7 Lessons From Real-Life Olympic Trainers

As with any biennial version of the Games, the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro allow us regular people — with our tight shoulders and sore wrists due to extreme sitting and podium-worthy texting skills — to witness actual feats of physical and mental prowess by the most elite athletes on planet Earth. And if we're lucky, we'll even feel inspired to go for gold in our own lives, whatever that means.

Even if you’re not an Olympic-caliber gymnast performing gravity-defying flips a la U.S. star Simone Biles, there’s still a lot of knowledge about physical health that can be gleaned from the trainers of Olympic athletes. And yes, their tips on assessing your limits, and then pushing through, can be applied to everyday mortals like you and me. During a recent trip to the U.S. Olympic Gymnastics trials in San Jose, CA, I got to go behind the scenes with team U.S.A. Trainers in the Athlete Recovery Center. And for your benefit and mine, I took advantage of such access.

How could every day non-Olympians profit from some of the science and teaching that these top trainers use on the best athletes in the world? The answers are not only surprising, they're also totally doable. Get out your water bottle and one of those cool retro red, white, and blue sweatbands, because it's time to get learned.

1. Have A Plan


Athletes are known for having meticulous training plans and sticking to intense schedules. To start training for your 5K, or even your after-work treadmill routine, the most important thing to do, according to Ralph Reiff, is to have a plan that you can commit to. Reiff, the Executive Director of St. Vincent Sports Performance and a contributor to the development the U.S.A. Gymnastics Athlete Recovery Center, tells me: “I’m a big big believer in intentionally thinking about a plan. Step one is mental."

2. Know What Your Baseline Is And Work From There

You don’t have to start with a marathon. All you need is a slight uptick in daily activity to get you started and build on from there.

“You’ve got to put a stress on the body from a standpoint that exceeds your daily living activities,” Reiff says. “You don’t have to be an Olympian, but [think], 'Can I tread water, [which] is a level of physical activity above what I normally do in my everyday life?' For that, it’ll build muscular strength, it’ll build muscular endurance metabolism, and connectivity. It also has this great effect on the brain.”

Livestrong notes that "treading water may be one of the healthiest forms of exercise. Since you're floating gently in water, there's no harsh impact on your joints and no strain on your back or neck."

After time, if you can bump it up a notch, Harvard Medical School notes that water aerobics can burn between 120 about 200 calories per half hour, depending on your size.

3. Have The Right Equipment

When you’re watching the summer Games this August, you’ll notice a lot of athletes wearing tape in single strips all over their body. It’s nothing like the white athletic tape the high school trainer used to wrap your ankles with back in the day. Improvements in technology for physical recovery and support have changed greatly in the past decades.

The U.S. athletes at the Olympics will be wearing something called KT Tape. It was available in the athlete's recovery center at the trials. But it’s not just for Olympians; you can get this far more advanced product that will help get you through your own training, whether it’s spin class or just a mean case of text neck. I had the trainers give me my own tape job done before an afternoon workout (thanks, guys!), and it was a gamechanger.

The tape is made from elastic, a superior material to use for athletic and commonplace injuries and aches. It has a specially-designed adhesive that allows the tape to remain in place through sweat, movement, and even when swimming. According to the brand, "KT Tape creates neuromuscular feedback (called proprioception) that inhibits (relaxes) or facilitates stronger firing of muscles and tendons. This feedback creates support elements without the bulk and restriction commonly associated with wraps and heavy bracing."

4. Use What's Accessible

Fancy gym memberships and trendy workouts are enticing, but Reiff stresses not to overthink it. “It really becomes about what you have access to.” If you can get to a body of water, then great, go for a swim. If you are able to go outside and take a walk, that works too. Reiff suggests small things, such as hurdle walks during a long walk with friends or a pet, to help with ankle and hip mobility, which he pointed out were among the most common points of issue for Americans as they age.

5. Sweat Tests Are An Actual Thing

Dr. A. Jay Binder, who chairs U.S.A. Gymnastics medical commission, notes that regular, non-Olympian folk can actually get a one-time sweat analysis that will give you a personal electrolyte prescription so you know how to best replace lost electrolytes after physical activity. It turns out that all humans sweat differently, and need different levels of electrolyte replacement to increase endurance and recovery, and to minimize cramping. Whoa.

It's not exactly cheap, generally running anywhere from $100 to $500, but there are a few brands you can order tests online, such as Levelen. Once you've gotten your results, you'll get a personalized hydration and electrolyte prescription that will help keep your body at peak performance if you have nagging injuries or exhaustion.

6. Measure Your Workouts Based On Intensity, Not The Clock

Athletes, especially gymnasts, are known for working out for up to seven hours a day. Reiff has some good news for people who don’t have that kind of time to devote to raising their endorphins and sweating it out. “Depending on intensity, you can get a lot done in 15 minutes” he tells me. Great, I’ll take it.

In the video above, seven-time Olympic medalist in gymnastics Shannon Miller gives a rundown of a full-body workout you can do in 10 minutes with minimal props. Miller emphasizes that with short workouts, form is key to working all the areas of the body for best results.

7. Recovery Is Essential

Craig Barritt/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

Do you give yourself a hard time for taking a day off? Let yourself off the hook. Allowing your body to heal and recover won’t set you back; it’ll actually help keep you going. It's the entire premise behind the Athlete Recovery Center. Reiff sums it up: “If you’re recovering better, you’re reducing the risk of injury. You’re reducing overuse injuries.”

Now start stretching those fingers. Your remote control hand is going to get a big work out during the Games.

Images: Lindsey Green; Getty Images