Olympic athletes spend hours every day training, building their muscles and perfecting their skills. Olympic training is more than a hobby, and more than just for health. Even so, their workouts may be way more intense than ours, but we can still adapt their workouts into something that us mere mortals can do. Illustration by Angelica Alzona.
Sprint Like a Track and Field Pro
What Olympic Sprinters Actually Do: Running short distances requires explosive power. That means sprinters focus on getting their muscles as big and strong as possible — unlike marathoners, who need to balance strength with being lightweight.
Sprinters do plenty of workouts in the gym, building leg muscle with squats and lunges, and strength in their whole body with core and arm work, too. They practise running on the track, at a variety of short distances. And they do a lot of explosive, jumping moves to build the power they need to push off strong with each step.
What You Can Do: This workout from Usain Bolt (yes, the fastest man alive) has you covered. Three types of jumps work a variety of muscles at full power. You can do these as a workout on their own, or at the end of an easy run.
- Bunny hops (five sets of 20): Start in a squatting position with your arms behind you, then jump forward with both feet while swinging your arms up. Your aim is to cover as much ground as possible.
- Box jumps (four sets of eight): Jump onto a sturdy box or bench, again from a squatting position. Jump back down, and repeat.
- Bounding (three sets of 10): This is exaggerated running. Leap from one foot to the other, covering as much distance as you can.
Dafne Schippers, 2015 World Champion 200m sprinter and heptathlon athlete from the Netherlands, designed both sprinting and core strength workouts for the free Nike Training Club app (on iOS and Android). You'll need to download the app to get the full routine, but the key workout looks like this.
- Run 300m (¾ of a standard track), six times
- Run 200m (half the track) six times
- Run 150m six times
Rest for one minute between repetitions. If you're familiar with how fast you run at different race distances, do the 300m at the same pace as a 5K race, and the 150m repeats at the same pace you would use for a 1.6km race.
Get Flexible and Improve Your Cardio Like an Olympic Gymnast
What Gymnasts Actually Do: By the time a gymnast makes it to the Olympics, they're capable of stringing together insanely difficult moves into hopefully flawless routines. The routines are what they're judged on, so they're a key part of practice. Simone Biles, three-time all-around world champion gymnast, explained to Women's Health that a typical training day is a morning of practising basic skills, and an afternoon of nailing routines.
Gymnasts also do pressure sets for mental preparation, where all eyes are on you, and the stakes are high. For example, everybody on the team might have to sit and watch each person do their routine, and if anybody screws up, everybody has to do theirs again too.
You wouldn't want to be too tired to do your routine, either. In this video of a day at the gym with Team USA, the women alternate routines with running. How close to perfect can you get your moves when you're already out of breath?
What You Can Do: You may not be able to do sky-high flips, but you can blend skills work with traditional cardio and strength moves. Forward rolls and cartwheels are some accessible exercises most people can try. This adorable young gymnast will explain what those are:
Most of us can muddle through at least one of these moves. If you'd like to channel the Olympians and actually work on getting better at gymnastics moves, try this 11-minute workout geared towards improving your cartwheel.
For a cardio-and-skills workout, go to a track that has a grassy field in the infield. Take a few minutes to figure out which of the beginner moves you're comfortable with. Then, begin your workout: Run a lap around the track, then return to your home base on the grass to practise tumbling for one minute. Ten rounds of this should take between 30 and 40 minutes.
Boost Your Muscle Endurance Like an Olympic Swimmer
What Swimmers Actually Do: Swimmers, like sprinters, do a lot of fast repeats of short distances. They work on endurance, and also practise different parts of their stroke (for example, just kicking or just pulling with their arms). A typical training routine includes hours in the pool, but also plenty of "dry land" training in the weight room or with bodyweight exercises.
What You Can Do: Michael Phelps's coach gave a mini version of a Phelps endurance workout to a writer for Men's Journal that you can follow. The aim of this workout is to spend time at the lactate threshold, a sort of sweet spot where any harder would be impossible to keep up for more than a few minutes. It's slower than an all-out sprint, but faster than an easy effort. Here's what the workout looked like:
- Warm up with some 50m drills. We don't know exactly what warmup the coach used, but it may have been similar to this one: Start the first 50m at about half of your top speed, accelerating to about 80 per cent by the end of the lap. Do three more of these accelerations, each one faster than the last, so that by the end you're pushing as hard as you can.
- Swim 50m, then 100, then 150, then 200, resting for 30 seconds between efforts.
- Reverse the sequence: 200, then 150, then 100, then 50, going faster each time.
For their workouts in the gym, swimmers need to spend a lot of time working on their shoulders, back and core. Swimming may look like it comes from the arms and legs, but you need a strong core to put it all together.
The video above shows you some dry land exercises that work the muscles swimmers need most. They include:
- Side plank with a leg lift
- A spiderman lunge with a reaching stretch
- Reverse flys, with a special focus on squeezing the shoulder and back muscles
- Resistance band deadlifts
- Turkish get-ups
These moves challenge your coordination in addition to strengthening and stretching your muscles — super important for getting your body to work as a unit when you're in the pool.
Olympic athletes' workouts are crazy hard, and they take up hours of each athlete's day. Combined with a heavy training schedule, practise and a highly specialised diet, they're the pinnacle of human physique. But with these smaller, more doable versions, you can still add a fresh challenge to your own training schedule, and take your own workouts to the next — and inspired — level.