How the Most Decorated Female Swimmer is Getting Ready for the Olympics

Fear of the Zika virus and other challenges Natalie Coughlin has to overcome before Rio 2016
Editor

The mosquito-borne Zika virus is now an international emergency but Brazil is not worried about it as far as the Olympic Games in August are concerned. The International Olympic Committee insists that the most admired sports event will not be cancelled and the conditions for the athletes will be “good.”

The outbreak could not have come at a worse time. The road to the Games has officially been launched; trials are coming up and Olympic hopefuls are preoccupied with training. So are they worried? “When competing abroad there are always concerns that are out of my control. I know that USA Swimming and the USOC have the athletes’ best interest in mind and I defer to their recommendations,” Natalie Coughlin, 12-time Olympic medalist and 20-time World Championship medalist, who is aiming to qualify for her fourth Olympics, says. 

You probably wouldn’t have any other answer if you did what she does – getting up before the crack of dawn to do a very challenging and taxing training routine, following a strictly healthy diet, spending about four hours a day in the chlorinated pool, and going to bed early. “The hardest part is just getting in the water,” she says. “Being in California, especially in the winter months when it’s 40 degrees outside and it’s raining, being in a pool is the last thing you want to do. You don’t want to walk out on a deck because it’s freezing.”

But when you stand a realistic chance of becoming the most decorated American female Olympic athlete in history, how can you stay in bed? Even though this record is not something she ever set out to do, knowing that she is so close is in the back of her mind. “My No. 1 goal is to make the Olympic team and compete in both medleys and also in the individual event. I really, really hope and believe I could earn more medals.” This objective may seem too humble for some but Coughlin is only one medal away from it. You have probably heard what most fitness instructors say about goals: “One step at a time. Don’t think too far ahead.” The same principle applies here.  

A lot goes into making sure you’re at your best to swim for the few minutes, sometimes even seconds, that matter. “The best way to prepare for your Olympic moment is just knowing that there are going to be things you can’t control,” Coughlin says. You are the master of your training, recovery and diet and nothing else. “I’ve been injured or sick at major events, but was still able to perform because I prepared myself so well.” Another tip is to keep in mind that other athletes have injuries and illnesses, too. “We are all dealing with the same thing. You just want to be over prepared.”

Training

Days are very similar, Coughlin says. “I only get a full rest on Sunday. I’m in the water every single day. I weightlift four times a week, and do yoga and Pilates every day.”

She wakes up at 4:15 a.m. The first task of the day is to make coffee and have breakfast. Her first practice is a 45-minute Pilates session. “This is just to get my body ready to swim.” The following training session in the pool is two hours long. This is sometimes a “long swim” as in swimming slowly to lower heart rate and to work on technique. Other times the workout is very fast, a lot like racing. “We do a lot of drills, kicking and sculling in between,” she says.   

This is just the beginning. What follows is a second breakfast and some rest. Then comes the 90-minute strength workout plus another hour and a half of swimming. It’s good that the exercises in the water change a lot, she says, because it can get pretty lonely in the water, especially when your head is in it and “you stare at that black line.”

Pilates and yoga are Coughlin’s favorite activities that are not directly related to swimming. “Anyone can benefit from them. They teach you how to use your body properly.”

Nutrition

Coughlin’s first breakfast at about 5 a.m. is oatmeal with almond butter bananas. Eggs make the menu in her second breakfast – more like brunch – after her 2-hour swim.  

She has smoothies after every swim. The usual recipe she follows is: Almond milk, almond butter, dark cherries “because they are really good for muscle repair,” chia seeds, and a little Greek yogurt for extra protein. A smoothie is the go-to snack because it’s quick and easy. “It’s really important to have some food within half an hour after you train.”  

Lunch is small for her because she does weightlifting after it. “I eat a lot of dinner,” she says. The most important nutrient is protein. “I make sure I get enough of it to repair my muscles. I constantly have a pack of snacks on hand. I could get very hungry. So I always have almonds, dark chocolate, herbal tea. That keeps me going. It’s so important to stay hydrated but I don’t really like drinking ‘boring’ water, so I have mint tea or chai tea on hand.”

Sports nutritionist Cynthia Sass agrees that when it comes to competing professionally or simply getting through a long day, smart snacking is a must. “Snacks are designed to keep you satiated between meals and provide you with energy and nutrition,” she said. “I often suggest a handful of almonds to my clients, as it provides 6 grams of hunger-fighting protein, 4 grams of filling fiber and 13 grams of good, unsaturated fats to tide them over until their next meal and keep them feeling energized.” 

De-stressing

“Cooking dinner is my number one de-stressor,” Coughlin, who is also a well-known home cook, says. “I love coming home and preparing a meal. I usually turn on the TV but just to have noise in the background. I love prepping food; I love the chopping, and putting everything in place. I’m very OCD, so I love that part. It helps me as an athlete to recover and get the right food for the next day.” The methodical nature of cooking is what helps her decompress.

Coughlin also mediates. “There are times I don’t wat to do it but then I feel so much better when I take 10 minutes to cam myself and focus on my breathing,” she says. Plus you can mediate anywhere. She even does it sometimes before a race. “It’s an especially good skill for a swimmer because you are on your own with your own thoughts a lot in the pool.”

Mental toughness

You would think that someone who follows such a strict and physically challenging schedule will know when she will have to compete, right? “Oh my Gosh, I have no idea,” Coughlin says. “I know the Olympic trials begin June 26 though. I just came back from the Olympic center and they have a countdown but it’s too stressful to think that way.”

As the most decorated female swimmer in World Championships history, Coughlin has, and has had, a lot of pressure. “It’s just something that comes with the territory.” As is the case with most sports people, they are their worst critics, always chasing perfection. “But I know that I have done this before. I’ve been to three Olympic Games already. I know what the process looks like and what I can control. And I love the training.”

Now she just needs to get in the water. “After that, everything is easy.”

More readings: 

2016 Summer Games: Olympic Athletes To Watch Out For in Rio

Former-Olympic Destinations You Need to Visit (and What to Do When You're There)

World’s Most Beautiful Places for Open Water Swimming

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