Training Like an Olympian: How I Survived an Elite Athletes’ Boot Camp

On the opening day of Rio 2016, a marathon runner recalls an elite eight-week training program that tested her endurance and strength. But as Olympian Emily Infeld tells her, “Embrace the hurt and the uncomfortable feeling.”

Courtesy of Nike

I have never considered myself an athlete. It’s a term I’ve always felt should be reserved for A) those with an innately phenomenal physical prowess, B) children and college students on an actual sports team, or C) professionals with a career that requires them to perform at a fitness and skill level far beyond that reachable by lesser mortals. Those who work out regularly for mood enhancement, increased musculature, a healthy heart and, yes, the possibility of defying gravity’s aesthetic pull simply do not qualify. It’s a club to which no number of perfectly-executed burpees or deadlifts will facilitate membership. Or so I believed.

There seemed to be no better affirmation of my narrow view of what constitutes an athlete than the Olympic Games. Those men and women accomplishing unfathomable bodily feats? Those are people deserving of the moniker. So, when Nike proposed that I embark on an eight-week journey dubbed “Unlimited You” (inspired by its “Unlimited” campaign) during which I would be trained like an elite athlete, I was excited, intrigued and a bit trepidatious.

The plan was to have our movement and sports-related performance analyzed and quantified; we would set physical goals based on the data provided and work towards them with personal coaches and individualized programs, and once the eight weeks were complete, we would be tested again, ostensibly to demonstrate how much our numbers and athletic abilities had improved as a result of our training. Was I corporeally (and mentally) up to such a task? Sure, I was relatively in shape for a lay person, but I had barely survived the rigor and scrutiny of high school varsity athletics.

Well, rigor and scrutiny of the most intense kind were on tap when I flew out in mid-May to McKinney, Texas, home to the Michael Johnson Performance center, with my fellow “Unlimited You” cohorts. I was placed in the “track & field” group since I’m an avid runner. We were to undergo two days of intense testing at the facility founded in 2007 by Michael Johnson, the three-time Olympic sprinter and still current 400-meter world and Olympic record holder. “As long as someone comes in here and has a goal and it relates to some sort of physical activity, we can help them,” explained Johnson, trim and sinewy at 48.

Texan Testing

After a 6 a.m. breakfast—aspiring Olympic athletes don’t hit snooze!— Lance Walker, the center’s Global Director of Performance and our leader for the next two days, explained, “The key today is actionable data. We do not gather data for the sake of data. Part of this journey is learning about your bodies. You’re version 1.0 today!”

Our day was spent testing things I didn’t know were worthy of assessment (and others I wish weren’t). We had our body fat both scanned and measured with calipers; our feet were covered in velcro dots so a machine could create a digital mold of our metatarsal structure; a physical therapy station prodded us into various gentle alignments while noting our flexibility and strength (or lack thereof); there were variations on plyometrics (to assess our power, foot contact time, form and any asymmetries between our legs); and we pedaled full out for three minutes on a Watt bike while wearing a heart rate monitor to determine the maximum amount of oxygen by volume that we could access while at work and how quickly we recovered. By the end of this and other endeavors too lengthy to mention, I was almost more mentally drained than physically taxed.

“We are beyond fitness; we’re at performance,” declared Walker. “Today, we’re going to look at how you use your hardware in a more sport-specific way.”

Before getting to the nitty-gritty business of running, there was an APTUS test, which measures how you learn as an athlete, taken in a conference room divided with cardboard slats to create an appropriately SAT testing room feel. And then there were the “sport-specific” tests: tossing a 6-pound medicine ball as far as possible with no running start to ascertain power; sprints to analyze our stride form; a 2-point start from a starting block to monitor acceleration rate, and finally, two rounds on a Trueform treadmill whose curved surface (and belt powered solely by your own effort) forces you to maintain perfect form lest you go flying off.

“The testing is over. Now the training begins,” declared Walker.

In a RART-customized NikeLab Dynamic Reveal Olympic Medal Stand jacket.

Courtesy of Nike

Getting to Work And so it did back in steamy New York, where I had an initial meeting with my head coach for the next eight weeks, Traci Copeland, a Nike Master Trainer whose lithe, dancer frame and carriage spoke to her multi-disciplinary background: she had been a competitive gymnast, a high school and college track and field athlete (the latter in long jump and triple jump) and was also a certified yoga teacher. As I would discover with increasing intensity over the course of our training, Copeland’s enviably zen, chill and encouraging manner belied the fact that she was more than happy to hand me my ass on a platter (but a silver, perfectly polished one). Kill ‘em with kindness, as they say.

After discussing my running background—I’d run 8 half-marathons and two 15k’s, with just one 4-miler and one 1-miler—and general fitness—I workout 6-7 days a week on my own—we decided that for the purposes of this training, she would challenge me to become adept at racing shorter distances. “All of the best distance runners also train like sprinters,” she said.

It was a point driven home by a group track session we had lead by coach Julia Lucas, an animated ball of energy who had become the Nike Run Club’s Head Coach in New York after years as a top-ranked professional runner. “You were all perfect athletes when you were born. We’re trying to return you to that,” she declared to our group, before leading us through a series of standard track drills.

Training Your Weaknesses Back in the gym, Copeland had my first set of MJP results. The good news: I had no red flags that made me prone to injury and my flexibility was very good. My weaknesses were my medial glutes (small muscles on the side of your butt), the strength of my rotator cuffs and an asymmetry in strength between my left and right hip abductors.

“You’re used to running, so your glutes are always on fire, but not the lateral part. It’s overlooked,” explained Copeland, adding that strengthening the medial area would help with my power and form and also take stress out of the tightness in my hips. Her course of treatment was not the pound-you-into-the-ground most of us are used to from high intensity classes. “It’s not going to be all out with no recovery. You’ll get proper time to recover, but you’ll use heavier weights, so it’s really about strength training and building up your muscular endurance,” she said.

Our first session consisted of a warm-up and a circuit of tempo count push-ups, goblet squats with 25-pound, single deadlifts with a 15-pound dumbbell, single leg bridges with a 3-pound yoga block, 45 second planks (during which Copeland prodded me continuously to test my instability), squat jumps and resistance band sprints. Yes, I was able to walk out and I wasn’t panting to the level of hyperventilating, but make no mistake: It was seriously tough.

Finding My Running “Power Source” There was a bit more heavy breathing when I met with Lucas for our first one-on-one run on a humid evening in Central Park. “You’re a really interesting case,” she said, which is pretty much the equivalent of a doctor telling you he or she has no idea what the hell to do with your messed up body. As Lucas put it, most people are consistently good or mediocre at things, the level is pretty even. I presented the fascinating scenario of being very good at certain tasks and mediocre at others. The straight-A student in me was not pleased.

The main culprit she called out was my transverse abdominals, the deepest layer of ab muscles that wrap around sides of your body (not to be confused with your obliques). “They’re like an emergency brake. You basically have everything except your emergency brake,” she offered with a smile. Sounds safe, right? We did a warm-up, those dreaded A-skip, B-skip etc. drills that for the next eight weeks would become a prelude to all of my running workouts and she offered helpful fixes to my movement.

“No more blades!” she instructed, telling me to relax my hands (keeping them rigid sends tension radiating up your tendons to your shoulders). My arms needed to swing closer to my body and in a more concise, straight-lined motion for maximum efficiency. And then came an unexpected question.

“Have you ever done Kegels?” asked Lucas.

“Umm, no,” I replied.

“When you’re running, I want you to think about squeezing your belly button in and also doing a Kegel,” said Lucas.

“You want me to squeeze my vaginal muscles while running?” I asked in disbelief. “Yes,” said Lucas, as she geared me up for a 20 minute, grueling Fartlek run (Swedish for speed play, during which you alternate between flat out sprints and a slower recovery pace). “By doing a Kegel and squeezing in your belly button, you are firing up your transverse abs, which is the area we want to activate.” Lucas coined the code term “Power Source,” to call out whenever she wanted me to do a Kegel-belly button squeeze combo, so Central Park didn’t need to know about my inner workings. Ladies and gentlemen, elite (female) athletes are so strong, even their pelvic muscles are in better shape than yours! (And for those men wondering how to mimic this effect, pretend to suck up your urine stream. Yes, I ask the tough questions.)

The impact was immediate. When I squeezed my, umm, Power Source, my entire torso became a taut, clicked in line that seemed to float in midair as my legs pin-wheeled beneath me. It was the closest I’d ever felt to flying while on the ground.

Running on the Trueform treadmill at the Michael Johnson Performance center.

Courtesy of Nike

Finding Motivation And thus my elite training began. I received a weekly workout schedule from Copeland in advance; had a one-on-one training and running session with Copeland and Lucas, respectively, and then followed through on everything else on my own. It was all personalized to my weaknesses. And then each day, I would use an AMP Athlete app on my phone to send Copeland data about my hours and quality of sleep, any muscle soreness and my workouts.

I wasn’t perfect. I had a few, shall we say, sleep-deprived nights thanks to some nocturnal activities. There was a hangover or two. Elite athletes aren’t saints. And given I was now waking up around 5 or 5:30 a.m. at least a few mornings a week to squeeze in my sessions (longer and harder than what I would normally have done on my own), I was also crashing into bed around 9:30 p.m. with little prompting. I held off on making social plans until I knew exactly when my Copeland and Lucas workouts would be, not wanting to schedule an 8 p.m. dinner the night before a 6:45 a.m. hill workout.

But even the most devoted (and human) athlete can hit a wall. When my energy and intention started to waver, I would think back to what Michael Johnson told me in Texas when I asked him about his own, current fitness regime. “The biggest thing for me now in terms of training and working out is motivation. Most people think you’ve been an elite athlete, you’ve trained all of your life, first as a kid and then as a professional, training comes naturally to you. It doesn’t if you don’t have a goal,” he said. “When you’ve done this as a profession, with huge rewards at the end, you know, gold medals, making the Olympic team, financial rewards, accolades, appreciation from the world…and then now you’re going to go out there for a three mile run and when you’re done there isn’t going to be anyone there clapping, no gold medals, no bonuses…So you gotta find that motivation. It’s tough.”

Sometimes, a little inspiration is in order. And so crew “Unlimited You” spent the July Fourth weekend in Eugene, Oregon, taking in the first few exhilarating days of the USA Track & Field Olympic Trials. In case you’re wondering where Eugene is, our bus driver, Mike, put it best when upon picking us up from the airport he declared, “I am taking you to the middle of nowhere.” And so surrounded by vineyards and fields, we settled into individual tepees (glamping at its best) and tossed and turned to the sounds of bullfrogs croaking their discontent. Joe Holder, a Nike Trainer and co-head coach with Copeland of our group, woke us at 6 a.m. every morning with a cowbell. We squeezed in four workouts in 36 hours: a yoga session, led by Copeland; a strength routine, by Holder; a track session led by Lucas on the historic Hayward Field, the same track on which the aspiring Olympians were competing; and a shakeout group run. More importantly, we got to watch Allyson Felix crush her early 400-meter heat, Galen Rupp race a strategic 10,000 meters and reigning American super hero Ashton Eaton knock out one after the other of his 10 decathlon events. Emily Infeld, who came in second in the women’s 10,000 meters (thus qualifying for the Olympics), offered some advice on training and competing.

“Embrace the hurt and the uncomfortable feeling,” she said with a smile. Yes, sometimes change hurts. But just as Infeld encouraged, if you accept and dig into that inevitable pain, something good can come out of it.

A-skip drills on the historic Hayward Field track in Eugene, Oregon

Courtesy of Nike

The Finale “You’re jumping so much higher!” said Copeland after our final session. “You’re more powerful and your reaction time has gotten better. We still need to work on your balance, transverse abs…and balancing out those asymmetries. [But] don’t be concerned too much with the asymmetrical part. These are subtle differences that some of the most elite athletes have.”

I assume elite athletes are also plagued by nerves like the rest of us. As the day of our final assessment dawned (and I do mean dawned—my phone alarm read 4:45 a.m.), I was racked with jitters. What if the data didn’t reflect the work I had put in? And more terrifyingly, what if it didn’t do justice to the time and effort and expertise Copeland and Lucas had devoted to fixing and fine-tuning my body? The possibility of letting them down was far more heartbreaking than personal disappointment.

Team “Unlimited You” gathered in Chelsea Piers on this rainy morning to run through an attenuated version of our McKinney testing, led by Walker and some of his top MJP staff, who had flown in for the occasion. “You are version 2.0. You’ve already won,” said Walker, adding, “But this is a competition. Make this a competition with yourself. Think of this as your Olympic Trials and if you qualify, we are all going to Rio.”

I could barely keep my green tea down as Holder and Copeland led us through a track warm-up. First up was the starting block 5-meter sprint. I shaved almost a full second off my time. “That’s unheard of!” said Copeland, giving me a hug. “That’s like cutting five minutes off a marathon time.” “Are we doing pee tests?” joked Walker.

Phew, one down. The jumps went well, too, as I added four centimeters of height to the standing squat rendition (a sign of increased concentric strength in my lower body). My body fat measurement went up, but hey, you can’t win them all (and this was about performance, not composition). The 6-pound ball toss also registered 3 inches gained in distance (more upper body work would increase that) and finally, the pièce de résistance, a flat out 45-second sprint on a track, aiming for maximum distance was a good 88 meters longer than what I had covered on those TrueForm treadmills.

“Look, you’re even still able to talk to me!” said Walker as he high-fived me. “I guess that means I could have run faster,” I deadpanned.

“You’re more reactive, using power better, and are a more confident runner and athlete,” said a beaming Copeland. As we gathered for a final group powwow, I was feeling both the high of a good performance and a still-setting-in-sadness for the end of the past eight weeks. Drawing back the curtain on your physical weaknesses can be a scary process. But finding a way to focus on building them up without fixating on them is a lesson in and of itself and one that applies far beyond the gym or a running course. “This is just a data point. It’s continuous,” said Walker as he congratulated all of us on our respective achievements. “You keep going.”

Obviously, I can’t say that I know what those Olympians have gone through to arrive at Rio 2016. I spent eight weeks trying to correct my amateur running form and build a stronger, more explosive muscular base; they have spent more than four years—in some cases decades—devoting every second of every day to accomplishing an infinitely more elevated version of these minimal by comparison endeavors. But the one—and possibly only—thing we share is that we had a physical performance goal and we put in the work to strive for it. That’s something pretty much anyone can do, on as small a scale as they wish, if they care to devote the time and energy to it. And if that makes me an athlete, however low on the grand spectrum, I’ll take it.

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