Shaping the elite athletes of tomorrow: The science behind sports medicine

Orthopedic Sports Medicine

Athletes have much to consider if they hope to operate at their highest potential. In addition to skill, an athlete's ability to thrive in his/her field also depends on nutrition, recovery and collaboration among providers.

During a discussion at the Chicago Sports Summit hosted by Chicago-based Midwest Orthopaedics at Rush Oct. 4, industry leaders of varying expertise shared their take on what is driving advancements in the sports medicine field and what athletes should consider to perform at their peak ability.


Considering their fuel source
"Nutrition is often a second thought for many athletes," said Pamela Nisevich Bede, a Columbus, Ohio-based sports dietitian with Abbott. "It is your fuel source and once you get into the nitty gritty of how you are fueling your system, that is when performance starts to follow."


Placing nutrition low on the totem pole of priorities is a mistake that could jeopardize an athlete's sustainability. When working with athletes, Abbott advises athletes to ensure they are eating a sufficient amount of protein sources and healthy fats. Ms. Nisevich Bede explained while protein is not a "magic bullet" to transform an athlete's performance, many high performers do not have enough to sustain themselves during activity.


When shopping for protein, consumers should be well aware of their goals. There are a plethora of options and athletes may spend a substantial amount of time comparing product labels, as opposed to focusing on the quality of the protein. What athletes put in their mouths is crucial to their performance, according to Jonathan Coyne, senior director of customer marketing of Downers Grove, Ill.-based Glanbia Performance Nutrition. Mr. Coyne said an athlete's performance is "best built in the kitchen."


"There are so many products on the shelves and at the end of the day, there are only a handful of things that move the needle for every athlete," said Mr. Coyne. "[These entail] better protein and studied micronutrients. The rest are just window dressings."


In addition to nutrition, many athletes eye supplements as a means to improve their performance, but some may fall prey to taking products lacking NSF International certification. Checking labels may not go far enough in ensuring a product meets various regulations.


"It is somewhat of a black box," said James Carter, PhD, director of Barrington, Ill.-based Gatorade Sports Science Institute. "With products that contain a combination of ingredients, [athletes often] take a leap of faith that what is on the label is what is in the product."


To eliminate any possibility of a product failing to live up to its label, Dr. Carter said athletes can have a third party assess the supplement or product. Sports teams also may have access to resources allowing companies to check products to ensure they are 100 percent approved for use. However, the crux of an athlete's performance is contingent on more than supplements; they have to adhere to a wholesome diet.


"A lot of what we hear is about athletes finding an edge. But, unless they are following basic nutrition principles, it doesn't matter what supplements you are taking," Dr. Carter said. "Especially with young athletes, it is about getting the basics right first."


Recovery in an era of subspecialization
Athletes today are continually working to become masters in the field, which for many involves playing a single sport for the bulk of the year. Kevin Wilk, DPT, associate clinical director of Alabama-based Champion Sports Medicine, said specializing in one sport is becoming more common, especially in Alabama where football is king. However, this practice can be harmful to athletes when injuries may likely follow suit.


"There needs to be education to the coaches, parents and athletes that playing baseball 11 months out of the year is not the answer," Dr. Wilk said. "Play baseball and another sport. Being a better athlete and a better rounded individual will get them further in life."


Despite the benefits of cross training, many athletes are aiming to excel in one sport, making recovery an exceedingly important element to performance. Recovery techniques have evolved over the years and athletes who used to take cold plunges to mitigate risk of injury now turn to various types of compression garments. "Recovery is a big topic. The one thing we have learned from sports is that recovery is different for each individual in each sport," Dr. Wilk said.


Athletico, a title sponsor for the summit, advises its athletes to think about training in a different way. Playing a sport at high intensity through various clubs is not the key to being number one at a sport, but is rather a likely path to injury.


"The answer is periodization" said Grant Koster, Athletico's senior vice president of clinical operations. "Play a different way without competing."


The value of teamwork
Sports medicine can shape athletes into high performers operating at the top of their game, from training to recovery, through collaboration among providers. Rather than solely focusing on an athlete's recovery, the sports medicine field has evolved to transforming physical therapists into specialists in injury prevention. Physical therapists can collaborate with the many players involved in an athlete's care, including nutritionists, sports scientists and researchers devoted to sleep studies as they correlate to recovery.


"Managing a group of athletes is more collaborative then ever," said Mr. Koster. "Specialists understand where deficits [are] and the demands of sports. If we better understand the [sports medicine] space, we can better predict injury risk and strength deficits. That's where the space excites me."

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