director of the human performance lab, specializes in exercise physiology, kinesiology and biomechanics.

View a video of Johnson on the Olympics.

Johnson on training for the Olympics:

“Athletes train to peak for specific competitions. Obviously, all athletes attempt to perform at their peak during Olympic competition. The typical procedure for peaking is to reduce the volume of training while maintaining intensity. That is, athletes will train at high speeds similar to race pace, but will reduce the total amount of time training. Tapering is the word generally used in the swim world for this method of peaking. Athletes who perform in multiple events have more difficulty maintaining peak condition since their competitions are spread over many days. They have to stay in peak form by continuing to train but not to over train.”

Johnson on swimmer Michael Phelps:

“Few athletes ever compete in as many events as a swimmer such as Michael Phelps will encounter. Careful monitoring of his fatigue, training, diet, and recovery will be taking place. Regarding diet, stored carbohydrate in the form of muscle glycogen is the predominant fuel for athletes in most swimming events. Since muscle glycogen is limited and not mobile, replenishment with carbohydrate fuel promptly after practice will take place.

"Swimming is an interesting sport with regard to maturation. It is unusual, but not unheard of, to see a champion teenage swimmer. One reason is that swimming is not a natural activity; we do not live in the water. Top-level swimmers have fabulous “feel” for the water. Over the years they have developed the perfect hand and body position to allow them to travel the greatest distance with each stroke. This takes years to develop and one reason why maturation results in better performance. They have also proved they can stand the test of training, the amount of time that a swimmer needs to put in the water to establish form. Add to this the ability to withstand the psychological stress of international competition. Maturity helps.”

Is Phelps the greatest Olympic athlete of all time?

"There's no question that Phelps is one of the greatest of all time but he has an advantage that none of the network commentators have pointed out: Phelps has the benefit of being a swimmer. In swimming there are four strokes, as opposed to only one stroke in running, for example. Therefore, it is impossible for a runner to receive as many gold medals as Phelps, regardless of how good they are.

"Furthermore, from an exercise physiology point of view, the swimming world has a great advantage in this regard because there are so many races that last between about 1:45 and 4 minutes. Phelps is a great athlete from 2-4 minutes. You'll notice that he does not swim the open 100 or any other races. To compare this with track and field, we have the 800 meters, which last about 1:45, and the 1500 meters, somewhat similar to the 400-meter free style swimming event. That's it, only two events for runners between 2 and 4 minutes. There is no 4 x 800-meter relay in track and no 4 x 1600-meter relay.

"Phelps is certainly the most decorated Olympic athlete, since this can be computed by adding up the medals. But the greatest athlete of all time is questionable, and probably not answerable."

Read Johnson's recent article "Overuse Injuries in Young Athletes: Cause and
from the April 2008 edition of Strength and Conditioning

8/13/08   Kristen Cole
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