Rio 2016 Olympics: How Olympians Avoid Overtraining

Photo: Agberto Guimaraes

Elite athletes from around the world have been training for at least four years for the Rio Olympics, which officially kick off this Friday. As they prepare for their events, Olympians must straddle the fine line between enhancing their performance and placing unreasonable demands on their bodies, or overtraining.

How Training Has Changed

In the past, Olympic coaches have considered volume, or the amount of time spent training, as the key to outstanding performances. Due to frequent cases of overtraining in recent years, coaches are now acutely aware of the extent to which training beyond the body’s ability to recover can lead to poor performance, exhaustion and apathy.

Frank Busch, former coach for the United States men’s Olympic swimming team, explains that the high-volume training regimens of the past led to an “arms race among endurance athletes to see who could train the most,” resulting in fatigue, slower times, weak muscles, poor coordination and depression. In preparation for the Rio Olympics, athletes generally value execution over volume and intensity during their workouts to ensure they do not burn out and derail their success.

Short Warm Ups

Warming up and stretching the body is important to heat and loosen the muscles, increase flexibility and prevent injury. However, expending too much energy on lengthy warm ups can tire the body and compromise power, stamina and recovery. To avoid overtraining, three-time Olympic medalist and gymnast Aly Raisman places a higher emphasis on execution than repetition during her training sessions. Raisman trains six hours a day, six days a week, making sure to warm up quickly and limit the length and intensity of her practice routines, especially as she gets closer to competitions.

Diet

Supplying the body with the right nutrition and adequate amount of calories is essential to supporting an intense training regimen and speeding up the recovery process. For athletes who perform for more than 90 minutes at a time, sufficient caloric and carbohydrate intake guarantees that the body will not use muscle mass for energy. Olympic champion and decathlete, Ashton Eaton, who holds the world record in both the decathlon and indoor heptathlon events eats five to six full meals a day to fuel his grueling workouts. Throughout the day, Eaton packs his diet with unrefined carbohydrates, full fats, and proteins to build and repair his muscles, and perform and recover maximally.

Long Breaks

Taking breaks between training sessions to rest and recover is key to avoiding decreased physical performance and loss of motivation. Following her four-hour morning training session, Olympic gold medalist and gymnast Gabby Douglas takes a two-hour lunch as an extended break from exercise. Aside from refueling with a meal of healthy, lean sources of protein, Gabby also makes sure to socialize during her break to avoid mental fatigue from concentrating too heavily on her workouts.

Rest

Building recovery time into a training program allows the body to adapt to the stress of exercise, by replenishing energy stores and repairing damaged tissues. Olympic speed skater and three-time medalist J. R. Celski considers rest and recovery an integral part of his training schedule to become stronger and faster. After a three-four hour workout on the ice, followed by the same amount of time running, biking, weight training and stretching, Celski relaxes in the sauna. Celski enjoys the sauna post-workout, because the heat relaxes his body’s muscles and improves circulation, and in turn speeds up his recovery time.

What precautions do you take to make sure you do not push your limits during your workouts? Tell us about your experiences on our Facebook page.