Ten ways to train like an elite athlete

There is no (legal) substitute for hard work when it comes to improving sports performance, as any Olympic hopeful will tell you. But that doesn't stop athletes leaving no stone unturned in their quest to maximise their potential. Here are 10 ways that the elites train longer, recover quicker, steer clear of injuries and perform better – and how we can follow suit.

1. Hypoxic chamber

What and why?
It's well known that for endurance athletes, altitude training is a great way of improving fitness, by enhancing the body's ability to take in and transport oxygen. That's why the likes of Mo Farah and Paula Radcliffe head to the high ground when they're preparing for competition – and why Jonathan Brownlee, an Olympic triathlon contender, has been sleeping in an 'altitude tent'. But if your diary and wallet don't permit a month-long sojourn to the Rift Valley, there is always the hypoxic chamber. A hypoxic chamber is a sealed room in which the oxygen content of the air is reduced to simulate being at altitude.

I tried a run in one at the Third Space gym in London, where the 15% oxygen level (ambient air has 21% oxygen) was the equivalent of being at 8,500ft (2,591m). I felt fine at first – in fact, I thought I was running particularly well until I realised that the pace was in minutes per km, not per mile. I persevered and finished my 5km in around 25.45 – almost four minutes slower than I'd raced the distance only a fortnight before. The woman on neighbouring treadmill assured me that she couldn't reach the running speed she was capable of outside the chamber either. "I nearly always run in here now," she said. "It's a more effective workout, and it seems to have helped my asthma too."

Where/how to try it
The Third Space hypoxic chamber is free to use by members of the club. They also run a weekly class, the Hypoxic Five, which is a circuit-based cardio workout inside the chamber, featuring running, cycling and rowing. The Altitude Centre offers a range of different hypoxic training sessions, equipment to rent or buy and assessments to see how altitude will affect you. There are branches in London and Limerick.

2. Precision hydration

What and why?
Sweat tests have been used routinely for years among the elites – to help quantify how much fluid is lost through sweat and therefore how much needs to be replaced. But it's only recently that the focus has shifted not to how much you sweat but what you sweat. "Electrolytes, particularly sodium, are critical to fluid balance, muscular contraction and mental function during exercise - but there is an eightfold variance between individuals, and electrolyte levels are entirely independent of sweat volume," explains Andy Blow from Precision Hydration.

While a 'salty' sweater might lose as much as 1700mg per litre of sweat, someone else exercising at the same intensity may lose just 200mg. "If both consume an off-the-shelf sports drink, which typically contains 300-500mg, neither is hydrating optimally," says Blow.

Precision Hydration has harnessed technology originally developed to monitor sodium loss in cystic fibrosis sufferers to assess sweat content in sportspeople. Electrodes coated in a compound called pilocarpine deliver a mild electrical current, which stimulates the sweat glands on the forearm. The sweat is collected, analysed and the appropriate sodium concentration for sports hydration prescribed from a range of calorie- and carbohydrate-free soluble electrolyte tablets, which come in concentrations ranging from 250-1500mg (£6.99 for 15 tablets).

Where/how to try it
Precision Hydration has been working with numerous premiership football clubs, national teams and squads, many of whom have forked out £4,500 for the sweat-testing unit. "Some professional sports teams are drinking our drinks out of other brands' bottles so as not to upset their sponsors," says Blow. You can take an assessment yourself for £95 at various locations across the UK or you can simply fill in a questionnaire for a 'best guess' of your sweat content (eg if you often get salty 'tidemarks' on your clothes, you're probably a salty sweater) and buy the tablets.

3. Gravity-defying running

What and why?
Running exerts a force on the body equal to two to three times body weight - and while it is designed to deal with these forces, if they are applied too much or too often, injury could be just around the corner. That's why the pricey Alter-G Anti Gravity treadmill, which enables you to reduce your body weight to as little as 20% of its former glory, is the piece of equipment Paula Radcliffe describes as the best investment she's ever made.

While there are less high-tech ways of taking the weight off your feet (such as running in water) the Alter-G uses air pressure as the lifting force, so that you can maintain normal running (or walking) biomechanics without the associated forces. "This prevents other tissues deconditioning during injury or rehabilitation and helps you retain good form and function, minimising the impact of the problem," explains Scott Morris from Balance Performance Physiotherapy in Clapham, London.

And it isn't just for the walking wounded. "People often assume that the Alter-G is just for rehabilitation from injuries, but for many elite athletes it's also a tool that allows them to boost performance factors such as leg speed and increase their training volume – running faster, further or more frequently - without overstressing their bodies," adds Morris.

Where/how to try it
Nineteen out of 20 Premiership football clubs, a handful of high-performance centres and military facilities have their own Alter-G – but Balance is one of the few places where it is accessible to the public (300 minutes of use costs £100).

4. Mental skills training

What and why?
Psychological skills training - mastering distraction, conquering nerves, overcoming fears and instilling confidence – has become an accepted and valued part of an elite athlete's preparation for competition, with the likes of Jessica Ennis and Hannah England talking openly about working with a sport psychologist in their Olympic build-up. "The more important an event is to the athlete, the more psychological factors can influence the outcome," says Dr Victor Thompson, a clinically trained psychologist who works with athletes of all levels and is himself a competitive triathlete.

Thompson believes that the role of a sport psychologist is both to help performance and improve psychological wellbeing. "The performance area is easy to understand," he says. "The wellbeing is about increasing enjoyment and satisfaction, as well as reducing anxiety, anger or despondency. By working on wellbeing, you get a happier athlete with the added benefit of an almost guaranteed improvement in performance."

Even those of us who are far from podium standard can benefit from sport psychology – be it to develop a graded approach to addressing your fear of swimming in open water to complete a triathlon or simply to improve exercise adherence. "Establishing what you want to achieve and setting the right goals helps give a 'point' to every training session, enhancing motivation," says Thompson. Sports psychology techniques can also help with how you execute your performance. If, for example, you tend to lapse into a slow, heavy running stride when you lose focus, a cue, such as a brightly-coloured wristband or a bleep on your watch, can remind you to move your feet fast and light.

Where/how to try it
Victor Thompson offers face-to-face and telephone-based consultations - find out more at sportspsychologist.com. To find an accredited sport psychologist in your area, visit bases.org.uk or the British Psychological Society at bps.org.uk.

5. Physiological testing

What and why? 
Laboratory-based testing has long been routine for elite athletes, to identify strengths and weaknesses, monitor progress and assess the effects of training. "In order to give meaningful results, testing needs to be as specific as possible to the demands of the athlete's sport," says Eliot Challifour, manager at the Porsche Human Performance Centre at Silverstone. "Runners are tested on a treadmill, cyclists on a static bike and rowers on a rowing machine."

While the centre specialises in fitness for motorsport, testing drivers' cardiovascular parameters as well as grip strength, reaction speed and the capacity to cope with different temperatures, it also works with athletes from many endurance sports. "Physiological testing is a great way of getting information about how your body responds to exercise so you can formulate a precise and effective training programme and subsequently measure its effectiveness," says Challifour. "Seeing quantifiable progress in the lab is hugely motivational."

Where/how to try it
A VO2 max and lactate threshold assessment at the Porsche Human Performance laboratory costs from £195. Many universities also offer physiological testing through their sport science departments.

6. Cryotherapy

What and why?
Cryotherapy comes from the Greek word 'cryo', meaning cold, and 'therapeia', meaning cure. While most of us make do with a pack of frozen peas to alleviate sports injuries, many elite athletes are beginning to utilise 'whole body cryotherapy' (WBC) - the exposure of the entire body to extreme cold (usually between -80C to -120C) which is thought to decrease inflammation and pain and promote healing and recovery, as well as instigating an endorphin high. Studies have found that used before training, it can reduce the amount of lactic acid produced, and used afterwards, can speed up its removal.

While cryotherapy is widely used in eastern Europe, it is less well-known here. The Welsh Rugby Union team reputedly learned of its benefits whilst attending training camps in Poland prior to the 2011 Rugby World Cup and the 2012 Six Nations, while Mo Farah, based in Oregon, has been using WBC to support his training and recovery in the build-up to the Olympics.

Where/how to try it
CryoClinics has installed the UK's first WBC pod at the BMI Garden Hospital in London.

7. 3D gait analysis

What and why?
There's more to running than putting one foot in front of the other – which is why the pros in any sport spend so much time working on their form. Identifying technical faults or shortfalls out in the field can be tricky, but laboratory-based gait analysis allows even tiny errors to be spotted, which might be the cause of current or future injuries. "It's a diagnostic tool that provides another piece of the puzzle when it comes to solving injury issues," says Dr Jessica Leitch from Oxford-based Run3D, the UK's first three-dimensional motion analysis service.

Twelve cameras record you running from the side, front, back and from above, capturing 200 frames per second, and the resulting data is compared to a database of more than 3,000 uninjured runners to detect any abnormalities. When Olympic runner Jo Pavey visited, a slight fault with her foot biomechanics was flagged up – the foot that she'd suffered previous stress fractures on. "Run3D provides an objective, quantifiable measure of how someone moves," says Leitch.

Where/how to try it
Run3D at The Oxford Gait Laboratory goes far beyond the 'below the knees' assessment you'd get in most running stores. The assessment takes 75 minutes and costs £280 including a detailed report.

8. Custom footwear

What and why?
Most elite athletes are sponsored, which means they'll wear the shoe brand that is paying the bills. But they aren't necessarily wearing the same shoes that you or I would find on the shelf. Running shoe manufacturer Asics makes specially tailored racing shoes for every marathon that runner Mara Yamauchi runs, as well as providing bespoke shoes for training, for example.

Where/how to try it
You probably won't be able to persuade the shoe giants to tailor their shoes to your individual requirements but the new UK Asics store, opening in July in London, will offer 'Foot ID' technology within the Running Lab. Static and dynamic foot measurements, assessment of foot shape, leg alignment and running technique will ensure you are fitted with the best possible shoes for your needs. Find out more at asics.co.uk

9. Wind tunnel testing

What and why?
Anything that can shave seconds – or even fractions of seconds – off an elite cyclist or triathlete's time is worthwhile – which is why there's such an obsession about lightweight bikes and rider position. A cyclist need to be as aerodynamic as possible, but the position needs to be comfortable whilst still achieving maximum power output. And there's no better place to put aerodynamism to the test than in a wind tunnel.

"Traditionally, wind tunnels have a bad reputation as places where unrideable positions are derived, low in drag but not feasible to ride and produce power," says Simon Smart, director of wind tunnel testing facility Drag2Zero. "My philosophy has always been to find a compromise between power production and drag." Drag2Zero counts current TT world champion Tony Martin and members of the Team GB track cycling squad and triathlon team among its clients, as well as cash-rich amateur triathletes and cyclists looking to enhance their performance.

"Customers are starting to invest in optimising body position before spending lots of money on equipment," says Smart. "The rider represents around 80% of the total drag - only 20% is due to equipment." Drag2Zero test sessions generally yield a drag reduction of seven to 15%, sometimes as much as 20%. For someone who normally races at 270 watts, an improvement of 30 watts in drag would save three seconds per km – knocking three minutes off the bike leg of an Olympic-distance triathlon. "It would take a lot of effort to achieve that through training," says Smart.

Where/how to try it
Drag2Zero is the only facility of its kind in Europe open to the public. An assessment takes two hours and costs from £550.

10. Sports nutrition assessment

What and why?
Nutrition plays a major role in both performance and recovery, which is why athletes must plan what they eat and drink carefully. "A registered sports dietician or sport and exercise nutritionist is now an integral part of any performance team working in elite-level sport," says Dr Karen Reid, a sports dietician who has worked in high-performance sport for 20 years. "Nutrition goals vary greatly between sports, depending on the physiological demands of that sport. For example, a gymnast aiming to achieve a low body mass yet maintain strength and power would require a very different nutrition programme to an endurance athlete such as a triathlete or rower. And it's not just about what they eat, but also about timing."

The first step is to thoroughly assess the athlete's training programme, goals and current diet, in order to plan a nutrition and hydration programme that meets their individual needs. "This is then monitored and regularly reviewed – and may change according to the phase of training they are in," explains Reid. While general recommendations on what active people should eat and drink are widely available, Reid believes there is great value in getting specific advice and guidance on how to relate these guidelines to your own individual circumstances and sport.

Where/how to try it
Performance Food offers a personal performance nutrition plan for £175, which includes a detailed seven-day analysis of your nutritional intake and training, a one-to-one session to discuss it and set nutrition targets and, based on this information, a plan with weekly menu and recipes.

Thanks to guardian.co.uk who have provided this article. View the original here.


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