Get Healthy and Fit Like a Champion

Get some summertime health and fitness tips from three Olympic medal winners and their coach

By Colette Bouchez
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario, MD

Yippee, it's summer! Weekends filled with tennis, volleyball, surfing -- and all-around fun! And if you're like most folks, you just can't wait to get your sports gear out of mothballs and your butt off the couch!

But before you jump feet first into an activity-packed season, take your cues from some top medal-winning Olympic athletes. The 2004 USA Summer Olympic beach volleyball medalists Kerri Walsh (gold), Elaine Youngs (bronze), and Holly McPeak (bronze) -- and their coach, Dane Selznick -- spoke to WebMD about their secrets for having a safe, healthy, and fantastically fit summer!

While most of us can't wait to hit the ground running the minute summer is in the air, Selznick says the most important fitness tip he can give is to remind summer athletes to take their re-entry slow and easy. This, he says, is particularly true if you want to avoid injury.

"One of the things I see happen time and again is folks trying to make up for a season or a period of inactivity by going at it too hard when the activity begins," says Selznick, who was recently nominated for the United States Olympic Committee National Coach of the Year award.

Workout Advice -- Olympic Style

What we often don't realize, Selznick says, is that the body can't play "catch up." And the longer we've been out of the fitness loop, the more caution we have to take.

"You not only have to take special care to warm up before you begin the activity itself, but you also have to put a limit on how long you participate, particularly the first few times out on the field, the sand, or the court," says Selznick, who has personally trained more than 160 international sports professionals including 25 Olympians.

As Selznick explains, when fatigue comes into play, you reduce the body's ability to withstand impact. And this, he says, sets the stage for injury.

Olympic gold medal winner Kerri Walsh agrees. "Even being less active for a month can make a difference. If you haven't been physically active for a few months or more you have to be prepared to experience some fatigue -- maybe sooner than you realize," says Walsh.

If you continue to press on too hard, says Selznick, disaster is bound to occur.

"Fatigue doesn't affect joints, it affects muscles, but if muscles aren't strong your joints take the brunt of the force -- and something has to give," says Selznick. That something, he says, can be a bone, tendon, or ligament. And it could mean a summer on the bleachers instead of on the field.

If you do get injured, Walsh says stop activity immediately and take care of the problem.

"Don't try to push through. If you are injured, listen to your body and stop, or you risk making whatever happens a lot worse," says Walsh.

Getting Your Body in Olympic Shape

To help avoid playtime injuries and keep their toned bodies in medal-winning shape, our three Olympians tell WebMD they frequently perform a system of exercises known as plyometrics. These are body movements based on the principle that short muscle contraction is stronger if it immediately follows a lengthening contraction. The end result, they say, is the muscle is able to store more elastic energy -- and that means fewer injuries.

Their regular workouts also involve a form of resistance training known as "fast twitch" -- which actually refers to the muscle fibers that contract the quickest and generate the most power.

"It's resistance going both down and up and it works on your core strength. It's all done on rehabilitation machines and as hard as you push the machine, that's as hard as it pushes you back," says Walsh.

But for those of us just a little less active in our sporting life, each Olympian suggests frequent workouts with a yoga or medicine ball for overall strength training that can benefit you in almost any sport.

"It improves core strength and balance. And this can be beneficial no matter what activity you're doing," says Walsh.

While workouts help tone the body, each medal winner also tells WebMD that diet plays an integral role in maintaining their muscle stamina, particularly in warm-weather competitions. Surprisingly, however, each of the Olympic athletes has a radically different way of jet-fueling her ability.

"I feel better when I eat organic food."

For McPeak, the self-confessed "snacker" of the group, the secret to her strength, she says, comes from eating at least six times a day and snacking on healthy whole foods whenever possible.

"Right now I have fresh fruit, crackers, Fig Newtons, nuts, a bottle of Aquafina and a protein bar -- just to get me through the afternoon," says McPeak, a three-time Olympian. Her postgame recovery meal is always a protein and carbohydrate mix, but she says for real energy she's a protein eater all the way. And she says because she doesn't eat enough vegetables, she supplements with wheat-grass smoothies.