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Want to Be an Olympian? Train Smarter, Train Harder

photo of olympic rings in rio de janeiro

Editor's note: This is the part of a series highlighting the 2021 Olympic Games with a specific emphasis on health and wellness.

July 19, 2021 -- When watching our favorite athletes compete in the Olympic Games, many of us often begin to consider what it took for them to develop such skill and mastery. Some of us may even fantasize about what it would be like to compete on the Olympic stage ourselves.

Be careful what you wish for.

We break down training schedules, muscles targeted during workouts, common injuries, and rest and recovery techniques for different sports.

Track and Field

For track and field Olympians, there is no one-size-fits-all training approach.

Training schedules vary based on the athlete’s specific event, says Ricky Simms, agent of Olympic runners Usain Bolt and Trayvon Bromell, to name a few, and CEO of PACE Sports Management.

Bromell will compete in this year's Tokyo Olympics after winning the 100-meter race at the U.S. Olympic Trials for track and field.

“Long-distance runners will run over 100 miles per week, plus strength training,” Simms says. “Sprinters will spend 4 to 5 hours per day on the track or in the weight room.”

Despite what you may think, training for runners does not solely focus on legs, but rather the entire body. It is true that the quads and calves are working hard when you stride. But the effort you need to take off in a forward motion requires engaging all of your muscles.

“Our main focus is to develop highly coordinated movements for more efficient athletes, so it's more of a whole-body focus,” says Sterling Roberts, associate head coach of Eastern Michigan University men’s track and field. He’s also coach to Donald Scott and Tori Franklin, who will be competing in the 2020 Olympic Games in track and field.

For those of us at home who want to run more like an Olympian, first get your running form assessed for arm-leg coordination, gait issues, and how your arms swing, says trainer Summer Stevenhagen Montabone, owner of Summer’s Fitness in Canton, OH.

“In track action, your power comes from the glutes (or butt muscles),” she says. “The front is for show, and the back is for go.”

Generally, you’ll need to work out your legs for strong hip flexors, quads, glutes, and hamstrings, she says. And don’t forget about the upper back, which is key to a strong “posterior chain.”

Mix up the length of your runs. Dynamic warmups are important and often overlooked, she says.

Roberts says that while his athletes may train 5 to 6 days a week, depending on the time of year, there are days when they train heavier or lighter, and they always get time off to recharge.

For many power and speed athletes, like jumpers and sprinters, hamstring injuries are common, says Roberts. For elite track and field athletes, hip tightness and soreness can also be an issue, along with lower-leg injuries.

“The high-level athletes that I work with are jumpers, so they have a lot of pounding with their lower legs,” he says.

Elite athletes are also more likely to prioritize rest and recovery, says Roberts.

“In general, the higher the level they are, the better they do the little things that help their bodies heal and recover, such as nutrition, sleep, hydration,” he says.

Whether they’re racing toward the 200-meter mark or running a marathon, Simms says that prioritizing self-care is key for all runners.

“All runners will spend additional time getting physical therapy, massages,” he says.

Weightlifting

Olympic weightlifters may train four to eight times a week, each session lasting around 2 hours, along with any recovery work outside of weightlifting, says Meagan Nielsen, a board-certified specialist in sports dietetics and team dietitian for USA Weightlifting.

Classic Olympic lifts, like the snatch and clean and jerk, are full-body exercises.

“If you look at a weightlifter, they have especially developed quadriceps, shoulders, back, and glutes,” Nielsen says.

Tim Swords, owner of Team Houston weightlifting and coach of Sarah Robles, who will compete in Tokyo for her third Olympics, says that while weightlifting is a full-body movement, it is important to dedicate time to build up your lower body.

“If you don’t have leg strength, you can’t do this sport,” he says.

During the off-season, Olympians are building foundational strength, muscle size, and fixing any muscle imbalances, with volume and intensity ramping up. In pre-season, the volume of exercises will taper off as the intensity increases, helping the athlete increase power output, says trainer Sergio Pedemonte, CEO of Your House Fitness in Toronto. During the in-season, the focus is on refinement and remaining free of injuries -- with ample recovery time.

“If muscle gain is your goal, you need to create a calorie surplus -- eat more calories,” says Anthony Ortiz, founder of Fitly and the creator SmartPlate. “When you are dieting for muscle building, your nutrition must be on point at all times. You can’t out-train a bad diet.”

Swords also says that proper posture is essential.

“If you cannot maintain a good, static position because you have a weak muscle or static imbalance somewhere, that’s a big deal,” he says. “It takes work to develop that stable spine and good posture. This is a sport where you don’t just come into it and you’re a national champion.”

Swords says that in all the years he has been training weightlifters, serious injuries have not happened often. But there have been minor injuries.

“The lower back is going to be something that hurts you sometimes,” he says.

He says there are many recovery techniques for weightlifters.

“We’ve got sauna, stretching, different types of massaging tools, hot tubs, ice baths,” Swords says. “People have to find out what works best for them. If you have a bigger athlete and put them in a sauna, that might wear them out. For some athletes, an ice bath would be better.”

The most important recovery technique of all is getting proper sleep, he says.

“Your body is not recovering when you’re awake,” he says. “It’s recovering when you’re asleep.”

Gymnastics

Olympic gymnasts, with their grace and extraordinary flexibility, are known to have rigorous training schedules.

Dominique Dawes, a three-time Olympic gymnast and Olympic gold medalist, and owner of Dominique Dawes Gymnastics & Ninja Academy in Maryland, says many Olympic gymnasts cannot take off days.

Dawes made history as the first African American gymnast to win an Olympic gold medal.

She says she dedicated nearly 36 hours a week to training when preparing for the Olympics.

“We had morning training multiple days a week from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m.,” says Dawes. “Then, evening training from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. On Saturdays, we would train 5 hours. I would train at a fitness gym, take a stretch or ballet class on Sunday, or condition on my own at home just for fun.”

Dawes says developing a strong core is a major focus when training.

Core conditioning is key in the sport of gymnastics, the abdominals and muscles in your back,” she says. “A gymnast has to be in full control of his or her body when performing such difficult maneuvers.”

While there can be various injuries in gymnastics, Dawes says that stress fractures are quite common. Stress fractures are cracks in the bones that can cause severe pain. They often occur in the shin, foot, and lower back.

Fencing

Olympic fencing is one of the few sports that have stood the test of time after debuting at the 1896 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece. While swordplay may look like all fun and games, it requires mental and physical discipline.

Fencers may train up to three times a day, with workouts including weight training, footwork, and private fencing lessons, says Sergei Golubitsky, a three-time Olympic fencer, four-time world champion in men’s foil, and owner of Golubitsky Fencing Center in Tustin, CA.

“Your moves have to be very quick and precise,” he says. “Legs are the most important body part to train because you move a lot in fencing.”

Golubitsky says it is important to give your body time to recover to prevent injury.

One common injury is “fencing elbow,” similar to tennis elbow. Tendons begin to swell because of repetitive motions, which can lead to tiny tears in tissue.

Golubitsky says serious injuries can occur in many other parts of the body as well.

“Neck, back, legs, knees, ankles, hips, everything,” he says. “Many former fencers have problems with hips, and many have hip replacements. It is not just old people. So, it’s a very sensitive topic.”

Strengthening your core can help prevent fencing injuries.

Pilates and planks help a lot,” Golubitsky says. “Core exercises really help you protect your hips.”

Despite the differences in training requirements for various Olympic sports, there are two things all Olympians share: the extreme discipline and hard work it takes to master a sport and incorporating rest and recovery to perform at their best.

Boxing

The Olympics always fuel an uptick in enthusiasm for boxing as a workout, says Frank Dennison, a personal trainer and the product manager for RockBox Fitness, a national boxing and kickboxing franchise.

Boxing is good for heart health, muscle tone, agility, and developing coordination in the hands, eyes, and feet, he says.

And we’ve come a long way since Rocky and its gym full of big bruisers. Boxing-training classes are commonly available and geared more toward fitness for all than fighting.

“Being stronger, healthier, and looking better will boost your self-confidence. How you look and how you perceive yourself directly impact your self-esteem,” Dennison says.

WebMD Health News

Sources

Ricky Simms, agent of Usain Bolt and Trayvon Bromell; CEO, PACE Sports Management.

Dominique Dawes, three-time Olympian and Olympic gold medalist; owner, Dominique Dawes Gymnastics & Ninja Academy.

Meagan Nielsen, team dietitian, USA Weightlifting.

Tim Swords, coach of Sarah Robles; owner, Team Houston weightlifting.

Sergei Golubitsky, three-time Olympic fencer; four-time world champion in men’s foil; owner, Golubitsky Fencing Center.

Sterling Roberts, coach of Donald Scott and Tori Franklin; assistant head coach, Eastern Michigan University men's track and field.

Fencing Academy of Boston: “What Is Fencing?”

Team USA.

Summer Stevenhagen Montabone, owner, Summer’s Fitness, Canton, OH.

Sergio Pedemonte, CEO, Your House Fitness, Toronto.

Anthony Ortiz, founder, Fitly digital health company; creator, SmartPlate food tracker.

Frank Dennison, personal trainer, product manager, RockBox Fitness.

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