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Sports training techniques used by the very best athletes

Have you ever dreamed of stepping onto the podium to collect an Olympic gold medal? Well over the years I have had the privilege to talk to athletes that have achieved this dream.

Below is an insight from some very top athletes as to what they believe it takes to be the best and tips that they feel have made them a winner. I hope these tips help you improve your performance!

Sebastian Coe: Strength training

Seb Coe was a double Olympic 1,500m champion and had a kick in his race that allowed him to pull away from his rivals at the top bend and again down the home straight. But where did this kick come from?

While studying at Loughborough University in the 1970s, Coe spent a lot of time working out with the sprinters. During this time he used weight training and plyometric drills to improve his technique and power, which he believes put him ahead of his rivals. Coe believes many middle and long distance runners neglect strength training.

What you can learn: Endurance athletes should not neglect specific power, speed and strength training. All else being equal, the fastest aerobic athlete over a short distance will also be the fastest over his or her chosen race distance.

James Cracknell: Motivation

James Cracknell is a Sydney Olympic gold medallist in coxless fours rowing and was part of the team when Steve Redgrave won his fifth gold medal. Like all rowers, he has to be extremely focused and motivated.

During the Sydney Olympics he was put under particular psychological pressure. But how did he stop himself cracking under the strain? He explains that he worked on developing a mental belief in himself and his team mates' physical conditioning. He also focused continuously on winning Olympic gold.

Competitive rowers opportunities for competition are few and far between and they may only compete up to six times a year. However the training is gruelling, with Cracknell only having one day off in a 42-day cycle and he would usually train two or even three times a day. His personal focus and goal orientation made it easier for him to stick to this incredibly demanding schedule.

What you can learn: Achieving peak physical condition is one thing, but having the belief in it is another. In a sport like rowing, mental toughness is just as important as physical preparedness.

If you condition yourself optimally and continuously work on believing that your training efforts will bring about competitive triumph, then you will succeed in bonding the physical to the mental, which will create the optimal conditions for competitive success.

Ben Ainslie: Specific preparation

Ben Ainslie is a Sydeney Olympic Gold medallist in Laser class sailing and although you may think a sailor does not require superb physical conditioning they do. This is because a race can last up to 2 hours with the sailor continually having to perform activities such as pumping the mainsail to allow the boat to increase speed through the water.

Prior to competition, Ainslie prepares extremely thoroughly, being careful to condition his body specifically for different race conditions. If he knows, for example, that a venue is going to be windy he might increase his weight training to give him more power for controlling the boat.

If, on the other hand, conditions are going to be calm, he will focus on boosting his cardiovascular fitness, since strength will be less of an issue. Increased CV activity can also reduce body weight, which can make the boat go faster.

What you can learn: Think hard about your competitive event, and the conditions you are likely to encounter while performing it. Then make you training specific to the event and conditions.

For example, if you are preparing for a crucial 10k race over hilly ground, it makes sense to train in similar conditions so that you benefit from increased hill surging strength. If the planned race route is flat, you'll be more reliant on speed and should condition yourself appropriately by training at race pace.

Cathy Freeman: Test and evaluate your training

Australian, Cathy Freeman, won the Sydeney 400m Olympic Gold in 2000. She obviously got her training right and regularly used a number of specific sessions to test how well her preparation was going.

One of these required her to run 6 x 200m, with recoveries that decrease from five minutes to just one minute between runs. In the run up to peak performance periods, she will complete all runs in under 25 seconds.

What you can learn: Select a session (or test) that is particularly relevant to the needs of your sport and the time in your training year and repeat it at regular intervals - perhaps every four to six weeks - to gauge your progress, always ensuring that you are well rested beforehand.

For example, an endurance athlete could perform a six-minute maximal test to calculate vVO2max (velocity of VO2max), while a sprinter could run 40m from a standing start to test acceleration and speed and a rolling 30m for absolute speed.

Plyometric tests can be used to assess power development. Obviously you may want to combine various tests to measure the specific components of your sporting requirements (see PP171, October 2002, page 9).

Marion Jones: Learn from defeats

Marion Jones is a triple Olympic gold medallist and was the world number one sprinter in 2000. However in 2001 she lost her crown to Zhanna Pintusevich-Bloc at the 2001 World Athletic Championships.
In the race, under intense pressure, Jones lost form and the Ukrainian blasted past her to victory. The American acknowledges that their rivalry has been good for the sport, but was not so good for her when she came in second.

However, she used that defeat to motivate herself to improve. Jones' prolonged focus on her start and acceleration paid off, and she won a commanding victory over Pintusevich-Bloc in their one and only race during the 2002 outdoor season in London.

Jones also performs the long jump event but decided to take a break from the event as she prepared for the Athens Games. This was because she realised that her technique needs improving and also acknowledges the event's greater potential for injury.

What you can learn: A defeat (or an injury) should be used to evaluate your physical and mental preparations. Like Jones, you may need the shock of a loss to kick-start a new training emphasis. Similarly, an injury may reflect a training imbalance or poor technique.

Many runners do not work on their technique (something else to learn from Coe) and this may lead to injury, as may poor conditioning. The right training programme should include workouts designed to optimally prepare your body for the rigours of training, not just sessions to improve your lactate threshold or VO2 max.

To provide a real world example, many runners fail to work on the strength and flexibility of their Achilles tendons, which is why PP regularly offers advice on how to stretch and strengthen these important bands of soft tissue.

Steve Trapmore: Core stability

Steve Trapmore won a gold medal in Sydney in the rowing eight event and Trapmore is well aware of core stability for transferring power from the lower to the upper body during rowing and for injury prevention.

Rowers' backs take a real beating, and a strong and flexible core can significantly improve performance and keep them in the boat. Trapmore performs up to 30 minutes of core stability and general flexibility exercises everyday.

Most of the exercises Trapmore uses are performed in a controlled manner and borrow from Pilates. You should, like the rower, aim to work the front, sides and rear of the torso.

Incidentally, no two rowers in Trapmore's crew perform exactly the same warm-up, as each has specific areas to work on. This is equally important for you to take note of, especially if you are involved in a team sport where there is always a tendency to be share the same workout.

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