What it takes to prepare for the Olympics

Layering calories in meals, visualizing competitions and sleep help fuel Canadian athletes.

Vanessa Hrvatin 6 minute read July 30, 2021
Vanstone olympics

Canadian canoe paddler Thomas Hall holds up his bronze medal in the men's C-1 1000 meter race during the Olympic Games in Beijing on Aug. 22, 2008. John Mahoney / CanWest

It’s no secret that training for the Olympics is a full-time job. Michael Phelps trained every day for five years, with three to six hours a day in the pool, while gymnast Simone Biles trains 32 hours a week. Canadian Olympian Tom Hall won bronze in the 2008 Beijing Olympics in sprint canoe paddling, and more than a decade later, he can still rattle off his daily training schedule.

But a lot more goes into preparing for the Olympic games than just physical training. Healthing spoke to several professionals to learn what it takes to prepare for the world’s most prestigious sporting event.

Fuel by food
Susan Boegman, the nutrition lead at Canadian Sport Institute Pacific, says that when it comes to nutrition, there is no one-size-fits-all approach for Olympic athletes. Any nutrition advice depends on the person, their sport and the type of training they’re doing. And while some athletes need weekly nutrition counselling, others only touch base a few times a year.

“We help athletes understand both the science of nutrition and food management,” she says. “As they evolve and training demands increase, they need to be able to successfully adapt their fuelling strategies to support the very different requirements of a rest day, versus a moderate, versus a high-intensity training day.”

This means Boegman’s day-to-day can look very different — sometimes she’s providing tips on meal preparation, other times she’s teaching cooking classes or helping athletes find creative ways of consuming enough calories to stay energized. Intense training days can mean short windows of opportunity to eat, so tricks like layering calories — such as cooking oatmeal in milk, or adding in seeds, nuts and coconut oil — can help a busy athlete get the nutrition they need.

Boegman says she doesn’t suggest athletes count calories or have cheat days — she’d rather they eat a little bit of chocolate each day if it makes them feel good. The goal is to encourage a healthy and enjoyable relationship with food.

Once an athlete arrives at the games, stress and jet leg can impact their ability to absorb and digest food. Boegman says just like everything else, practicing good nutrition leading up to the games can help an athlete continue to eat well once they’re there. But there’s always a backup plan in place.

“I’ve sent individual athletes to an Olympic game with several different and well-rehearsed competition nutrition plans, just in case,” says Boegman. “Depending on the sport or the athlete’s digestive tolerance on the day, they may only be capable of consuming smoothies and [blended fruit snack] GoGo squeez, whereas at another time, another person might be totally capable of eating full meals.”

Mental performance
Canadian Olympian Tom Hall remembers sitting in a chair, closing his eyes and visualizing races to help him perfect his canoe paddling technique. Mental performance consultant Susan Cockle says this is an important part of preparing for the Olympics.

“When we visualize, we are able to activate a very similar response in the body physiologically as if we’ve actually physically done the task, so it counts as a form of practice,” says Cockle. “When an athlete gets better at managing their visualizations, they can throw in obstacles or challenges and fix it in their visualization. That way when it happens in real life, it feels like they’ve already dealt with it before.”

Cockle says many athletes and coaches will work with mental performance consultants for years before they get to the Olympics to develop skills around managing their focus, optimizing confidence and learning how to deal with setbacks. Mental training also plays a huge role in being able to reset and focus, which is especially important if an athlete is competing in more than one event.

“We have game plans in place for an athlete when they arrive at the Olympics, such as who they will talk to at the games and who they will wait to speak with until after the games are over. Otherwise, it can be challenging to stay focused if your phone is blowing up,” says Cockle. “We also do a lot of mindfulness practice so when you get to the games and your heart is racing, and you’re sweating profusely and you have dry mouth, you’re able to accept that and be in the moment and have the confidence that you can still perform.”

Hall says a lot of mental preparation also has to do with motivation and learning to accept loss. He raced with Team Canada for 15 years and says there were about five races he was completely satisfied with.

“If your motivation is winning, it’s not good enough and that’s a bad end goal because chances are you won’t achieve it,” says Hall. “The trick with motivation and managing failure is focussing on the process. At the end of the day, if you did your best, you should be proud of that.”

The power of a good night’s sleep
According to Dr. Jonathan Charest, sleep is the most important performance enhancer out there.

Charest, director of athlete sleep services at the Centre for Sleep and Human Performance, says each person has specific needs when it comes to getting a good night’s sleep. His team works with athletes to create an individualized plan, taking many factors into consideration — like whether they’re a night owl or morning person — while following the general rule of thumb that each athlete will need between 8 to 10 hours of sleep plus a daily nap.

In the days leading up to the games, the team shifts the athlete’s sleep schedule so they can begin adjusting to the imminent time change. Tricks like eating at specific times, stretching and keeping hydrated also help. Once they arrive, Charest recommends making the bed and environment as comfortable and relaxing as possible and encourages athletes to bring their own pillow or anything else that makes them feel at home.

“We spend a lot of time educating athletes and reframing their thoughts on what a good night’s sleep is,” says Charest. “We help them develop tools that are individualized so they can relax and get a good sleep. This way they can adapt these tools throughout their career and lifespan to maintain their sleep to the highest quality possible.”