How Elite Athletes Prepare Mentally and Physically

By: Aaron Shaykevich  |  August 25, 2021

By Aaron Shaykevich

As the Olympics come to a close and the Paralympics begin, it is important to understand how athletes train for such an event. What are the physical and mental challenges of these athletes, and how do they overcome them? Is there anything we can learn from these athletes and implement into our lifestyle?

If there is one thing high-level athletes are known for, it is their consistency. Athletes train six days a week, and while different sports vary in training style, the consistent training regimen is universal. Jim Taylor, Ph.D., writes four things an athlete should try to keep consistent – effort, life, mind, and preparation. Consistent effort is performing with consistent strength and keeping your environment (equipment, training, etc.) the same. This, according to Dr. Taylor, must be paired with a consistent life and mind, meaning acting harmoniously with how you think. Lastly, consistent preparation is the athlete performing consistently for competitions. 

For athletes, diet and nutrition play a significant part in their lifestyle. An article in Penn Medicine recommends that 50 percent of an athlete’s diet be fruits and vegetables. Another article gives a clear organization: 55 percent or more carbohydrates, 12 to 15 percent protein, 30 percent or less of fat. This is similar to the distribution recommended to the general public. Furthermore, an athlete with a more strenuous workout routine may want to increase the carbohydrate intake to 70 percent.

Athletes, of course, must also make sure to be physically prepared. For endurance athletes (running, skiing, swimming), this preparation includes increasing their “VO2 max.” VO2 max is a measure of an athlete’s ability to intake and use oxygen. To calculate their VO2 max, athletes have to wear a mask attached to a 1.5-pound device while training. 

Reaction time and speed are also crucial for virtually every athlete to improve on. Using advanced cameras, sports scientists are able to identify faulty movements and address them with the athlete. To increase muscle strength and flexibility, athletes have to focus on resistance training (using weights, for example) and stretching. 

A big issue athletes face is mental health concerns, a developing topic which most recently American Gymnast Simone Biles brought attention to. As mental health becomes increasingly recognized as a legitimate concern, athletes are taught to confront these issues head-on. Fear of failure, a lack of emotional control, and a lack of self-belief are a few of the more common issues athletes must address if they are to be mentally healthy and perform well.

Cindra Kamphof, Ph.D. is a brain trainer for the Minnesota Vikings, and helps athletes “develop their grit.” She writes that, among many things, players should “believe in [their] purpose” and “own the moment.” This seems to emphasize a cognitive approach to the mental health dilemma, allowing reasoning to be the solution. Indeed, this approach to mental health in the sports field is aptly called “grit theory.” The underlying theory being positive psychology. In practice, this involves focusing on the athlete’s love of the sport and on trying to improve their ability. 

However, even with the best training, there will always be off days, and preparation will not help athletes 100% of the time. An article in Harvard Medicine, however, points out that there are benefits to failure. Richard Ginsburg, Ph.D. points out that the brain “grows more from failure than it does from success.” 

While the lifestyle of elite athletes appears unreachable, there are certainly lessons we can take to live a healthier lifestyle. Consistency is an important attribute for anyone, and while athletes may take it to an extreme, keeping a consistent mindset is definitely valuable. Furthermore, for a balanced diet, find what works for you. Eating food that isn’t conventionally healthy is certainly okay, as long as it’s in moderation and with oversight from a physician if you have any concerns. Also, working out will not only make you stronger but can reduce the likelihood of getting bad cholesterol, diabetes, and even some cancers. While many workouts can help with different parts of the body, just actively walking or doing some squats can be very effective. 

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