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 Keenan Robinson, who joined the U.S. Swim Team in London as athletic trainer and strength and conditioning coordinator for Michael Phelps and Allison Schmitt and is the director of athlete services for the North Baltimore Aquatic Club.
So now that Team USA is done, can they go relax and party? Or is it time to restart the clock for Rio 2016?
It’s a personal decision for athlete and coach. But absolutely, take some time off and tour London and visit their hometowns and enjoy all the things they have earned. Then it’s time to come back and build a plan: is Rio your expectation? In what events? Once you say that, you have to stick to your guns and be all in. You can’t wait and see, you can’t decide later. Then you’re playing with fire. You have to know what you want to do and what you want the result to be. You can’t waver.
Is there any preparation that you think is unique to 2016? Anything you have to do differently?
Well, it’s been great to see how much the rest of the world has caught up in terms of speed and performance. Before, we thought it was a bit easier, it’s not that way anymore. Expressing that information to the younger generation has become way more challenging: the rest of the world is catching up, we can’t mess around with this.
I mean, at this point it’s an extremely major accomplishment to even get to the finals. Kudos to everyone who made the finals. It was so challenging and difficult. Instead of having five to 10 countries, now there’s new challengers too: South Africa, Tunisia, Japan is catching up -- all these other countries. If you get a medal, regardless of color? Hats off, tremendous job. If you got gold, if you broke a world record, you are truly something special.
How do you start planning?
It’s not like other sports, where there’s a season and they last three to five months and then the off-season when they have time off and then preseason.
Swimmers are doing full days 10 out of 12 months. The mental challenge is that their Superbowl doesn’t come until four years later. It’s mentally grueling to be working towards that now that it’s so far off.
Of course there are meets every year and you want each athlete to be the best all of the time, of course, but it’s really all about the Olympics. That’s what we’re preparing for. I mean, NFL teams don’t prepare for the preseason -- they prepare for the Superbowl.
The first and foremost thing, we have to continue to build their bases. Increase aerobic capacity. Speed and power are always the last thing to come. You can’t put back in aerobic conditioning, but you can add speed and power.
Especially with the 18 and under athletes -- we use Michael Phelps as the blueprint: focus on aerobic power and then you can take away a bit of distance and add more weight training as time goes on. We spend about five to six days a week on exertion -- on foundational work.
So for a sport like swimming, the initial training is very mundane, which makes it difficult. That type of training is long and arduous and boring and it goes on for 1.5 to two years before the fun, short, fast interval stuff starts -- or starting to use the equipment even.
But with someone like Phelps and other more senior, elite members, I’m assuming it’s different.
Yeah, you have to look at the body of work and training that the swimmer has done up to this point. Someone like Michael Phelps, he hadn’t missed a single practice up until Beijing. His time off after Beijing was because he’d put a ton of money in the bank, so to speak.
He and [coach] Bob Bowman had done so much work from age 12 through Beijing and even passed that -- the planning, structure, practices were so precise and so goal oriented.
Did that turn out to be the right decision, the time off?
In hindsight, he was fine taking that time off because of what he’d done. He absolutely needed that to recharge
We should have probably given the kid the whole year off to blow off steam. As I said, he worked so so hard, developed so much. I mean, he has the aerobic capacity the size of the Atlantic ocean. And [since Beijing], he really became a man, so he put on more strength.
What about the rest of the team?
I also work a lot with Alison Schmidt, who’s a good example. For her, it was more important to stay on top of everything and not take the time off. Her goal, coming in to this Olympics was to make the team and to get an individual medal and to medal in relay. So coming in, she didn’t miss a single practice. She won five medals, broke the world record on medley relay. Time off was not an option.
It’s kind of like the final exam in college. If you spend a little bit of time each day, you don’t need cram at the end. And the more knowledge you come in with, the less prep you need -- that’s the benefit of experience.
But it’s usually not a surprise what the athletes’ goals are. Let’s use Allison as an example: I’ve been working with her for the past six years. She does the 200, 400 and 100 freestyle. She’s not going to come to us and say, “I wanna focus on the 400 IM.” She’s not going to make a dramatic change. She can’t say, like, “maybe the 50, or 800.” She needs to be specific and she absolutely will. It’s her senior year of college at University of Georgia where she’s an NCAA champion. She might decide to focus on short course swimming, speed and power.
Do you think the next Olympic team will be very different?
Yeah, I think it’ll be interesting to see. We’ve always had Michael and Ryan Lochte and Natalie Cochlin who are so good in so many different events. We would see swimmers criss-crossing and being so good across events. Now we’re seeing larger teams, two guys make it for 200 breaststroke, and 2 different in 100 breaststroke. I don’t know if it’s because of the dominance of athletes like Ryan and Michael, other swimmers think they have to find an event that they’re absolutely best at and focus on that.
Now with Michael being retired and not knowing what Ryan’s plans are, it’s interesting. It opens up a ton of spots, does a lot for the younger kids. Maybe they’ll think, "Now that he’s gone, maybe I will go for the 400 IM."
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and length. For more from our "Like An Olympian" series, click here.