We’re all searching for that magic ingredient, nugget of expert advice, or killer training method to elevate our performance to the next level, so who better to learn from than elite athletes; the people who are at the top of their games, pushing the limits of what’s humanly possible?
We may not be up to their supreme levels of fitness or ability, but, by understanding the way that elite athletes train – considering that they have access to the very best coaching, science and programmes available, bringing them close to perfection in their various disciplines – we can mimic those principles in our training to achieve some great results.
Strength and Conditioning
To start with, let’s take a look at strength and conditioning; an essential factor in any sport, especially if you have lofty ambitions of performing amongst the world’s best. One good source of information to understand how elite athletes train is The Journal of Strength and Conditioning, which reviewed the common skills and protocols currently in use by elite athletes in the U.K. Its findings suggested that the specific strength and conditioning programmes designed for top-performing athletes include the following key skills:
Agility – the ability to minimise transition time from one movement pattern to another.
Accuracy – controlling movement in a given direction or at a given intensity.
Balance – managing the body’s centre of gravity in relation to its support base.
Cardiovascular and respiratory endurance – the ability of body systems to gather, process and deliver oxygen.
Coordination – combining several distinct movement patterns into a singular distinct movement.
Flexibility – maximising the range of motion at a given joint.
Power – how muscular units apply maximum force in minimum time.
Stamina – how well the body’s systems process, deliver, store and utilise energy.
Strength – the ability of a muscular unit, or combination of muscular units, to apply force.
Speed – the ability to minimise the time cycle of a repeated movement.
This may seem rather complicated, but, before you get overwhelmed, it’s important to say that strength and conditioning training isn’t just for the professional athlete. Non-elite athletes, like you and I, may not need this same level of stimulation, but, by implementing some of the basic, key principles into our daily training routines, we too can reap the benefits.
If we take a moment to focus on running, several studies have been published in recent years investigating the link between strength and conditioning training and performance. One of these, published in the Journal of Strength and Condition Research, which surveyed 667 distance runners, from local amateurs to international competitors, identified that the best runners were significantly more likely to partake in strength and plyometric training compared to those who were less accomplished.
Likewise, a study published in Sports Medicine concluded that “the addition of two to three strength training sessions per week, which include a variety of strength training modalities are likely to provide benefits to the performance of middle- and long-distance runners.” Following Mo Farah’s incredible double gold medal-winning performance at London 2012, hitting it hard in the weight room was given as a possible contributing factor. While we, the general population, may not be able to work at the same intensity as Mo, or lift the same weights (although he’s wiry, he’s also very strong), if we’re able to include some strength and conditioning training in our exercise regimes, tailored to our sporting interests and goals, we’re also likely to see an improvement in performance.
So, what exercises should you do? Firstly, it’s worth taking some time to think about the skills that almost every elite athlete needs to master, as the exact requirements of their sports (and the experience of the athlete) will determine how much focus is given to each of these key areas. However, as a guide, Olympic weightlifting is said to comprise 81% of an elite athlete’s strength training. The clean and jerk, snatch and squat are some of the most frequently reported weightlifting exercises utilised by elite athletes and have been shown to increase strength and power, so lifting the barbell a bit more often could be just what you need to further condition your body and enhance your athletic performance.
Another important element of an elite athlete’s strength and conditioning, which you can try, is movement training, such as agility (change of direction drills), acceleration and deceleration drills. This helps to improve an athlete’s ability to minimise the time cycle of a repeated movement along with enhanced braking force while minimising transition time from one movement pattern to another.
It may seem obvious, but the training undertaken by elite athletes is very specific to their sports, so you too must adopt this principle if your aim is to follow in the footsteps of your favourite star. For example, if you want to run a 10k race, you’re much better off following in the footsteps of someone like Paula Radcliffe than strongman, Eddie Hall, or Tour de France winner, Chris Froome – so lifting heavy weights in the gym or attending indoor cycling classes won’t be as beneficial as putting in some hard running miles on the treadmill or on the road.
Mental Strength and Perseverance
Elite athletes not only work tirelessly on the physical aspect of their performance but also on the mental side. To succeed at the highest level, it takes enormous amounts of physical and mental commitment. As the saying goes, “practice makes perfect,” and it’s this perseverance that separates elite athletes from amateurs; the determination to perfect a skill through consistent and deliberate practice over time, keeping going when others are throwing in the towel. When the spotlights are on, and the pressure’s flowing in from coaches, the media, teammates and the crowd, it’s this mental toughness – developed through hours of repetition on the training ground – that allows them to perform to the best of their ability. It’s a well-known fact that the way David Beckham was able to perfect his curling free kicks was by practising them daily at his local park while growing up.
The way you can replicate this is by making a concerted effort to stick to your fitness and nutrition programmes, remembering that, like so many other aspects of life, it’s a marathon, not a sprint.
Having read this, I’d like to think that gone are the days of going to the gym, popping on the treadmill for ten minutes, followed by some pointless resistance training, with no real understanding of what you are trying to achieve.
Remember that we can all train like an elite athlete! Given the fact that we will be training nowhere near the overall volume of an elite athlete, the occasional strength programme here, an Olympic weightlifting session there, combined with some speed and agility work, is all that we need to keep slowly improving. The key is to find out which elements work for you and implement these into your programmes, with the mentality that practice is essential and that nothing worth having was ever achieved without effort.
By Daniel Reilly, Health and Fitness Tutor at The Training Room
If this has inspired you to help people train like elite athletes, take a look at The Training Room’s range of personal training and health & fitness courses: https://www.thetrainingroom.com/personal-training-courses