Have you ever wondered how an Olympic athlete trains and prepares for the most important event of their career? With the 2012 Summer Olympics in London just around the corner, it's time to get inspired by the world's best competitors. Let's peek behind the scenes into the training programs of three current American Olympians, and learn how they stay focused on their dreams for gold. You might just feel inspired to get a jump-start on your own health and fitness goals.

Quality over Quantity

During the summer of 2008, Eric Shanteau qualified for the U.S. Olympic Swim Team. But one week before the Olympic trials, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. He was able to delay surgery to compete in the Games, swimming a personal best time in the 200-meter breaststroke. Since then, he has continued to log record-breaking performances in the pool, and has his sights set on 2012 in London.

Shanteau says that what he went through in 2008 changed his view of competing and training. "The sport of swimming got put in perspective very quickly," he says. "I began to look at it as something that I chose to do and loved to do, not something I was being forced to do. Once I started doing that, I took not only my training but competing to a whole other level. I train a lot smarter now."

In the lead up to the 2012 Games, Shanteau did more than shift his mental perspective - he also made significant adjustments to his physical training. "Sometimes in a sport like swimming, you can get stuck in a rut," he says. "The training is very repetitive, so changing training environments is important."

One of Shanteau's major changes was to move from Texas to California to train at USC, under the guidance of Coach Dave Salo. "Salo has a very unique training style," says Shanteau. "It's a racing training style. You are going very fast all the time, as opposed to just getting in and doing lots of yardage. Some would call that quality over quantity. Training the way I am now is very good, and I was excited to switch to this program."

Practice Perseverance

Mike Day, a 2008 Olympic silver medalist in BMX biking, is also looking forward to the London Games, hoping to stand on the podium again this summer. After rigorous physical therapy and surgery following a back injury, Day is working toward the qualifiers for the 2012 Olympic BMX team. He typically trains six days a week, spending half of his time in the gym and the other half doing sprints on his bike to develop the explosive strength the sport requires. "It is not uncommon to see me doing two sessions a day," says Day.

Day also emphasizes that eating right and getting adequate recovery time are key elements of his plan for 2012. "As I have gotten older, I have learned to listen to my body and to take the proper nutritional steps necessary in order to reach my full potential," he says.

Focus on Balance

Fencer Soren Thompson competed in the 2004 Olympics, finishing in seventh place. He has his hopes set high for London, aiming to do even better at this year's games.

In preparation for the 2004 Games, Thompson worked with coaches on track workouts, agility drills, plyometrics, and weight lifting. But he's doing things differently this time around: Thompson has largely been training himself for the 2012 Games. "I have to replicate--and hopefully improve on--the teachings of my many coaches over the years," says Thompson.

Because of injuries, Thompson is focusing on balancing recovery and rehabilitation with his rigorous training schedule. "If I do too much, I risk going into London in pain," he says. "If I do too little, I may not be prepared enough to perform at my best. This balancing act is a new challenge for me."

It may be a challenge, but it is one that he's ready to take on.

More Gold-Medal Lessons

While you may think that these Olympians' health goals have little in common with your own, all three athletes provide valuable insights for the weekend warrior:

  • Have a vision. "It's all about setting goals, whatever your goal may be," says Shanteau. "You set a goal, you figure out what you need to do to achieve that goal, and you do your best to stick to that plan. If you just keep it simple, then you have a very high probability of being successful in what you want to achieve."
  • Enjoy the experience. "If the end result is the only thing that excites you, then I don't believe it's possible to ever achieve it," says Thompson. "Embrace the process. Learn to enjoy the elements of training, preparing, competing, and winning that most people gloss over."
  • Keep it in perspective. "The best secret I have is not to sweat the small stuff," says Day. "Keep your eye on the prize and the bigger picture and remember that every small day is one step closer to the big picture. Yes, dedication and focus have a lot to do with success, but so does a positive attitude and good support."

While you need to keep sight of the big picture, the little details are important too. Shanteau says one of the challenges of training at an elite level is paying attention to the details, such as proper nutrition and recovery time. The same goes for all of us mere mortals: eating right and balancing adequate rest with your own fitness challenges can help ensure that you reach and surpass your health goals.