Q: I’m just as impressed by the mental focus of elite athletes as I am by their physical prowess. What types of mental tricks do elite-level athletes use that I can tailor for my own not-so-elite tennis game or to improve my running time?
A: You guessed it: Mental focus is key to the success of elite athletes. In fact, the motto of Mark Verstegen, the founder and president of one of our favorite training centers, Athletes’ Performance, is “Every day is game day”—in other words, every day you have to consciously commit to performing at the highest level.
For a weekend (or weeknight!) warrior like you, that means thinking daily—even when you’re sitting behind your desk, counting down the hours until you can hit the court or the running trail—about what you can do to maximize your health and physical performance. It might be remembering to stash healthy snacks in the office fridge and actually eating them, even when the vending-machine Doritos are calling your name; setting an alarm on your Outlook calendar to get up and stretch or walk around once an hour (and following through on it instead of hitting “Dismiss”); or resisting that last 11:30 p.m. email check to make sure you get a great night’s sleep.
One mental trick that may also boost your performance is visualizing or imagining positive physical outcomes. A study from the Cleveland Clinic found that while people who worked out saw an increase in physical strength, people who performed “mental” workouts (i.e., imagining themselves doing the moves) actually saw about half as much improvement as those who exercised, without ever lifting a finger (and for comparison, the control group that didn’t work out either physically or mentally saw zero strength increase). So while we don’t suggest you trade in a real workout for an imaginary one, spending some time visualizing your tennis game or your run—visualizing success—may actually help improve your game or running time.
Q: It kills me when I come down with a cold right before a big business event. So I can’t imagine training for the moment of a lifetime… only to get hit with the flu or a cold. How do elite athletes avoid getting sick when everything is on the line, and what can I learn from their habits?
A: There’s no magic bullet to avoid getting sick, but there are a few things that both elite athletes and your smug friend who never catches a cold know about staying healthy under pressure.
The obvious ones are washing your hands regularly and getting a flu shot.
Beyond that, one leg up that Olympic athletes have when it comes to staying healthy is their team: Having a strong group of supporters behind you helps you go for the gold both in life and in health. How? Depression has been linked to infection, which researchers believe is because depression inhibits the fighting ability of your T cells. On the flip side, surrounding yourself with positive people who help you feel confident and connected may increase your ability to fight off infections. No worries if you’re not on an elite athletic team—family, volunteer groups, religious groups and work-related groups are all beneficial, too.
Q: I have a friend who was injured in Iraq and lost the use of his legs. How can I help him get involved in Paralympic-type sports?
A: Participating in sports would be a great way for your friend to feel active and connected, and you’re a great friend for thinking of it. The U.S. Olympic Committee has a wonderful partnership with the U.S. military—in fact, according to TeamUSA.org, about half of Paralympians are from the military (so your friend will be in good company), and the partnership is making huge strides in helping to rehabilitate injured veterans. Visit findaclub.usparalympics.org to locate a Paralympic program near you. Each program on the site lists the name, phone number and email address of a club contact, so you easily can get in touch and find out how your friend can get involved. You can also help out by making a donation to U.S. Paralympics: Visit teamusa.org/US-Paralympics.aspx to contribute.
Q: I’m far from being an Olympic athlete—I just want to improve my strength and endurance. What are some of the best moves I can do at the gym to progress?
A: Strength training isn’t just a great way to get into excellent shape; it can also sharpen your focus at work and even stave off aging. Here are a few moves to help you build a strong foundation that you can either work into your existing strength routine or put them all together for one serious workout. But before we get to them, a few things to keep in mind in the weight room: Avoid injury by never locking your legs or arms; hold your abdominals tight while doing all the moves (which will lead to a stronger midsection and better posture); and don’t forget to breathe—exhale while you’re pushing or pulling the weight, and inhale when you’re bringing it back to the starting position. And especially if you’re new to using weights, follow the 8/12 rule: Choose a weight light enough that you can do the exercise eight times but heavy enough that you can’t do it more than 12.
With all that in mind, do one set of each of the following exercises, and increase to two as you progress.
• Squats (work legs and butt): Stand with feet just wider than shoulder width, hands by your sides. Keeping back straight, breathe in while you squat down so your thighs are parallel to the floor. Pause… then breathe out while you rise up to standing. If 12 reps are too easy, hold dumbbells at your sides.
• Lunges (work legs and butt): Stand with feet shoulder width apart, hands on hips. Breathing in, take a long step forward with left foot, bending left knee so thigh is parallel to floor. Pause… then exhale as you step back into standing position. If 12 reps on each side are too easy, hold dumbbells at your sides.
• Bent-over rows (work back): Stand next to a bench, bend over so back is parallel to ground, place left knee and left hand on bench, and hold a dumbbell in right hand. Start with right arm straight, and as you inhale use your back muscles to pull the dumbbell up to your chest, keeping elbow close to side. Pause… then exhale and lower. Do eight to 12 reps on each side.
After a month or two, add push-ups and pull-ups to build upper body and core strength.