An Elite Approach To Health

By Mario Fraioli

Participating in sports is a healthy pursuit, so it follows that the best athletes in those sports must be the healthiest, right? Not so fast. “The answer more generally depends on how you define health and to whom you are comparing elite athletes,” Brad Stulberg writes for Outside.

So how do you define health? I tend to agree with Matt Jordan, a medical scientist and coach, who says, health is “the absence of disease and the capacity to enjoy life and withstand challenges.”

Given that definition, elite sport isn’t always healthy when athletes are pushing and punishing their bodies (and mind) so hard that they (or their coaches) have no regard for longterm damage or disease in the pursuit of short-term results. You see this often with athletes who suffer from physical and emotional burnout, or end up with a chronic condition that may have been avoidable if the proper precautions were taken somewhere along the way. Are the elite athletes in these types of situations healthier than people who choose to smoke and knowingly cause harm their bodies? I’d argue no. But elite athletes who can balance pushing themselves hard with keeping their overall well-being in mind—which is not what most elite athletes are thinking about when they’re in the thick of training or competition—can set themselves up for longterm physical (and emotional) health after their best days are behind them. This, as sprint coach Stuart McMillan alludes to in the piece, is where coaches can come in and play a bigger role, lending “support far beyond the workouts we write for them.”

So are elite athletes healthy? They certainly can be, but just because they work out harder than everyone else doesn’t mean that good health is a given.

A version of this post first appeared in the morning shakeout, my weekly email newsletter covering running, writing, media and other topics that interest me. If you’d like for it to land in your inbox first thing on Tuesday mornings, subscribe here.