Deena Kastor can run a marathon at a pace of about five minutes and 30 seconds per mile. Fencer Keeth Smart is so quick and adept with a saber that he has topped the world standings in his fencing event. At a tad over 5 feet tall and under 120 pounds, Melanie Roach can hoist a 230-pound barbell above her head. The three will be in Beijing when the Olympics begin on August 8.
The speed, power, and technique of the best athletes in the world vastly outstrip those of even serious recreational athletes, who might logically assume their own workout routines are unworthy of any comparison with Olympians' training programs. If that's you, well, you'd be wrong. In fact, their regimens offer a treasure-trove of ideas for improving your fitness and performance. "Regardless of how athletic you think you are, some of the things that elites do can be very beneficial," says Jason Koop, a multisport coach with Carmichael Training Systems, an online coaching company. U.S. News surveyed 11 Beijing-bound athletes across a range of sports for their favorite workouts, then asked trainers and coaches for ways to translate Olympian principles into lessons for mere mortals. Here are a few ways to raise the bar:
Create a base of aerobic fitness. Aerobic exercise is particularly key for athletes whose events last a long time. Mark Warkentin, who will compete in the 10K open-water swim, for example, regularly swims 1,000 meters in the pool in just under 11 minutes, rests for 15 seconds, and then does it again until he's hit 10,000 meters. "He's working on his basic endurance," says Debi Bernardes, who coaches swimmers and triathletes from King George, Va. But general aerobic fitness improves performance in virtually every sport. Three days a week, you'll find beach volleyball competitor Todd Rogers doing 35-minute stints on the stair-climbing machine. Sailor John Dane III, who's competing in his first Olympics at age 58, puts in a half-hour of aerobics at the gym, on top of training on the water. Both get stamina from their training, and you can, too: Work up to a few days a week of some kind of steady aerobic exercise, and see if your game doesn't improve.
Get strong. Rogers jumps and dives constantly during his matches, so he needs strong legs. Skiers, soccer players, and cyclists can benefit from his two-legged back squat, in which he balances a barbell on his upper back as he bends his knees into the position of someone sitting in a chair. "It's one of the best, if not the best, movement for producing lower-body strength," says his strength coach, Bob Alejo. Bonus: Working the larger muscle groups burns more calories. Alejo recommends using an unloaded bar—no weights—until you master the technique.
Squats and other exercises that work more than one muscle group at a time are a boon for anyone's workout, says Alwyn Cosgrove, a coach and coauthor of The New Rules of Lifting for Women. "You don't need to do bicep curls and work just one muscle," he says. Two great total-body exercises: the "clean and jerk" and the "snatch," the two lifts Roach will do in Beijing, which involve two different methods of getting a barbell from the floor to above her head. You can achieve the same effect with less complex exercises, like using a medicine ball and touching it first to the floor and then pressing it overhead, says Cosgrove.
Practice speed. You might think that if you were training for a race, you'd always train at your racing pace. Not so. Every other week, Kastor runs three 2-mile circuits of a lake at a faster pace than she'll run in the main event. The payoff, says Toby Tanser, a New York-based running coach and author of the forthcoming More Fire: How to Run the Kenyan Way, is that when you're actually competing, your race pace will seem easy. Tanser recommends starting out with one speed workout a week. "Just run a little faster than your usual workout—not at your maximum pace," he says.
Speed training isn't just for runners, either: Rower Anna Goodale, whose event is 2,000 meters long, says her favorite workout includes repetitions of rowing hard for 250 meters, then backing off to an easier pace. Carrie Johnson will kayak for 500 meters in her event in the Olympics, but her favorite workouts are 200-meter sprints in which she's working harder than she will in the race. Studies suggest that this kind of interval training can burn more fat and boost the metabolism more than working out at a slower pace, as well.