Olympic athletes inspire us with their fierce discipline and natural talent as they smash records, going higher, further and faster. Their can-do spirit encourages us all to take on new challenges. Whether your goal is to complete your first marathon, improve your golf game or compete in a triathlon competition, there are lessons to be learned from the best of the best.
"The Olympics symbolize the chance for all of us to push the boundaries of human potential," said Chris Sebelski, assistant professor of physical therapy at Saint Louis University. "As I tell my students, if you want to compete at a high level, mimic the strategies of those at the top."
1. Set a Goal and Break it Down
Olympic-level athletes train for their next gold medal as a part of a four-year process. After setting a goal to medal or set a world record, athletes and their coaches will break the process down into tasks and time periods with smaller goals that mark progress along the way, Sebelski says.
For instance, if you're training to get in shape for a cross-country hiking trip, you might aim to walk three miles a day for the first two weeks and build up to ten miles a day by the end of ten weeks. Break it down, and you'll find that a goal that seems unreachable is obtainable.
Olympians may be unrivaled within their skill-set, but they use other skills along the way.
Cross-training reduces risks of overtraining and helps avoid injury. It also enhances muscle performance and stimulates the mind so you don't become bored by too much repetition.
Cross-training is also useful to prepare for sports you can't practice every day. If you're planning a ski vacation and your goal is to graduate from blue runs to black diamonds, don't be discouraged because you live far from the mountains. In the months before the big trip, prepare by going to the gym, focusing on lower extremity strength training, balance activities and cardio workouts, like the elliptical machine. All of these activities will help you get the most from your ski trip.
3. Workout with Others
Olympic athletes don't train alone and they don't train only with those at the same skill level. Not only will you find that the spirit of competition and encouragement will keep your motivation high, but there are also training benefits to working out with others who compete at different levels.
If you're a runner, mix it up and run with different people. Partner with someone slower than your normal pace, and on that day, you'll stay out longer and practice endurance. Another day, run with someone faster than your average pace and experience a more intense cardio workout.
4. Create a Team
Olympic athletes are under no illusions that they can do it on their own, and you shouldn't be either.
"While we're enamored by the idea of an Olympic athlete as a hero, we forget that that person is standing on shoulders of so many other people. It takes a village to put one Olympian in front of the world," said Sebelski. "We shouldn't forget that we need those resources, too."
Think about the people who can help you accomplish your goal. You might find that you'll benefit from working with a trainer, a nutritionist, a physical therapist or a physician. Recognize that help is available in all different forms and find what works best for you. It might be a face-to-face session with a trainer, a nutrition class, or an online chat room of like-minded people.
5. Find your Motivation
You may feel silly rocking out to your iPod at the gym, but remember that Olympians use lots of techniques to manage their emotions. This year, for example, several athletes reported using yoga, meditation, and even watching their favorite TV shows to calm themselves prior to an event and also to pump themselves up for competition.
Take a page from their playbook and embrace your inspiration. You can feed your passion by finding the method that motivates you most, whether it's music, visualizing success or a pep talk from your coach.
6. Put on an Olympic Attitude
For most of us, our jobs, families and personal commitments mean we can't devote as many waking hours to training as a world champion might. But you can adopt the mentality of an Olympian during the time you set aside for training, approaching that hour with the single-minded focus of a full-time athlete. The results will be encouraging, Sebelski says.
"Train for a couple of weeks with focus and discipline, and lo and behold, you'll be surprised by what you can do," Sebelski said.
Sebelski says that the sense of accomplishment and pride that comes from striving to improve upon your personal best is something everyone can experience.
"It's been said that running a marathon is now everyman's Everest. But that's true for every sport," Sebelski said. "You can train for the Sunday night bowling league, if that's your passion. The bowling championship may be your Olympics.
"Regardless of the scale of your goal, you should have the experience, at least once, of training for and accomplishing a physical goal you set for yourself. Crossing that finish line is a feeling unlike any other."
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