How can Olympian Dara Torres swim faster now, at age 41, than she did 20 years ago? In 2000, she hung up her goggles for about five years, and in 2006 she gave birth to her daughter, Tessa. How has she managed to come out of retirement, work out less than she did when she was younger, undergo two surgeries in the past year, and still break American records, including her own?
Torres has long been suspected of doping. And the more she is lionized as a middle-aged miracle, the louder the doubters become. She may not have failed a drug test, her critics point out, but neither did other athletes who later turned out to be dirty (Marion Jones, Antonio Pettigrew). She has volunteered for extra testing, but that can't prove definitively that she is clean because of the limitations of the tests. A further complication: Torres has been diagnosed (perhaps suspiciously) with asthma and has said she takes medications containing albuterol and formoterol, which increase lung capacity and are verboten for Olympic athletes, except for those who get exemptions to take them for medical reasons (as more than a few athletes apparently do).
In response, Torres' allies cast her as an obsessive who has availed herself of the best training money can buy. (Her entourage runs her at least $100,000 per year.) Torres herself has talked of two "secrets" to her success. First, she says she takes amino acid supplements developed by German swimmer Mark Warnecke, who won a world championship in breaststroke at the age of 35. Second, Torres says she relies on a training technique called "resistance stretching," in which she stretches or elongates her muscles against resistance (demonstrated here, self-mockingly, by Al Roker).
Do the stretching and the supplements really account for her remarkable performance? Both probably help. But neither is likely to work in quite the ways—or to the extent—claimed. In fact, Torres' attempts to demystify her own success, which come off as sales pitches for magic-bullet explanations, only heighten her PR problem.
Take secret No. 1, the amino acid supplements. After winning the 50-meter freestyle at the Olympic trials, Torres touted Warnecke's product. "I feel like it's helped me gain muscle and helped with a speedy recovery," she's quoted as saying. On his Web site, Warnecke does not offer a full list of ingredients and their proportions. He does name several amino acids, including glycine, proline, and especially arginine. He says arginine is responsible for increased blood circulation, which "significantly reduces regeneration time" of muscles. In America, he adds, it's known as "natural Viagra."
The idea that taking amino acids or eating protein after exercise helps muscles recover is reasonably well-founded. As this review from a journal of sports nutrition points out, during resistance exercise—during which muscles contract against external pressure—a small net breakdown in muscle takes place. Quick replenishment with amino acids can boost protein synthesis, helping to increase muscle repair and growth. The essential amino acids, which the body can't synthesize from scratch on its own, appear to play a major role in stimulating this process.
But most of the amino acids mentioned by Warnecke are not in the essential group. It's not clear why taking his supplements would improve muscle repair or boost muscle mass and strength, says John Ivy of the University of Texas. (And just for the record, arginine is no Viagra —taking it orally is not likely to cause blood vessels to dilate.) Meanwhile, eating or drinking protein may be just as effective as taking amino acids, and combining either amino acids or protein with carbs is probably even better for boosting muscle protein synthesis. That's why some experts now say to skip the fancy supplements and drink a glass of chocolate milk. All in all, amino acid supplements sound at best like a pretty minor factor in Torres' success.
What about her second secret? Resistance stretching has "helped all aspects of my conditioning" and "allows me to recover faster from the workouts I endure each day," she declares in a low-budget video demonstrating the technique. (So far, only the introduction has been released.) The basic idea is to contract a muscle while lengthening or stretching it. (Imagine lying on your back with knees together and bent. Then pull your knees apart with your hands while resisting that motion with your leg muscles. Or, watch Al Roker try it.) Torres' sessions sound more elaborate than that, though. Two trainers "mash" or massage her body with their feet, then begin a series of resistance stretches that look like "a cross between a yoga class, a massage, and a Cirque du Soleil performance," as writer Elizabeth Weil put it in the New York Times Magazine. Torres undergoes this routine three times a week when she isn't competing and, in milder form, as many as five times a day when she is. Fitness guru Bob Cooley, who developed the technique, claims that over the course of two weeks, in 1999, it transformed Torres "from being an alternate on the relay team to the fastest swimmer in America."
In combination with other training, Torres' approach is likely to have some benefits. Mainly, stretching muscles against resistance may boost their strength through a greater range of motion, says Malachy McHugh, a sports medicine specialist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York. That is, it may allow people to generate more force with a muscle that's in a lengthened position. (The precise mechanism is controversial. But it could involve increasing the muscle's number of sarcomeres, or contractile units.) Some evidence also suggests that stretching muscles against resistance may help prevent injuries or facilitate recovery from them. Related techniques have long been used in physical therapy to help rehabilitate joints that have been immobilized.
But there are trade-offs. Making a muscle stronger when it's in a lengthened position may mean making it weaker when it's in a shortened one, McHugh says. In addition, it's not necessarily good for swimmers to increase their range of motion too much, especially in their shoulders. "Beyond a certain point, they will actually lose power," says Stacy Ingraham, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Minnesota. (She could not tell from the video whether Torres' technique risked going beyond that threshold.) The bottom line is that resistance stretching may improve a swimmer's performance. But, as Torres' trainer Anne Tierney concedes, there are currently no controlled studies that demonstrate this, and it's hard to see how this technique could really be her record-breaking bullet.
The mystery is not why Torres might try resistance stretching. It's why she promotes it to reporters and touts it in a video that feels like a late-night infomercial. According to Tierney, Torres has no financial interest in the video and was not even paid to appear in it. That's striking, coming from an athlete who has raked in cash from sponsorships from Speedo and Toyota. Perhaps Torres simply wanted to get the word out about a technique she believes is helping her. Or perhaps she wished to give her stretchers and their company, Innovative Body Solutions, a nice gift. (The company's Web site crashed last week from all the traffic.) But the more she talks about secrets to success that really can't hold all that water, the more it looks like she's straining for an innocent-sounding explanation when there may not be one. And the more one wonders about the secrets she may be hiding.