Do Dara Torres' "secrets to success" hold up?

Scenes from the Olympics.
July 16 2008 4:48 PM

Dara Torres, Demystified

Do the swimmer's "secrets to success" hold up?

Dara Torres
Dara Torres 

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?

Amanda Schaffer Amanda Schaffer

Amanda Schaffer is a science and medical columnist for Slate.

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).

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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.