The Olympics, the World Championships, even the Super Bowl – there’s nothing quite as inspiring as watching the world’s most fantastic and accomplished sportspeople flex their muscles on the field. But when you actually try to put that motivation to use and get down to the gym to re-enact the feats of legends like Usain Bolt or Simone Biles, things are a bit less exciting, right? So what’s the difference?
Well, a lot, to put it bluntly. But even though you’ll never have the weirdly specific genetic quirks of Michael Phelps or the funding of those people on the dancing horses, there’s something you do have control over: how you train.
“I’m not saying it’s not [tough] for other people,” Chris Ford, Strength and Conditioning Coach at the Hampshire Institute of Sport and Program Lead for the BSc Strength and Conditioning Course at the University of Winchester, told IFLScience. “But if you’re going for two, three runs a week, that’s not quite the same as having twelve sessions a week.”
So, if you really want to know the difference between the way you work out, and the way they do it, read on – but we’ll warn you: be careful what you wish for. It’s a lot.
According to a 2019 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the average American gets about 19 minutes of exercise per day. That’s actually not far off the bare minimum recommended by the US Department of Health and Human Services, which says that adults should do between 150 and 300 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise every week to see any substantial health benefits.
That’s all well and good if you’re aiming for general health and fitness, but we’re talking about elite-level sports – so it’s no surprise they would exercise a bit more than the average Joe Schmo. But just how much more are we talking? Double? Triple?
“I have practice from 9 am to 12 pm and then I drive home and eat lunch, which is either chicken or fish so I get the protein,” Simone Biles, winner of seven Olympic medals in artistic gymnastics, 25 world championship medals, and by some accounts the greatest female gymnast of all time, told Women’s Health in the run-up to the 2016 Olympic Games.
“I grab a quick snack and head back to the gym from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. and usually have more routines. After that, I either have therapy at the gym or at home, and then I eat dinner and chill and do it all again the next day.”
You read that right: six hours of practice. That’s about 2.5 times the minimum amount recommended in a normal person’s week – but she did it every day.
Biles is far from an outlier. Adam Peaty, a UK swimmer with a 2016 Olympics gold medal in the 100-meter (328-foot) breaststroke and eight world championship wins to his name, swims a massive 50 kilometers (31 miles) every week: five in the morning, five in the afternoon, Monday to Friday.
Olympic triathletes Jonny and Alistair Brownlee were known to train up to four times per day when they were competing, and Michael Phelps famously griped back in 2008 that “all [he] can do” is “eat, sleep, and swim” – a schedule that evidently paid off, as he won eight gold medals in the Beijing Olympics that year.
“Long-distance runners will run over 100 miles [161 kilometers] per week, plus strength training,” said Ricky Simms, agent of Olympic runners Usain Bolt and Trayvon Bromell, among others, and CEO of PACE Sports Management.
“Sprinters will spend four to five hours per day on the track or in the weight room,” he told JumpStart by WebMD. And “all runners will spend additional time getting physical therapy, massages,” he added.
Here’s a statistic you won’t find in many diet manuals: you can burn up to 130 calories per hour just sitting on your butt doing nothing. So imagine how many get used up training for competitive sports.
“When I'm training, I'll be hitting around 7,500 calories,” Peaty told Men’s Health. “I halve that when I come to race… I am very careful with my dieting.”
That’s around three times the number of calories he’d need if he weren’t a swimmer – but compared to some of his peers in the pool, it’s actually pretty modest. Phelps was known for consuming up to 10,000 calories every day when he was training – roughly four or five days’ worth for a normal person – telling news reporters back in the day that “I just sort of try to cram whatever I can into my body.”
Despite that colossal intake, Phelps was definitely not what you’d call "fat": he clocked in at about eight percent body fat as a pro swimmer. That’s because, astonishing as it may sound, burning 10,000 calories in a day – a day of Olympic-level swim training sessions, that is – actually isn’t that crazy.
But the effort expended in a workout isn’t only a measure of calories burned – especially for elite sportspeople.
“The goal for athlete training is… specific,” Ford told IFLScience. “For example, strength, or even a particular way they express force – like eccentric strength, which leads to a better ability to resist flexion, helping with decreasing ground contact time, increasing elastic use etc.”
While most of us think of exercise as a way to get out of breath or pump some iron, the pros take it all a lot more … statistically. “[We have to make] sure the gym based (as well as other) sessions are completed at the right intensity,” Ford explained. “We have a good guide to how many reps you can do per percentage of one rep max. So, if I want them to work at six reps, I know that'll be about 85 percent, off the top of my head.”
Take Peaty for example. “Tuesday afternoon is intense,” said Mel Marshal, a 2004 Olympian, swimmer, and Peaty’s coach. “He does 40 25 meter [82 foot] reps – each one in 60 seconds. That’s 12 seconds of sprinting, 50-ish seconds of recovery, 40 times. His other high-intensity session is 20 100 meter [328 foot] reps: four reps at lactate threshold [30 bpm below his maximum heart rate], with one recovery, then three reps at his VO max [10 bpm below his maximum heart rate], with two recovery, and repeat.” It sounds more like a math problem than a workout.
And – regardless of the sport they specialize in – a pro athlete will work out throughout the body. No skipping leg day here: “when you isolate things, you isolate the muscles,” Ford told IFLScience. “That's not how they are designed to work, so that doesn't have a decent transference in terms of performance.”
So, take running, for example: for a normal person, it’s a workout that can burn, say, 500 calories.
For a professional, that same length of time running might burn twice as many calories – and it’ll also be the reason you lift weights and do strength and core workouts. “Our main focus is to develop highly coordinated movements for more efficient athletes, so it's more of a whole-body focus,” Sterling Roberts, associate head coach of Eastern Michigan University men’s track and field, told WebMD.
It’s probably not going to surprise you to learn that pro athletes have fewer rest days than the general population. But resting up is just as important as exercise – for a very good reason.
“If you’re participating in sports, you’re breaking down your body. You’re taxing yourself and pushing yourself beyond your current level of fitness,” Karin VanBaak, an assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Department of Orthopedics at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, told UC Health Today.
And so “in order to see gains in fitness, in order for the body to keep doing what you want it to do, you have to give it enough rest to repair itself,” she said. “If you’re an athlete, it means taking time out from your usual sport.”
It may seem counterintuitive – like you’re just wasting valuable training time – but it’s all about giving your body enough time in the week to adapt. That’s kind of a technical term here, referring to the specific biomolecular responses which are triggered by exercise, including changes to the phenotype of skeletal muscle, how nutrients and proteins are stored, and even things like an increase in the number of mitochondria in the cells.
And this process occurs during rest, not during exercise – which is why even professional athletes make sure to fit some downtime into their training schedules. In fact, “in general, the higher the level they are, the better they do the little things that help their bodies heal and recover, such as nutrition, sleep, hydration,” Roberts told WebMD.
Of course, there are a few differences between how the pros rest and how us normies do it – and once again, it comes down to precision. Sleep is incredibly important. During the 2008 Olympics, Michael Phelps would pop Ambien to ensure he got the eight hours a night – and he’d even take a daily nap to recharge in the afternoon.
Sleep is “where you can naturally grow and your body recovers,” he told CNBC in 2017. “I really can’t say it enough. I don’t think people really pay enough attention to how important sleep is.”
And despite the importance of consistency, even elite athletes take the day off occasionally. But unlike you or me, the key isn’t just taking a day (or a weekend) off now and then – it’s all planned out well in advance.
“Less is often more,” Ford told IFLScience. “Training is tough, mentally as well as physically… So, for [performance athletes], it's really important to have what we call a deload week.”
That, as the name implies, is a whole week off – well, taking the load off. Not all the way off, mind: “generally we half the volume, keep intensity the same,” Ford explained. And “anecdotally, I find I get the adaptations in that deload week,” he said.
“The really obvious one is hypertrophy – that is, [the] muscles increase in size,” he told IFLScience. “For myself, and other athletes, I'll notice nothing happening in three weeks of training – then on the fourth week, suddenly [the muscle] goes, ‘oh!’”
Mind you, what an Olympian considers “rest” may not be exactly what we would have in mind for the few days per week or month when we don’t need to be pushing our bodies to the max. Dominique Dawes, a three-time Olympic gymnast and Olympic gold medalist, told WebMD that she would spend 36 hours a week training at the height of her career – the same time commitment as a full-time job – and on her one day off per week, she “would train at a fitness gym, take a stretch or ballet class… or condition on my own at home just for fun.”
Still, even though most of us don’t think of the gym as a place to rest up and relax, there’s a lesson all of us can take from the pros’ loyalty to their downtime.
“There’s loads of research to say why that's the best way of doing it, but that's mainly focused on performance,” Ford told IFLScience. “What's important… for most people when they start exercise is to remember that you’re never going to get just linear improvement.”
“That's never going to happen,” he said. “You're going to have troughs. So it's – it’s not even to anticipate it. It's to say, ‘I'm going to control when I have them, by having a rest.’”