When you work in personal training, there are obvious, well known cycles. New Year’s is the most talked about; there are the months right before summer; the week of Thanksgiving many say “screw it, I’ll see you in January.” The school year has a ton of weight too. Spring breaks, summer vacations, back to school, they all tend to change how people workout and eat. Over the years I’ve noticed another cycle. One not as repeated, but with still an obvious pattern. The Olympics.
It’s customary for my clients to ask me about them, while concurrently going “Those people! The things they can do are amazing!” Of course, the things Olympians do are amazing. Because of the natural connection between the Olympics and fitness, invariably conversations about how the athletes work out, how they eat, and more all come up. With so much coverage it’s typical to see a plethora of pieces of so and so athlete’s training routine, how this athlete eats, the new technology this athlete is using, supplement marketing, etc. Where I’m often asked, “Did you see how X athlete works out? It’s crazy!” Oddly enough, every two years I’ve found myself having a repeated conversation with many clients. One of caution, because
Athletes can be some of the most unhealthy people
We’re going to extend this beyond the Olympics, as it applies to all athletes. To do that, we need a definition for athlete. I’ll borrow from my 16 ways training athletes is not like regular people post.
An athlete is someone who:
- Makes a living from their sport.
- Someone who plays sports seriously at the college level. To the point they have a chance to go beyond college.
- Someone who plays seriously at the high school level. To the point they have a chance to go beyond high school.
I’m sure there are other scenarios, but you get the idea.
Situations that do not qualify:
- Making a little bit of money every now and then in your has-been / never-was league.
- Rec leagues period. I don’t care if you play 6 nights a week. Playing a sport one or two hours a day is not the same as a professional athlete who does something sport related 8+ hours everyday.
- You need to understand what we mean by the word serious. If you play your sport for three months out of the year at a D3 school, you have a hobby. If you’re on the track team because you want something to do after school, you’re a regular student.
- You have a normal job.
- Weekend warriors
We can make this even clearer. Do you spend ~8 hours a day / 40 hours a week on your sport? Because even if you regularly act like a moron screaming and ranting at your Wednesday night league, and you practice 5 times a week on your own, your regular job and life probably prevent you from hitting that amount of hours. Even in high school many serious athletes will hit around 6 hours a day on their sport.
Have you seen how Northwestern’s football players recently won a lawsuit regarding their right to form a union? (Here.) One of the main arguments helping them win is the fact they perform football related activities “40-60 hours per week.” Where serious consideration is being given to the term “student-athlete.” “Athlete-student” is more appropriate. As someone who was a college athlete, albeit at a very small Division I school, I can tell you 40-60 hours a week is spot on. (Add school into the mix and being a college athlete thoroughly sucks.)
Now that we have a definition, let’s accrue some evidence as to how unhealthy athletes are.
I’m just going to get this out of the way. The last decade has been a wake up call to everyone, myself included. Drugs, in sports, are everywhere. What’s the percentage? I don’t know. Are a great majority of athletes using? I’d say so.
Beyond the obvious deleterious effects drugs can have, the people we’re talking about are taking drugs that haven’t been studied, in ridiculous dosages, and mixing them with a host of other things, like more drugs. Despite this, the fact of the matter is when you’re dealing with the level these people are at, the top .01% of athleticism in the human species, if the person across from you is taking drugs and you’re not, you lose.
Lance Armstrong was competing against grown men as a teenager. At 16, he was ranked number one nationally in the under 19 age group. He became a professional triathlete also at 16, and was a national champion at 18. He still needed drugs; used them in “the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen,” and told Oprah he doesn’t think the Tour De France can be won without them. He is about as gifted of an endurance athlete that’s ever lived…what do you think guys who aren’t as gifted as him are doing? N.O. Xplode?
Here are the results of the 2008 Olympics 100 meter dash:
Let’s ignore Usain Bolt right now, as he is an outlier amongst outliers. Richard Thompson, at 9.89 seconds, finished second place. One percent of 9.89 seconds is 0.0989 seconds. If we add 1% to Thompson’s time, equaling 9.99 seconds, he goes from finishing second to finishing sixth. One percent difference and this guy doesn’t medal, he gets zero publicity after the race, and probably little to no sponsorship opportunities. At these levels, one percent can mean millions of dollars and more. It often is the difference between being a professional and being a guy who almost made it.
There’s a reason this video has cult like status amongst athletes. Because it’s so true:
Most high level athletes take drugs, and most drugs, used at this level, in these manners, are not healthy. Oh, and stay in school
America’s favorite sport
Perhaps no sport has gained more scrutiny the last few years in the health department than the NFL. I know, some are thinking, “Well, duh, obviously football isn’t healthy.” Give me a second. I will get to other sports.
First, it’s only recently the health concerns of football have been seriously questioned. Where current and former players are saying they wouldn’t let their kid play football. Like Brett Favre and Adrian Peterson. It’s only recently the NFL changed their rules about hits to the head, kick offs and whatnot. It’s only recently ESPN stop doing it’s “Jacked Up” segment, where they used to celebrate how close someone came to decapitation each week.
Second, people have no idea how unhealthy football is. They cringe when they see and hear this:
But they don’t cringe every, single, play. Even though every, single, play, is like being in a car crash.
“You ever been in a car crash? Done bumper cars? You know when that hit catches you off guard and jolts you, and you’re like, what the hell? Football is like that. But 10 times worse. It’s hell.”
From an Op Ed by multiple Pro Bowler, now retired Kris Jenkins.
Some other quotes:
“The thing about football is you’re directly playing with your life, the quality of it and the longevity of it.”
“From the double teams, over the years, I wore the left side of my body down. I was past hurt. I was at the point of numb. Like my body was shutting down nervous systems, so I didn’t have to deal with pain.
The numbness started at the very beginning. I couldn’t feel part of both arms. I couldn’t feel part of both legs. It was worse on the left. I’m just starting to get feeling back in my left side. Look, football is no joke.”
“The brain fog? It still hasn’t stopped. It feels like you’re punch-drunk, like someone hit you over the head. It’s like you knock yourself stupid. When you have to concentrate on things, then it becomes an issue. My head gets foggy to the point where I really can’t function.”
Is anyone thinking “Wow, what a healthy guy!”? No. Hopefully some people are going, “Uh, that’s worse than I thought.” Let’s look at another recently retired player, future Hall of Famer Jason Taylor.
“It was the needle in the spine that made him wonder about the price of this game, but those questions were every bit as fleeting as the soothing provided by those epidurals. He didn’t practice much in 2006 because of a herniated disk in his back, and he needed the medicine pregnant women use for labor just to get to Sundays. Taylor’s wife was helping him down the stairs as he left the doctor’s office after one such epidural, but that wasn’t the bad part. His back locked up as he tried to get in the passenger seat of their car, making him crumble.
“I started shaking on the ground,” he says. “My wife was trying to pick me up. I was in tears.””
““There was a period of a year and a half or two years when I couldn’t put my kids to bed,” he says.”
“Did he get in that player deli line outside the trainer’s room before the game to get that secret elixir, a Toradol shot in the butt that would lubricate and soothe away the aches for three hours despite its side effects (chest pains, headaches, nausea, bloody stool, coughing up blood, vomit that looks like coffee grounds)?
The craziest part of Taylor’s story is when he got Compartment Syndrome in his calf. From Wikipedia:
“Compartment syndrome is a life-threatening condition of the limbs which occurs after an injury, when there is insufficient blood supply to muscles and nerves due to increased pressure within one of the body’s compartments, such as an arm, leg or other enclosed space within the body.”
Untreated, there is a serious risk of the leg being amputated. Once Taylor had surgery for the condition, he had an infection requiring a catheter. He played multiple games with the catheter in his body.
Before moving on, I want to come back to Adrian Peterson. I can see many going, “Look at how well he came back from his ACL. That’s gotta be a healthy guy right there.”
- In the 2013 offseason, after his ACL comeback, he had sports hernia surgery. (Here.)
- In the 2014 offseason, he had groin surgery. (Here.)
You know, just needed to repair some torn muscles the last couple of years. His knee may be back -though nobody knows how it actually feels but him- yet other things have not been doing well.
“Well, duh, obviously football isn’t healthy.” Alright, let’s go from America’s favorite sport to America’s favorite pastime.
Barry Bonds forehead.
Basketball player’s knees get destroyed from jumping thousands and thousands of times every year. Look at some of the best players the last few years. At 25, Russell Westbrook is on three knee surgeries. Dwayne Wade, at 32, seems to have the knees of a 50 year old. Kobe’s knees are so beat up they are FRACTURING just from running around, like he has osteoporosis or something.
I mean, you think LeBron does this after every game because he feels healthy?
Kobe Bryant’s injury list, according to Bleacher Report:
- Broken wrist
- Who knows how many ankle sprains
- Hip bursitis
- Elbow bursitis
- Shoulder surgery
- Back injury
- Deformed index finger
- Torn meniscus, where he had right knee surgery, along with 3 following operations.
“Also, Kobe revealed during the middle of last season to the New York Post’s Peter Vecsey that he had not been practicing to that point because there was so little cartilage under his ailing knee.” (This is when Kobe was 32.)
- Torn ligament in shooting wrist
- Torn achilles
- Fractured knee
This only includes his professional career. Who knows how many things he dealt with before then, and how many other things weren’t made public.
Here’s a description of Shane Battier, at 33, during the recent lockout season. Battier, compared to many NBA stars, doesn’t have that much mileage on his legs:
“And oh, how bright the day would be if the toes were the only worry. Roll an anatomy-class skeleton next to Battier’s locker and let him take you for a tour. Pick a spot, any spot. His arthritic ankles need to be professionally massaged and manipulated before every game to alleviate stiffness. His knees are gnarled and painful, bruised purple from diving for loose balls. A thigh bruise is from something he can’t remember. An obstinate butt contusion, which simply won’t heal, is from taking charges (the masseuse will get to work on that as soon as he finishes with the ankles). Back pain is from the constant pounding of feet on wood. And the toenails … well, you know enough about the toenails. Playing defense the way Battier does, which often includes standing motionless while huge, fast men propel their bodies into his chest, is hell on the skeletal system. Pain is background noise. It’s a fact of life.”
I’m not going to cover every sport. The examples are endless. You can go to some of the least violent sports and find the most extreme examples of what athletes do to their bodies. Cycling and sprinting, two of the most non-violent / non-contact sports, are perhaps the most notorious for getting caught with drugs.
Speaking of sprinting, does anyone remember what Usain Bolt ate before his world record 100 meter dash? You know, the race where he ran faster than any human has EVER run? McDonald’s chicken fucking nuggets!
The above link has him saying he ate a thousand nuggets in 10 days. Knowing Bolt, who is just now coming out with a book about that 2008 experience, I assume he’s embellishing the number for book sales. However, suffice to say, he ate a lot of them. To be clear, the fastest human on the planet regularly eats what we often demonize as the worst food we could consume. This guy ain’t shopping at Whole Foods.
My college roommate, who, in high school, was one of the fastest guys in New Jersey -he also won state in the long jump- used to go to Fuddruckers with all of us teammates. This guy would go to every single soda brand, there’s a lot of them at Fuddruckers, and mix all of them into one giant cup of soda. 120+ grams of sugar in one drink was nothing to him. He won the state long jump.
I could go on forever with examples, but let me broaden this to show what I’m getting at. When it comes to athletes and the rest of the population, did you know athletes have a higher incidence of eating disorders?
Or that athletes are more likely to have issues with alcohol abuse? (If anyone is wondering why this happens, scroll back up to “40-60 hours a week,” or read about all the injuries again.)
- Alcohol and college athletes
- Comparison of patterns of alcohol use between high school and college athletes and non-athletes
What about other aspects of health, such as financial situations? From Wikipedia:
“The personal finances of professional American athletes are so often handled so badly that, according to a 2009 Sports Illustrated article, 78% of National Football League players are either bankrupt or in financial trouble [because of joblessness or divorce] within two years of retirement and an estimated 60% of National Basketball Association players go bankrupt within five years after leaving their sport. Originally the statement “60% of NBA players go bankrupt within five years after leaving their sport” was released by a representative of the NBA Players’ Association in 2008, although according to another source it remains unclear if that number is accurate in any way.”
This isn’t because these guys are all financially illiterate, or too busy spending money on bling, though there’s truth in those things. I trained the brother of a very good NFL player. In his estimation, after taxes, agents, managers, healthcare, unions, etc., he figured most athletes take home about 10% of whatever their reported salary is. Combine this with the fact most of these guys only make a living at being an athlete for 3-5 years (depending on the sport), then often have no means of making a living because they’ve spent 25 years acquiring a skill set that’s largely useless in retirement, and it’s not hard to understand how little money is made in the long run.
I enjoy watching sports as much as the next person. Honestly, the more violent, the better. That does not mean these people are worth emulating or admiring. Under the surface, they are less healthy than your everyday person who takes care of themselves. Athletes drink more, they are fucked up in the head more, they eat less healthy, their joints are beat up more; as best I can tell (good stats are hard to find on this): they divorce more, go broke more often, and aren’t around for their kids as much.
What’s ironic is the higher level the athlete, the more publicity they get, the more known they are, the more likely they are to be emulated. However, the higher level the athlete -the greater their performance ability- the more true things like the above are. Just like a BMW is more likely to break down than a Toyota, so too is a high level athlete compared to a regular person.
Get a new role model.