Get Fit as a Champion
Get some summertime health and fitness tips from three Olympic medal winners and their coach.
Yippee, it’s summer! Weekends filled with tennis, volleyball, surfing — and all-around fun! And if you’re like most folks, you just can’t wait to get your sports gear out of mothballs and your butt off the couch!
But before you jump feet first into an activity-packed season, take your cues from some top medal-winning Olympic athletes. The 2004 USA Summer Olympic beach volleyball medalists Kerri Walsh (gold), Elaine Youngs (bronze), and Holly McPeak (bronze) — and their coach, Dane Selznick — spoke to WebMD about their secrets for having a safe, healthy, and fantastically fit summer!
While most of us can’t wait to hit the ground running the minute summer is in the air, Selznick says the most important fitness tip he can give is to remind summer athletes to take their re-entry slow and easy. This, he says, is particularly true if you want to avoid injury.
“One of the things I see happen time and again is folks trying to make up for a season or a period of inactivity by going at it too hard when the activity begins,” says Selznick, who was recently nominated for the United States Olympic Committee National Coach of the Year award.
Workout Advice — Olympic Style
What we often don’t realize, Selznick says, is that the body can’t play “catch up.” And the longer we’ve been out of the fitness loop, the more caution we have to take.
“You not only have to take special care to warm up before you begin the activity itself, but you also have to put a limit on how long you participate, particularly the first few times out on the field, the sand, or the court,” says Selznick, who has personally trained more than 160 international sports professionals including 25 Olympians.
As Selznick explains, when fatigue comes into play, you reduce the body’s ability to withstand impact. And this, he says, sets the stage for injury.
Olympic gold medal winner Kerri Walsh agrees. “Even being less active for a month can make a difference. If you haven’t been physically active for a few months or more you have to be prepared to experience some fatigue — maybe sooner than you realize,” says Walsh.
If you continue to press on too hard, says Selznick, disaster is bound to occur.
“Fatigue doesn’t affect joints, it affects muscles, but if muscles aren’t strong your joints take the brunt of the force — and something has to give,” says Selznick. That something, he says, can be a bone, tendon, or ligament. And it could mean a summer on the bleachers instead of on the field.
If you do get injured, Walsh says stop activity immediately and take care of the problem.
“Don’t try to push through. If you are injured, listen to your body and stop, or you risk making whatever happens a lot worse,” says Walsh.
Getting Your Body in Olympic Shape
To help avoid playtime injuries and keep their toned bodies in medal-winning shape, our three Olympians tell WebMD they frequently perform a system of exercises known as plyometrics. These are body movements based on the principle that short muscle contraction is stronger if it immediately follows a lengthening contraction. The end result, they say, is the muscle is able to store more elastic energy — and that means fewer injuries.
Their regular workouts also involve a form of resistance training known as “fast twitch” — which actually refers to the muscle fibers that contract the quickest and generate the most power.
“It’s resistance going both down and up and it works on your core strength. It’s all done on rehabilitation machines and as hard as you push the machine, that’s as hard as it pushes you back,” says Walsh.
But for those of us just a little less active in our sporting life, each Olympian suggests frequent workouts with a yoga or medicine ball for overall strength training that can benefit you in almost any sport.
“It improves core strength and balance. And this can be beneficial no matter what activity you’re doing,” says Walsh.
The Role of Diet
While workouts help tone the body, each medal winner also tells WebMD that diet plays an integral role in maintaining their muscle stamina, particularly in warm-weather competitions. Surprisingly, however, each of the Olympic athletes has a radically different way of jet-fueling her ability.
For McPeak, the self-confessed “snacker” of the group, the secret to her strength, she says, comes from eating at least six times a day and snacking on healthy whole foods whenever possible.
“Right now I have fresh fruit, crackers, Fig Newtons, nuts, a bottle of Aquafina and a protein bar — just to get me through the afternoon,” says McPeak, a three-time Olympian. Her postgame recovery meal is always a protein and carbohydrate mix, but she says for real energy she’s a protein eater all the way. And she says because she doesn’t eat enough vegetables, she supplements with wheat-grass smoothies.
“I don’t take supplements, but I do believe in the wheat-grass smoothies, which I think is important if you’re not going to eat a lot of vegetables,” says McPeak.
For Youngs, the answer lies in avoiding carbohydrates, loading up on protein, and eating organic food whenever possible — including not only fruits and vegetables but also organic beef and poultry.
“I think it’s better for you, I feel better when I eat organic food, though it’s not always possible, particularly when we are on tour,” says Youngs.
For Walsh, the answer lies in just one food supplement: flaxseed oil.
“It’s something that one of our trainers highly recommends. And I’ve found it helps my metabolism, and it helps in the recovery process. I saw a big difference after I started using it in terms of stamina and in terms of healing quicker from injuries,” says Walsh.
All three athletes say they avoid heavy eating before a game, but don’t hesitate to snack on high-protein bars and fruit during a match.
“I’ve always got a protein bar in my bag and I will frequently stop and grab a bite when I feel my energy dipping,” says McPeak, who adds that doing so helps keep her blood sugar stabilized as well.
Heat, Humidity, and Safe Summer Fun
While the fun of summer activity is getting to spend your time outdoors, in most parts of the country a single day in the summer heat can go from uncomfortable to scorching before you know it. This is particularly true if you start your day at the beach or park in the early morning and playtime stretches into the hottest part of the afternoon.
For members of the U.S. Olympic volleyball team, who say they sometimes play in tropical locales where the heat is over 100 degrees and the humidity nearly as high, taking some hot weather precautions is essential to their sporting success.
All the team members agree that keeping your body well hydrated in hot weather is key to staying on your feet. But in addition to water they all say that the more demands the sport places on their body, the more they rely on sports drinks and power bars to see them through.
“I have bottled water and Gatorade with me all the time, plus plenty of fresh fruit, which I also snack on constantly,” says McPeak.
While she says she rarely gets muscle cramps, even in the hottest weather, the athletes who do, she says, often rely on Pedialite and sometimes sodium tablets to prevent problems.
Youngs says she bypasses the sweeter drinks, like Gatorade, and chooses instead water and Phytomax — an electrolyte drink that has less sugar and, she says, more power to refresh and replenish her.
“I’m also constantly eating at tournaments — protein bars, Balance Bars, drinking electrolytes, and keeping my feet up when I’m not playing,” says Youngs.
The one thing she avoids drinking is icy cold water, particularly when her body is overheated.
“When I reach for that bottle of water I always look for the one that has been sitting outside the cooler for a little while. It seems to go down easier and I can drink more of it,” says Youngs.
For a quick cool down McPeak says nothing is better than a cold towel on the back of the neck.
“Sometimes I skip the towel and just pour the water straight down the back of my neck and head. It’s like an instant cool down and it really works,” says McPeak.
Finally, if there’s one Olympic-size message that all three medal winners subscribe to, it’s the liberal use of sunscreen anytime they are outdoors. Indeed, each athlete says she wouldn’t dream of spending even five minutes in the sun without sunglasses, a visor or hat, and the protection that sunscreen provides.
“And we all believe it’s important to keep reapplying it since heavy perspiration can reduce the effectiveness. And if you go in the water, reapply as well for continued protection,” says Youngs.
In addition, all three winners say they cover their body as much as possible when they are outdoors, and, when they aren’t on the volleyball court, they stay out of direct sun.