APU Health & Fitness Original

Training Like Olympian Athletes without Overtraining

Soon, the highly anticipated Olympic Games will begin! There’s something about the Olympic competitions that brings the world together and gives each of us a nice dose of patriotism each time we see our flag flying and hear our national anthem. Even individuals who aren’t self-professed “sports people” will be watching as Olympic gymnasts fly through the air, and volleyball duos dig, set, and spike their way to victory.

The well-developed physique of Olympic athletes is something we can’t help but admire. We know the physical and mental work that went into training for the Olympics is not easy.

After watching these world-class athletes, we often find ourselves interested in training as well. Maybe we should tackle that half-marathon now. Maybe we could put a basketball league together or push ourselves harder to become the fittest versions of ourselves.

When we’re motivated and excited about starting some new training, one thing seems to come up often: how to train well without overtraining. Some over-eager individuals will often push themselves not to the point of the proverbial “win,” but much further, resulting in burnout and potential injury.

This fine balance of working hard without overtraining is something that Olympians and professional athletes have honed throughout their entire careers. But how can we mere mortals push ourselves to the point of improving our physical fitness without risk? There are three ways.

#1: Consider Your Life Schedule and Stressors

It’s important to remember that Olympians train for a living. They commonly do not have other careers and focus all their attention on training and recovery in order to get the ultimate performance results from their bodies.

The average person, however, has a job, family obligations, and community involvement, so adding exercising and training to those responsibilities isn’t easy. In addition, most don’t have a team of coaches to provide advice and keep them on track.

To improve our physical fitness and avoid overtraining, we need to acknowledge the current level of stress — apart from training — that already affects our bodies. Whether it’s stress from a job or stress from working out, our bodies read the signals the same and respond with similar adaptations. So if we already have high levels of stress from outside sources, it’s important to follow a training regimen that is not also high-stress.

Consider this example. Some clients are go-getters, over-achievers and always-pushing-themselves employees. They are also over-committed with social gatherings and rarely make time for white space in their calendars.

These clients are also driven in the gym, which makes them more interested in high-intensity exercise and circuit training activities such as bootcamp and sprints. While these activities can be excellent for these clients, it’s likely too much for them.

This type of client would likely enjoy a high-intensity routine until he or she became overwhelmed and even physically ill. Instead, this client may benefit from stress-relieving exercises such as leisurely walking,yoga and low-intensity strength training.

It will be hard to convince this client that a low-intensity workout will be beneficial is true, but weighing stressors is a big part of balancing training and overtraining. This isn’t a point at which to lose hope. We can all train for the goals we want to achieve, but certain individuals may need more time in the recovery side of training than others.

#2: Focus on One Goal at a Time Like the Olympians

Another thing we can learn from our Olympic role models is that we’re not all meant to be good at all things. Watch these top-tier athletes and notice that they are focused.

They’re not worried about having a body that looks like another type of athlete. For instance, basketball players don’t wish they could be small and svelte like gymnasts. Similarly, they’re not worried about adding too many skills to their repertoire.

Olympic athletes want to be the best at their chosen sport (and even position), and they’re going to train specifically for that goal. This focus is the distinction between training for a particular purpose and exercising for general health.

General exercise can yield many benefits such as improved fitness and lower stress levels. However, if you have a specific goal or want to pursue higher levels of performance, it’s important to train accordingly.

To figure out what it is that you want to train for, set aside some time to really consider your current lifestyle and your goals for your future self. Consider your answers to these questions:

  • What makes the most sense for you to pursue at this point?
  • What activities or sports are best suited to you, where you are genetically most inclined to excel?
  • What are your overall strengths and weaknesses?

While you can choose any goal you want, you’ll see the most success in athletic performance when you work with your strengths and bolster your weaknesses along the way.

#3: Follow a Well-Designed Training Program

Once you have an idea of what’s doable for your current lifestyle and you’ve set your sights on an exciting goal, it’s time to figure out how to train. This may seem like a no-brainer: work hard and be consistent, right? While both of these aspects are important to training, there’s nothing more useful than a well-designed program. 

Ask any Olympic athlete, and they can tell you what type of program they’re following at any given time. Maybe their focus is on building strength in certain areas, or perhaps it’s a season of focusing on mobility. There is a time and a place for multiple modalities in every training program, and this fact is why it’s incredibly useful to work with a professional whenever possible.

Olympians use multiple coaches. But for you, it could be as simple as hiring a very reputable and properly certified personal trainer or finding a pre-designed program that has been built with intention.

It’s important to remember that all routines are not created equal. Remember you want to train, not just exercise, so it’s vital that you find a program that will systematically help you reach your goals.

What should you look out for in this type of program? Check to see if the trainer has phased your workouts. Periodization and workout phases are used by elite trainers and coaches to systematically build your body and help you adapt in a way that will get you to your goals.

Another benefit of phased, well-designed programs is that the trainer or coach has considered the importance of rest and recovery. Both work and recovery are vital for training for high performance and avoiding injuries caused by overtraining. Find a trainer that you can trust, make sure that trainer knows how to phase workouts and use periodization, and then trust the process.

Following these three steps may not get you to the Olympic medal stage any time soon, but it will help you find the balance of working hard towards a goal without overtraining. Avoiding overtraining is a cornerstone piece of well-developed programs. To learn how to build these types of phased workouts, check out our online bachelor of science and online master of science in sport and health sciences programs and discover more about periodization, phasing, and how to train hard without overtraining.

Cheers to pushing to be the best version of ourselves, and GO TEAM U.S.A.!!

Dr. Adrienne Herrenbruck is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sports & Health Sciences. She earned her Ph.D. in Exercise Physiology from the University of Kentucky and is a Certified Exercise Physiologist through the American College of Sports Medicine. Her research interests focus on skeletal muscle physiology and she has a passion for discussing the convergence of science and healthy living.

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