There are some aspects of an elite athlete’s training that even the most committed amateur will struggle to replicate, purely because when it’s not your job to exercise, earning a living tends to get in the way.
However, there is a surprising amount that we mere mortals can learn from the best in sport, who tend to keep things simpler than you might imagine. We spoke to Chris Baird, strength and conditioning coach at Loughborough University’s sports performance team which works with Olympians and other elite athletes, to get some advice on what amateurs can learn from the pros – and perhaps the most surprising thing was that it was all fairly intuitive advice. The pros just really take it to heart and, of course, get more support.
It’s fair to say that it will help you implement all the tips Baird gives below, so it’s worth investigating if you want some assistance in your efforts to train like an Olympian.
Set A Clear Goal
You need to understand your goal with extreme clarity. In our professional context, we need to get a swimmer to perform at this speed on this day at this time. The average person, for example, might want to lose weight, but weight loss is not a clear goal, it’s a process. A better goal might be “I need to be healthy, so I want this BMI score”.
That goal needs to be a driving force. Don’t get caught up in training that might not be geared towards your goal. If exercise is just about having fun then that’s fine, do whatever makes you happy, but sometimes doing this class or that class might not be the most appropriate thing for your objectives.
Set A Fitness Benchmark And Keep Testing Yourself
Once you know where you need or want to be, spend some time working out where you are now though some sort of test. That could be a 1km run, or lifting a certain amount of weight for a certain amount of reps, or walking up a steep hill. You need to have a marker to measure progress. “I couldn’t run before, I can now run 1km in this time; in three months’ time I will do it again and it will be quicker.” By testing yourself regularly you can also modify the training regime if it isn’t working.
Take A Long-Term View
You can’t achieve everything at once. In January many people try to do it all in the first few weeks. They set out to do 30 gym sessions or run every night, and they blow up after two weeks and lose motivation.
We plan two, three, four years in advance. Obviously it gets more detailed when you go to the level of the next month or three months and we have key markers on the way, but it’s a long-term road map. If you’re not comfortable sorting that plan, it may be worth hiring a professional – not necessarily for the long term, but just to help you figure out and plan the next six to 12 months.
Balance Stress And Recovery
It’s important to understand how the frequency and intensity of training affects stress. For our athletes their only concern is training and competition. They don’t have nine-to-five jobs, most don’t have large families. These things take a mental and physical toll which has an impact on your ability to recover. It would be unrealistic for most people to follow an athlete’s programme, because they wouldn’t have the ability to recover between sessions.
Make sure you’re not following a programme that’s inappropriate for your lifestyle. Three sessions a week might be all you can do, or too much, because you’re working 12 hours a day or you have to look after your family.
A big part of recovery is nutrition. Make sure you’re fuelling correctly. If you don’t have much time then you might need to consider meal preparation so you don’t have to grab things on the go. Having a good nutrition plan to support your training is critical.
Training is there to break down the body. You don’t finish a training session fitter – your body is in a worse state that it was before! You recover through good sleep and nutrition, and then the next time you train your body has adapted slightly so it’s slightly better. You do that over and over again, and without nutrition and recovery it falls down.
Track Your Training Load
You can use tech, or things like mileage, or sets and reps, but a basic way to do it is tracking your rate of perceived exertion or RPE. This is a crude but valid way of doing it, and it’s great for beginners to get an idea of the volume of training they’re doing in a week.
The RPE scale is 1-10 or 1-20 and then you multiply that by the minutes you train. For example, Monday was a 15-minute run, and I put that down as an RPE 10 because I never run and it’s the hardest thing I’ve done in my life. That gives me a score of 150 arbitrary units of work. Then add that up for a week and you get a total load which you can track over time. If you add up your last four weeks of training, then divide by four, you’ll get an average load of training per week over that period. Then a rule of thumb is that your next week should be 80-120% of that average load. Going above that could raise your risk injury.
Focus On Fundamentals, Not Fads
We have a goal in mind, we know where the athletes are physiologically, so we know what we need to do to change. You don’t do that by saying, “this new training looks interesting so I’m going to do that”. Again, unless it is just about fun, which it might be for the average person.
With the pros we’re working towards a goal, and it may not always be all that interesting. It’s about doing fundamental stuff really well. So for runners, we could use calf raises as an example. From a physical development point of view it’s about increasing calf capacity. Calf raises are important to work on year in, year out, to protect them from injury, so you can do more training and get fitter. It’s not fancy, just brilliant basics.
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Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.