Editor's note: The Gazette is taking a look at the lifestyle of athletes at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, asking professionals what the public can learn from the habits and routines of some of the world’s top competitors. Part 1, Oct. 2 — Think like an Olympic athlete; Part 2, 9 — Eat like an Olympic athlete; Part 3, Oct. 16 — Recover like an Olympic athlete.
Many older athletes say they wished they’d recovered more when they were younger.
“You’ve got to take care of your body,” said Amber Donaldson, senior director of sports medicine clinics at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. “It takes longer to recover the older you get. If you don’t have those habits early on, it’s really hard when you turn 30, 28 or 20 in some sports, and you don’t have any good habits and your body is breaking down and you don’t know what to do.”
Recovery entails various habits and practices, but it doesn’t mean lying on the couch and watching television. Nutrition, hydration and sleep all are needed for recovery.
“Maybe they’re doing yoga, going for a hike or going for a swim,” Donaldson said. “Something that’s still active and maybe uses their body in a slightly different way than how they train.”
The training center’s resources for injury recovery include ice and compression, cold plunges, hot plunges, saunas and deep sport massages.
Some of recovery is about strength, but a lot of it is mental, too, Donaldson said.
“If an athlete thinks they feel better, we don’t want to mess with that. We can measure their strength and show them, but sometimes they have a routine,” she said.
Donaldson said she encourages athletes to take a day or two during the week for recovery to reduce chances of burnout. Performance decreases if you train too hard, so she advises high-quality training over quantity training.
“There are athletes who are so resistant like, ‘I’m not performing so I need to do more.’ Actually, you need to do better, but maybe less. Higher quality but less.”
While many athletes don’t make enough time for recovery, they have more reminders to prioritize recovery than other people do, Donaldson said. Even people in a regular 9-to-5 job live in a culture of overwork.
“We all work all day, work all night and work all morning,” she said. “We try to squeeze in something at lunchtime or at night. That’s just our culture, too, whether it’s athletics or life. Trying to cram so much stuff into our days is the way we think it has to be.”
People often want to skip the basics and push their bodies into exercises and poses for which they’re unprepared.
“With a lot of the exercises and programs that are out there, people just jump to doing huge amounts of weights and moving tires and pulling cars,” Donaldson said.
“And they can’t even activate their core or stand on one leg without falling over. That is key. It’s only going to set you up for injury if you jump and you can’t breathe, activate your core or have good glute control. If those things aren’t in place as a base, you will reach a limit where you will break and have an injury.”
The same dangerous eagerness applies to athletes, too. She said she’ll catch a famous athlete doing a certain exercise, and suddenly, other athletes have copied it.
“They have no idea what the purpose was that this athlete was doing it,” Donaldson said. “He’s just super famous and doing super well, so they must need to do it. And they have totally different body styles, or they’re a female and he’s a male. It doesn’t make any sense. Just doing something because you saw someone else doing it doesn’t make any sense.”
Recovery is most effective when injuries and pain are caught early.
“ ... it’s better to take care of something when it’s little and small than waiting until it now becomes a big issue,” she said.
“Say you tweaked your ankle a little bit and you say, ‘I’m just going to shake it off and keep running.’ Then you have knee pain, then hip pain and now your back hurts, all because you had a rock in your shoe, you stepped wrong or you had a blister you didn’t take care of.”
While an injury is always inconvenient, Donaldson said she reminds athletes that the experience can be beneficial, and some people bounce back better than before.
“There are benefits,” she said. “Like resetting, starting from the basics and all of these things you just skip over. You don’t always remember why you’re still doing this. You just show up and keep doing your routine and keep running on a wheel. Sometimes it’s important to take a step back, for any of us, no matter what we do, and ask why we’re still doing this. ‘Is this still important to me? If so, then I’m going to give it everything I have.’”