What does it take to be a top-level athlete? How do elite athletes train? As a personal trainer, these are questions I’m frequently asked, and, unfortunately, there isn’t one catch-all answer. Rather, the answer is a frustrating one: It depends.
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Each athlete is different, and the demands of each sport are different. What a soccer player requires to qualify as elite is not what it takes for an American football player to be elite. Even within the same sport, there are varying standards depending on the position. A midfielder needs to run more than a defender, thus, the midfielder must have a greater aerobic capacity and endurance to play at a high level.
Most non-athletes are quick to jump into programs without fully understanding what they want to accomplish. So before starting a new training program, ask yourself:
- How is my current alignment and movement potential?
- What are my performance goals?
Once you’ve answered these questions, the program will be easier to write and more focused on what you want to achieve.
Who Is This Program For?
A program is useless without someone to train. Once you have that someone -- whether it’s yourself, a friend or a client -- you can answer the two questions above.
Let’s take a repeated-sprint athlete as an example. Repeated sprinting requires short, high-intensity bursts of activity for roughly 10 seconds and brief recovery periods of about 60 seconds. Think of sports like rugby, soccer, lacrosse and American football in which athletes alternate between sprinting, jogging and resting.
Before beginning, it’s important to address the following:
- Movement and Alignment
Start with the basics. Without proper alignment and movement, you put yourself at greater risk for injury, which will hinder your athletic performance. Will movement ever be perfect? No. But you can make small adjustments to stay within a range of acceptability. Identify your areas of weakness (knee and hip misalignment are common causes of injury) and work to achieve correct positioning throughout your full range of motion.
- Energy-System Development
Your body’s energy systems boil down to two main principles: speedy delivery and efficient usage. Your body not only needs to deliver the substrates required to perform an activity, but also use them efficiently to create adenosine triphosphate (ATP). Think of a car: Getting gasoline to the engine is delivery, and using the gasoline to generate power is efficiency. But delivery must come first. You have to get gas to the engine before worrying about how efficiently the engine uses it. By switching up the intensity and volume of your training, your body will adapt to the increased demands and become more efficient in energy delivery and usage.
- Building a Strength Base
Athletic success relies on how quickly you can generate force — commonly referred to as rate of force development. But you have to be able to generate force at a normal speed before you can do so quickly. This is why you’ll need to spend time working on developing more absolute strength — to give yourself a base from which you can learn to develop force quickly.
Now that we’ve covered the basics, you can start on a four-week program that’ll help you get stronger, move better and become more athletic.
With a solid training base established, you can move on to the more advanced components of training and challenge yourself to get stronger, faster and more explosive. Here’s how:
STEP 1: The Warm-Up
So often the warm-up gets overlooked, despite how important it is to your overall workout. You’ll need to do more than check yourself out in the mirror while doing a few toe touches and arm swings before diving right in.
It may not be the most exciting part of your workout, but it gives you an opportunity to work on and solidify your positioning before you start, and it prepares your body for exercise by waking up the muscular, cardiovascular and central nervous systems.
By focusing on the correct exercises, drills and correctives, you have the capacity to reposition your body to the optimal alignment. Then you can take that corrected alignment into the workout to solidify it.
For example, if your pelvis tilts anteriorly — your frontal hips point downward, resulting in lower-back sway — it should be your goal during your warm-up to inhibit and activate the right muscles to correct this faulty position. Once you’ve gotten the pelvis to a neutral position, you can make it stick with the rest of your strength-building routine.
STEP 2: The Lift Days
If you’re like most people, lift days are what you most commonly associate with working out. And while your training program should include the old standbys like deadlifting, squatting, pressing and rowing, it should also include a wide variety of other weightlifting exercises.
The first part of the workout focuses on more reactive exercises — things like jumping. The second part emphasizes building strength and solidifying good movement. And the final part trains either the aerobic or alactic energy system (provides immediate energy for high-intensity movement), since that’s where a repeated-sprint athlete will need to invest the bulk of his or her time and energy.
Ideally, there should be three days of lifting, which allows for more recovery time between sessions and means you can really push it. And it allows for more intense conditioning sessions, since total volume in the weight room will be lower.
STEP 3: Conditioning
In the 2011 review published in the journal Sports Medicine, the authors discussed the need for repeated-sprint athletes to prioritize both traditional sprint training (including strength training) to build explosive strength and high-intensity interval training to improve recovery time.
So you’ll have three conditioning days. The first and third days will focus on alactic power development to improve the rate at which your body can produce energy, and the second day will focus on cardiac output to improve aerobic capacity.
STEP 4: Hit the "Off" Switch
At the end of every workout, you’ll wrap up with a breathing drill. Do not undervalue the benefits of breathing and skip this important step. The point of the breathing drill is to find your off switch as quickly as possible following each workout. It’s intended to help you get out of your sympathetic nervous system (the flight-or-fight response) and into your parasympathetic system (the rest-and-digest system) by slowing your respiration and heart rate. Your body has a hard time recovering if you’re on edge immediately post-workout because the body puts everything on standby that doesn’t help you survive the immediate moment. It’s not until the threat is gone that your body winds down and allows you to relax, digest your food and recover.
In putting together your own training program, you have to ask the right questions and consider many variables in order to put the puzzle together the right way. Here are a few things to know about this program before you get into it:
• Tempo represents the speed at which you’ll lift. For example, if the tempo says 3010, you’ll take three seconds going down, no pause, press or stand up in one second, and then go into the next rep without a pause. • KB stands for kettlebell.
READERS – WHAT STRENGTH AND PERFORMANCE GOALS ARE YOU WORKING ON? THE LEG STRENGTH OF A RUGBY PLAYER? THE ENDURANCE OF A SOCCER PLAYER? THE EXPLOSIVE STRENGTH OF AN AMERICAN FOOTBALL PLAYER? LET US KNOW BY LEAVING A COMMENT BELOW.