Research Institute for Olympic Sports collaborates with Nightingale to enhance athletes’ health and performance

The Research Institute for Olympic Sports in Finland is collaborating with Nightingale Health for a study that explores the Olympic athletes’ immune system, their susceptibility to infections and other wellness parameters.

The researchers will be examining 30 top cross-country skiers from the Finnish National XC ski team and compare their health stats with regular people of the same age and sex. The aim is to identify differences between the metabolic health of these highly active sportspersons and individuals who have an average active life.  

“We face a huge challenge with the athletes training for international games like the Olympics or other world championships as, very often, they fall ill right before a big competition and a lot of the work goes to waste. However, currently, we don’t have enough knowledge around respiratory infections and immunology in sports medicine to be able to prevent and truly understand such a scenario,” says Dr Maarit Valtonen, the lead MD (Doctor of Medicine) for the Finnish Olympic Team. “We have a feeling that, in some sports, athletes might be more susceptible to infections than regular people and that's what we want to investigate,” adds Valtonen. 

“We are proud to collaborate with the Research Institute for Olympic Sports and provide new insights into athletes’ health that can help them optimise their performance and wellbeing,” says Teemu Suna, founder and CEO of Nightingale Health, a biotech company providing comprehensive health data to help people stay healthy.  

Investigating infections in Olympic skiers 

Explaining the relevance of this research, Dr Valtonen shares that in a study done during the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea, the researchers had found 45% of the Finnish athletes in the PyeongChang Olympic village to have some symptoms of respiratory infections. They repeated the same study earlier this year in the Seefeld Nordic World Ski Championships 2019 and again the results were similar. So, it was clear that top sportspersons in these big games are very susceptible to infections.  

Therefore, in this new study with Nightingale, the researchers are investigating if there are any significant differences between the immune systems of the top athletes and ordinary people that makes the athletes more vulnerable. “We want to understand the whole concept better and find research-based evidence on what makes the athletes more prone to these illnesses and what we can do about it. We also aim to find concrete biological markers (indicators) that can warn us well in advance if an athlete is about to fall ill so that we can take preventive measures to avert the sickness. Right now, we lack that knowledge,” explains Dr Valtonen.  

The researchers will also be tracking health indicators related to inflammation, metabolism and whether dietary supplements have an effect on these. In later phases of the study, scientists further plan to examine the associations between the athletes’ gut microbiome (microbes in the intestine) and draw associations with their metabolism.  

For better care 

The researchers believe that the results will help the athletes have more healthy training days, optimise their performance (especially during international gaming events and the championship seasons) and stay at the top of their health.

Laura Mononen, a Finnish cross-country skier who has represented her country in many world championships and in Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, said she is “eagerly waiting for her test results”. “I have had to deal with infections on several occasions earlier in my career. The situation is more stable now, but I really hope that the study results will be able to guide athletes on how to take better care of themselves and improve performance.”  

The blood samples required for the analysis were collected in March-April 2019, during the National Cross-country Skiing Championships. The data will be analysed during autumn and the first results are expected to be published by early 2020.  “The blood test using NMR technology sounds like a very interesting tool and I’m sure it can be helpful in planning the training sessions and get the best results in competitions. I am looking forward to seeing the results,” adds Mononen. 

Nightingale’s health data is not just for researchers or athletes but can be used by anyone to keep themselves healthy. “Nightingale’s technology is not only versatile but pioneering in preventive care as it offers details about your health that was not revealed to you before. This will give everyone a chance to improve their lifestyle and live healthier lives,” says Suna. 

The Principal Investigator of this collaborative research project is Professor Emeritus Olli Ruuskanen from the University of Turku. And the third collaborator is Professor Olli Heinonen from Paavo Nurmi Centre.