Olympic gold medal winners’ training tips

What makes an Olympic champion?

StadiumAn Olympic gold medal is the pinnacle of sporting achievement; they don’t come easy (well, maybe for Usain Bolt, but he is superbly conditioned as well as talented). Any athlete who lowers their head to receive one is the epitome of peak performance. Over the years I have had the privilege to talk with many Olympic champions and in the following Seb Coe, Cathy Freeman, James Cracknell and Steve Trapmore’s comments provide unique insight into what it takes to step on to the top of the podium.

Sebastian Coe – double Olympic 1500m champion, Moscow 1980 and LA 1984

Strength training for endurance

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

Coe’s ability to sprint did not develop overnight. He spent a great deal of time working out with sprinters when he was a student at Loughborough University in the nineteen seventies and this helped hone his technique and power. But where he was perhaps in advance of his contemporaries was in advocating weight training and plyometrics. These training elements gave him both his kick and the ability to run with sustained power – on his world 800m records he would often go through the bell in under 50 seconds.

Coe explained that strength training is often neglected by middle and long distance runners (hopefully not PP readers), who see it as something that is not relevant to their performance, or something that they don’t have time for in their training. Coe was a firm believer in circuit resistance workouts. These incorporated weights, body weight and plyometric moves. He also believed strongly in the use of free weights, as opposed to fixed weights.

What you can you learn?

Endurance athletes (or any athlete) should not neglect specific power and strength training. Everything else being equal the fastest endurance athlete over a short distance, will also be fastest over their chosen race distance. This will not only give them a better sprint finish, but will also enable them to express more power on each stride, rowing stroke or pedal revolution, for example and perform more economically.

James Cracknell – Sydney and Athens Olympic gold medallist – coxless fours

Motivation and mental preparation

Cracknell was one of the ‘other’ men in the crew when Steve Redgrave collected his fifth Olympic gold medal in Sydney. Four years later in Athens he helped Mathew Pinsent to his fourth. Like all rowers he has to be extremely focused and motivated. Thinking back to Sydney he explained that his psychology was particularly under pressure, knowing that he had to support Redgrave’s fifth and final shot at Olympic immortality. So how did he prevent himself cracking under pressure? The answer: by developing a steadfast mental belief in his (and his team mates) physical conditioning.

Competitive opportunities for rowers are few and far between; they may only race 6 times a year. Yet the training is grueling. Cracknell would often have only one day off in a 42-day cycle and would usually train two, even three times a day. In order to remain motivated he would focus on winning Olympic gold. This he explained meant developing a steadfast belief in his and the rest of the boat’s physical conditioning. This also made it easier to train each day. He went on to describe how when their race is on the four can’t communicate with each other, unlike in another team sport such as football, so he relied on ‘knowing’ that he and the other crew members were in ultimate condition. Basically there were no weak links and no body was going to let any other down.

What you can learn?

Achieving peak physical condition is one thing, having a steadfast belief in it and your ability to win is another. In a sport like rowing mental toughness is on a par with physical preparation (just look at the steadfast belief that members of Team GB’s rowing team in Beijing are displaying). If you optimally condition yourself and continuously believe that your training efforts will bring about competitive success then you will bond the physical to the mental and this will provide the ultimate conditions for competitive success.

The British Cycling team again doing so well in Beijing work with Steve Peters a psychiatrist and world class master sprinter. As Bradley Wiggins – double Olympic pursuit champion said, “Athens nearly destroyed me…. I’ve worked with Steve for a year and a half and got to the point where I enjoy my sport now…..it was really business like today (when winning his second pursuit gold) and about getting the job done.” Working with someone like Peters, or a sports psychologist is not a sign of weakness indeed it should be seen as sign of strength, as no stone is being left unturned in the pursuit of the ultimate goal – winning.

Ben Ainslie – Olympic triple gold medallist sailing 2000, 2004, 2008, silver medallist 1996

Specific preparation

Ben Ainslie stepped to the top of the medal podium in Sydney after taking silver in Atlanta four years before, he then went on to win gold again in Athens and then a couple of days a go in Beijing. This shows incredible commitment mental and physical strength. You might not readily appreciate that a sailor requires superb physical conditioning, but when you analyse the fact that a race can last for over two hours and that the sailor can increase the speed of the boat through the water, by for example, pumping the mainsail, you’ll start to think twice. Ainslie is as much an athlete as any of the others included in the exalted company of this article.

Ainslie prepares extremely thoroughly. For example, he specifically conditions his body to reflect the different race conditions he may encounter. If he knows a venue is going to be windy (as it most definitely was when winning in Beijing) he might increase his weight training to give him more power to control the boat, if it is going to be calmer he will increase his CV fitness as less strength will be required. Increased CV work will also serve to decrease his weight, which will make the boat travel faster.

What you can learn?

Really think about the nature of the competition and the conditions you will encounter for your sport. If you are going to run a 10k with a lot of hills then it makes sense to train in similar conditions. You’ll need more strength; if it’s flat you’ll need more speed, so condition yourself to reflect actual race conditions. Think also about the time of the day you will be competing at and train at these times to get accustomed to it. This is particularly relevant if the race/competition will be taking place at a time when you don’t normally train.

Cathy Freeman – Olympic 400m champion

Regularly test and evaluate your training

Freeman ran under intense pressure to win 400m 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 her preparation is going. One of these requires her to run 6 x 200m track repeats with recoveries that decrease from 5 minutes to only 1 between runs. When Freeman approaches a peak she will complete all runs under 25 seconds.

What you can learn?

As coach or athlete you should select a session/sessions that is particularly relevant to the needs of your sport and time in the training year and repeat it at regular intervals – perhaps every 4 to 6 weeks to gauge how your training is progressing. You should always ensure that you are rested before completing your test session. A sprinter could perform 40m sprints from standing to test acceleration and speed and a rolling 30m run for absolute speed. Plyometric tests, such as 5 hops, can also be performed to gauge power development, whilst 1 repetition maximum testing in the weights room will test strength.

Steve Trapmore – gold medal member of the rowing ‘eight’ in Sydney

Don’t neglect core stability and don’t always train the same as your team mates

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 – like all athletes – is well aware of the importance of core stability as a conduit for power transference between upper and lower limbs and also in terms of injury prevention. Rower’s backs take a beating and a strong and flexible back and abs can significantly improve performance and keep them in the boat. Trapmore performed up to 30 minutes of core stability and general flexibility exercises everyday.

What you can learn?

Whatever your sport core stability is crucial. If you want to be able to put all your power down on the track, road, through the water or through your bike’s pedals, for example, then great core stability will allow this.

Most of the exercises Trapmore uses are performed in a controlled manner and borrow from Pilates. You should – like Steve – work the front, sides and rear of the torso to develop all round strength.

Additionally, no two rowers in Trapmore’s crew do exactly the same warm up, as each has their own specific areas to work on. This is a crucial consideration for those of you involved in team pursuits, where there is always a tendency to be ‘communal’ and do the same workout. If you are a footballer who suffers from more hamstring strains than your team mates then you need to ‘condition’ this problem out – and this may mean doing different training to your team mates. Be strong to do your own warm up (and other training) – one that will keep you fit and not risk injury. Explain this to your coach.

John Shepherd

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