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5 Ways to Train like an Olympic Athlete
We’re a sporting nation. Sport’s always been part of the Australian identity, and with increased focus on lifestyle, your physical and mental wellbeing - and the combination of the two - has never been more important. Many people’s calendars are built around our major sporting events, from the Australian Open tennis in Melbourne every January, through the various footy seasons in different states, from AFL to rugbies league and union, culminating in the Boxing Day test at the MCG. Add to this the Aussie Olympians and Paralympians, currently prepping for Tokyo 2020, whose dedication to producing their very best performances every four years and we have a sporting culture unlike any other, leading to everyone feeling motivated to get out and get fit or ramp up their training for the upcoming summer. Here are some tips to help you train like an Olympian and get some professional results.
The key to upping the ante with your training is a gradual lift in intensity. High intensity workouts push your body out of its comfort zone quickly, and will produce greater improvements in fitness than the ‘slow and steady’ approach (1). You can increase the intensity of your workout by introducing intervals—short bursts of maximal or near maximal effort—followed by a recovery period. When you’re running (outside or on the treadmill) this could consist of two minutes at 100% effort, followed by two minutes of low intensity jogging, repeated 5-10 times. Or if you prefer being told what to do, try a spin class at your local gym; these are a great, high-intensity but low-impact training option.
In order to maximise their fitness potential, Olympic athletes train consistently for long periods of time. For professional athletes, hitting the snooze button or choosing after work drinks over a training session isn’t an option. Make training a non-negotiable part of your week by reserving time in your schedule for each session. Discipline, in the long term, will always pay off. Plan your weeks training in advance, so you can plan your sessions and days off to suit your schedule and not miss out on the things you enjoy—like a couple of cheeky umbrella drinks on a Friday night, or that extra Saturday morning sleep-in. It’s important to maintain a balance, so that training becomes part of your lifestyle, rather than being perceived as a chore.
3. Progressive Overload
Although consistency is key, it can be easy to fall into the habit of repeating the same sessions over and over. The body becomes accustomed to doing the same thing and as a result, performance improvements can plateau. Serious athletes know it’s important to incorporate the concept of ‘progressive overload’ into your regime. This means challenging your body by gradually but continually increasing and changing the workload of your training sessions (2). You can do this by increasing your top speed or distance when running, increasing the weight or number of reps you’re lifting, or simply by trying a different group fitness class. Keep your body guessing. By changing up your routine, you’ll continue to see results across months of training.
In order to prevent injury, Olympians take recovery very seriously. This includes day-to-day recovery measures including carefully cool-down protocols and stretching following each session, applying ice to any muscles or joints that may be feeling sore, eating a high-protein meal or snack within 30 minutes of completing a workout, and getting adequate sleep each night to ensure the body has time to recover. Active recovery sessions such as a low-impact swimming or a gentle exercise bike session will help flush out muscles and reduce recovery times following intense training blocks or competitions. Most importantly, if you feel an injury developing, take a few days off to let it settle. It’s better to take the hit and lose a few days of training to a minor injury than to let a serious injury develop that may take weeks or even months to recover from. Easier said than done if you’re in a routine, but if your goals are around long-term success rather than short term gain, it’s the obvious and sensible thing to do.
5. Set Goals
Every Olympic athlete will be looking forward to Tokyo 2020 with a goal; to win gold, get on the podium or simply to achieve a personal best or a strong team performance. Setting goals can be an extremely powerful motivator, but it’s always important to set goals that are specific and achievable, so you don’t get disheartened. For example, a novice runner’s long term goal may be to run a marathon. A better approach would be to break this down into smaller, more achievable, intermediate goals: run a 10km first: once this is achieved, set another intermediate goal such as running a half marathon. Before you know it, your ultimate goal will be in reach and you’ll already have achieved a couple of milestones on the way.
Fundamentally, nutrition is important for anyone training as it provides a source of energy required to perform any activity. What we eat impacts and helps with strength, training, performance and recovery. Not only is the food itself important, but when we eat throughout the day also has an impact on our performance levels and our bodies ability to recover after exercising.
Generally, a rule of thumb for high performers is eating about two hours before exercising. This meal should be high in carbs, low in fat and moderate in protein. Carbohydrates are the main source of energy that powers your exercise routine and protein is required to assist muscle growth and repair. After exercising, you need to replenish the carbs you’ve lost and to ensure proper muscle recovery, include protein in your post training meal.
The proportions of protein and carbohydrates that you require will vary depending on both the intensity and type of sport. To get your individual balance right you should contact a qualified dietitian for professional help with your sports nutrition.
Although most of us won’t get the opportunity to wear the green and gold at the Tokyo Olympic Games, every single one of us can learn from how an Olympian trains. Change up your training routine to include intensity lifts, progressive overload, plenty of consistency and effective recovery sessions. Make sure your fitness goals are specific and achievable, and you’ll be on the way to a fitter, faster you.
References 1. Wang TY, Ho CF, Chan KH, Lee WC, Hsu MC. Effects of consecutive 7-day high- versus moderate-intensity training on endurance determinants and muscle damage in basketball players. International SportMed Journal. 2012;13(1):18-28. 2. Alderman BL, Rhea MR. A meta-analysis of periodized versus nonperiodized strength and power training programs. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport. 2004;75(4):413+.