Guest post by Mark Alexander; an expert professional Sports Physiotherapist who supported the Australian Olympic team from 2002 to 2008, and author of “Beating Back Pain – A Sports Physiotherapy Guide to Relief”.

How Athletes Train To Improve Their Olympic-Level Performance Whilst Minimizing the Risk of Injuries

Every Olympic athlete trains differently depending on what sport they are involved in and then also within each sport, each individual trains differently depending on their body types and physiology. In collaboration with their coaches they decide the most optimal training program to maximise their success on the day of their Olympic event. Team sports that compete over a few weeks need the endurance and resilience to be able to tolerate such a long campaign (like Hockey and Basketball). Each athlete ‘peaks’ at the games for their event so to do that they tend to taper off their training in the 1-2 weeks leading up to the games to reduce the load and freshen up the body and the legs to get ready for optimal peak performance. Then in the 2-3 days lead up to the games they will speed things up and smash out some intense speed sessions with low volumes to really sharpen up the body and get it ready for peak performance.

It is a fine line between training for peak performance and getting injured. Athletes are no different to Formula One cars as they are pushing to their peak performance – so pushing their bodies to the absolute limit. And sometimes they do get injured as the body can only take so much load and sometimes the athlete and coach will push too hard. The reality is unless you push yourself to the limit sometimes (and break) you actually don’t know what that limit is and therefore may not be achieving your potential as an athlete. The secret is being able to push to the limit of pain, and then keep pushing as pain is essentially in the brain. Pain is the sensation that the brain registers that tells itself that something is threatening the equilibrium and to back off. But if you can master that as an athlete you can push further and harder and achieve your optimal potential.

Every athlete also has different injury thresholds, which means different levels of training intensity and load where one’s body will ‘break’. So it is essential that coaches and athletes know this threshold so as to push close to it but don’t cross it or else injuries will happen and the athlete will break down. One classic example is stress fractures in bones in triathlon. They can only get to this point with a huge amount of load and not listening to their bodies so it is essential to have a large amount of self-awareness.

It is also essential to track the load through training so that you use data to drive decision making in training. Most athletes now have sophisticated tracking systems that track their kilometres and intensity and load etc. to prevent injury and also maximise performance. If you know how hard you have worked then you can more accurately target the optimal training regime and also reduce the risk of injuries. Most elite team sports now track their distances and load with GPS trackers so they know exactly how hard their athletes have trained and know when to back them off to reduce the risk of injury.

Some sports train with visualisation to get their athletes psychologically prepared for competition. Sports like gymnastics and diving where visuospatial awareness is so critical, use visualisation to rehearse the routines and moves so they maximise the chance of success and nailing their performance on the day. But any athlete can use these techniques with sports psychologists to get in the right frame of mind.

My main role as the Sports Physiotherapist to the Australian Olympic Triathlon team in Athens (2004 – won Silver) and Beijing (2008 – won Gold and Silver), was injury prevention and injury treatment. Every day I would run a stretching class (60 mins of stretching like a Yoga class) and a recovery session where athletes would immerse themselves in an ice bath for recovery. I would also treat each athlete every 1-2 days to keep them in top shape just like a Formula One car gets serviced every day. Each athlete had different issues so the treatments were different for all athletes.

As a baseline, I would screen each athlete twice a year to see how they were tracking and aim to identify any issues that were pre-symptomatic but that may eventually lead to injuries. They may have sprained ankles so I would ensure their stiff ankles were loosened and that the athletes had programs to reduce the risk of injury through stretching etc.

The Top 5 Strategies to Prevent Injuries for Olympic Athletes, as well as anyone who exercises, are:

1.    Warm-up – it’s critical to warm up effectively with 10-15 minutes of light exercise to get a sweat up and target those specific areas of tightness and stability before exercising.

2.    Flexibility – general and specific flexibility are key to injury prevention and recovery from intense workouts. Specific flexibility is relative to your activities and sports.

  • E.g. mid back thoracic flexibility is key for overhead athletes, swimmers and throwers. You can use BakBalls to increase flexibility;
  • Ankle/calf and hip flexor flexibility is key for runners etc. so stretch out these areas for 1 minute to increase flexibility.

3.    Stability – abdominal, pelvic and hip stability is key to be able to recover effectively from running sports, and shoulder stability is critical for shoulder athletes. Key exercises are Pilates-style and Swiss ball exercises.

4.    Strength – sports specific strength is critical as well to be able to effectively perform in given sports and activities and recover well from these sports. Examples are quads, gluteal and calf strength endurance for running sports through single leg squats, lunges and calf raises.

5.    Recovery activities – 5 specific recovery activities are crucial for recovery from intense training sessions. Olympic athletes will do all of these religiously.

a)    Cool down – this is important to be able to recover fast. 10-15 minutes of light exercise is critical after an intense workout to recover quickly.

b)    Ice baths – leg (running athletes) or full body (contact and full body sports) ice baths are critical for fast recovery from intense training sessions. Protocols vary but 5 x (45 seconds in ice bath and 5 mins of light exercise (e.g. swimming)) is what we used to do with the Australian Olympic triathlon team.

c)    Massage – massages once or twice a week can make a big difference to injury prevention and recovery. It can help to become aware of any tight areas and loosen them to prevent injury. Self-massage is a key component using products like BakBalls to self-manage at home after intense workouts.

d)    Sleep – this is a critical component to recover from intense workouts. The Olympic triathletes would sleep (or at least rest) every afternoon for 1-2 hours to allow the body to recover.

e)    Specific treatments – if there are any issues that arise from workouts or from the massages, specific Physical Therapy treatment may be required to treat issues and prevent them from becoming injuries.