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Rituals and routines of Olympic athletes

August 8th 2016 / Anna Hunter

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From Nutella to lucky pants to blasting out Beyoncé, here’s how Olympians get their head in the game to compete…

We all have our little ‘things’. Those habits, reflexes or quirks that get us stoked for a big day, date or conversation. From mental mantras to lucky charms and physical routines, it’s not uncommon to anchor your confidence in a particular personal tradition when approaching a challenge, but some of our customs are admittedly more ‘normal’ than others (I flap my hands about in a bird-like way when psyching myself up...not great in public). To dispel any quandaries you may have about your own mannerisms, here’s how Olympians fire themselves up pre-performance. Some are commonplace and functional, and some are...not. It takes all sorts.

Laura Trott

Having originally taken up cycling in order to lose weight, the double Olympic gold medallist and Queen of both track and road has a rather soggy way of preparing for a big race:

“I am very superstitious. I trod on a wet towel before winning the Junior World Championships and now I have to do that every time.”

Here’s hoping damp socks give her an edge during the women’s omnium and team pursuit at Rio...

Jessica Ennis-Hill

Partly responsible for London’s ‘super Saturday’ medal haul, heptathlon champion Jess will be aiming for another Olympic gold this summer, but her pre-event prep has altered somewhat since 2012:

“I used to train twice a day, six times a week but now I train smart; less time but at greater intensity leaving more time to spend with Reggie. As every mother knows, you have a lot less time for yourself when you become a mother so my focus is on quality versus quantity when it comes to work and beauty routines.”

“I train at the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield and I now have a gym in the garage at my home so once Reggie has gone down I can exercise in there.”

In terms of her nutritional regime, Jess admits that tasty food is an essential part of staying energised in the Rio run-up. Healthy is all well and good, but if it’s not got it going on in the flavour stakes, she won’t be happy:

“I think it’s really important to enjoy your food so I keep an eye out for foods that are tasty but are still good for my body whilst I’m in the last few weeks of training. In the lead up to Rio, breakfast will be yoghurt or porridge, lunch is grilled chicken or rice and then dinner could be a steak, salad or pasta. I try to hydrate as much as possible, I won’t be drinking any alcohol and I try to cut down on salt intake to get my body in the absolute best shape. The night before I compete in Rio I will be eating carbohydrates and protein to perform at my best. I’ll be quite nervous – so the meal before my competition has to be delicious so I can’t resist it!”

A beauty routine also helps Jess to feel grounded and prepared for tough competition:

“Skin care is so important when I’m training. I don’t have a huge amount of time for my beauty routine so having healthy looking skin is really important. For Rio I’ve packed Olay Essentials Complete Care Day Cream SPF15, £9.99. It gives my skin everything it needs most to look beautiful, healthy and well-moisturised when I’m training, and it has broad-spectrum sun protection which is essential when I’m outside so much.”

“I always wear make-up when I compete – waterproof eyeliner and mascara is a must! Right now I use Bobbi Brown Long Wear Gel Eyeliner in Black Ink, £19, Bobbi Brown No Smudge Mascara, £21, and MAC foundation. I tend to apply my make-up in the morning before a competition and it usually lasts the day.”

“As for my hair, it’s always tied back for competing - I straighten it then tie it back. I don’t tend to use lots of hair products, just a good conditioner. Right now I am using a Joico shampoo and conditioner.”

Bathtime is also on the agenda:

“I plan to pack Elemis Aching Muscle Super Soak, £37, in my bag for Rio. Really hoping there is a bath in the Olympic Village.”

Lastly, go-faster legs are hair free in Jess’ case:

“As I have bare legs so much for competing, I like to keep them smooth. I am packing my Venus Swirl Razor, £5.99.”

Jess isn’t the only medal-winning athlete who likes to defuzz before heading out to the track…

Mo Farah

The UK’s greatest ever distance runner keeps his head as polished as his Olympic, World and European championship performances:

“Every athlete has a pre-race routine to get focused. Mine is to shave my head. I like feeling the smoothness of the scalp and splashing cold water once I’m done.”

Mo also revealed to the BBC that he ups his game with an energy booster that’s likely familiar to most of us when facing a tough project

“When preparing for a long race, like the 5k or 10k, I practise running that distance the weekend before. Then in the week leading up to it I ease down. Just before the race I like a seriously strong espresso too – then I’m ready to go.”

We reckon a Brazilian brew should do the job…

Jade Jones

A Taekwondo tornado who won her first Olympic gold at the age of 19 in London, Jade doesn’t take any chances when it comes to supportive undergarments:

“I always wear my lucky Union Jack pants in training, although obviously I wash them! I’ve got a few more pairs now. I’ve always been really superstitious.”

At least she cleans said lucky mascot, which is more than can be said for the following lucky charm…

Serena Williams

With 22 grand slam titles and four Olympic gold medals to date, as one the world’s greatest athletes, it’s possibly surprising that Serena backs up her frankly awesome game with routine habits:

“I have too many superstitious rituals and it's annoying. It's like I have to do it and if I don't then I'll lose.”

Given her phenomenal sporting success thus far, her superstitions are clearly serving her, even if they do include wearing unwashed socks if she’s enjoying a series of wins, as rumoured. She’s also not the only tennis player to exhibit superstitious behaviour, however the next tennis great goes a little further than Ms Williams in his devotion to personal tradition…

Rafa Nadal

The world’s best ever clay court player and Olympic gold medallist claims that ‘he’s only superstitious on the tennis court’ (although he doesn’t see his routine as particularly superstitious- see below). Which is just as well really, as otherwise we suspect he’d never leave the house. He describes a few of his habits in is 2011 autobiography, Rafa:

On pre-match prep:

“Freezing cold water. I do this before every match. It’s the point before the point of no return. Under the cold shower I enter a new space in which I feel my power and resilience grow.

I’m a different man when I emerge. I’m activated. I’m in “the flow”, as sports psychologists describe a state of alert concentration in which the body moves by pure instinct, like a fish in a current. Nothing else exists but the battle ahead.”

On water bottles being positioned ‘just so’:

“I put the two bottles down at my feet, in front of my chair to my left, one neatly behind the other, diagonally aimed at the court. Some call it superstition, but it’s not. If it were superstition, why would I keep doing the same thing over and over whether I win or lose? It’s a way of placing myself in a match, ordering my surroundings to match the order I seek in my head.”

For an example of water bottle-gate, see here. Don’t mess with Rafa’s drinking vessels. FYI unpicking the wedgie, hair flicking, bandana wearing and nose twitching are all part of the routine.

Michael Phelps

The record breaking US swimmer holds 22 Olympic medals, 18 of them gold, so it’s fair to say that ‘Mr Swimming’ (he is actually dubbed this) has nailed a pre-race routine that works. Now onto his fifth games, witness him swinging his arms around three times whilst listening to Michael Jackson beside the starting blocks. Phelps isn’t the only American that psyches himself up by way of frankly awesome tunes; you may recall US luge competitor Kate Hansen’s pre-ride Beyoncé dance workout? If you missed it, or need a refresher, here’s your next blast of gym motivation. B herself even tweeted Hansen congratulating her on her skills. She may have finished in tenth place, but her warm-up put her talent on the worldwide stage regardless.

Rebeka Simon

British canoeist Rebeka may be going into her first games at Rio, but her award winning performances are fuelled by one of our favourite spreads. We like to imagine she eats it out of the jar:

“I can’t race without eating (a lot) of Nutella!"

When she’s not training with the aim of contributing to Team GB’s aim of 48 medals, she draws, paints and reads to take the pressure off.

Laura Unsworth

The England hockey player relaxes by shopping and going to the theatre, but she’s not quite so chilled in terms of preparation before a match. She insists that team mates cease from straightening their hair, due to lacklustre past performance:

“I’ve made them stop. Some straightened, and we did badly in a match.”

At least it knocks precious time off pre-competition build up…

Andy Murray

Tennis players in particular are known as a superstitious bunch, but the world number two and Olympic flagbearer bucks the trend in terms of routine maintenance, especially when it was suggested that he was growing a ‘lucky’ beard at Roland Garros earlier this year:

"I am genuinely not superstitious at all. Having a beard or long hair or whatever doesn't have anything to do with how you play on the court."

Grounded is Murray’s game; think a banana before the match to maintain potassium levels (even though he doesn’t like them), a bespoke ‘energy’ drink blended by his team nutritionist to sip during the match and sushi post event for protein and carb rich recovery. With diet taken care of, he adds bikram yoga, pilates and TRX sessions to his punishing, scientifically devised training programme for maximum flexibility. Heartcore Pilates founder and expert fitness coach and trainer Jess Schuring explains why a pilates move or TRX stretch could make all the difference to his performance:

“A TRX or pilates session is low impact, therefore there’s no additional wear and tear on the joints. Both TRX and pilates balance the body- you’re guaranteed to work a little bit of everything in a way that pushes you to be stronger without putting your joints or typically weak areas at risk, for example, the lower back. Injuries normally occur due to overdominance in one particular area, so by creating this kind of balance the risk of injury is dramatically reduced in any other activity you take part in. This is why so many athletes incorporate pilates into their training regimes.”

“One client example in our case is an international polo player we work with. He swears he couldn’t make half of the shots he used to before he started pilates in particular. Every time he’s in London he comes to do our classes so that he can get in the supplementary training to help him to move into, and be stronger, in tricky positions.”

We’ll see you on the mat, hopefully working to the tunes of MJ while eating a Nutella-smeared banana, because that’s how Olympians roll.

Need more fitness motivation? You’ve come to the right place…

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