This February, as you watch the world’s fittest athletes vie for a spot on the Olympic podium, keep in mind what it took for them to get there. Each Olympian’s journey to the Games is filled with a lot of hard work and a few strange twists. Just ask bobsledder Jamie Greubel Poser, from Newtown, Pa. She was a standout field hockey player in high school before becoming a record-setting heptathlete at Cornell University. The idea of competing in the Winter Olympics—let alone as a bobsled driver steering a 365-pound sled as it careers down an icy, curvy track at 90 miles an hour—would’ve seemed preposterous to her back then.
But one of Greubel Poser’s track-and-field teammates who transitioned to the bobsled after college encouraged her to give it a shot. Although it was a sport she had zero experience in, and her first ride down the track made her feel “like being put in a tin can and kicked off a cliff,” she persevered. Today, thanks to her relentless work ethic, Greubel Poser is considered one of the world’s top bobsledders. The 2014 Olympic bronze medalist nailed a first-place finish at the World Cup in November, and she’s now focused on winning gold at the PyeongChang Olympic Games.
While you may not be after an Olympic medal, you likely have a personal fitness goal that’s your equivalent of winning gold. Whether it’s crossing the finish line of a marathon, knocking out a set of pull-ups (unassisted!), or being able to perform your workout of the day at the Rx weight, use these five Olympic strategies to achieve your own athletic dreams.
Greubel Poser’s long-term goal—win Olympic gold—is a biggie. But, “I can’t just focus on the end-goal of the Olympics,” Greubel Poser says. “I need to know what I’m going to do in the gym today, and how that is going to then contribute to what I’m doing tomorrow, and then next week, and then next month. It all adds up.”
Whether you’re looking to lose 20 pounds, finish a triathlon, or make your biceps pop, the only way you’ll make your goal a reality is by creating an action plan. You need to lay out the specific steps that are necessary to achieve your goal—and then adhere to that plan.
Greubel Poser’s strength and conditioning coach, Jason Hartman, who also trains the U.S. Army’s Special Forces Group, says this plan-and-attack approach is essential if you want to make a transformative change. “You need a specific training program that will make your body stronger and better,” Hartman says. “You can’t aimlessly wander around the gym and expect results.” Another advantage of having a plan is that it will set you up with mini-goals that you can achieve along the way. A major goal can feel overwhelming and intimidating. But if you break it up into bite-sized pieces, it’s more likely to feel doable and you’re more likely to feel optimistic about your chances of reaching it, Hartman says.
In order to push a 365-pound sled from a standstill to top speed in only 50 meters, Greubel Poser focuses her gym time on building strong, powerful muscles. But moving a massive piece of steel isn’t the only reason you should lift. Whatever your fitness goal—even if it’s endurance-related—lifting weights will benefit you. “Strength training is the cornerstone of any training; it will help you be better at any activity,” Hartman says.
One thing that Poser learned the hard way is the importance of lifting with proper form. She says, “When I first started strength training the summer before my freshman year at Cornell, I had no idea what I was doing and didn’t get proper guidance. I ended up herniating three discs in my lower back and was told I shouldn’t lift or run again.” Greubel Poser has since learned proper form, and recommends newbies consult with a personal trainer or strength coach who can ensure they’re lifting with good form. The cost of a session is a small price to pay to ensure you stay injury-free and on track toward your goals. Another essential element that Greubel Poser never skips or skimps on is her pre-workout warm-up. Before she squats, for instance, Greubel Poser will get her blood pumping on a stationary bike and then do a series of activation exercises—like resistance-band monster walks and Swiss-ball back extensions—to prime her muscles for the effort ahead. “For me, a warm-up is very important,” she says. “I have to make sure everything is turned on and warmed up in order to perform my best.”
For Olympic athletes who train hardcore six days a week, recovery needs to be treated like a part-time job. Greubel Poser sees a sports chiropractor, soaks in a cold tub, wears recovery boots, undergoes dry needling, and gets a weekly sports massage. Obviously, the average athlete doesn’t have access to all these fancy tools and techniques. But you don’t have to. Recovery comes in simple forms, like getting enough sleep and taking at least one day off a week from training. It doesn’t matter what kind of athlete you are: You won’t make progress if you aren’t giving your body the necessary downtime to recharge and rebound, Hartman says. “What you do at the gym is the stimulus for change,” he says. “But the actual changes—getting stronger, building more muscle, burning fat—don’t manifest until you are resting and recovering.”
Hartman says that sleep is the absolute best recovery tool. Not only is it free, it also keeps your body running like a well-oiled machine. Getting adequate sleep helps you feel more alert, less fatigued, and in a better mood, which impacts your ability to push yourself harder and get the most out of your workouts. It also enhances your immune system, which can help you guard against illness and injury.
If you are going to invest in a recovery tool, Hartman recommends a foam roller. When used after a workout, a foam roller can improve circulation, unknot tight spots, and flush out metabolic waste. “Massages are great, but they are a luxury for most recreational athletes,” Hartman says. “Using a foam roller can really help enhance your recovery and performance. And you can do it daily.”
Eat to Excel
What you eat—or don’t eat—has both a positive and negative impact on your overall physical health. The macronutrients (water, carbohydrates, proteins, and fats) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) in your diet can ensure that you have the energy to push through a tough workout, that you have the proper nutrients to repair and build muscle, and that your immune system is resilient so that you stay healthy and injury-free. One of the most important times to eat as an athlete is following a workout. There is a 30-minute window during which it’s considered essential to refuel your body and jumpstart the recovery process. For Greubel Poser, that immediate recovery fuel usually comes in the form of a protein shake. She’ll follow that up as soon as she can with a meal that contains a healthy balance of lean proteins (like chicken, salmon, or turkey) and an easy-to-digest carb (like sweet potatoes or rice) with grilled vegetables.
That balance is very important, Hartman says. “In this day and age, there are a lot of people afraid of carbs,” Hartman says. “But carbs are our main energy source that we deplete through exercise, and it’s essential to make sure we are consuming them. Carbs are essential for performance and recovery. They help with nutrient delivery.” Greubel Poser admits it can be a challenge to keep up with her nutritional and caloric needs while traveling, which is why she keeps healthy snacks, like almonds, beef jerky, tuna packets, and fruit, in her gym bag to fuel her body throughout the day. Ensuring you have enough calories to fuel your training is essential, Hartman says, but this can be something people neglect, especially if their overall fitness goal is to lose weight. “Not eating enough calories can cause your weight-loss efforts to backfire,” he says. “If your body thinks it’s in starvation mode, it can hold onto fat. You need to fuel your body to spark your metabolism and make sure you have enough energy to work hard in the gym.”
The path toward a challenging goal is not easy. You need to be prepared for setbacks to occur and not let them kick you so far off course that you completely abandon your dream. Greubel Poser knows this well. In the 2011–12 season, she had just made the difficult transition from being a “brakeman” in the sled to being a driver. She was about to cash in on all her hard work and compete on the World Cup team when disaster struck. During a “fun” recreational soccer game that pitted athletes against coaches, one of her coaches accidentally kicked her right knee. She tore her ACL and needed surgery. “It was a devastating injury,” she says. “I did not see that coming. Everything came to a screeching halt. I talked to a sports psychologist friend, and I worked with her to set some short-term realistic goals that would help me get on the path to recovery.”
Adds Greubel Poser, “I didn’t waste time feeling sorry for myself.” Channeling her frustration into a positive action plan worked. She had surgery in July and ended up making a miraculously speedy recovery that enabled her to qualify against-all-odds for the World Cup. It was a valuable lesson for Greubel Poser, who learned to stay positive and adjust her course as needed.
A slight detour can still get you to where you want to be. Hartman agrees, and encourages athletes of all levels to recognize the lifestyle factors that can sometimes interfere with their goals. “You might have a sick child or a big project at work that requires extra time and could prevent you from getting to the gym or getting out for a run,” he says. “While it’s important to stick with your plan and work toward your goals, you also need to be realistic and be willing to make adjustments when needed without feeling like you are a failure. Achieving fitness is a holistic journey.” Greubel Poser also recognizes the importance of being flexible on a daily basis in the gym. She says it’s important to listen to your body and back off if something feels wrong. “If there are days when something doesn’t feel right, it’s better to go down in weight or skip that exercise,” she says. “My goal for the workout is important, but my health is even more important. If something is bothering you, listen.”