Be Fit For Life

with Ellen Cohen-Kaplan

How do those Olympians do it?

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This week, I’ve enjoyed watching some Olympians perform their incredible feats of physical prowess. I’m continually amazed by what the human body, properly trained, can do.  Highlights range from world record-shattering swimmers Katie Ledecky and Michael Phelps to our neighbor Aly Raisman and finally to Simone Biles’ speed, height and tumbling performances. These games are truly a showcase of not only the potential of our physical selves, but more importantly our mental selves.

I find myself saying, “I wish I could do that!”, then laughing at that idea. First of all, the “wish” is ridiculous! These are not feats that are obtained by hoping or wishing, rather they take countless hours of blood, sweat and tears in training and competing. Second, these athletes’ ultimate goal is to compete at the Olympic level. Most Olympians’ daily grind consist of several hours of exercise and training, with one day off for recovery. For mere mortals like ourselves, at least 2 or 3 days of taking it easier during the week is a good idea. Third, we can think about our own goals and milestones, and think like an Olympian — what’s it going to take to accomplish my own goal?

One of the most effective ways to accomplish your goals is to break them down into short term objectives:

  • How many days a week should I practice in order to _______________?
  • How many hour(s) a day will I devote to accomplish_______________?
  • How can I modify my training so I don’t get discouraged if I don’t reach my goals initially?
  • What steps can I take to continue if I need to adjust my goals?
  • What is the ultimate objective?

Although the long term goal may seem daunting, the short term objectives will make them obtainable. For example, for the PMC, which is my personal yearly Olympian feat (everything is so relative!),  I know I have to:

  • Train at least 4x/week for a total of 80 – 120 miles a week during the season
  • Do at least 5 long distance rides — 40 + miles before the challenge
  • Pay close attention to my bodily needs during and after riding to refuel and rehydrate, and get enough sleep
  • Get my bike tuned up, making sure all major systems are ready to roll
  • Raise at least $4500 for the 2 day event

There are many events in your life that you may have to train for, not all of them dramatic or physically exhausting. You may have to train or prepare yourself to take care of an elderly parent or relative, go on a strenuous or emotionally draining family vacation, plan and execute a big event, or pack up and move from a residence. All of these require some preparation, and you perform your best when you train for it. What would your short term objectives be?  For example, if you know you have back issues, and you needed to take a long drive and help out a relative, what could you do to “train” for this event? A sample list of short term objectives may be to:

  • do back stretches every morning to prevent flare-ups
  • walk on a regular basis to strengthen leg muscles and loosen up your back
  • do core exercises to strengthen gluteal and core muscles to prevent pain

Chris Sebelski, assistant professor of physical therapy at Saint Louis University, cites these six steps you can use to train for your own personal “Olympic” events:



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. Clients often ask me ” How long will it take to get in shape?”.  The answer depends on many things. First, you must define what “in shape” would be for you. Second, how many years have you been out of shape? Third, how much time are you willing to devote to exercise a week? And finally, when or how will you know if you’ve accomplished your goals? It’s essential to break the goal down into bite-sized pieces, or short term objectives.

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 originally may seem unreachable is obtainable after all.

2. Cross-train

Olympians may be unrivaled within their skill set, but they use many other skills along the way.

Cross-training is using a variety of different techniques to accomplish different fitness standards. Weight training, speed and agility training and flexibility like yoga reduces risks of overtraining and helps avoid injury. The combination 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 squares 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. You can also work on balance activities and cardio workouts. All of these activities will help you get the most from your ski trip. To train for cycling trips with many big hills, I do exercises with many squats and lunges ahead of time.

3. Work Out with Others

Olympic athletes don’t train alone and they certainly don’t train only with those at their 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 or walker, walk with faster people, or use intervals. 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. Other parts of your team and motivation can be a Fitbit, Apple Watch, heart rate monitor or any other wearable technology, although I admit I have a bias toward living, breathing creatures, (yes, that includes your dog!), whenever possible.

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, a pep talk from your coach, or even logging your progress on an app like mapmyworkout/run/walk/ride.

6. Adopt an Olympic Attitude

For most of us, our jobs, families and personal commitments mean we can’t devote as many hours to training as a world champion can. 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. Approach your time with purpose, energy and discipline, and your results will be encouraging.

The sense of accomplishment and pride that comes from striving to improve upon your personal best is something everyone can experience. We may have our subconscious limiting thoughts or abilities, but with determination and drive, we can overcome them and become our own version of an Olympian.

*Much of this post is taken from this article- see for more.


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