Olympic athletes spend an enormous amount of time training in order to reach their peak physical condition.
To get a chance at the gold medal, these elite competitors may have a grueling training schedule that doesn’t stop in the years between Olympic Games.
So, they have to plan smartly and develop healthy habits to avoid overtraining or burning out. But even if you’re not planning to go for gold any time soon, you can still learn something from the routines of Olympians.
Take a cue from their playbook with these science-backed strategies.
Their training is well-rounded.
Image source: The North Face/Getty Images | Evan Weinstock-Courtesy of USABS
Varying training can help improve skills like strength, endurance, agility, and speed, regardless of what activity it’s needed for.
“Gym time makes it easier for me to pinpoint certain muscles that I would not be working out while on snow,” she explained. “There are so many exercises that I do in the gym that work my core so that I can count on it when I need it most out on the hill.”
Cross-training also has the added benefit of decreasing the risk of overuse injuries or strains. For instance, frequent runners can reduce the repetitive strain on their knees by swapping in a day of weight lifting to their routine.
Evan Weinstock, a member of the U.S. bobsled team, said a variety of workouts is key to getting a good start in competition.
“We train hard in the weight room and on the running track to build our strength and speed fitness, which allows us to perform the explosive and powerful feat of accelerating a bobsled from stationary,” he said.
They don’t skimp on sleep
“Of all the recovery techniques, proper sleep is undoubtedly the most cost-effective strategy for athletes,” said Douglas Ebner, DPT, a physical therapist and sports performance specialist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
During the sleep cycle, your body works to repair and regenerate muscle tissue.
If you don’t get enough sleep, the body releases the stress hormone cortisol and limits your natural production of human growth hormone, which plays a role in muscle growth and energy production.
Sufficient sleep isn’t just about physical benefits though.
“Lack of sleep can alter the mental components of performance, including reaction time and poor judgment,” Ebner said. That’s one reason why sleep deprivation has been associated with increased injury risk.
Most athletes try to get at least eight hours of sleep a night — something we could all benefit from.
They perfect their recovery plan
Olympic athletes have dozens of recovery options, but what keeps them in tip-top shape is figuring out which option is best for them.
There are a variety of recovery therapies from basic stretching to soft tissue massage, chiropractic treatments, thermal or cryotherapy, Ebner explained.
“These services will all vary based on the individual athlete, resources, and effectiveness which should be measured by performance,” Ebner said.
Recovery is essential during the four- to six-month-long bobsled season, said Weinstock.
“The only way to keep myself fresh and ready to better myself the next day is to spend the time, at night or in the morning, stretching, foam rolling, and performing other regeneration methods to make sure my body is well adapted to the stresses from training,” Weinstock explained.
Even if you’re not training as hard as the pros, trying out different recovery methods like foam rolling, a sports massage, or a hot bath will help you figure out what makes you feel your best after a tough workout.
Time off is nonnegotiable
In order for muscles to grow stronger and repair, athletes typically give themselves a day of active recovery, where they’re not focused so much on performance (and no, that doesn’t mean a Netflix marathon).
Instead, their goal is to do something active, but not strenuous.
“Sometimes for my ‘off’ days I will go skiing or for a hike,” Logan said. Her trainers may also suggest a mellow day in the gym.
“I am a big supporter of listening to your body,” she explained.
Nonprofessionals should consider taking at least one day off a week for active recovery. These off days are great days for a long walk, easy bike ride, or hike. Anything that gets you moving!
Nutrition doesn’t take a back seat
For all that training, you might think Olympic athletes can eat whatever they want, but eating healthy and intentionally is a big part of making sure they can perform at their peak.
Freestyle aerials skier Ashley Caldwell explains that nutrition is important not just for the couple hours before or after you train, but all the time.
“What you were eating three days ago can be affecting how you are feeling and performing today,” said Caldwell. “So it’s about creating a good overall health plan that keeps you as healthy as you can be year-round.”
For Caldwell, who is now competing in her third Olympic Games, that means a lot of fruit, veggies, and protein.
If you have a specific fitness goal, pre- and post-workout nutrition become even more important.
“I have a tendency to eat worse when I’m tired, like most people,” said Caldwell, who prefers to recover with grab-and-go options like Rockin’ Protein, a protein-fortified low-fat milk drink that has an ideal 2:1 carb-to-protein ratio.
A good recovery nutrition plan that includes protein can get your body repairing and refueling itself faster so you’re ready for that next training session, she said.