For an athlete, there is only one thing bigger than competing at the Olympic Games—competing at an Olympic Games in your home country. Knowing this, the athletes who won the right to represent Canada at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games were more motivated than ever to do everything possible to be at their very best come competition day.
It goes without saying that Olympians have to be at the peak of fitness come Games time. However, this goes well beyond just practicing their sport. It means countless hours in the gym, endless biking on the roads and trails, death defying trampoline work, or punishing dry land drills. When the rest of Canada was enjoying the summer of 2009, our Canadian Olympic Team was putting in massive amounts of training.
“I hovered around the 800-850 hours of training per year,” says biathlete Robin Clegg. “Most of the training occurred between April and November, as the competitive season left little room to train.”
Improving fitness is not just a case of working extremely hard. Training is a process of forcing your body to respond to stress by building muscle, improving your ability to transport oxygenated blood, or becoming more efficient at using fuels like glycogen or fat. If you load your body with enough stress through progressively harder or longer bouts of exercise, your body will adapt to the
stress, but if you overload your body with too much stress and fail to give yourself enough rest and recovery, then fatigue will accumulate, performance will decline and you will be susceptible to injury or sickness.
The better you recover, the harder you can train, and the faster and stronger you become. Olympians use stretching, massage, hydrotherapy and proper nutrition to speed their recovery between hard training sessions.
In the search for every conceivable training edge, athletes often change their diets. It makes sense, because the foods we eat provide us with the nutrients that arerequired for fuel, proper enzyme functions, and muscle synthesis.
During hard training, the caloric intake can be immense. Some athletes are burning between 4,000-5,000 calories, and are eating five to six meals per day. During hard training, the quality and quantity of food can determine whether the outcome of the hard work will pay off. However, close to competition the training volumes drop and diets need to be adjusted. Too many calories and the athlete’s body composition can change; too few calories and the athlete will lack the energy to perform.
“In the Olympic Village, it is all-you-can-eat,” says Mélanie Olivier, nutritionist for the Canadian Olympic Team. “I evaluated the menu offered in the cafeteria, and issued warnings about the serving sizes and calorie amounts. Some of the athletes preferred to eat their breakfasts in our athletes lounge so they wouldn’t be tempted by all of the choices.”
There are more serious risks than overeating once the athlete is in the Olympic Village. “Getting sick at theGames is a disaster for an Olympic athlete,” says Chief Medical Officer Dr. Bob McCormack. “It means ten to twelve years of preparation for nothing. The stakes are really high.”
Since sleep is critical to immune functions, the medical support team began working with the athletes prior to the Games to ensure that they were sleeping well as they traveled and competed. Once in the Village, rest and sleep became a key focus. The body responds to physical and psychological stress by releasing hormones such as cortisol and adrenalin. These hormones help in responding to stress, but if the stress continues and their production goes on unabated, they will lower the athlete’s immune system. The body needs to de-stress for the hormone levels to normalize. Ensuring the Olympic Team had proper sleep habits was a focus of the medical team long in advance of the Games so that team members stayed healthy all season. Athletes were encouraged to develop non-stressfulways of passing the time between their competition days. Some sports even went so far as to discourage athletes from playing video games that could release adrenalin.
Vaccinations for the H1N1 Flu and seasonal flu were strongly encouraged for all athletes and team staff. Anyone suffering from flu symptoms was immediately isolated from the rest of the team so as to minimize the risk to other athletes. Athletes were encouraged to regularly wash their hands, and to minimize personal contact such as hugs, handshakes and kisses.
Of course, being at your physical best is only half the battle. You need to be mentally tough and able to handle the extreme pressures of competing at an Olympic Games in front of a home crowd. “The unique pressure of the Olympic Winter Games is that they only come every four years,” says Wayne Halliwell, the sports psychologist for many of Canada’s 2010 medallists. “The higher the level of competition, the greater the focus is on outcome. We want our athletes not to focus on outcome, but rather to focus on execution.”
Halliwell counsels the athletes to stay in the moment and to focus on the things within their control. Moguls silver medallist, Jen Heil, knew that she couldn’t control the weather or the lighting, but that she could control her training. So she practiced training in wet conditions and under white floodlights. In Halliwell’s words, she focused on “owning the moment” and “controlling the
controllables.” Performing under pressure means ignoring the clutter produced by the expectations of others and by staying in the moment.
The moment most Canadians will always remember is when Sidney Crosby scored the winning goal for the men’s hockey gold. It gave Canada the record for the most gold medals won at an Olympic Winter Games, and ensured that more athletes than ever before went home with medals and personal best finishes. The efforts of athletes, coaches, trainers and therapists had paid off. Canadian Olympians were the fittest that they had ever been…physically and mentally.
1. The physical fitness of our Canadian Olympic Team is broken down into five components: cardio vascular endurance, muscular strength, muscular endurance, flexibility and body composition. Identify three of these areas in which you wish to improve and create three goals to accomplish in the month that pertain to a greater level of personal fitness. Draft a fitness plan for the next month that will help you reach your goals.
2. Do a scan of your high school cafeteria at lunch. Write out the menu and recommend a revised dietary plan as though your cafeteria is now offering lunch in the Olympic Village for all of the athletes.
3. Create a list of 10 different healthy snacks/recipes that are good snacks prior to physical activity. Create list of another 10 snacks that are good after physical activity. Explain why these are good choices.
Consider extending the case study by including a research component.
1. Research some of the psychological techniques used to help athletes deal with pre-competition stress. Write 10 stress management tips for a friend that has a problem with pre-exam anxiety.
2. It is important to schedule recovery time into your workout routine, to allow your body to adapt and become fitter. Research various recovery and regeneration methods and write a one page report profiling five different techniques that you could use after your workout.3. Review the links at www.olympic.ca/education//library under Wellness and the Canadian Olympic Team in the Research Centre. Based on your physical size and activity levels, determine your daily nutritional needs. Plan a menu for two days that ensures that you are getting the correct amount of carbohydrates, proteins, fats, fibre, vitamins and minerals.
The following case projects are more lengthy, but will allow your students to examine the topic in more depth.
1. Your school athletic director has asked you and your classmates to develop a program to help one of the school teams win the provincial high school championships. Develop a sport specific fitness schedule, a set of dietary recommendations and a mental training plan.
2. Assemble a three month strength training plan for an athlete competing in an Olympic Sport.