The Journey to Train like an Athlete
When I was 10 years old, I knew I wanted to be a professional athlete. I wanted to be, to act and to train like an athlete. When asked in school to do a math project on the finances and statistics of my future job, I chose athlete. I did all of the research and totally nailed the project. But upon presenting it, I was told it wasn’t a viable choice—that it was highly unlikely that I’d become a pro athlete, and the point of the project was to consider realistic options so we could have an idea of “real world” math. Disappointed and a bit angry, what did my little ten year old self do? I made a list of all the milestones I’d need to reach between that time and when I became a grown up.
Set goals and stay committed
I started small with steps like “make my middle school soccer team” and “make high school varsity”. The milestones grew almost every year until they were “play professionally,” “play in a World Cup,” and “go to the Olympics.” It’s been 17 years since then. With the exception of the Olympics, I’ve checked off every item on that list. This was all part of the process of learning how to train like an athlete.
That’s the mindset of an athlete.
You set goals and you achieve them. You don’t let naysayers get in the way. You stay committed to your goals—even as time changes you, other commitments come up, and your path alters. You show up and put the work in every day. To understand what work I’m talking about see Power Training in The Gym – Tips from a Pro Athlete.
Now, that’s not to say you can’t adjust your goals as things progress—quite the contrary. For example, I initially wanted to play professional soccer or basketball, but I found rugby in college and that changed my path.
I could never have foreseen that I’d find success in a sport I hadn’t even heard of when I was 10 years old. But with drive and commitment, I was able to maintain a consistency and live a life even better than I had dreamed up.
And it’s not just my story. This is the case with almost every athlete I’ve ever met. It’s why athletes make such great employees. It’s why athletes continue to compete even after they’ve left their sport. There’s just something about the mindset of an athlete that drives them to succeed.
They know the pain of 6 am conditioning that they do NOT want to do, but they show up and do it anyway. They know what it’s like to grind through the last ten minutes of a match to come back and win the game. And they know that it’s often a game of delayed gratification. You win some, you lose some, but you can’t quit after your losses. You go back to the drawing board, study your opponent, make your weaknesses your strengths, and eventually come out on top.
Work with a coach and a team
I can’t stress enough the value of having a coach and a support group of your closest friends to help you reach your goal. This isn’t just because I’m a coach. It’s because I fundamentally believe in the power of support and guidance. When you’re young, you have our parents, teachers, and often little league coaches to show you the way through life. But all of a sudden, when you hit 18, you’re expected to just go out and rock it on your own. You are expected to train like an athlete but now without the same level of support.
Athletes, however, always have a coach and support group of teammates that help them get where they want to be. Sure, the support is mostly directed towards performance in the gym, on the field, or in the octagon—but I guarantee you those benefits transfer to “real” life too.
Have a mentor, a life coach, a personal trainer, business coach, or just a trusted friend you admire. For training purposes, athletes often turn to the personal trainer, nutrition coach, physical therapist, or other specialist. However, your mentor could absolutely be your neighbor who just has the abs you’ve always wanted. They might not be as knowledgeable as a professional, but if you trust them and they can get you into the gym consistently with good advice, then more power to you.
The same goes for creating a team. Even athletes in individual sports travel with a team. Ever seen a boxing or UFC bout? Those guys travel in packs, even if they’re competing solo in the ring. Tennis pros, endurance runners, and more will form teams of coaches, physios, training partners, and managers.
Somewhere along the line, you are going to be tested. You’re going to want to quit. You’re going to think you can’t do it. That’s just the nature of pushing your limits. Trust me, every athlete has been there. But that’s where your team comes in. You fight for those next to you—the people who pick you up when you’re down and help show you that you CAN do more than you think.
This is why I love small group training. When one client is having a hard day or doesn’t feel like working out, the other client holds him or her accountable by showing up and providing encouragement. And in the event they’re both dragging… that’s where the coach comes in and makes adjustments as needed.
Having strength in numbers is well known by any athlete—so if you want to train like one, harness your support system.
Balance out your seasons
Sport is designed in a pretty specific fashion. In international sport, your biggest games are events like the Olympics or Worlds. Within that, you have every season: your preseason, competitive season, playoffs or championship, and then the off-season. On an even smaller scale, you’ve got the weekly—or even daily—schedule leading up to games on the weekends (or, in the case of baseball, every day).
When your life revolves around competing, it’s crucial to have a good balance of seasons so you can perform on game day when it really counts. You don’t want to be run down from seven days straight of conditioning, but you also can’t be breathing heavily after your first few steps.
It’s all about finding a balance between pushing hard enough to adapt but then backing down and recovering when needed. You’re actually growing during the recovery period, as training breaks you down and recovery builds you back up. That’s why athletes follow training cycles to get the best results, and why you can too.
Here’s a breakdown of the cycles:
This is your Olympics, World Cup, or Superbowl: the most important, and usually farthest away, event or goal. If your goal is weight loss, strength maintenance, or being fit enough to run a half marathon in a year, this is where that falls.
Training age will come into play for timing purposes, just as a novice athlete probably won’t expect to compete in the Olympics this summer. However, the Olympics (weight loss, marathon, whatever) can still be in sight as you check off milestones related to your training age along the way.
After considering your overall goals, it’s time to get down to the nitty gritty. The mesocycles are your pre, during, post, and offseason of training. This is what trainers often refer to as periodization. Due to the seasonal pattern of sports, the typical model for athletes is linear periodization. Often, a training period ranges from 46 weeks with a more specific goal in mind, such as “lose 15 lbs by your wedding day.”
During this period, you might develop the underlying muscles and fitness in one mesocycle, maximize your strength in the next, then really trim down as you approach your wedding day. Or, maybe you’d start with general weight loss and then build up the muscle tone at the end. Both are fine methods for reaching the same goal, but you have to work within the parameters of your reality.
It’s similar to how elite rowers don’t have the same training regimen as professional baseball players—their sports and goals are completely different. Your life is going to vary greatly from someone else’s, but if you can work with a coach to set goals that work for you, you’ll be on the path to success.
Finally, the microcycle is your week-by-week schedule.
How do you feel today? Did you crush it yesterday? Or was yesterday a rest day? Are your legs shot from deadlifts and lunges, or was it a weekend full of burpee challenges?
Most of my athletes follow a weekly schedule with total body lifts: one being more push-focused, another being pullfocused, then another being a power endurance day. I’ve also done a strength day, a hypertrophy day, and a lighter day.
Athletes differ in that they’re using a high training load during practice, and gym and conditioning sessions play off of that. Your training load might be your workload. If you know you’re super stressed early in the week or only work nights, it might change your microcycles so you do a lighter day when you’re more stressed and save the heavy metcons for the weekends after you’ve had a chance to sleep.
The important thing is to acknowledge your lifestyle and plan around it accordingly.
The main point I want to share with nonathletes is this: I’m not here to tell you that you should train for a 4.4 40m sprint. In fact, you might not yet be able to dribble a ball to save your life, and maybe the farthest you’ll ever run is half a mile. But your goals are your own, and you should be proud of whatever they are.
Maybe your goal is to be able to keep up with the kids on the playground, to take your dog for a 6 mile hike, to feel better in that new dress you bought, or to stave off aging.
Regardless of physical abilities, set measurable, specific and achievable goals. Just stay consistent, show up, and give 100% every day. Then, you too can train like an athlete. And you might be surprised at how far that can get you.