Are Elite Athletes Unhealthy?

Nov 03, 2022

Are high performing athletes truly a model of health, we want to envy? 

That might not be the case.

Today, I'm going to talk about exactly that.

Hi, I'm Brian, you might know me as performance neuro. I have been in the pro metabolic world for about 10 years. And today I'm going to share with you some key pro metabolic tips for training safely and in a healthy manner for your metabolism.

So first off, high performing athletes, we think of professional athletes as being the pinnacle of body health and care. We think of them as they've taken care of themselves for so, so long, and it's such a high level, that they must be healthy. That's why they perform at the level they do. But that may not actually be the case.

In fact, they might actually be less healthy than you are, I think.

So one of the things that I want you to think about, something I want to always convey when talking about high levels of athletic performance: High level athletes, first and foremost, are high level athletes because they're made to be high level athletes.

Just because you work really hard in your sport, doesn't guarantee that you're actually ever going to get to a super high level of performance, the statistical chance of becoming a high performer in the NFL, or in any sort of professional context for a specific sport is surprisingly low. We're talking percentage points of a percent, decimal points of a percent point, a 1-2% chance of getting in the NFL. So to get to that level of performance, where you're actually there professionally, not only is it statistically improbable that people that tend to succeed, tend to succeed in spite of their training. What that means is, regardless of what kind of training context you put them in, for the most part, whether it's John Doe's coaching program, or John Doe number two's coaching program, high performing athletes tend to be very athletically gifted, and would succeed regardless. 

One of my favorite quotes, this is a quote from one of Michael Jordan's trainers. And they asked him, "what's it like to train Michael Jordan?" And the trainer's response was, "It's easy. All I have to do is make sure I don't hurt him." And what he basically meant by that was that Michael Jordan is going to be successful regardless of what the trainer does, the trainer really just has to get out of his way, because Michael Jordan is going to be Michael Jordan, regardless of who's training him.

So when we think about high level athleticism, it's important to keep that in mind, because people we hold on a high echelon of athletic performance often get there, not because of solely work ethic, but because of work ethic, plus a lot of other innate talent that they're naturally gifted with.

When you're working towards those goals, it's often easy to fall into the trap of thinking that harder and harder work is going to get you there. And that harder and harder work is going to equal health. And so you actually have several things that can happen along the way, that would indicate that your health is actually deteriorating and degrading in your quest for health, for high level health and high level performance at bat.

First off, what often happens when you're pursuing that level of performance, you'll overtrain. So people have the idea that I do a little bit of work and I get a little bit of a result, more work will often equal more results. And why that will happen in some capacity. Depending on the metrics, you're tracking for performance.

What can happen is, by overtraining, you're actually increasing your recovery needs, which means you're also going to run out of time to recover, the more and more you're training. So if I train seven days a week, well, how many days am I taking to recover?

And without appropriate programming without appropriate training intensities, controlled for all those variables, it's very easy to run into the situation at some point where I am no longer able to recuperate from my training.

So the more recovery needs you have, you can also when you hear that think, the greater the resource need I have to recover from my training.

So if I work really hard in the gym, I'm lifting a lot of weights and running on the track. I'm swimming and doing all the things, if I do that too often or with too high of an intensity, I may run into the issue of not adequately replenish my nutrients.

That's a big problem because over time those nutrient deficiencies will catch up with you bio energetically, which means tissues can't heal and repair, which means things get harder and calcify more than you want them to. Which means that in the end of the lifespan, those deficiencies catch up to you and you age faster, may not be a bad a good idea.

Another thing that can show up the training intensities people often pursue in high level athletic endeavors, will lend to creating a lot of lactate. There's a misconception going around right now that lactate is just a fuel, and it's a useful helpful fuel at that. And that's an egregious oversimplification of what lactate does.

Lactate is a byproduct of glycolysis. What you need to know from that is that in terms of bioenergetic, energy production, glycolysis is an energy system that's used primarily under stress, short term activity, yes, but when it's turned on long term, the stress response gets you better at using glycolysis gets you better at using that energy system. And a byproduct of that energy system, aside from energy, aside from ATP is lactate. 

Lactate or lactic acid can interfere with cellular respiration and mitochondrial health. So on the long term, the pursuit of energy production right now in my sport, costs me the ability to have healthy well functioning mitochondria over the lifespan. That's not a good energetic state to be in when you're 60, 70, 80,90 years old. Because now at the point in your life, when your metabolism is supposedly slower, you're actually making less energy because your mitochondria are less healthy, because you basically robbed Paul here to pay Peter later. And that's not a good place to be metabolically.

So, overtraining is an issue and relying on glycolytic energy systems from an overtraining perspective and training at a high intensity, that's an issue. It also is the pathway that tends to be activated under cancer. It's known as the Warburg effect. And Otto von Warburg found that this energy system, the glycolytic energy system, in the presence of oxygen, when that's stimulated for too long, for too often, and it doesn't shut off, you open the door to cancer.

That's a problem that may not want to be encroached upon, does that mean that if you work out, you're gonna get cancer? No, not saying that at all. What I am saying is if you're not careful about the type of training you do, and the intensities that you're at, and the stress of your modern world and the stress of your everyday life, you may find yourself in a situation where metabolically you're getting closer and closer to a state you may not want to be in.

Okay, so from there, the other thing that we want to look at in terms of measuring the health of a high level athlete, this is a common misconception as well. Low resting heart rate, which oftentimes will coincide with low body temperature. So you have this notion that, oh, a low heart rate, that must be really good, a really good indicator of cardiovascular health.

The problem is that when you have a low resting heart rate, as an athlete, that's usually an adaptation that your body undergoes, because the metabolic cost of keeping your heart rate high, is actually too hard to keep up with. So your body adapts to the training demands the resource demands of your training by suppressing certain functions, one of those functions being heart rate.

And so as I suppress my metabolism, because I don't have the energetic capacity to keep up with the demands of my sport, and my life and all these other factors, as my heart rate decreases, so too does body temperature. 

When we're thinking in the pro metabolic world about measuring metrics of health, we're looking often at Pulse and temperature. If my pulse, my heart rate, drops, if my temperature drops, those are signs of not only not having a healthy metabolism, but having a metabolism that is getting far away from being youthful.

On the youthful end of the spectrum, you have a high resting heart rate, a high body temperature, that has a metabolism that is resilient and robust and can come back from injuries very quickly.

And on the other end of that, you have low heart rate, low temperature.  If we think of it as a continuum. I have a young youthful metabolism, the further I get from that, now I'm getting into old, aged haggard metabolism. We don't want to be there. We definitely don't want to be there longer than we should and more time we spend there, it's a pretty good indicator that you're actually aging yourself faster than you want to.

That's the opposite of health.

Those are adaptations to high level athleticism.

So let's stay than that. We don't want to be a high level athlete, we just want to be healthy. How do we be healthy and still exercise?

This is a common question in the pro metabolic world that I want to help address today. It's a big topic, but I'm gonna give you some key points that I think are going to help clear clarify things for you.

Number one, train with recovery in mind.

So what I mean by that is, when you're training when you're exercising, don't just think about what you're going to do in the gym. Think about what you're going to do to help recovery. Are you going to go home and take a Epsom salt bath? Are you going to sit into your red light for a while? Are you going to do some breath work? Are you going to try and emphasize sleep? Are you going to make sure that nutritionally you're supporting your training adequately?

If you look at it solely from the standpoint of, well, I eat these foods and then I do the exercise, I'm following this exercise program. Because if somebody told me it was great, but they don't actually mesh, what ends up happening is you're starting to piecemeal your health and well being, and you're not actually intuiting or feeling through your body what the appropriate response is.

So when you're recovering from your training, you should feel rested and refreshed the next day, you shouldn't be too hard, too sore, it shouldn't be too hard to move well. If you're stiff and rigid, and you're walking like Frankenstein the next day, that's too much effort. Because if it starts to impact the quality of life you have outside the training world, well, then now your training goal is no longer a health goal.

I'm not telling you you're not you can't train, I'm not telling you, you can't have those high level athletic goals. What I'm telling you is that trading performance, for health, that's a trade off, you're gonna have to make at some point if you push the athleticism too high.

So what I want you to think about is that your health and your performance, if your goal isn't just to compete in a sport, health should be your full focus, you should always have that in mind, train with recovery in mind, that's an easy way to not overdo it. Okay.

Second thing you can do, focus on your nervous system.

When you think about training adaptations, whether it's strength work, whether it's endurance work, when you look at the research on how these things actually change the body, if you follow that research far enough, the actual adaptations that you're creating happen on a neurological level.

Okay, contraction of a muscle, I want to benchpress more if I want to do more striking, kicking, running fast, whatever. The output I create is neurological in origin, comes from the brain, travels through the spinal cord, travels out to the peripheral nerves to the muscles that I'm trying to actually use.When that happens, that creates the performance I'm aiming for.


When we're thinking in terms of athleticism, if my goal is to improve the nervous system, I don't need to just go train the muscle, I don't need to just go train the body, I can actually do things that will improve the overall health and functionality of my nervous system. And when you have that understanding, a whole world of options opens up. 

You no longer have to restrict yourself just to hard grueling exercise, you can now do things like breath work, vision, work, vestibular work.  You can do things for all sorts of different aspects of what your brain and nervous system can do.

One of the big training modalities that gets hugely overlooked, and is not very costly in terms of tissue damage, or breakdown of the system, is isometric exercise. So an isometric contraction if you want to think I have an immobile object, and I'm going to contract against an immobile object and generate tension. But there's no joint movement. There's no movement of muscles, there's no movement of joints, there's no movement of connective tissue. So the injury risk, way to way, way low.  The ability to generate tension, on the other hand, really, really high. And that tension is neurologically mediated.

What that means is, it's a matter of neural output from my brain, to the musculature I'm trying to contract and I'm training that connection. So isometric exercise is a tremendously safe way to get really, really good at using your body. If you're not doing isometric training, you're missing some major athletic payoff, you're also missing some major health because that is a huge tool in training your nervous system.

Third thing, play the long game.

This is probably the biggest most important thing I could tell anybody getting into pro metabolic mindset when it comes to training. And this is actually a concept that was presented to me by a dear friend of mine named Zachariah. The concept is play the long game.

If you think of your health, in terms of say, a martial art takes a long time to earn a black belt and a martial art write good five years on average, if you say, Okay, I'm going to spend five years getting really good at figuring out how my body works. You get out of that mindset of, well, what am I going to do in 30 days and 30 days, I should have a six pack or in 30 days, I should be down 30 pounds, you get out of that short term mindset, whether it's 30 days, or six months, or a year, or even five years and start thinking longer term. Think about what you want to be able to do when you're 80 years old.

So if you want to be the person that says I'm going to be awesome now in my youth, but I'm gonna get beat up in the process, what will end up happening because you're overdoing it you're overextending the capacity of your body, you're going to end up in a situation through injury, through metabolic suppression through other sorts of issues that you encounter, because of overtraining, that you'll be the person looking back on your glory days, while everyone else who trained appropriately in a pro metabolic sense, is 60, 70, 80 years old, still having fun still playing volleyball on the beach still being able to roughhouse with their grandkids, because they didn't overdo it when they were younger.

Think about that. Think about what you want to do, when you're at when you're 70, when you're 60. And if you think about what that entails, what that requires of you now, in your training, is that you don't risk injury, you don't overextend yourself.  You do just enough to stay healthy, stay active and have fun with what you do, so that you can continue doing it long enough to be able to keep it and maintain it all the way through your later years.

But if you do too much, now, that won't happen, and you will be that person who's has to be cared for in a nursing home when you're too old to do anything on your own. If that's okay by you, more power to you. That's not the goal I want. It's not the goal I want for you. So I just want to make sure that you're aware of that potential.

Hopefully you found this interesting.

I will see you next time. Stay safe, stay sane train smart. I will see you soon.

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