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Olympic Athletes vs Average People: What Separates the “Best” From Your Personal Best

Jul. 27, 2021

What does it take to be the very best at a given athletic event, game or sport? Short answer: far more than it takes to enjoy them and stay healthy while you’re at it.


The quest for Olympic gold. It is one of the greatest dramas in all of sports. A lifetime of training, grit, cheers, tears, high fives and early morning alarm clocks comes down to one brief moment in time. When milliseconds, meters and muscle matter most, there is no margin for error.

Greater Cincinnati will be rooting for more than a half-dozen elite athletes with local ties as they follow their dreams at the 2021 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic games. Among them:

  • Mount Notre Dame High School graduate Rose Lavelle will take the field in women’s soccer for the United States while former University of Cincinnati standout Vanessa Gilles represents Canada.
  • UC track and field national champion Annette Echikunwoke will compete in the hammer throw.
  • Western Hills High School graduate Duke Ragan will be in the boxing ring.
  • UC grad Jordan Thompson will compete in women’s indoor volleyball; Purcell Marian High School grad Max Holt will play for the men’s team.
  • Edgewood High School grad Zach Apple will swim the 100-meter freestyle.
  • Current UC student Lawrence Sapp will swim in the Paralympic games with several World Championship medals already to his credit.

Getting to Tokyo, Japan, will be unlike any other modern Summer Olympics. The typical four-year cycle between games was extended to five years because of the COVID-19 global pandemic. That means another year of grueling training and sacrifice to maintain peak condition just for a shot at the qualifying rounds.

Olympians: Reaching the Gold Standard

What separates normal people from Olympians? Discipline, diet and countless hours of training are obviously important. But it often comes down to genetics.

Every sport has a body type that works best in competition. A weightlifter needs muscle mass and explosive power to pick a barbell up off the floor and throw it over their head. A soccer player by comparison needs speed and stamina to make it through a 90-minute match.

Research shows that the odds of someone having the perfect combination of physical characteristics for sports may be as high as one in 20 million. That includes everything from muscle strength to lung capacity to recovery, and a little bit of everything in between. In other words, your odds of striking it rich in the Ohio Classic Lotto are better at one in 14 million.

Even subtle body differences within a sport can make a huge difference. Researchers found a link between the weight of runners and the types of races they run. Short-distance sprinters tend to have more muscle mass to power through races with breakout speed. Marathon runners are typically leaner and shorter. That helps them overcome gravity and maintain performance over long distances.

A Better You: Lessons You Can Learn From Olympic Athletes

Just because we are not among the one in 20 million doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy the physical, social and recreational benefits of sports. Sometimes it’s just about having fun, playing in an amateur volleyball league, or paddling a canoe down one of our region’s many scenic rivers.

Genetics aside, there are plenty of lessons from Olympians that we mere mortals can incorporate into our daily lives to achieve our personal best in work and play.

Being an Olympian or professional athlete is a full-time job. The job description is basically train, eat, sleep, repeat.

For the rest of us who already have busy schedules, getting started with fitness does not have to consume hours upon hours every day. In fact, you can get great results by starting with about 30 minutes of exercise most days of the week.

Staying consistent is going to bring you the best results. Start with a few activities you enjoy. You can even break your 30 minutes of exercise into 10- or 15-minute segments at the start and end of your day, then build up as you make progress.

Working out with friends can keep you motivated and more accountable to your goals. It’s a great way to try new activities as well. Pick a few of the Olympic sports like soccer, swimming, cycling or kayaking and try them out. Or try a few group fitness classes to see which you like best.

Every Olympian has a goal in mind. Keep track of your progress with a fitness log. It’s a great way to look back at where you started and see what is working well for you. Remember: your fitness journey is a marathon, not a sprint! Results take time, but they are worth investing in.

PRO TIPS: How and why to keep a training log

Keep It Interesting: Mixing Up Your Exercise Routine

Michael Phelps didn’t become one of the most decorated Olympians of all time by spending every waking moment in the pool. He came up for air and mixed up his training on land by incorporating weightlifting and even boxing into his routine.

“You don’t want to plan your fitness routine around doing the same thing over and over,” said Barton R. Branam, MD, UC Health orthopaedic surgeon and assistant professor in the Department of Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. “If you are only running or only swimming, you run the risk of becoming bored and losing interest. Plus, there are risks from repetitive use injuries. Incorporating different activities into your workout will keep things interesting for your brain and will help you avoid plateaus by constantly keeping your body challenged. Furthermore, it is extremely important to match your exercise efforts with your age, experience and level of fitness. As we age, it takes longer for the body to get loose as well as to recover. The musculoskeletal, cardiac and emotional benefits of exercise are well documented, but it is important to set realistic goals and train wisely to maximize the benefits and minimize injury."

There are four basic types of exercise. Each brings different benefits to your body, from improved performance to reduced risk of injury. No matter your age or fitness level, there are plenty of activities in each type of exercise to keep you moving in the right direction.

Endurance

Endurance exercises will help you go the distance. They also go by the names of aerobic exercise and “cardio” because of their benefits for heart and lung health. As the name suggests, endurance exercises improve your stamina.

You can be creative with endurance exercises as long as they safely get your heart rate up. Brisk walking, cycling, jogging and swimming are great examples, but even dancing, climbing stairs, raking leaves and playing a pickup game of basketball count.

Strength

This is where you put your muscles to work. Strength training carries benefits for men and women that go beyond building a better physique. Keeping your muscles healthy allows you to move freely. Stronger muscles also play a key role in keeping your bones and joints healthy.

You don’t need to have a gym membership or buy weights to get started with strength training. Push-ups, bodyweight squats and chin-ups can be done pretty much anywhere with no equipment required. A starter set of free weights and resistance bands can also be helpful if you are new to strength training.

Most people only need to exercise with weights two or three times per week. Work your different muscle groups on alternating days to allow plenty of recovery time. For example, you might do chest and back one day, followed by legs, then wrap up with week with arms.

And don’t overdo it the first time out! You might be tempted to grab the heavy weights right away, but you could be setting yourself up for injury. Start low and work your way up, just like every Olympian did!

Knowledge is Power! Take our Weight-Training Safety Quiz

Balance

Balance training gives you stability and helps you maintain your center of gravity. Everyone wants to avoid falls, whether you are Simone Biles performing on the balance beam or you are carrying groceries into the house.

Balance exercises can be very simple in nature. Heel-to-toe walks and alternating standing on one foot can help you build better balance. You may even find activities like tai chi and yoga will help improve both your balance and your mind-body connection.

Flexibility

Stretching is one of the most overlooked aspects of fitness, but it is incredibly important for reducing your risk of injury. It makes you more limber, improves posture and circulation, and makes moving through your workouts that much easier.

TRY IT: Simple exercises to make you limber  

Fueling the Machine: A Balanced Diet for Competition and Everyday Living

Training is only half the battle for an Olympian. Food and hydration play an important role in fueling the body. Competition takes a lot of energy. It’s no surprise that athletes need to consume a lot more calories to fuel their workouts. A good diet is just as important for your workouts.

What might surprise you is that the nutritional basics of daily food recommendations are not very different for an Olympian from that of an average healthy person. Professional athletes just eat more of it!

Carbohydrates and fats unfairly get a bad name when it comes to nutrition and weight loss. The reality is they are essential to a balanced diet. We just need to make good choices when planning meals and snacks.

Valerie Brookbank, RD and Haylee Hannah, RD, dietitians from the UC Health Weight Loss Center, offer their knowledge and expertise about proper nutrition for athletes. 

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are the primary source of energy for our bodies. Natural foods like fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, milk and yogurt are great sources.

Carb intake that is required for each sport is different, with a large range of normal or acceptable carb intake levels which can range from higher to lower. The body breaks these down into glucose for an easy source of fuel.

Depending on the sport, athletes may choose some more simple carbohydrate sources to provide quick energy to refuel during a workout. For example, distance runners will occasionally pack quick, easy-to-digest carbohydrates to refuel their muscles during a long run. Things like graham crackers, gummy fruit snacks and gels can help replenish carbohydrate stores, improving their performance by preventing them from ‘hitting the wall’ during their run, which happens when carbohydrate stores in the muscles are depleted.

Fats

Healthy fats are another source of energy that are important for overall health and optimal athletic performance. They also help the body absorb fat-soluble vitamins — vitamins A, D, E and K.

The best food choices are those with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats such as fish, avocado, nuts and vegetable oils. While it is OK to have some saturated fats, we want to limit the amount to keep cholesterol levels down and decrease the risk of heart disease. For more detailed information, check out the American Heart Association’s dietary guidelines.

Protein

Protein is important for building and repairing muscle. However, eating more protein alone will not grow your muscles. You need strength training to achieve that. Athletes do need more muscle mass, and higher amounts are needed if they are trying to build muscle. A well-balanced diet generally supplies all the protein needed to promote and maintain healthy muscle, which is true for the average exerciser, however, not necessarily true for competitive athletes.

Supplements may be needed to optimize muscle building. Lean meats, seafood, eggs, beans and soy products are all great sources of protein.

Water

The more you exercise, the more you will sweat. Water is essential for replacing lost fluids and regulating body temperature. You may need even more water when it’s hot and humid outside. Drink plenty of water before, during and after exercise. For people who partake in intensive exercise outside, especially in the heat, plain water alone may not be enough to ensure appropriate hydration. When we sweat, we not only lose water, but lose electrolytes such as sodium and potassium as well. Sports drinks such as Gatorade are appropriate for athletes participating in intensive and prolonged physical activity. For someone trying to lose weight and are exercising at a more moderate level, a lower calorie/reduced calorie sports drink may be more appropriate.