4 Fitness Lessons We Can Learn from Olympians

Olympics Training

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Ryan Hall, from Big Bear, CA, runs a marathon in just over two hours. Russia’s Yelena Isinbayeva leaps more than 16 1/2 feet as she tries to win her third gold medal in pole vault. Zoe Smith, a 128-pound 18-year-old from Great Britain, lifts 247 pounds.

The world is getting ready for the 2012 London Games. Once the XXX Olympiad begins on July 27th, we’ll spend the ensuing weeks watching the events, following the scores and blogs, and cheering the incredible athletic achievements. And we may even become more motivated to get off the couch. Every four years, in the months following an Olympic Games, gyms and sports programs receive an influx of new signups–it’s hard not to want to be more active after seeing what the human body is capable of.

Faster, Higher, Stronger

How are Olympic feats, pinnacles of human performance and dedication, relevant for everyday health? It may be inspiring to watch athletes set records and motivating to see their perfectly sculpted and toned physiques, but this kind of extraordinary physical training and achievement is not possible (nor is it necessarily in the best long-term health interests) for the average person. Despite amazing, long athletic careers and astonishing comebacks, not even Olympic athletes can train at this level of intensity indefinitely. Injury and bodily wear-and-tear are major pitfalls. The pictures that we see across screens and in magazines reflect a snapshot of the top echelon of human physiology and represent a fine line between health and overtraining.

But even if you aren’t going to be the next Mia Hamm or Michael Phelps, there are still important exercise principles to glean from Olympic athletes’ training. Here are a few Olympic lessons that can propel even the least athletically endowed towards healthy, sustainable fitness:

1. Commit to Fitness and Persevere Toward a Healthy Goal

No matter the sport–from fencing and handball to equestrian, tennis, and trampoline–exercise is a central, organizing factor in athletes’ lives. These athletes eat, sleep, and breathe with Olympic focus. In my life before becoming a doctor, I was a national team gymnast; it’s important to remember that the displays of incredible athleticism–for gymnastics, the precise twists, pointed toes, and seemingly effortless stuck landings–are preceded by more than a decade of dedicated training.

Most Olympians have workouts that involve six to seven days a week of intensive training, often with multiple workouts per day. They exercise on days when they don’t feel like it, continue to train (with adjustments) through injuries, and structure their lives with a prioritization of exercising toward their goal. While this degree of dedication isn’t realistic, or necessarily healthy for most people, applying elements of this kind of golden focus can improve fitness in an everyday life.

Even Olympians can get in an exercise rut. To stay motivated when you feel stuck in a routine, marathoner Ryan Hall recommends keeping exercise fun and fresh by varying your workouts. He also enjoys exercising with others: “Exercising can be a fun journey when you have other people to work out with. I find that sometimes the hardest part of exercising is those first couple of steps. I tell myself that I can always cut my workout short, but I need to at least get out the door and give my body a chance to feel good.”

  • Set goals. These should be both achievable and something that pushes you to excel. It may help to have an event, such as a race or a mileage marker, to strive for. If you don’t currently exercise, committing to even 15 minutes of movement a day is a great start.
  • Develop long-term fitness plans to achieve these goals. Pace yourself by starting with activities that are appropriate for your current fitness level and gradually progress.
  • Stick to it. Exercising regularly will help you achieve endurance and strength that carries over into your everyday life. Sporadic activity can cause injuries and create extra soreness that makes continuing to exercise less appealing.
  • Find ways to keep exercise fun and fresh–consider doing it with a friend and be willing to take those first few steps.

2. Cross-train

Swimmers do resistance stretching, runners swim (when injured, pool running is a great way to offload joints), soccer players improve footwork and agility through dance and yoga, rowers focus on developing leg and core strength. Olympic athletes exercise outside of their sports. In talking about her training, one Olympic waterpolo player describes doing land workouts with sprints, dead lifts, pull ups, leg presses and other strength work, in addition to swimming workouts and waterpolo practices.

Many athletes, from judo players and gymnasts to swimmers, windsurfers, and volleyball players, are also doing pilates to help with core strengthening. Optimal fitness involves performing a variety of exercises with attention to the entire body.

  • Mix up your workouts. Include aerobic activity, strength and resistance exercises, and stretching and balance work.
  • Consider incorporating pilates or yoga for flexibility and core strength.

3. Adjust to Injuries and Life Circumstances

Almost every Olympic athlete gets injured at some point. Even when athletes can’t continue to train in their sports full time, they stay active and look for ways to maintain strength and fitness. As mentioned above, water workouts provide a venue to keep moving without aggravating injured joints. Having a leg injury may provide extra incentive to work on improving upper body strength. For a gymnast, when a foot is casted, it’s a great opportunity to practice bars and refine dance elements and other low-impact skills.

In addition to dealing with injuries, not all Olympians train in ideal conditions all of the time. Mohamed Hassan Mohamed, a Somali Olympic hopeful, runs in a war-torn stadium littered with bullet holes and discarded remains of a rocket-propelled grenade. Other athletes adjust to waking up at dawn or training late into the night to get adequate pool and arena time. While it’s important to be safe and to prioritize sleep, don’t wait for perfect circumstances; make adjustments and keep moving. If you’re traveling, look for space that can accommodate stretches or in-place exercises. Even getting small windows of physical activity is better than doing nothing at all.

  • Don’t let problem areas stop all exercise. Look for activities that you can safely do while you’re allowing for recovery of injuries. Think about getting in the water!
  • Stay active even when conditions aren’t perfect. If you don’t have access to a gym, consider doing basic lunges, push-ups, and other strength training exercises that rely on your own body weight. Stretches and resistance work (with bands) are portable options that can be done almost anywhere.

4. Develop a Comprehensive Lifestyle Geared for Success

Exercise is only part of the equation for health and fitness. In the coming weeks, we’ll look at what Olympic athletes can teach us about diet and sleep, too!

Author’s Note: Special thanks to Ryan Hall for being willing to share his Olympic fitness advice with One Medical Group!

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