This story is from The Pulse, a weekly health and science podcast.
For a while after her run, Nia Akins could do nothing but stare at the numbers, big and bright on a digital display board: 2.00.71.
“I think I just kind of sat there in disbelief after running for maybe a solid couple minutes, just kind of like looking at the time and not thinking that I’d run that,” she said.
This was back in February, at a collegiate track meet in Boston. Akins had just run 800 meters, about half a mile, in 2 minutes, 0.71 seconds.
“When I thought about the Olympics before that day, I think I thought, you know, it was more of a pipe dream,” she said.
Akins is a middle-distance runner at the University of Pennsylvania. She said it’s a bit mind-bending to imagine you could be better at something than anyone else in the world. But that time on the board, it was hers, and it was the second fastest in NCAA history.
“After that, I kind of thought, like, why not really go for it and really train as though I believe that, I could be top three, at the Olympic trials,” Akins said. “And I could be a potential contender at the Olympic games. I think then was when I started to dream a little bit crazier.”
That performance made her a favorite for the U.S. team at Tokyo 2020.
But not long after that race, slowly at first then all at once, the coronavirus changed everything. International travel was restricted, bars and restaurants closed, there were runs on toilet paper, we all know the rest. Finally, Olympic officials had to make a decision and postponed the games until 2021.
Holding them this summer would have been a global virus bomb — travelers from all over the world in close contact for the competitions, potentially spreading the disease among one another before heading home to spread it more.
“You know, I don’t think any of us could have ever imagined that it would happen the way that it’s happening now in the U.S., I don’t think we expected it to have such an impact on just our day-to-day lives,” Akins said.
She’s still running, but things are different — more scaled back.
“Right now, we’re just training for the sake of routine,” she said. “We don’t really know what we’re training towards right now.”
Normally, elite athletes like Nia Akins would be working toward what’s called peaking, reaching their absolute top shape.
Mike Young runs a sprawling training center in North Carolina for all manner of super-athletes.
“We had a BMX world champion last year, the No. 1 U.S. decathlete, a world record-holder in swimming, 11 women that played in the World Cup last year, including five from the women’s national team,” he said. “All told, probably 100 elite athletes.”
They’re all chasing this peak, trying to arrive at it at just the right time — the semifinal match, the qualifier, the Olympics.
“There’s been people who have missed a peak and achieved a world record two weeks after the Olympic Games and they didn’t even qualify for the Olympic Games,” Young said. “And no one wants that. Ideally, you’re looking to be at your best when it matters the most.”
It can take months or even years of carefully planned training to hit the peak at just the right time. And the peak, Young said, is doubly important in performance-based sports as opposed to team events. Events like Akins’ 800 meters.
“The ones that are quantifiable by meters, centimeters, seconds, milliseconds, that kind of thing, those ones where you’re really defining yourself on that last 1%. Because everyone at that level is quite talented,” said Young.
When the difference between gold and watching the medalists from the sidelines is tiny, every last bit counts.
But Young said athletes were struggling with how hard to train in the weeks before the Olympics were officially pushed back a year.
“If you don’t know when you’re supposed to be at the correct destination, you can’t possibly design your training programs to arrive at the correct time,” he said.
Were they pushing themselves for no reason, or were they not pushing hard enough?
Now that the Olympics have been delayed by a year, there’s a whole new timeline to get to the peak.
The Human Body and The Peak
Meghan Cartafalsa is an athletic trainer at the University of Pennsylvania. She said timing the peak is tricky because there are risks.
“It’s very hard to stay peaked,” she said.
In track, most of the biggest meets are scheduled within a two-week period, Cartafalsa said.
“That’s like pretty much the longest you could possibly be at your highest elite level before your body needs a quick de-load to reset, make necessary, you know, physiological changes in the body, and then build back up again,” she said.
Olympic feats seem superhuman because they kind of are. Keep the human body at the peak too long, and, Cartafalsa said, you could start getting injuries that you won’t come back from. Strains, tears, stress fractures.
The right way to train is to chase the peak only when it’s useful, and know that the next one is coming.
“So it’s peak, kind of level out, maybe diminish, build again, peak again,” she said. “So it’s a constant, like ever climbing up a mountain, and then the mountain continues to go off and up and up.”
Training has slowed down across the board for Cartafalsa’s athletes, but she does physical rehab via Facetime with some.
“The mental aspect right now is probably the most challenging for these people — to reset and understand that no training isn’t going to be a thing for, you know, maybe another month or two,” she said.
Who are you off the field?
Elite athletes’ whole lives can revolve around training, but with the pandemic everything has shut down, it’s not possible in the same way. Joel Fish, a Philly sports psychologist, said this break from routine is especially acute for athletes.
“Everyone’s daily routine has been disrupted right now, and this is a perfect storm for athletes,” he said.
Fish has worked with pro teams like the Philadelphia Phillies, the 76ers, the Flyers, as well as a few Olympic teams.
“You don’t get to be an elite athlete unless you’ve had a real discipline in terms of training for something today — an event — that may not even be until two months, three months, six months down the road,” he said.
All that discipline, that drive and nowhere to put it, it can be real distressing, Fish said.
He’s had to deal with it when athletes get hurt or benched. He said the key is to work on what you can.
Perhaps go through the event in your head, do different simulations: imagine a bad start, imagine recovering from it, imagine crushing it.
“Today’s your day. You feel like a champion. Your body’s like a well-oiled machine. You’re moving swiftly. You’re thinking clearly.”
Fish said it’s important to separate yourself from your sport, to realize you’re a whole person. He told a story about a ball player he worked with who was benched with an injury.
“He said to me, `Before this injury, if you would have asked me who am I? I would have said, I’m John Smith, the basketball player,’” said Fish.
A year later, a year off the court, this John Smith took some courses, did a lot of reading, worked on the off-court John Smith.
Now he answers, “I’m John Smith, who likes basketball,” said Fish. “Hear the difference?”
Nia Akins, the middle-distance runner, already has another identity she can lean on.
“I think if you’re only running, you know, you tend to overthink running a lot more, and it kind of like consumes your life,” she said. “And I think especially now, with this huge pause, I am very fortunate that I have nursing school to kind of take away from that, if that makes sense. It is something that I can focus on.”
If Akins wasn’t already your hero for her feats on the track, you can add “nurse-in-training during global pandemic.” It’s her senior year in the Penn nursing program.
“Our dean was really highlighting that this year, 2020, was the year of the nurse and the midwife well before all of this started happening. And I just think it’s funny how, with everything that’s happening, that is so true more now than ever because we really have been kind of pushed [to] the front line because we are really the ones that are providing that bedside care,” she said. “So it’s, well, I’m proud to be in a nursing major right now, but it definitely is a scary time.”
Nursing is what she always wanted to do.
“My first job was I took care of children and babies during church services, and I just absolutely loved it. I thought, like, maybe that’s what I want to do in life,” Akins said.
At first, she thought she’d work with kids, but after clinical rotations and studies she now leans toward adult care.
“I just really liked taking care of people, and I’m also really interested in science,” she said. ”So I think nursing is kind of like the perfect blend of both.”
Akins had been thinking about coronavirus basically since January, when it was still mainly a story about a novel virus in China. It was something they discussed in nursing classes all the time, so the Olympic cancellation wasn’t a shock. She’s grateful that the danger is being taken so seriously by so many.
The virus didn’t change her plans about nursing.
“For right now, I’m concerned about how my family will react to it if I do end up living with my family,” she said. “I think I’d be more concerned for their safety than for my own.”
And the virus didn’t change her plans about running either.
“Who knows … I don’t want to put this in the universe, but the Olympics could get postponed another year — at this point, you just don’t really know what the future holds,” she said. ”You never really do, but I think that more people are realizing that more now than ever. So I think I’m just going to continue, you know, doing what I kind of planned on doing. That’s both nursing and track.”
Is she worried, though, that the delay could cost her her shot at a medal, at Olympic gold? Timing is so important in her sport, and she has something exceptional right now.
But the thing is, that amazing race in February — that was a surprise, she said
“I mean that was what was so unprecedented about my performance earlier this season, [it] was, you know, we weren’t really training to peak at that point,” she said.
Her trainers were just hoping she’d do well enough to move on to the next stage. They weren’t aiming for this peak or expecting this blowout race.
“We weren’t really trained to have a performance of that caliber then,” Akins said.
But now that she’s done it once, Akins knows she can do it again.
“As long as I’m keeping up with training and everything, like, that didn’t disappear,” she said. “It’s just delayed for a bit.”