Olympic Athletes: sports stars points of view

Sport-Specific Fitness

Peak performers: what you can learn from athletes at the very top of their game.

Winning an Olympic gold medal represents the pinnacle of sporting achievement. And any athlete, whatever his or her sport, who climbs the medal podium to receive one must be considered the epitome of peak performance. Over the years I have had the privilege of talking fitness with many Olympic champions and I have found that each is able to offer a unique insight into what it takes to be the best. So if you want to know what Seb Coe believed made him the most powerful middle distance runner of his era or what James Cracknell does to maintain his gruelling workout schedule and keep focused… read on. You never know, their Midas touch might just rub off on you!

Strength training for endurance

Sebastian Coe – double Olympic 1,500m champion

Seb Coe in full flight down the home straight was an awesome sight. In possession of a double kick, he’d put his foot down around the top bend, then do it again at some point in the home stretch, when he’d scorch away from his rivals. So where did this kick come from?

Coe’s ability to sprint did not develop overnight: he spent a lot of time working out with sprinters while studying at Loughborough University in the 1970s, and this helped hone his technique and power. In particular he credits his extensive use of weight training and plyometric work for putting him ahead of his rivals; he was a firm champion of circuit resistance workouts and believed strongly in the benefits of using free rather than fixed weights.

Coe believes that strength training is neglected by many of today’s middle and long distance athletes, many of whom would look more at home – at least as far as physique is concerned - on the start line of a marathon than in an 800 or 1500m track race.

What you can learn: endurance athletes should not neglect specific power, speed and strength training. All else being equal, the fastest aerobic athlete over a short distance will also be the fastest over his or her chosen race distance.


James Cracknell – Sydney Olympic gold medallist, coxless fours

Cracknell was one of the ‘other’ men in the crew that saw Stephen Redgrave to his fifth gold medal. But he is now a star in his own right and has teamed up with Mathew Pinsent to form the ultimate rowing pair. Like all rowers, he has to be extremely focused and motivated. And the knowledge that he had to support the great man Redgrave’s fifth and final shot at Olympic immortality put him under particular psychological pressure. So how did he stop himself cracking under the strain? He explains that he worked on developing a steadfast mental belief in his and his team mates’ physical conditioning. He also focused continuously on winning Olympic gold.

Competitive opportunities for rowers are few and far between - they may race as few as six times a year- yet the training is gruelling; Cracknell would often have only one day off in a 42-day cycle and would usually train two or even three times a day. His personal focus and goal-orientation made it easier for him to stick to this incredibly demanding schedule.

What you can learn: achieving peak physical condition is one thing, but having a steadfast belief in it is another. In a sport like rowing, mental toughness is just as important as physical preparedness. If you condition yourself optimally and continuously work on believing that your training efforts will bring about competitive triumph, then you will succeed in bonding the physical to the mental, which will create the optimal conditions for competitive success.

Specific preparation

Ben Ainslie – Olympic Gold medallist Laser class sailing 2000

Ben Ainslie stepped to the top of the medal podium in Sydney after taking silver in Atlanta four years earlier. Initially you might not think that a sailor requires superb physical conditioning, but when you ponder on the fact that a race can last for more than two hours and that the sailor can increase the speed of the boat through the water by, for example, pumping the mainsail, you might start to change your mind. Ainslie is as consummate an athlete as any of the other sporting heroes included in this article.

Ainslie prepares extremely thoroughly, being careful to condition his body specifically for different race conditions. If he knows, for example, that a venue is going to be windy he might increase his weight training to give him more power for controlling the boat. If, on the other hand, conditions are going to be calm, he will focus on boosting his cardiovascular fitness, since strength will be less of an issue. Increased CV activity can also reduce body weight, which can make the boat go faster.

What you can learn: think hard about your races or other competitive events, and the conditions you are likely to encounter while performing them. If you are preparing for a crucial 10k race over hilly ground, it makes sense to train in similar conditions so that you benefit from increased hill surging strength. If the planned race route is flat, you’ll be more reliant on speed and should condition yourself appropriately by training at race-pace.

Regularly test and evaluate your training

Cathy Freeman – Olympic 400m champion

Freeman ran under intense pressure to win 400m Olympic gold on home soil in 2000. She obviously got her training spot on.

Freeman has a number of specific sessions that she regularly uses to test how well her preparation is going. One of these requires her to run 6 x 200m, with recoveries that decrease from five minutes to just one minute between runs. In the run-up to peak performance periods, she will complete all runs in under 25 seconds.

What you can learn: select a session (or test) that is particularly relevant to the needs of your sport and the time in your training year and repeat it at regular intervals – perhaps every four to six weeks – to gauge your progress, always ensuring that you are well rested beforehand. An endurance athlete could perform a six-minute maximal test to calculate vVO2max, while a sprinter could run 40m from a standing start to test acceleration and speed and a rolling 30m for absolute speed. Plyometric tests can be used to assess power development. Obviously you may want to combine various tests to measure the specific components of your sporting requirements (see PP171, October 2002, page 9).

Learn from your defeats

Marion Jones – triple Olympic gold medallist

The world number one sprinter in 2000 lost her crown to Zhanna Pintusevich-Bloc at the 2001 World Athletic Championships. You may recall that, under intense pressure, she lost form as the Ukrainian blasted past her to victory. The American acknowledges that their rivalry has been good for the sport, but was not so good for her when she came in second. However, great champions are not beyond taking stock, and throughout last winter she used that defeat to motivate herself to improve. Jones’ prolonged focus on her start and acceleration paid off, and she won a commanding victory over Pintusevich-Bloc in their one and only race during the 2002 outdoor season in London.

Jones has also steered clear of the long jump event, although she intends to be on the runway for the Athens Games. She realises that her technique needs improving and also acknowledges the event’s greater potential for injury. She decided that by temporarily shelving it for a season that she could potentially prolong her career, while still having the time, eventually, to master its technical aspects.

What you can learn: a defeat (or an injury) should be used to evaluate your physical and mental preparations. Like Jones, you may need the shock of a loss to kick-start a new training emphasis. Similarly, an injury may reflect a training imbalance or poor technique. Many runners do not work on their technique (something else to learn from Coe) and this may lead to injury, as may poor conditioning. The right training programme should include workouts designed to optimally prepare your body for the rigours of training, not just sessions to improve your lactate threshold or VO2max. To provide a real world example, many runners fail to work on the strength and flexibility of their Achilles tendons, which is why PP regularly offers advice on how to stretch and strengthen these important bands of soft tissue.

Don’t neglect core stability

Steve Trapmore – Gold medallist rowing Eight Sydney

Trapmore and his crew torpedoed through the water to take gold in Sydney as part of the Redgrave road-show that put British rowing on top of the world. Trapmore is well aware of the importance of core stability as a conduit for power transference between upper and lower limbs and a powerful tool for injury prevention. Rowers’ backs take real beating, and a strong and flexible core can significantly improve performance and keep them in the boat. Trapmore performs up to 30 minutes of core stability and general flexibility exercises everyday.

Most of the exercises Trapmore uses are performed in a controlled manner and borrow from Pilates. You should, like the rower, aim to work the front, sides and rear of the torso. Incidentally, no two rowers in Trapmore’s crew perform exactly the same warm-up, as each has specific areas to work on. This is equally important for you to take note of, especially if you are involved in a team sport where there is always a tendency to be communal and share the same workout.

John Shepherd

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