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Saturday, May 26, 2007

Barking up the wrong tree seeking a cure for cyclist Sarah Ulmer's back injury

Opinion
Here is a TV3 news video about Sarah Ulmer who is still struggling with a painful back injury suffered a year ago:
I wrote about Sarah's injury woes several months ago, noting that I had predicted about this time last year that Sarah would come unstuck. My reasons why are explained in this article here. Again, my predictions appear to have proven to be true. I am convinced that seeking a medical or physical therapy solution is proving fruitless. These will not repair her weakest link.

Before I go on; let me state that this is not an "I told you so" story. This article is written out of concern that we are far too good at burning out our sporting talent, forcing them into early retirement well before their due date - just look at our rugby players - retired before they are 30 when we know that the strongest and fastest athletes on the planet are historically much older. Al Oerter, Lynford Christie and Carl Lewis, for example. How was it that Lorraine Moller was able to extend her international career for an astonishing 28 years? Sara Ulmer is just maturing as a cyclist, yet she is on the verge of being forced into early retirement through injury. This need not every happen.
We fail to learn from history - from the experience of others who have gone before. In this article, I make observations and relate them to my experience as both and athlete and as an actively involved bystander in the careers of many great sports men and women, including my sister, Lorraine. In their experiences lie the solutions to Sara's ongoing injury woes. Read on and please comment on the article, thanks.
I attended a bike coach conference when Sarah Ulmer was on top of her world. She was the guest presenter. She promotes healthy MacDonald's meals like their salads. What really struck me was Sarah's almost religious conviction that nutrition supplements were bad, to the extent I was left with the impression she had them in the same category as illegal ergogenic drugs. She expressed the view that an athlete could get all she needs from a good diet. I am assuming this includes a MacDonald's salad (Commercially grown salad plants are poor sources of minerals and other nutrients).

I do not have confidence in the modern diet. While a young athlete can get away for several years on a "normal" healthy diet, the sad fact is that our modern diet will inevitably come up short nutritionally; especially for an athlete like a marathon runner or cyclist. The body will have progressivley developed serious mineral and other nutrient imbalances due to losses from stress, heavy sweating and tissue damage. I have also found that competitive cyclists can be seriously vitamin D deficient which has all manner of ill effects, including muscle and joint pain.

Sarah would benefit from talking to somebody who has been there- done that! Like Allison Roe, or my sister Lorraine who managed to hammer her body, sometimes running marathons in less than 2:30 in the worst conditions of heat and humidity and dirty air imaginable. Yet she managed to extend her career for 28 years in an event where few come back for a 2nd Olympics. I believe this is a world best for longevity as an internationally ranked distance runner.
Lessons can be learned from runners like Kevin who has discovered how to become injury free through training and nutrition; running close to three hours at Rotorua Marathon at 50+ years old (Rotorua is a tough course, so take 5-10 minutes off your time Kevin!). Refer to this article.

It is worth noting Lorraine's advice about recovery in this video series. The rule about rebuilding for so many days for each mile raced also applies to cycling and is the basis for my prediction last year that Sarah would break down. The laws of recovery cannot be defied for long.

Following Lorraine's remarkably long running career was a huge education for me and it was fascinating to see why and how equally talented athletes fell by the way from injury and burnout. This happened time and again with disturbing regularity. An athlete would win a big event and become an overnight celebrity - they would be on the speaking circuits, doing film shoots for adverts and all kinds of interviews. These are exhausting things to do. Big sponsporships are signed and with those come the obligations to perform and to Glad-Hand. These are equally as exhausting as an ad film shoot - emotionally and physically. Whenever I give a talk I want to have a snooze afterwards - not to train. Sleep is disturbed, training is disrupted and the wrong foods are consumed. Too much time is spent sitting in cars and planes when one should be soaking in the bath, lounging about on the living room couch, or on the floor having a good stretch. Being in crowds of enthusiastic admirers and reporters is very stressful and one is exposed to all kinds of bugs and stressed athletes are highly vulnerable to the lot.
The nervous and glandular systems of any athlete, epspecially the highly strung ones are highly susceptible to chronic burnout and disruption.

Exhausted, disrupted and under-done, the athlete then attempts to emulate past performances as anxious fans, sponsors and officials look expectantly on. Injury and illness beckon, as does failure to heal.
When I carefully view the TV3 news video here I see a noticeably thinner Sarah Ulmer (Excess catabolism at work?) and she looks tired and stressed during the event, despite the smiley public persona. The body language and her voice tone are revealing. Where on Earth is the physical and emotional energy going to come from for her next quality training session? It is so easy for a gifted athlete to lose control and to lose sight of what really matters most when it comes to being a consistent performer at the highest level. Sometimes the best thing an athlete can do is disappear for an extended period of time, recharge and do nothing else later other than to gradually get back into training over the next year or so.
Lorraine shunned the spotlight. She never had a management company selling her as a product and she had very few sponsors and all of those were directly related to her performing on the road or track (eg: running shoe companies). She did very little in the way of public speaking, photo shoots and so on while she was in training and competing. She did not chase the dollars. She was an athlete proudly representing NZ and not being packaged and sold a product. She trained and trained and trained. She rested up in between, she raced and then she concentrated on recovery. She learned that even the most wholesome diet was not quite enough to sustain the punishment of elite sport. She worked on a four year cycle with the Commonwealth Games and the Olympics carefully tucked in where she ran her heart out.
Of course she made lots of mistakes and so did plenty of other very good sports people I know; but she thought about what was happening, bounced back and she learned from these mistakes that could easily have been career ending. These are the lessons they do not teach in exercise science and defintely not in medical school.
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