Welcome to our "Like An Olympian" series. During the 2012 London Olympics, HuffPost Healthy Living will take a look at lifestyle and fitness lessons from competitors, coaches and former Olympians alike. We recently had the opportunity to speak with U.S. Olympic Committee Strength and Conditioning Coach Rob Schwartz, who trained many of the athletes on Team USA.
It's interesting that types of sports are grouped together and given the same staff. In your "s'portfolio," what do the athletes have in common?
The sportfolio, or group of sports that I work with, is acrobat and combat. Think of a sportfolio almost as its own athletic department. We have a team leader who oversees all aspects, much like an athletic director. We have managers who handle the areas concerning finance and sports management. Our high performance director coordinates the efforts of the service providers, which includes the sports dietitian, sports psychologist and sports technologist, as well as the strength and conditioning coach. Within the USOC we have several sportfolios.
On the surface, acrobatic athletes -- gymnasts, synchronized swimmers and divers -- may not seem to have much in common with combat athletes from sports such as wrestling, boxing, Tae Kwon Do, fencing and Judo, however there are several similarities. From a training perspective, core strength/control and flexibility are of utmost importance. While these areas are important in all sports, they have to be at peak levels in the acro and combat sports for the athlete to be competitive. Other similarities include the reliance on anaerobic metabolism and explosive power, while having highly developed aerobic base conditioning. Lastly, world class acro and combat athletes must maintain excellent body composition. They must be even more strict with their nutrition than most other athletes to maintain low body fat with substantial amounts of muscle mass.
What is a typical "day in the life" of an Olympic diver/gymnast/Tae Kwon Do athlete? Or a day in your life -- how do you spend your time leading up to the event? Why and how did you come to have that sportfolio in particular?
A typical day for our athletes starts fairly early with breakfast between 6 and 7:15 a.m., as their first training or practice is at 7 or 8 a.m. It depends on the sport, but most practices are two hours per session and there are two sessions per day, five to six days per week. Their strength and conditioning session is usually one to one-and-a-half hours, with three to four sessions per week. The athletes also get “extra workouts,” which are anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes, and focus on their individual needs, whether it’s extra work in the weightroom or addressing a sport skill. Then they have sessions with sports medicine for rehab or recovery work. We spend a lot of time teaching the athletes that recovery doesn’t just happen, they have to work at it. Proper nutrition/hydration and quality sleep have to come first and can’t be overlooked. They have to make time for contrast baths, sauna, compression work with the Normatec system and massage. Most people would think that it’s not a chore to make time for massage, but when time is limited and the massage may be quite painful, it’s not as much a luxury as one may think.
My time spent leading up to events is very athlete- and event-specific. There are a lot of variables that I take into account; the athletes mentality, weight cut (for the combat athletes), training history -- overall and the previous phase -- as well as travel demands, to name a few. Most high level athletes in acro and combat sports have a good idea of what works for them in the last phase or taper. Some like simple guidelines and advice, while others want a strict regimen. Some can’t handle the additional physical stress of strength training while tapering and weight cutting, whereas others need to feel the weights to remain feeling strong. But ultimately the biggest consideration is the level of training the athlete is accustomed to. This will determine the amounts and types of training they do in this last phase. It’s all highly individual.
What can the lay person learn from the way that Olympians train and conduct themselves?
The biggest thing people can take away from athletes is that it takes consistency and patience. Even with the weight cutters, we avoid extremes. We avoid extreme calorie restriction or training 'til we puke. We opt for long-term, well balanced plans that don’t overly stress the athlete and have lasting results. A great example would be one of the world champion boxers I work with. At six weeks out from competition, he is usually six to eight pounds from making weight and in condition to compete. He progressively drops one pound per week, makes weight easily and always wins. He eats steak every night during the time he is cutting the weight! He couldn’t eat like that if he was inconsistent in his approach and came in 15 pounds overweight and out of fighting shape. So really he is training 50 weeks a year to peak four times. There are times for all people, world class athletes included, that the hardest part of the training is getting to the gym. Whether the issue is time, energy, motivation, etc… The world class athletes find a way to get there. Then once the training starts and the heart rate raises, the endorphins are released, and it gets easier. Even better, you are now closer to your goal.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and length.
For more from our "Like An Olympian" series, click here.