The Fitness Vault: Five simple ways to train like a pro athlete

By Alastair Greer

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I’ve played sports all my life, mostly high-level rugby. I have a degree in sports coaching, and have been training top-tier amateur athletes, A-list celebrities, and driven New Yorkers ever since.

One thing I’ve learned across all these contexts is that pre-season training really does get you in the best shape of your life. You feel incredible! Strong, fast, powerful, flexible, and pain-free. Best of all, you really look like an athlete, all before you even take to the field to compete.

With so many classes and methods for every personality and body, what is it that keeps this pre-game protocol at the top? I’d say it’s the mix and variety of elements all working simultaneously. It’s also the fact that, once you know what to do, all these things are incredibly easy and intuitive to execute on. 

To show you what I mean, I’ve boiled a typical pre-season workout plan down to five actionable steps that are easy to test drive, no matter what your fitness level.

Cross Train

Sure, this can be a stand-alone workout–a circuit-type program that combines different types of exercise (such as strength with cardio) and that challenges multiple energy systems. But it can also mean just breaking your pattern and doing something new. 

If you're a yogi, try some spinning or athletic training class. If you’re a distance runner, play with short sprint and interval work. And of course if you play a sport, try anything other than that. Getting out of your comfort zone and adding variety to your daily routine is vital to improving your fitness, balancing your strengths, limiting your injuries, and quashing your boredom and burnout.  

Work on Your SAQ (Speed, Agility, Quickness) Training

Probably the most neglected of the five steps, brain-to-muscle control is critical for giving you the “edge” that can really take you to the next level. It’s also great for reducing injury and (let’s be honest) it’s fun. So what do the SAQ moves that get you there look like? Running around cones, jumping over things, quick changes of direction and speed, working through multiple planes of motion, rapid decision making—basically anything that pulls you and your mind out of your chair and into open spaces. 

To that end, getting outside is a great start. The variable terrain of a park or beach will challenge you differently than the safety of the gym or spin class. If you want to try your hand at making your own outdoor challenge, ladders and cones are cheap and easy to carry, and many even come with instructions.

Incorporate Some High Intensity Intermittent Exercise (HIIE) 

Increasing the intensity of your training is key to not only improving your athletic ability, but also for actually changing your body composition into that of an athlete. According to the Journal of Obesity this is in part because High-Intensity Interval Exercise actually works on diminishing fat in a way that regular aerobic exercise doesn’t. To put it simply, when you incorporate HIIE, you’re sending your body the message that you need to be lean, strong, and powerful. 

One effective form of HIIE is something called the Tabata protocol (named after Izumi Tabata, a renowned early researcher on interval training). A typical session lasts about eight minutes, and involves switching between 20 seconds spent doing a simple exercise at high intensity and ten seconds of recovery. This approach is a solid one, but as far as I’m concerned, there really are no set rules to HIIE. I personally love varying the distance of a set of uphill sprints (I’ll do four long, six medium, and eight short), recovering after each on my walk down to the start spot. Tip: Do a dynamic warm-up, and always keep good form. 

Make Time for Rest and “Periodization”

Periods of rest are when the body is able to build itself back up and adjust its composition to adapt to all that hard work of exercise. This means it’s important to get enough sleep and to schedule days off into your program–aim for every third or fourth day. 

Athletes also use a concept called periodization to make sure they reach peak performance at the correct time in their season. Though you might not have a “game day” to work around, the behavior is just as important: You cannot continually push your body to the maximum without it breaking down. There need to be cycles of intensity. This is why I tell my clients to treat vacations like vacations, letting your mind and body rest, and schedule some other time off as well. 

Back Yourself

“Back yourself,” is a rugby term I’ve used for years. It’s even something I’ve carried over into my business life. The phrase is all about having self-belief and confidence that you can meet your challenge–and then going for it. If winning is knowing that you’ve done all you can do to be the best that you can be, then by simply backing yourself–no matter the outcome–you’ve already succeeded.

Alastair Greer heralds from Ireland with a bachelors degree in Sports Coaching, and has become internationally acknowledged as an expert and innovator in the health and fitness industry. He has contributed to the likes of GQ, SELF Magazine and “The Self Challenge,” Glamour Magazine, Lifetime Television, NBC, CBS and Reuters International. A graduate of Institute for Integrative Nutrition, and a trained Professional Health Supportive Chef from the esteemed Natural Gourmet Institute for Health and Culinary Arts, his diverse background drives his creativity in setting new trends in health, whether it’s through his corporate wellness consultancy WellBe Solutions, his food company ROOT Blends or his CBD company Function Botanicals. Alastair is also a 2 x National Rugby Champion, and very involved in growing the sport through under 18’s programs in New York.

This article was reviewed by Aaron Grotas, MD