On Labor Day, I was sitting in a theater waiting for a movie to start and couldn't help overhearing the guy behind me talking loudly to his friends. He was training for his second New York City Marathon, he said, and this year, he hopes to be even more prepared by doing an 18-mile run the week before the race. My boyfriend almost had to physically restrain me from turning around and telling the guy what was wrong with his plan: With fewer than seven days to go before the race, he shouldn't be running anything close to 18 miles.
It reminded me that how you train right up to an event can matter greatly, threatening to derail months of effort if you do the wrong thing. So after consulting 11 Olympians this summer about the kind of workouts they had done all year to prepare for Beijing, I decided to go back and get the skinny on how one of them actually trained during the games. I spoke with Bob Alejo, who is the strength coach for both Todd Rogers (whom I featured in the earlier article) and his partner, Phil Dalhausser, gold medalists in beach volleyball.
The first surprise: There actually were workouts. You'd think that seven matches would be strenuous enough, and I expected to hear that Rogers and Dalhausser spent most of their free time relaxing and planning what strategy to use against their next opponents. But Alejo told me that the two actually did regular workouts consisting of about an hour of weights, including squats, and plyometrics (exercises that build explosive power, such as jumping up onto a box). At home, they typically lift between 80 percent and 100 percent of their maximum capacity; in Beijing, it was usually between 70 and 85 percent, he says. "Sometimes I'd have an idea of how much weight I'd have them lift, but then I'd reduce it or increase it" depending on the circumstances of their last match, he says. He wanted to keep the routine as close to their normal workout schedule as possible. The goal was to keep the nervous system active but not to stress the muscles enough to hinder them in the next match.
What really shocked me was that they were doing these workouts about two hours after their matches. The duo was playing every other day, and if Rogers and Dalhausser weight-trained on their nonplaying days, they'd be stressing the muscles within 24 hours of their next match, which wouldn't be ideal, says Alejo. So the typical routine went something like this: Play a match at 10 a.m., finish up about 11, take care of doping control and media obligations until 12:15 or 12:30, drive 15 minutes to the training site, train for an hour, and then deal with any icing/massage/hot bath needs. On the off days, they might practice volleyball skills just enough to break a sweat and stay sharp, without doing a full, hard workout.
All along, they were refueling—a shake of carbs and protein right after the match, plus lots of fluids and some fruit, another shake after the training session, and then a real meal later in the afternoon. They were also taking vitamin and mineral supplements in the hope of shoring up their immune systems against the ravages of travel and fatigue. (I wrote recently about how the nonelite among us should handle post-workout nutrition.)
Clearly, most of us won't ever find ourselves in such an elite tournament situation. That said, there's a lesson I'm going to take away for the next time I'm getting ready for a big event. Namely, don't be a couch potato. Instead of totally checking myself into sofa duty, I'll keep up a version of my regular routine to stay sharp, even if my workouts are shorter than usual. It's similar to the lesson I learned when I wrote last year about how to recover after a race.