Pop quiz: which sport will have the greatest athletes facing off during the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio? Basketball? Swimming? Nope. For our money, the best athletes in the world will be competing in the decathlon.
The decathlon is one of the oldest Olympic competitions, combining 10 track & field events. It includes four runs, three jumps and three throws—a gauntlet that tests an athlete’s speed, strength, explosiveness and endurance. SI.com recently crowned American decathlete Ashton Eaton as the fittest man on the planet, and the winner of the Olympic decathlon is typically bestowed with the title of “World’s Greatest Athlete.” Decathletes’ bodies are a testament to their athletic versatility, an impressive blend of leanness and raw power. Want to train (and look) like these incredible athletes? Follow these five tips.
1. Perform an Intense, Movement-Oriented Warm-Up
First things first—if you’re going to train like a decathlete, you should warm up like one. That means less static stretching and more dynamic, movement-oriented exercises like Shuffles, Backpedals, Lunges, Kicks and Skips. These movements prime your body for explosive performance and reduce your risk of injury.
“Stretching isn’t warming up,” 2012 Olympic silver medalist Trey Hardee told OutsideOnline.com in a 2012 interview. “Warming up is literally that—raising your body’s temperature and getting blood flowing to your muscles.” If you haven’t broken a sweat or aren’t breathing heavily by the end of your warm-up, you might need to kick things up a notch.
The Takeaway: In the minds of many athletes, a warm-up is a time to slack off and chat with your teammates, maybe periodically reaching down to touch your toes for a few seconds. But if you want to train like a decathlete, you need to perform an active, dynamic warm-up filled with movement-oriented exercises. Try this 10-minute dynamic warm-up for any workout.
The number 1 enemy of a decathlete is fatigue. But with 10 maximum-effort events on the schedule (including a 1,500-meter run), staying 100 percent fresh from beginning to end is inconceivable. That’s why decathletes practice performing while fatigued during their training.
“A lot of people like to vault with fresh, fresh legs. They want to have that be the first thing they do. I like to vault tired, on tired legs. Because in the decathlon, it’s the second day that we get to vault. It’s the seventh event,” 2008 Olympic gold medalist Bryan Clay told STACK. “Quite frankly, I don’t know if I’ll ever get a chance to vault feeling fresh in a decathlon. So I try to play these games in my head and play these games with what I do on the track and really try to mimic what I’m going to feel like on the field when I’m competing.”
The Takeaway: If you know you’re going to have to do certain things during a game while tired, work on them under fatigue during training. Take free throws, for example. If you’re a basketball player who practices free throws only when you’re fresh, you’ll be in big trouble when you’re sent to the line during overtime.
You should never work out so tired that you significantly increase your chance of injury, but teaching your body how to overcome fatigue is incredibly important for any athlete.
Decathletes are freakishly explosive. These human beings can jump higher, throw farther and run faster than nearly anyone else on the planet. To achieve their extraordinary explosiveness, decathletes spend a ton of time in the weight room. But they’re not there just to hammer away Curls in front of the mirror—they’re there to perform heavy, explosive Olympic lifts. “Everything we do is geared towards [explosiveness]. We Squat, we do Cleans, we do Snatch, we do all the Olympic lifts,” Clay says. Just check out these training clips from Hardee:
The Takeaway: Barbell training is one of the quickest ways to get bigger, stronger and faster. Focus on learning how to perform Olympic lifts with proper technique, then slowly add weight. If you’re looking for a method that can make barbell training even more explosive, try Compensatory Acceleration Training.
If you’re going to train like an Olympic decathlete, you must eat like an Olympic decathlete. That means two things: consuming a boatload of calories and sticking mainly to foods that enhance athletic performance. Decathletes don’t get their sculpted physiques by starving themselves all day. “For decathletes, because we have to do so much—I’m 6 to 7 hours a day on the track—it’s more about getting enough than cutting stuff out,” Clay says.
Eaton, the 2012 Olympic gold medalist and current decathlon world record holder, and his wife, Brianne Theisen-Eaton, also an Olympian, explain their nutrition philosophy on their website WeAreEaton.com. They follow six, easy-t0-remember principles:
1. Protein is King. “We need protein to help build and repair our muscles, which we’re constantly using and tearing up as speed/power athletes.”
2. Full Fat Everything. “Full fat foods leave us feeling more satisfied as they still contain all of their nutrients, whereas low-fat foods have most of their nutrients taken out and leave you with the sugar (which turns to fat).”
3. No Refined Carbs. “We only buy unprocessed, natural grains because they contain more protein, vitamins, healthy oils and fats, and fiber to keep us full for longer.”
4. Veggies. Veggies. Veggies. “Our rule is: always have a serving of vegetables at lunch and dinner, and always substitute side salads or steamed veggies for French fries or baked potatoes when we’re eating out . . . unless it’s the off-season.”
5. Sugar is The Devil. “It’s really hard to eliminate all sugar from a diet, so we try to limit it to natural sugar from fruit, honey, and maple syrup.”
6. Limit Liquid Calories. “We like drinking fizzy water, which we squeeze fresh lemon juice into when we get sick of plain water. We have the occasional celebratory post-competition soda, rarely drink alcohol (maybe one glass of wine a week), and drink our coffee black.”
The Takeaway: Do you see “eat less” anywhere in the Eatons’ nutritional principles? Nope. To build the speed, explosiveness and power of a decathlete, you need to eat enough food. Healthy fats, complex carbs, protein and fiber are your friends. Limit refined sugar (whether it be in candy, desserts or soda) and make an effort to eat more vegetables.
5. Perform Sprint Training
Sprint training is an absolute necessity for decathletes, not only because their sport involves events such as the 100-meter dash, but because sprint training builds fast-twitch muscle fiber that benefits every athletic movement. When many people think “cardio,” they think of endless sessions on the treadmill. “People are obsessed with burning some specific number of calories, and they think the best way to do that is by running high mileage, which is not always the case,” Hardee told OutsideOnline.com.
Hardee uses what he calls “speed-endurance” workouts to stay in tremendous shape. An example is a 450-meter run followed by a 350-meter run followed by a 250-meter run, with roughly four minutes of recovery between them. He then performs three 150-meter sprints with a slightly longer recovery period in between. “You’re in oxygen debt, and you’re forcing your body to work through it,” Hardee says. “Your body feels like it’s going to shut down, but it will learn to recover faster, which is particularly important for me when there are short times between events.”
The Takeaway: Cardio shouldn’t automatically conjure up images of long-distance running. Sprint training is often the more efficient, more beneficial form of cardio for athletes. In addition to building a higher percentage of fast-twitch muscle fibers, sprint training raises your lactic threshold, allowing you to power through crunch time with less pain and fatigue. Sprint training is also a form of high intensity interval training, meaning it continues to burn calories long after you’ve concluded your workout.