here’s what it actually takes
to be an olympic swimmer
Basically, swim a lot, weight lift a lot, eat a lot, rest a lot.
It seems like Olympic swimming sprinters are actually superhuman.
For example, to qualify for the 2016 Summer Olympics, they have to be able to swim the length of a pool in about 23 to 26 seconds. That’s 50 meters — or a few feet longer than the length of a football field — in LESS THAN 30 SECONDS, PEOPLE.
BuzzFeed Health talked to Jessica Hardy, Olympic gold medalist and ambassador for USA Swimming Foundation Make a Splash, to find out how elite swimmers stay in shape and prepare for Olympic competition.
Hardy specializes in breaststroke and freestyle, holds a total of 28 international medals, and has broken 12 world swimming records.
For starters, they basically live in the pool.
Hardy says a typical training schedule is working out in the pool twice a day, six days a week. There are “not enough hours in the day for how much we train,” she says, because they need to have enough time to first do a pool workout, recover from it, and then swim again in the afternoon. To fit it all in, swimmers start their days as early as 4 a.m.
And pool workouts are crazy intense.
Sprinters’ workouts focus on developing their power and speed in the water. They might sprint while hooked up to a power rack, a device that adds resistance as they move through the water so that they have to work even harder to keep going. They also do kick sets to work their legs and pull sets to isolate their arms. They work on controlling their breath with hypoxic workouts, which require them to limit their breathing or hold their breath altogether.
They also clock serious distance, to the tune of 6 to 12 miles of swimming in a single workout.
Even sprinters have to train to develop their aerobic capacity, which means doing “a lot of yardage,” says Hardy. What’s a lot of yardage? Are you sitting down? Something in the neighborhood of 10,000 to 20,000 meters (6 to 12 miles), or 100 to 200 laps in a single workout.
Training outside the pool — aka dry land training — is no joke, either.
They lift weights, run, do yoga, pilates, you name it. Literally everything they do on land is meant to complement some aspect of their swimming, so typically training outside the pool is coordinated by their swimming coach.
First of all, they go to town in the weight room.
The key to lifting as a swimmer, says Hardy, is to get stronger so you have more power in the pool, but to stay as lean as possible and not put on too much muscle mass, which makes you heavier in the water.
They do shoulder stabilization exercises, which are essential to building the strong, durable shoulders swimmers need to swing their arms over their heads over and over. Beyond that, most swimmers’ lifting programs will be designed around the stroke they specialize in. Hardy does lots of heavy squats and lunges and core work for the breaststroke, and shoulder and arms workouts to help her upper body for the freestyle stroke.
And they do lots of other kinds of exercise, too.
When Hardy’s not in the weight room she also runs — usually sprints to develop her fast-twitch muscle fibers which help her be more explosive in the pool. She also throws in Pilates and yoga for additional strength training that doesn’t add muscle mass.
All that training means lots of eating.
If you’re going to be swimming twice a day, lifting weights three times per week, and also doing sprints, yoga, and Pilates, you’re going to need a lot of fuel. Hardy estimates that female swimmers eat 3,000 to 5,000 calories per day and male swimmers about 5,000 to 8,000 per day during training.
To put that in perspective, a 25-year-old guy who is 6’0” and weighs about 165 pounds and exercises a few times per week would need about 2,400 calories per day to maintain his weight, and a 25-year-old woman who’s 5’5” and weighs about 140 pounds and works out a few times per week would need about 1,900 calories per day to maintain her weight.
Swimmers also relax as hard as they train.
About a month before a big competition like the Olympics, swimmers start to taper, or adjust their activity level so that they’re fresh and ready to go all out on game day. During the taper, Hardy says that most swimmers stop all their training except their pool workouts, and their pool workouts are tweaked to be less demanding.
But outside of their pool workouts, many swimmers will give up all activity, no matter how low intensity it is. Hardy says that some swimmers roll around in office chairs while they’re cooking, use a motorized or electric skateboards to get around, and exclusively take escalators and elevators.
Oh, and they recover like champs, too.
Hardy says that massages, acupuncture, chiropractor, and ice baths all help her body recover between workouts and stay healthy and strong.
Now that you know how to train, eat, and rest like an Olympian, go get your gold medal!