Eric Heiden wants you to be faster, better and stronger
We have seen Olympic athletes in Beijing tumble, swim, paddle, spin, swing and spike their way to gold-medal glory, but what happens to these elite athletes after their competitive days are behind them?
Eric Heiden knows. He won an unprecedented five gold medals in long-distance speed-skating at the 1980 Olympic Games in Lake Placid. Heiden, then 21, set Olympic records in all five events in which he raced: the 500-, 1,500-, 5,000- and 10,000- meter distances. One commentator argued at the time that, "Heiden outstrips human comparison. He is [like] Secretariat, stronger, faster, possessed of a greater racing heart than has ever been known."
America’s gold boy was the first person to win five gold medals in Olympic history and, some say, he wrote the book on Olympic accomplishment that other such as Phelps would follow. Now he and his colleague Max Testa have written another book, "Faster, Better, Stronger: 10 Proven Secrets To A Healthier Body in 12 Weeks."
The pair will be answering questions and signing copies of the book at Dolly’s Bookstore at 510 Main Street Saturday, Aug. 23, from 6 to 8 p.m.
Heiden has parlayed his athletic feat into a career as a professional cyclist, an undergraduate career at Stanford University and, today, into a job as an orthopedic surgeon at The Orthopedic Specialty Hospital in Salt Lake City. He and Testa developed a training program for athletes. They currently serve as the medical directors for the U.S. Skate and Cycling Association, which is headquartered at the Olympic Oval in Kearns, Utah. The track is one of the fastest in the world and attracts some of the world’s swiftest skaters. The facility may bode well for U.S. athletes training for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
Those athletes will also have the advantage of having Heiden on their team. Heiden, who lives in Park City, works closely with them. He helps them train and avoid injury.
Now it’s his turn to help you.
Heiden took some time Wednesday to answer questions about Chinese gymnasts, Michael Phelps, doping and his new book.
SCENE: First, tell us about the book.
It’s a fitness book. The first half of it is good general knowledge that’s very scientifically based. The second half allows you to put together a fitness test that is based on your abilities. You take a fitness test that assesses your muscle strength, coordination and flexibility and, depending on where you stand, you can put together a program that fits your needs.
SCENE: What inspired you to write the book?
One reason was being in the medical field and realizing there was a lot we could do preventatively and proactively to avoid injury. There’s a lot of good information out there on exercise and fitness, but it’s hard for the average person to interpret. We wanted to give people good honest information. There’s a lot of fitness information out there that’s not well founded. People try it for a while and they get frustrated and give up.
The thing that sets ["Faster, Better, Stronger"] apart is that it doesn’t give you any false hopes. It’s straight up information.
SCENE: What are some common mistakes you see people making in their fitness programs?
People are sort of plugged into one fitness program, and each person is an individual. You have to work with the characteristics you’ve been given. You can’t do the same program that your neighbor does or you can’t do the same program that some Hollywood star does. People should choose a activities that suit their bodies. You have to realize there may be certain activities that aren’t appropriate for your body. Tall skinny guys, if they want to run, can usually run because it’s not a lot of stress on their knees. Big heavy guys if they want a cardiovascular workout, may have to get into cycling or swimming.
SCENE: What are some ways people can avoid injury?
One thing people always forget about is stretching. Even I am bad about stretching. It’s the last thing you do and in most cases people forget to do it. The other thing that people don’t understand about fitness is that it’s not easy and there are really no shortcuts. People have to put in the time. It’s hard.
SCENE: The title of your books says people can have a healthier body in 12 weeks. Why is 12 the magic number?
Physiologically, it takes your body twelve weeks to adapt to a fitness program and for you to show improvement. After 12 weeks your body becomes accustomed to the stress and it doesn’t adapt anymore. A lot of this knowledge has been known, but only in the exercise and physiology communities. Our hope is that with that knowledge and that background, the book will be enjoyable to the average guy and understandable to the average guy.
SCENE: The International Olympic Committee is seeking an investigation to determine whether members of the Chinese Women’s gymnastics team were too young to compete in the Olympics. According to the rules, a gymnast must turn 16 in the year of the Olympics to compete. If rumors prove true that would mean half the Chinese team, He Kexin, Yang Yilin and Jiang Yuyuan, were not eligible to compete. As a doctor and Olympic alumnus, do you think there should be age minimums for some athletes?
From a fan’s point of view I like seeing the best of the best at the Olympics regardless of age, regardless of whether they’re out there as an amateur or professional. When I look at it from a physician’s standpoint, there are certain sports that are harder on your body, and certain things that you can do in those sports that you can only do when you’re very young, and that’s certainly what gymnastics is all about. But you also have to realize that when athletes are skeletally immature, there are certain injuries that can happen that ultimately can lead to years of problems. With young girls who are in gymnastics, one thing you worry about is wrist and elbow injuries where they have growth plates. And with all the tumbling that they do, and the loading of their wrists, sometime they’ll end up with growth-plate deformities in their arms.
SCENE: Has being a medical doctor changed your perspective on how hard Olympic athletes push their bodies?
As an athlete you are very myopic and very focused on your sport. And you will do anything to be successful. And very often you will try to train through injuries without understanding the consequences of what you’re doing. But training hard is part of sports, and that’s why those guys do so well. They’re dedicated and motivated. That said, now that I’m in medicine and I see the long-term consequences I feel as a physician it’s very important for me to let those athletes know what the risks are and give them a dose of reality.
SCENE: Eric, you won all the men’s long-distance speed-skating races in the 1980 Olympic Games and took home an unprecedented five gold medals. Michael Phelps, in similar fashion, recently became the most decorated Olympian of all time. Do you have any advice for Phelps and other athletes as they move into the next phase of their lives?
A lot of athletes don’t think about what they’re going to do once they’re done. But at the same time, once athletes are done there aren’t a lot of avenues for them to pursue. All of a sudden you go from a very structured lifestyle where your coach is telling you what to do to having very little of that.
SCENE: Sure, it’s hard transition, but what are some of the perks of being a gold medalist?
If you do well at your sport there are a lot of doors that open. After the Olympics I went to Stanford and I think being an athlete helped me get in. Saying you won five gold medals is a pretty cool thing. It sort of gets you the second interview.
I was lucky because I had friends who knew me from before I was a skater and I was able to keep in the back of my mind my dream of becoming a doctor.
SCENE: Now, if you would, put yourself in Mark Spitz’s shoes. How would you feel if someone were gunning for your records?
I think it would be nice to have peers just to talk about the experience of being an Olympian. I love talking to Bonnie Blair and Bruce Jenner. I know some guys from the 1980 hockey team and I may not see them for five or 10 years but when we get together we’re great friends and we have a great time.
SCENE: Doping was a big subject before the Games in Beijing, but we haven’t heard too much about it in the last few weeks. What are your thoughts in general on doping and the apparent success Olympic officials are having in reducing its prevalence?
With doping, it’s hard for the public to understand the pressure to succeed on these athletes. In America, we’ve got a lot of opportunities to succeed outside sports. In other countries that’s not the case. There’s a lot of money at stake and some doctors are willing to teach athletes how to use [performance-enhancing] drugs without getting caught. What we’ve seen is that doping is becoming more of a worldwide problem. The bottom line is that Olympic officials are always going to be a few steps behind. There will always be a new drug. They’re never going to catch the last doper.
Eric Heiden is the medical director for the U.S. Skating and Cycling Association. He and co-medical director Massimo Testa will be at Dolly’s Bookstore Saturday, Aug. 23, from 6 to 8 p.m. to answer questions and sign copies of their book "Faster, Better, Stronger: 10 Proven Secrets To A Healthier Body in 12 Weeks," available in hardback for $25.95.
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