Irineu Loturco is head of sport science and research leader at NAR. Doctor in high performance in sports (Universidad Pablo de Olavide, in Seville, Spain) and post-doctoral degree in Mechatronics Engineering (Poli/USP, in São Paulo, Brazil). In a speech with emotion and gratitude for the support of Abilio Diniz and the Instituto Península in the creation and maintenance of the NAR – Núcleo de Alto Rendimento Esportivo (High-Performance Sports Center), a great legacy after the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, Irineu Loturco was one of the Brazilian speakers who filled us with pride. With rich well-founded data, he talked about his experience as a physical trainer – he was responsible for many good results of Brazilian athletes in the Olympic and Paralympic Games – and showed why he is a leader in high-performance sports in the country.
WHAT SETS A WEEKEND ATHLETE APART FROM AN OLYMPIC MEDALIST?
The answer is simple, direct, and perhaps different from what we would like to hear: much more than we can imagine. The difference between an Olympic athlete and occasional runners who go to the gym some days of the week involves much more than simple training and discipline. When we talk about athletes of impressive results, medalists, world champions, record breakers, we are talking about people who train and know their techniques, of course, but whose physiological and muscle structure is different from that of most human beings.
Then, they are physically different, presenting genetic and biological factors that, since birth, favor such performance. In other words, they started ahead. The reason why Kenyans have excellent results in running sports, for example, is largely due to their natural physical structure. The structural shape of their bodies and their biomechanical characteristics make them better suited for this sport. Another example of natural physical structure that helps achieve Olympic victories is record-breaker swimmer Michael Phelps, whose body asymmetry allows a good performance in the pool. His legs are relatively short, his torso is long and slightly disproportionate. We can say that, if he had not started swimming, he would have remained someone with a peculiar body structure. However, thanks to these specific biomechanical characteristics (including other qualities), he is the greatest Olympic medalist in history. So the first lesson we learn with this story is that is that superathletes have unique characteristics and are extremely different from the average people. They are “designed” for a certain type of sport. For this reason, we should respect these differences and choose activities and practices that are proper to our abilities and, especially, to our lifestyle.
THERE IS NO POINT IN STRUGGLING TO BE WHAT YOU ARE NOT.
Recent studies have demonstrated that the Olympic medalists live longer than the average world population. According to studies, these athletes live on average 20% more than their peers in the society, considering different groups of population. However, much more than looking at those numbers, we have to understand this difference. These athletes are different not only because they train more, but thanks to a number of genetic factors that make them more efficient, more resistant and faster than the other human beings.
But what about that story that you have to work out a lot to be healthy? The truth is that there is a lot of misinformation in this segment, raising a number of doubts and questions regarding the practice of physical activities. Contrary to what we are led to believe, especially if we are not Olympic athletes naturally scheduled to excel in a particular sport, excessive exercise does not mean good health.
On the contrary: exaggerated practice of physical activities can harm you, and a lot. Some studies suggest that recreational athletes have relatively more injuries in their tendons, bones and articulations than professional athletes. These differences can reach up to 30% in 12-month prospective studies. When we talk about beginning marathoners, for example, around 90% of them report discomfort or injury of different types in the weeks before or after a marathon. That is, we see a very serious paradox: does it make sense to perform physical activity to improve the quality of life and health, but have injuries due to such activity? Another health issue due to excessive exercise has become a growing concern to researchers and physicians: the generation of amateur runners who, with age, have developed many cardiovascular problems possibly linked with excessive exercise. It is a physiological aspect: when we perform an intense physical activity, our blood flow and heart rate increase, releasing a number of inflammatory substances which, with time, can cause important changes in cardiovascular structures. Some recent studies have shown that even the risk of death can be higher in people who exercise too much.
IMPROVE YOUR BALANCE
However, we should remember that the problem is not the exercise itself, but excessive practice and failure to understand the limits of our own body. We can’t forget that nothing has changed: moderate exercise is important (and practically irreplaceable) to prevent numerous chronic diseases. From depression to arterial hypertension, from chronic obesity to diabetes, there are many diseases that can be treated and prevented with systematic moderate physical activity. And in terms of longevity, regular moderate exercise can be even more important than the genetic background.
The problem lies in the extremes: a completely sedentary life can be as dangerous to health as a life of excessive exercise. The lack of physical activity or excessive exercise basically produces the same effects. Then, the best way for a longer high quality life undoubtedly involves moderation.
BEYOND ENDURANCE EXERCISES AND WEIGHT TRAINING
When thinking of a physical activity, we often consider usual sports: running, cycling, swimming, strength training. These activities have a very important role in health maintenance. However, we can’t forget that the universe of sports is broad and offers many other opportunities. A recent study published by an important British medical journal pointed out that sports that practice open motor skills, such as racket sports (for example, squash, badminton and tennis), promote longevity and may be as efficient as, or more, than continuous types of sports (such as running and swimming). These sports can also help develop and train different aspects related to the central nervous system function, with quick decision making and new movements and techniques every day. Our body is a complex and wonderful machine. For a healthier and fulfilling aging, we should always consider the whole picture, with tranquility, moderation, and self-knowledge. Much more than just seeking to break records without thinking of the consequences, a good Olympic champion sets a goal and fights to achieve it. What is your goal? Compete or live longer?