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Backpacking Fitness

The Body Olympic: Fitness and Conditioning Tips

Meet these 6 Olympic hopefuls who will help you perform like a champion outdoors.

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We interrupt your summer for this important message: It’s almost time for you to come inside and watch a little TV. After all, we know you’re going to be parked on the couch for 2 weeks, watching the world’s top athletes compete in some of your favorite sports. But before you turn your eyes to Athens, turn your attention to these world-class Olympic hopefuls, who took some time out of training to teach us a thing or two about matters much closer to home–namely, the outdoors. We cornered six competitors with shining Olympic credentials–and surprising advice to help us hike, paddle, and scramble better.

Aerobic Fitness

Abby Wambach: soccer

They say a soccer player runs about 6 miles per game. “That’s 6 miles at an all-out sprint,” says Abby Wambach, a hyperkinetic forward for the U.S. National Team who’s loath to sit still. “I need constant stimulation,” she laughs. “Maybe I have ADD.”

To stay on top of her game, Wambach, 24, covers a lot of ground in training. Six days a week, she spends hours on the soccer field practicing with her team. It’s all tough, but what really gives her the foundation to outlast competitors in the second half are dreaded sprint drills called “120s.” That’s when the team races the 120-meter length of the field, jogs back, rests 1 minute, and sprints again. Only after 10 repetitions are they allowed to collapse.

A hiker’s version of 120s would be to sprint up the trail for 30 seconds, slow back down to your normal hiking pace for a few minutes, and repeat four more times. Before long, you’ll be fit enough to push hard up a series of switchbacks, and instead of doubling over at the top, just enjoy the view and effortlessly move on.

In fact, when Wambach needs a break from corner kicks and cardiac sprints, she likes to throw on her pack and take a hike in the woods. And once her competitive soccer career comes to a close, she aspires to hike the Appalachian Trail solo.

For now, she’s focused on a more immediate goal–Athens. “What grander stage can you play on?” Wambach says. “Every athlete who has ever put on a jersey, cleat, or cap has aspired to be in the Olympics. I can’t believe I’m going to be a part of it.”


Brad Vering: wrestling

The key to Greco-Roman wrestling is the element of surprise. That means when you make a move–like outmaneuvering your opponent with a body-lock takedown or a gut wrench–it has to be done with explosive power.

“You have to trick your adversary,” says Brad Vering, who finished fifth last year in the World Championships in the 84-kilo division and lives at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. “And you can’t do it slowly.”

Vering, 26, a native of Howells, NE, describes Greco-Roman wrestling as a fight, “just without punching, biting, or scratching.” Each match usually lasts 6 minutes. “If you’ve ever run a 100-meter sprint, that’s how you feel for the whole 6 minutes,” he says.

To get ready for that 6-minute marathon, Vering’s wide-ranging regimen includes 2-hour workouts on the mat, a weight room circuit, rope climbs, practicing gymnastic moves like handsprings and back flips, and running the railroad ties up Pikes Peak.

But Vering’s secret weapon is core strength. To build it, he hangs from a pull-up bar, lifts his legs out 90 degrees, and holds them there for 30 seconds. Then his coach puts a 25-pound weight on his legs. His legs must remain in that position for 30 more seconds. Then the weight is lifted and he spends 30 more seconds doing knee raises.

The regimen is as tough as it sounds, but do a few reps–starting with less time and no weight, of course–and you’ll build the strength you need to hurdle boulders, hop up steep slopes, and heft overloaded packs onto your shoulders.

It’s brutal, yet Vering says that’s what it’ll take to medal this summer. “I’ve given up everything,” he says. “I’m living in the dorms here at the training center, I don’t have a girlfriend. This is the ultimate sacrifice.”


Rebecca Giddens: slalom kayak

Rebecca Giddens got her start in paddling at age 10 during a YMCA family canoe camp. “On the last day of the trip, we went down some class II rapids, and one of the trip leaders told me I had potential,” she says.

Serious potential, it turns out: Sixteen years later, she’s a favorite to medal in slalom kayaking. The avid hiker and outdoors lover, who lives in San Diego, finished seventh in the 2000 Olympics and took home a gold in the 2002 World Championships.

If you’re the type who enjoys the adventure of kayaking but lacks paddling chops, Giddens has some advice. “When people start paddling, they’re using new muscles and fatigue fast,” she says. “They start thinking, ‘This isn’t right’ and use other muscles to make it easier. But to get the proper technique, chances are, you’re going to be sore.”

Rotation is fundamental. Giddens recommends rotating all the way from your hips, not just your shoulders. Another rookie move: improper seating position. “You don’t want your legs out straight, but rather up close in the foot pegs forcing your knees out to stabilize the boat.”

And balance is key. “Waves come at you quickly and you need to find your center,” says Giddens. For practice, she stands on a large Swiss ball and plays catch with a coach. A novice might want to just kneel on the ball and work up to standing.

With plenty of experience behind her now, Giddens realizes that the world’s best are no longer untouchable. “Slalom is unpredictable–the wind can blow and you’ll hit a gate, or you’ll just hit one on your own,” she says. “But if I have a good race, I know it’ll happen.”


Alan Culpepper: marathon

Sure, 26.2 miles is a long run, especially when you’re used to racing only 6. But making that switch hasn’t been a problem for longtime 10,000-meter racer Alan Culpepper, winner of the men’s U.S. Olympic marathon trial.

Even though Culpepper, 31, has run only two marathons in his life–the second being the trials where he triumphed in 2:11.42–he’s no newcomer to endurance. To train for the 2000 Olympics (where he competed at 10,000 meters), he ran 100 miles a week. Preparing for Athens, he’s stepped it up to 130. “My training has always been geared toward higher mileage,” he says. “The marathon just played into my abilities.”

Whether you’re looking to complete the Pacific Crest Trail or run a marathon in Greece, there’s no better way to gain endurance than to put in the miles. Culpepper’s longest run is on Sundays, when he takes off from his Louisville, CO, home for a 20-miler. And you won’t find him at the gym-he doesn’t lift weights or cross train. “I just run,” he says, adding that any extra energy is reserved for chasing after his 2-year-old son, Cruz.

When Culpepper made the switch to longer races, he found the details that were merely significant in the 10,000 meters were vital in the marathon. “Footwear, fluids, and fuel are much bigger issues,” he says. It’s critical to work out all the kinks during training, he adds, so when the big event comes, there won’t be any surprises.

Culpepper cautions that endurance is something that you can’t finesse your way through. So if you’re training to climb Whitney or bike a century, just start hiking or riding. The good news, he says, is the payoff. “If you put in 6 months of good training, you’ll see results,” he says. “There’s no way around it: Endurance is a mark of consistency.”


Courtney McCool: gymnastics

Courtney McCool is built for balance. The 4-foot-9, 98-pound powerhouse from Kansas City has size 10 feet, giving her more stability and a wider platform to correct miscues that might send other gymnasts to the mat. Not surprisingly, the 16-year-old, one of the favorites in the rugged qualifying rounds leading up to Greece, excels on the beam.

Of course, it takes more than big dogs to perform handsprings, walkovers, and leaps on a 4-inch-wide surface without falling off. “It takes practice,” she says seriously. The kind of practice that means leaving school at noon every day for 6 hours of training.

Of course, when you saunter up to a log lying across an icy river, it’s likely you don’t have that level of training time under your belt. But if things get slippery midcrossing, McCool has a few suggestions for the balance-impaired.

>> If you’re falling to the left, bring your right arm up. It’ll bring your gravity back to center.

>> Keep your body in line directly over the log. That means your shoulders and hips should be square and facing forward.

>> If you start to fall, jump with equal pressure from both feet. It’ll help prevent injury on the way down-and it may just allow you to stick your dismount.

Mental Strength

Brendan Hansen: swimming

You can’t say Brendan Hansen doesn’t get enough time to himself. He spends 4 hours every day alone with his thoughts–in the pool. The U.S. record holder in the 200-yard breaststroke cruises back and forth in a pool at the University of Texas at Austin staring at nothing more than a black line and listening only to the sound of his hands slapping the water. “It’s very repetitive,” he says calmly, “and mentally grueling.”

What does he do to occupy his mind? “I hum the last song I heard while driving to work out,” he admits. “But I also think about how the harder I work now, the more advantage I’ll have on my opponents later.”

Hansen makes a habit of thinking things through before a big event. “I visualize the smells, the way things are going to feel–especially the pain,” he says. “If I know ahead of time that I am going to feel pain, I can handle it better.” This approach could help you get through an adventure race or a long mountain bike ride with a stronger friend. If you’ve already visualized fighting through exhaustion and burning quads, the real deal may be easier than you imagined.

When he’s not ticking off laps, Hansen’s at school studying kinesiology, the science of human movement, which has taught him how his body works-and helped him become a more efficient swimmer. He also likes to drag his teammates off on weekends for a little camping. “The farther I can get away from a traffic light, the better,” says Hansen, who grew up hunting and hiking with his dad in Pennsylvania. “The outdoors gets my mind off swimming and all the pressures.” So when you’re staring down at some rapids or up at a granite face and find your nerves on edge, Hansen has some words of comfort: “It never hurts to have butterflies. They’ll just give you more energy.”

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