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Sleep key component to athletic performance

The world’s best athletes are descending upon Sochi, Russia for the 2014 Olympic Winter Games. Every elite athlete looks for an edge against their competitors to improve their athletic performance but what if the answer was as simple as getting more sleep?

According to Michael Howell, M.D., a sleep expert within the Department of Neurology, that’s precisely what elite athletes excel at.

“The best athletes I’ve ever met are extremely good sleepers,” said Howell. “Although you may not think your brain is doing much during sleep, your brain is putting connections together and it is amplifying circuits that are important.”

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Will air pollution affect the performance of athletes at the 2012 Olympics?

During the 2008 Beijing Olympics, pollution and poor air quality came under heavy media scrutiny. Despite the host city’s efforts, they could not cover up the thick smog that lingered over the Games. In fact, some American athletes arrived in Beijing wearing masks to protect themselves from dangerous pollutants.

According to some early reports, the amount of nitrogen dioxide in London is comparable to the level of nitrogen dioxide in Beijing. With the 2012 London Olympics underway and track and field events having launched this weekend, Health Talk wondered: “Will air pollution affect the athletes in the 2012 summer games?”

“Endurance athletes such as cyclists and runners are most at risk when pollution levels are high because they breathe harder and inhale more particulate matter,” said Mike Howell, M.D., assistant professor, Department of Neurology, University of Minnesota. “Further airborne pollution can trigger an asthmatic response with exercise (even among people without asthma). Acute airborne pollution exposure can also lead to impaired lung and vascular function.”

Although Howell believes there won’t be a huge effect on the athletes’ performances in the 2012 Olympic Games, there are some short and long term effects athletes will experience.

“The biggest short term effect would be an asthmatic attack for those sensitive to airborne particles. In the long term, athletes can experience a variety of pulmonary and health conditions,” Howell said. “To help limit some of these negative air pollution effects, if possible, athletes should train away from the polluted city (London) before a competition.”

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What goes into an Olympic diet?

Michael Phelps once claimed he took in pasta, pizza, energy drinks and more totaling up to 12,000 calories a day. While he later retracted the statement, the sheer amount of food Olympic athletes eat is still impressive.

Olympic athletes are known to consume anywhere from 1,200 to 10,000 calories per day depending on their caloric needs and whether they’re trying to lose, maintain or gain weight for competition. As you might imagine, a diver likely expends a very different number of calories from a marathon runner.

An athlete’s weight and muscle mass also factor into the number of calories they burn each day.

Want to learn more about the diet of Olympic champs?

Check out the video above to hear what University of Minnesota Gopher Sports Nutritionist Rasa Troup and Chrisa Arcan, Ph.D. in the U of M’s Department of Epidemiology and Community Health have to say about what goes into a gold medal-worthy Olympic diet.

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Does grunting help your tennis game?

The grunt.

Called a distraction by some and a performance enhancer by others, the grunt has been heard in games ranging from Olympic weightlifting to table tennis. It has also, undoubtedly, become a norm in both men and women’s professional tennis where the noise rings out as players strike the ball.

Grunting is so much a part of the game that Olympics sound engineers have set up thousands of microphones at the 2012 games to capture those moans and yells for television viewers worldwide.

So what’s the deal? Do those shrieking, screaming, cacophonous noises serve some kind of purpose? Or are they just an annoying distraction?

University of Minnesota Men’s Tennis Head Coach Geoff Young and U of M Department of Neurology assistant professor Michael Howell, M.D. provide some answers.

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How do performance-enhancing drugs impact Olympic competition?

When past Olympic records fall and new scores trump the old in tremendous ways, how an athlete achieved such a performance is often called into question.

Case in point: just this week United States swimming coaches voiced their suspicion around the record-breaking 400m individual medley swim by Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen.

The International Olympic Committee routinely denies allegations of performance-enhancing drug use by Olympic athletes, pointing to rigorous drug testing as the reason fans shouldn’t worry about the fairness of competition.

But performance-enhancing drugs have become a reality in professional athletic competition.  Some athletes will always seek an edge, either through strength or increased energy and focus.

So we wanted to know: how do performance-enhancing drugs actually work?  What are the side effects?  And why are they so hard to keep out of the sports we love?

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When it comes to Olympic gymnasts, does age impact performance?

After a solid gold medal performance yesterday, some are calling 2012 United States women’s gymnastics team the greatest in U.S. history.

Historically, the average age of U.S. women’s gymnastics teams has hovered around age 16 – and this year is no different.  On the 2012 U.S. women’s gymnastics team, ages of the athletes range from 15 to 18 years of age.

But we were curious: does the age of a gymnast really matter?  Are younger gymnasts putting their bodies at risk by competing so heavily while so young?  We asked University of Minnesota experts to find out.

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