You know the old joke: What's the best way to get to Carnegie Hall? Answer -- practice, practice, practice. And what's the best way to reach the top of the podium at the Olympic Games? Champions such as Missy Franklin, Natalie Coughlin and Rebecca Soni wind up with gold medals around their necks after years of practice, practice and more practice. Although workouts for elite swimmers are tailored to the individual, there are common components. You swim so much you believe you are related to dolphins. You work out on land almost as much as in water. You eat smart. And you display supreme focus, perseverance, competitiveness and determination.
Professional and elite swimmers -- Missy Franklin plans to turn pro before the 2016 Olympics -- usually hit the pool early in the morning and swim for two hours or so. Their afternoon workout is either in the pool and/or on land. A sprinter such as Soni doesn't swim as far in workouts, focusing on speed and technique. She interval trains, swimming short distances at top speed, and works extensively on turns and starts, since the margin between victory and defeat in sprint races usually is measured in fractions of seconds. Franklin, who races at various distances, swims about 5,000 meters per day, including breath-sapping intervals at maximum effort. Other professional swimmers log as much as 10,000 meters per day, but Franklin says her routine helps avoid burnout.
In the afternoon, pro swimmers usually return for a second daily workout that lasts about two hours. A dry workout for Soni consists of strength workouts with weights or other devices. She does lots of plyometric work as well, exercises such as bounding and leaping exercises that develop explosive power. Pro swimmers often experiment, and Soni replaced weightlifting in her routine with yoga and Pilates in 2009.
A professional swimmer incorporates the right diet into her workout program. Soni fuels up for the day with two breakfasts. Her pre-practice breakfast consists of cereal topped with pears and bananas. After her morning workout, Soni chows down on eggs. A salad at lunch readies Soni for her afternoon workout, followed by a dinner of fish, chicken or pasta and veggies. After a hard workout, Coughlin and other pros replace glycogen and carbs expended during training with a snack of protein and carbs, which enables them to recover more quickly and with less muscle soreness.
Swimmers who make it to the top accept and even revel in their grueling, often monotonous and sometimes painful daily workout routine. Coughlin, one of the most celebrated swimmers in the history of the sport, says the glamorous moments experienced by a professional athlete aren't as meaningful to her as the day-to-day work -- "what I have loved most is the daily grind of training." In her early days of training, Coughlin told STACK that she often found herself spacing out as she swam lap after lap. "As I got older, I realized I could use my time wisely and consistently work on my technique and make myself a better athlete and a better swimmer, or I could daydream."
Jim Thomas has been a freelance writer since 1978. He wrote a book about professional golfers and has written magazine articles about sports, politics, legal issues, travel and business for national and Northwest publications. He received a Juris Doctor from Duke Law School and a Bachelor of Science in political science from Whitman College.