We all know it takes remarkable dedication, time and effort to become a successful athlete, let alone an Olympian. But just how many hours per day are Team GB actually practising their left ski turns and corked backflips? And do they live on grilled chicken and protein shakes alone?
Whether or not you believe the theory that 10,000 hours of sustained training in any discipline will propel Joe Average to elite performance levels, it’s impossible to deny it requires truly exceptional dedication and hard graft to reach the Olympics.
With 11 years on the FIS World Cup Circuit behind her, ski cross competitor Emily Sarsfield is known as one of the most hard working members of the British Ski and Snowboard (BSS) squad, yet even she confirms that heading into an Olympic year “massively ups the training, and the pressure”.
Thus a typical ‘home’ day will see Emily train for four hours in her local BXR gym, working on cardio, strength, rehab and stretching. She usually splits that into a morning and evening session, heading home in between to work with her Compex muscle stimulation machine, chill and eat.
As she says:
To meet her aim of taking on 20 grams of protein every two hours, a day’s eating for Emily might involve Greek yoghurt, granola and berries for breakfast; a mid-morning protein shake; salmon steak with wholegrain rice for lunch; an afternoon snack of nuts and a carb-free chicken stir-fry for supper.
DOES AGE MATTER?
As Emily explains, there’s no one-size-fits-all training schedule, even for athletes training for similar disciplines. “Now that we’ve got a dedicated ski and boardercross coach [Guillaume Nantermod], I get to train with other members of the team. I usually share a room with Maisie Potter [snowboard cross] at training camps, who is 14 years younger than me, which makes me realise how much more I need to do for my body these days. I’ll wake up early to get in some activation exercises before hitting the mountain for a warm-up and stretching – Maisie just rolls out of bed!”
Dedication doesn’t just come with age: listening to the 23-year-old slalom specialist Jack Gower describe the pressures of his gruelling training regime, his determination shines through. “You need to be extremely calculated in your approach to fitness and technique, and continually assess progress in both. I have a set marker for my fitness, which is assessed annually with a VO2 max test [assesses the maximum rate of oxygen consumption measured during incremental exercise] – if I fall behind on that, I hit my road bike hard. When I’m on the snow, I’m constantly tweaking tiny things. Will it make a difference if I move my binding by a quarter of an inch? We’ll give it a go, collect the data and decide whether to implement it going forward.”
Jack typically trains between three and six hours a day, six days a week, travelling abroad for camps about seven months of the year. When training abroad, there might be five or six hours of skiing followed by an hour of gym work. “Competing in Alpine disciplines puts your body under a lot of forces, so being in prime physical shape is key, both to maximising your performance and protecting yourself in a crash.”
Living at home brings with it welcome stability and support: “Mum is super helpful with cooking as I eat a lot – about 6,000 calories per day. When I’m home, I try to work hard for five days and take the weekend off to visit my girlfriend and mates in London. I’m lucky in that I enjoy the physical training and skiing, but it means I can get sucked into a bubble and forget to get out and see people. My girlfriend is pretty good at getting me out of that!”
A NEW WAY TO TRAIN LIKE AN OLYMPIAN
Long hours, intense physical workouts and rigid diets – it’s what I expected Great Britain’s finest would endure in their pursuit of Olympic glory. However, speaking with Lesley McKenna, the BSS Park & Pipe programme manager, it seems there is an alternative way.
Over the past decade the three-time Olympian has worked with Pat Sharples (Park & Pipe head ski coach) and Hamish McKnight (Park & Pipe head snowboard coach) to develop an intriguing strategy.
“After years spent looking into athlete empowerment and minimising injury in the high-risk Park & Pipe environment, we have chosen to place the primary focus on skill acquisition and the sheer love of the sport,” says Lesley. “Presenting podium placements as the ultimate goal is actually detrimental to an athlete’s progression: we find that intrinsic inspiration generates far greater success.”
Encouraging ‘athlete self-determination’, the coaches work closely with individual athletes to tailor programmes to address their specific strength, agility, balance and conditioning needs. The focus is on mastering new tricks and, rather than keeping progression on this front secret, the coaches encourage athletes to share videos of their latest achievements in order to build a sense of pride across a wider community. “We want our athletes to feel the stoke as often as possible. Doing what they love is what drives them, and all of us, to success.”
Speaking with Park & Pipe skier Katie Summerhayes, it seems McKenna’s coaching philosophy translates well into reality. “I’d never claim that what I do is work, it’s way too much fun!” Yet, there’s clearly still plenty of hard work involved: “I’m away nine months of the year, usually in a different place every week. When we’re on the road, we’ll ski from 9am to 3pm before hitting the gym for an hour or more. On down days, there’ll be a heavier gym session, or maybe a rest day if you need it. There’s no strict diet – when you’re travelling so much it can be hard enough just finding something you fancy eating!”
Park & Pipe snowboarder Jamie Nicholls echoes Katie’s chilled attitude: “Sometimes I’ll hit the gym after a day on the snow but other times I’ll just sit on the sofa and eat loads of food. It’s not as strict as people think – while I was training in New Zealand, I’d play golf after a day’s riding.”
Jamie also explains the importance of social media for the athletes, particularly in building sponsorship credibility. With a whopping 46k Instagram followers, Jamie’s wife largely handles his account, but it’s something he considers throughout the training process, taking time out to film new tricks, top-to-bottom runs and coaching sessions.
“Instagram helps to blend the two distinct sides to snowboarding – social riding with mates and professional training. And while we’re all in it to win, we’re also very much part of a global community, which keeps it fun.
What’s clear from speaking with each of these athletes is that, regardless of how many hours they put in, they love what they do and are excited about what promises to be Team GB’s best ever Winter Olympics.
As Jamie says: “Everyone just goes for it in the Olympics – in the last Games I landed a trick I’d never even done before. There’s something out there that drives you to put down the best performance of your life.”