Even if you’re not gunning for glory at Tokyo 2020, you can still up your game—mentally and physically—by learning from the experiences of Rio’s best performers. Apply these lessons to your race prep, then channel your inner Olympic medalist on race day.
To be competitive, you have to be willing to say “no”
Amateur athletes struggle with a different collection of distractions than pro athletes do, but balance is important for both in order to perform your best. Gold medalist Gwen Jorgensen and her coach, Jamie Turner, set very strict guidelines for media and sponsor obligations going into the Games so that all she had to focus on was her training. According to Jorgensen’s husband, Patrick Lemieux, every single decision she made the last four years was vetted with the same question: “How is this going to help me win on Aug. 20?” If you’re serious about topping the podium, use Jorgensen’s strict framework when considering happy hour invitations or ski weekends—your competitors are likely saying no.
To step up your game, switch up your training
You can’t keep shattering your personal records if you train the same way every single year. Take a note from silver medalist Nicola Spirig—the Swiss defending Olympic champion took time off after London 2012 to get married and have a baby, and when she came back, her focus was to become a different kind of athlete. Spirig turned to running races and long-course triathlon. She ran a 2:37 marathon at the European Marathon Championships, won a 5,000-meter track race, and picked up a few Ironman 70.3 and Ironman victories along the way—a collection of accomplishments rare for an Olympic draft-legal athlete. With long-distance cycling strength, she could not only control the lead women’s pack in Rio, but she could also run on tired legs to keep up with Jorgensen longer than any female has in months.
Choose a trustworthy training partner
It’s easy to get caught up on a competitive group ride and ignore your personal training goals—much to your own detriment. Choosing the perfect partner can drastically change the way you race. For Alistair and Jonathan Brownlee, the respective 2016 gold and silver medalists, having a training partner who both pushes them and whom they trust makes a massive difference. “Jonny pushed me on sessions that would be harder than races—a few times a week just absolutely killing myself, going to bed at night unable to sleep because my legs hurt so much,” Alistair says. But, Jonathan says, they can do that because they trust each other. While others may just try to “get one over each other” during sessions, “when you have someone who you trust, who you know also has your best interest at heart, and you want to make each other the best that you can, it’s very positive.”
Treat your mental weakness like an injury
Spirig’s coach, Brett Sutton, is known for his brutally honest (read: harsh) truthfulness with his athletes, which ties into his “train like a boxer” mentality. The worst person you can lie to, he says, is yourself. While we can look at a leg injury and say, “OK, this is how we fix it,” mental weaknesses are more difficult to talk about. If you find yourself trained and ready for an event, but on race day you give up easily when the going gets tough, consider talking to a qualified coach or sports psychologist to work through what’s holding you back. Prior to winning gold in London, Spirig and Sutton worked for three years to get to the point where she was mentally tough enough to win.
Approach race planning like an accountant
Jorgensen famously left the accounting firm Ernst and Young to become a professional triathlete, and her natural accountant tendencies ensure a methodical approach that allows consistency in training and takes the guesswork out of racing. “In addition to the gifts she’s been given, Gwen has the work ethic and drive, she is such a meticulous planner and diligent person who wants to be the master of her craft,” says USA Triathlon’s high performance general manager Andy Schmitz. “She doesn’t let any stone go unturned.” Forward thinking allows you to be in control, especially when it comes to traveling to a race—something Jorgensen does often. Anticipate issues before they happen: Create a spreadsheet for your travel expenses (including airline bike fees), pick a pre-race dinner spot in advance, find out your accommodations’ coffee situation ahead of time, and identify the closest bike shop for last-minute mechanicals.
Study your course and train for it
As soon as the location was set for the Games, Sutton set out on training Spirig specifically to meet the demands of the course. She changed her swim stroke to have a quicker turnover with less kicking to handle the waves off of Copacabana Beach. And the long-course bike training allowed her to tackle the 20 percent grade hill on each lap of the eight-loop bike course without tiring her legs as much as the rest of the field. Your training should reflect the challenges of the course you’re targeting: Is it a mass start swim? Practice swimming close to others often. Does the run have a hilly profile? Incorporate hill repeats at the end of your long runs to build both strength and confidence.
Never. Ever. Quit.
Racing under the Olympic microscope adds a level of pressure to perform your best. As we saw from the American men—Joe Maloy (23rd), Ben Kanute (29th) and Greg Billington (38th)—they may not have had the races they dreamed of, but they all exuded a “don’t quit” mentality to get to the finish line. “You have to keep fighting and keep persevering,” Maloy said after the race. “That’s what triathlon is about.”