So You Wanna Be An Athlete?

By Peter J. Morel CFC, CPT, CAFS

Have You Got What It Takes?

It has been said that if you spend an average of six hours a week in the gym that you are considered an athlete. This is somewhat true, but if you intend on being a high level athlete, then six hours is just the beginning.

Six hours is much more than the average fitness buff spends on a fitness routine. But if you look at a Paralympic athlete's program, they often spend as much as four hours a day on their specific sports, and then more on cross-training - strength training, endurance training etc.

The training programs for high level athletes, with or without a physical disability, are very complex. Programming for each athlete is very individual and involves many different training goals. Each program must be designed to ensure that the athlete reaches his or her peak performance within a very specific window of time. The program must allow for proper nutrition and recovery.

Training is stress on the body; this stress is designed to create an adaptation. It's a balancing act to ensure that the stress is enough to create a positive adaptation and not a negative one. Too much stress in the form of intensity or volume can have some very negative side effects with injuries being the most obvious, but also insomnia, irritability, loss of appetite, and chronic muscle soreness.

With any extensive training regimen, there must be a nutritional plan. Nutritional planning for an athlete is no small task. Some nutritionists have made lucrative businesses out of designing programs for athletes. Each person's program is tailored to their specific calorie intake, carbohydrate content, protein needs, recovery, and supplementation. Nutrition for an athlete is an ongoing process. The program is often fine-tuned at different stages of the training cycle depending on the athlete's performance. As for supplements, top level athletes do not have the convenience of using many of the high tech supplements for fear they may contain any of the hundreds of banned substances. Most of them usually stick to the basic protein powders and electrolyte-based sports drinks.

Sports specific programs (swimming, track, field, rowing, etc.) must allow for many diverse factors that include power, strength, speed, agility, coordination, quickness, flexibility, muscular endurance, aerobic capacity and aerobic endurance. Each program relies on a four-period training cycle, called Periodization, designed to enable the athlete to maximize their athletic potential.

The four main cycles are the Pre-Season, On Season, Post-Season and Active Recovery. The Pre-Season is designed to develop the athlete's base in strength and power, and this is when most of the heavy weight training is done. As the competition season approaches, the exercises move more toward sport-specific movements and agility and coordination drills are added into the program. Flexibility and speed work are ongoing throughout this cycle.

During the On Season cycle, the program is geared towards maintaining the athlete's strength, power and endurance. If at any time one or more of these factors begin to diminish, a micro-cycle of "pre-season" training is added into the mix to give the athlete a quick jolt. Post-Season is the time frame after the season draws to a close when injuries and body fatigue are tended to, be it through rest or proper medical attention. Once the athlete has been rehabilitated he or she enters into the final cycle - Active recovery - where the athlete remains active but is not training at a high intensity. Usually the athlete will swim, cycle, jog, etc. to maintain fitness if nothing more. This cycle usually accounts for two to four weeks. Then it's back at it with the Pre-Season cycle.

As you can see the work involved in becoming an elite athlete is quite daunting. Athletes must train, diet, work a regular job, and promote themselves and their sport. All of this is done in a typical day where most of us will work eight hours and go home. But it's important to note that anyone who plays a sport, whether just for fun or at a competitive level, can make valuable use of Periodization to improve their game.

As a professional strength and conditioning consultant I have seen what it takes to get to the highest level of mental and physical conditioning and let me say that only one out of a hundred people has what it takes. We call them champions! Our Olympic and Paralympic athletes deserve our respect and applause for the tremendous amount of work they have put into representing our country on the world stage.

Until next time stay fit and be strong!