The Biggest Health Problem Among Olympians

Why do so many elite athletes suffer from asthma?
running an 8-minute mile
A 2012 study found that 8 percent of Olympians, mostly endurance athletes, suffer from asthma. Photograph by Flickr user Elvert Barnes.

Updated on August 8, 2016.

Olympians may be the fittest people on earth, but rock-hard abs and toned legs aside, they have their own health problems. The most common one among the world-class athletes?

Asthma.

According to a 2012 study from the British Medical Journal, 8 percent of Olympic athletes suffer from asthma, making it the most prevalent chronic condition among the group. Various well-known athletes suffer from the condition, including marathon runner Paula Radcliffe and track superstar Jackie Joyner-Kersee.

So why are there so many asthmatic Olympians? Researchers in the study say that it may be a result of the athletes’ intense training, especially in endurance sports such as cycling and marathon running.

For the study, led by University of Western Australia, researchers analyzed data from the five pre-2012 Olympic games and identified Olympians who had asthma and used inhalers. Many asthmatics were older, adding to the researchers’ reasonings that years of endurance training may be a cause.

Endurance athletes, such as cyclists, must really work their lungs during training and competition. Deep and heavy breathing results in the athletes inhaling poor-quality air.

Athletes who compete in winter sports and have asthma have likely caused damage to their airways after breathing in cold air. In the skating rink, for example, athletes inhale particles released by ice resurfacing machines, which can cause damage.

But despite the grievances of training and competing with asthma, asthmatic athletes actually tend to outperform their competitors. It’s not likely the inhalants contribute to improved performance, researchers note, but more research is needed to determine exactly why they continue to perform so well.

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