10 Tips for an Olympic Body

Experts share the diet and exercise secrets of Olympic athletes.

From the WebMD Archives

When the 2008 Olympic Games open in Beijing, millions will be marveling at all the athletes' bodies. Muscled legs, backs, abs, and arms -- sure signs of the Olympic body, carefully sculpted for power, speed, and endurance.

But what does it take to get that Olympic body? And could the average Joe (or Joelle) ever hope to look like an Olympic athlete?

"Sure," says Sam Callan, an exercise physiologist and the coaching education manager for USA Cycling. "If you're willing to spend the time."

Of course, few people have the kind of time that Olympic athletes devote to their training. But even if your best "event" revolves around the remote, not all is lost. After all, when it comes to the competition for a healthy body, it's often enough to join the game.

So if you're ready to shape up, here are some cues from the pros to get you started:

1. Know your body type.

Some of us are built for speed, some for endurance, says Callan. Figuring out what feels natural -- and what you're best at -- will help you determine which type of exercise will work for you.

Do you like to jump? Sprint? Spend time on the treadmill? Everyone has a unique body composition, and which composition of muscle fiber type you have will determine whether you will have more endurance or speed and power.

"We're all born somewhere on that continuum, but all the training in the world can only move you a little bit," he explains. That's why Arnold Schwarzenegger probably couldn't have been a long-distance runner, he says.

2. Determine your goals.

You're bound to be better at some kinds of physical events than others, so choose one or two that feel natural and that you enjoy. You'll be much more likely to stick with it -- and see success.

Do you want to slim down? Focus on nutrition and a routine of steady cardiovascular endurance exercise, with short bursts of speed called interval training. Do you want to build up your cardiovascular endurance? Try swimming, running, or cycling. If it's speed you're after, try adding sprints to your routine. And if you only have a short time to work out, try circuit training, which consists of a series of resistance training exercises performed one after the other, with minimal rest.

But if you have weak areas, says Callan, don't hesitate to address them with specific training.


3. Eat healthfully.

Brooke Bennett, three-time Olympic gold medalist in the 1996 and 2000 Olympics -- and the current world record holder for the 800-meter freestyle swim -- says that diet should be the first focus for anyone hoping to improve physical well-being.

"Nutrition is key in anybody's life, whether we're professional athletes or working at a desk," says Bennett, now a certified personal trainer and nutritionist and a consultant to USA Swimming. "It's about 80% of our lifestyle."

The former Olympic athlete believes that content, not calories, should be the focus of any "Olympic body" regimen. Besides the obvious -- fruit, vegetables, lean proteins, and slow carbohydrates like brown rice and sweet potatoes -- Callan also recommends watching the sugar content of the foods you eat.

"People stress about [the calorie content of protein], but they should be stressing about sugar," Bennett says." Sugar has a high-calorie count but it's metabolized quickly. And if you're not burning the sugars while working out, you're going to put on weight."

4. Eat frequently, with a mixture of protein and carbohydrates at every meal.

Your body needs a steady supply of fuel if it's going to function at maximum efficiency. Eating frequently also increases your body's metabolism, which means it will burn more calories.

Olympic athletes eat five to six meals a day, with protein at each, to increase lean muscle mass and maintain maximum efficiency. So plan to eat smaller meals, ideally two and one-half to three hours between each.

"You want to keep your body running so efficiently that everything you're using is converted to energy and your body doesn't store anything," Bennett explains.

Star shot-putter and two-time Olympic silver medalist Adam Nelson, who is competing in Beijing, follows this advice religiously. In order to maintain his muscled physique, Nelson eats protein every three hours -- a total of 300 grams per day.

A typical day for him begins at 6:30 a.m. with six to eight eggs, a cup or two of berries, and coffee. At 9:30 a.m., he'll have an apple and protein shake. For lunch, he'll eat a turkey sandwich packed with spinach and green and red peppers, along with a glass of milk.


For his afternoon snack, Nelson will grab leftovers from the night before. Then, for dinner, he often consumes up to 2 pounds of salmon, along with grilled vegetables and a cup of rice. Just before bed, he downs yet another protein shake.

Of course, unless you are a world-class athlete in training, you should not follow Nelson's diet. But the idea of eating every few hours -- with a mixture of protein and carbs at every meal -- is an important one.

5. Watch the mirror, not the scale.

Bennett says that even if your goal is weight loss, the healthiest of regimens focus on decreasing body fat and increasing lean muscle mass, not a particular number on the scale.

When she swam her record-setting race in Sydney, the 5-foot-6-inch swimmer weighed between 120 and 125 pounds, with 18% body fat. Now, she weighs between 135 and 138 pounds, but her body fat is down to 12%.

"If your clothes fit great and you like the way you look in the mirror, does it matter what the scale says?" she asks. "It's like age. You could be 45 but feel 30. Age and weight are just numbers that we get obsessed with, but they don't mean we're healthy."

Instead of weighing, Bennett recommends having someone measure you every two weeks and check your body fat once a month, which will provide a yardstick for how much fat you're actually losing.

6. Drink plenty of water.

The body is made up of 60% water, which means it needs a regular supply to survive. According to the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM), a fluid loss of even 2% body weight will affect circulatory functions and decrease performance.

The amount of water each person needs will vary depending on many factors such as underlying medical condition, physical activity level, and environment. The Institute of Medicine generally recommends about 91 ounces of total water (from drinks and food) on average per day for women and 125 ounces for men. Most water that we consume comes from beverages, but about 20% comes from food. Too much water can be harmful.


7. Ease into new exercises.

If you are going from cyclist to runner or runner to cyclist, you may be pretty fit, but your muscles or skeletal system might not be ready for the new sport. Think of Lance Armstrong's painful New York City Marathon debut last year.

So take it easy at first, and don't overdo it.

8. Vary your activity, but include the weight room.

Olympic athletes spend a lot of time on their primary activity (a cyclist will ride, a runner will run), but for most folks, varying the activity reduces boredom and uses a variety of muscles which may otherwise not get worked.

Also, says Callan, strength and power -- which come from resistance training -- are important components of any sport. Working out with weights will also reduce the loss of muscle mass that often occurs with aging. Even men in their 70s and 80s have put on lean mass in a relatively basic strength-training program.

Also, the NASM says that studies have shown no difference between those who do resistance training three times a week vs. those who train five times a week. So you really don't have to train like an Olympian in the weight room. A little goes a long way.

9. Train regularly and consistently.

"The more intense the training is, the more you're going to reach your potential," Callan says. "You will not find an Olympic athlete who is not highly, highly trained. They don't roll out of bed and win the 100-meter sprint or the 50 freestyle. They spend hours and hours of training of all sorts."

Of course, people also respond at different rates and in different ways, which means that Callan is hesitant to say just how much training someone needs to really get into shape. Another factor is how a program is designed. If you really want to get in shape, it's safe to say that three workouts a day will go a long way. But anything is better than working out with that remote.

10. Consider hiring a personal trainer.

According to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), personal training jumped from the seventh most important trend in 2007 to the third most important in 2008.


There's a reason for that, says Bennett. In addition to an individually tailored program, personal trainers provide accountability.

"People are hesitant at the beginning to spend the money with a personal trainer, but after a month, when they're tightening their waistband and their shorts are loose, they really see the results," she says. "After awhile, you adjust to the expense and it becomes part of your lifestyle."

If you can't afford a trainer, seek out someone who is as dedicated as you are to getting healthy, and train together. "Even personal trainers need workout partners for accountability," she says. "It helps to have someone there to push you."

Above all, say the experts, enjoy the journey. And don't forget to indulge. After all, even Olympic athlete Nelson enjoys the occasional trip to Dairy Queen. His favorite? The Oreo Blizzard.

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on July 31, 2008



Sam Callan, coaching education manager, USA Cycling.

Brooke Bennett, three-time Olympic gold medalist; certified personal trainer; certified nutritionist.

Adam Nelson, two-time Olympic silver medalist.

National Academy of Sports Medicine Essentials of Personal Fitness Training, Third Edition.

American College of Sports Medicine 2008 Health and Fitness Summit.

Institute of Medicine web site: "Dietary Reference Intakes: Water, Potassium, Sodium, Chloride, and Sulfate."

© 2008 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.


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