How To Train Like An Olympian
by Allison Van Dusen, Forbes.com 07.08.08, 6:00 PM ET
Ever watch an Olympic athlete row, run or ride across the finish line of an event and think to yourself, "I could do that"? If so, you've likely never met an Olympian, let alone spent a week in his or her sneakers.
It's not just that most Olympians are born with a certain set of physiological gifts, although that's a big part of it. It's also their commitment to their sports and, perhaps most important, the way they train.
"People don't know the process which [athletes] undertake in their individual sports to reach the Olympic level," says Jim Ochowicz, who competed in the 1972 Olympic Games and coached the 2000 and 2004 USA Olympic men's professional road racing team. "You get there by sticking it out. There [are] a lot of people that try and give up."
In fact, while there are exceptions, coaches and trainers say it's common for athletes to invest four to eight years training in a sport before making an Olympic team. When it comes to running, it may take that long just to develop the aerobic base necessary to compete as a world-class athlete, says Terrence Mahon, the head coach for Team Running USA, which is sending members Deena Kastor and Ryan Hall to Beijing this summer. That entails maximizing lung capacity, heart strength and lactate tolerance (your ability to continue performing as your muscles are flooded with lactic acid and you hit the wall).
With that in mind, many Olympic athletes plan out their training schedules annually and up to four years in advance to make sure they reach specific performance goals. While their plans may not include exact details on how many repetitions they should complete on a Tuesday in February, they do designate periods of rest and intense workouts, says Steve Bamel, strength and conditioning coordinator for the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif. Particularly in the lead-up to the games, athletes also specifically train to prepare their bodies for the types of conditions they'll face during outdoor events. In Beijing, that's projected to be temperatures in the 80s with up to 80% humidity.
To make sure they hit their targets, athletes training at one of the U.S. Olympic Training Center's facilities also frequently meet with a team--usually including a nutritionist, exercise physiologist, sports medicine specialist and coach--to discuss their strengths and weaknesses and accordingly tweak their diets, overloading and recovery techniques. If, say, an athlete's body composition doesn't measure up to standard, more fitness sessions will be added to their schedule, Bamel says. Athletes feeling fatigued may have their iron levels examined.
Those who make it to the games have to be mentally tough, too. Frequently separated from their families to train or compete in national and international events, they've got to juggle their demanding training schedules and personal lives. Since many athletes don't have sponsors to help cover their daily expenses, some also have side jobs or careers.
"In this country ... most of these athletes have a lot of professional opportunities," says Chris Wilson, a former U.S. Team Coach who worked with the U.S. Women's Rowing team leading up to the 2004 Olympics and an adviser for rowing-machine manufacturer Concept2. "Their quality of life as an elite athlete is usually below what they could be achieving if they followed a professional career track."
They've also got to be able to beat out their best friends, the people they regularly train with year in and year out, for a spot on the Olympic team.
That's where the benefits of preparing and executing a training plan come in--so when the pressure mounts, athletes will feel reassured that they've done enough lifting and speed work, Mahon says. Many athletes also use visualization techniques to picture exactly how they want to carry out a race.
And, if you want to train like an Olympian, be prepared to go to bed at the same time as the kids. Athletes aiming for the games need to sleep anywhere from eight to 10 hours a night, often followed by a 30- to 90-minute siesta, says Mahon. Resting is crucial because it gives the body a chance to rebuild tissue and muscle that's been broken down during training.
In other words, training like an Olympic athlete is more than a full-time job. But, of course, the benefits can be golden.
In Pictures: How To Train Like An Olympian
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