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.
Build explosive power. Mike Day, a BMX racer, needs to rocket out of the starting gate and accelerate after landing jumps. That's why he—along with Rogers—is a fan of plyometrics. These exercises are helpful for any kind of sport in which you change direction quickly or require bursts of power, including basketball and tennis, says Greg Romero, Day's coach. Day likes three moves in particular: the box jump (he jumps, tucking knees to chest, and lands on a box as tall as 50 inches), the jump squat (he squats and does the kind of vertical leap you'd see in a basketball game), and the step-off (with one foot on a curb or platform, knee bent, he pushes off into a jump and lands on either the same foot or both feet). Romero says beginners should focus on two-legged exercises and try low platforms at first. Jumping rope is a great way to get your muscles and joints primed for these exercises, too.
Track your progress. Roach sets Saturday morning aside for a specific lifting workout and loves seeing if she can beat her record of the previous week, even if it's just by a pound or two. "Have a plan, and track your progress," says Cosgrove. He records his clients' every workout: how many sets and repetitions of each exercise, then how much weight they lift and how long the rest period was. Even if you don't go into that much detail, many people find keeping some kind of workout log motivates them to keep exercising.
Practice competing. If you're going to try a road race, triathlon, or even a round-robin tennis tournament, you'll want to be prepared for what the event will actually be like. You can never mimic exactly the conditions of the main event (nor do you want to, given the strain it can put on your body), but practicing certain elements can enhance your performance. Triathlete Julie Ertel likes to rehearse the transitions she'll have to make during her race, for example. She starts off with a quick swim, then runs to her bike and dons her equipment for a short ride, then quickly gets into her running gear and runs for less than a mile. The whole thing takes about 12 minutes, and she repeats the sequence three times, with some rest and a drink in between. "It's very race-realistic," she explains. Even beginners benefit from repetitive practice like this, says Graham Wilson, a Colorado-based triathlon coach.
David Oliver, whose event is the 110-meter hurdles, likes to simulate what he calls the "critical zone" of his race—the part where the race will be won or lost. He skips the starting sprint and the finishing kick and runs four separate times through a course of 10 hurdles, some set at lower-than-usual height. That mimics the race without putting too much stress on his body, says Koop. If you're training for a 5K race, for example, you can run three 1-mile segments: the first three fourths of each mile at race pace and the final quarter mile very easy.
Smart, the fencer, prepares for competition by sparring with as many as 10 teammates in a training session. That gives him practice against a variety of opponents. (You can apply the same wisdom to your own workout by changing your routine regularly, tackling different terrain or a different weight machine, say.) Smart, says Koop, is "trying to be adaptive to any situation." That's a skill that comes in handy outside the arena, too.