Olympians are made, not born. Or so the saying goes. Genetic talent surely plays a part. But so do tough workouts.
Across Olympic sports, we wondered who has done the toughest, craziest workout. So we asked athletes competing in winter Olympic sports during the recent Team USA Media Summit.
Most pointed to interval workouts — the types of sessions we weekend warriors might do in boot camp classes at our local gyms. But these athletes take suffering to an Olympic level, with lactic acid flooding their bodies — “up to your head,” said one. Many confessed to vomiting during these sessions.
Here’s a look by sport at the hard workouts done by various athletes. Which do you think are toughest?
Ted Ligety lists squats as one of his toughest workouts. Before he injured his back (he is returning from back surgery in January 2017), the two-time Olympic gold medalist would squat 150 percent of his body weight, or 275 pounds, as many times as he could.
His max? 43 times.
Mikaela Shiffrin, #13 on SI’s women’s list, regularly posts pictures of herself working out in the gym. Her hardest workout is 45-second intervals on a treadmill — where she is the one who must move the treadmill belt.
“It’s sort of like hill sprints but doing a sled pull uphill,” she explained. “After 20 seconds, you’re already thinking, um, I don’t think I can do it, like I don’t think I can physically make it to 45 seconds.”
Eight of these intervals, three to four times (so 24 to 32 intervals), takes Shiffrin out for the rest of the day.
As a reminder, she once posted on Instagram, “No one's gonna do it for you,” with a photo of her doing squats with a Herculean amount of weight on the bar.
Biathlon and Nordic Combined
Mention hard workouts to Bryan Fletcher, 31, and the winner of Nordic combined’s prestigious King’s Cup in 2012 immediately recalled an interval session in 90-degree weather this past summer. He did ten 8-minute roller skiing intervals at his aerobic threshold.
“It’s almost two hours of intervals, which is pretty tough,” he said. “When we walked into that workout this summer, a lot of us were like, ‘Oh boy.’”
Biathlon world champion Lowell Bailey, 36, called back-to-back 10-kilometer time trials on roller skis — which simulated a biathlon sprint race — his hardest workout. He had a 10-minute break in between “races.”
“That 10-minute span is actually in my mind the hardest part of the workout,” said Bailey. “You’ve just experienced the pain, and you have this impending notion that it’s about to happen again.”
Bobsled and Luge
In September, Sports Illustrated picked the “Fittest 50” male and female athletes — lists that included boxers; triathletes; track and field athletes; surfers; “American Ninja Warrior” competitors; cyclists; a smattering of pro athletes from the NFL, NHL, MLB and NBA; and even NASCAR drivers. Of the men, Steve Langton (#29 on the list) was the only winter-sport athlete not in the NHL.
The 6-foot-2, 227-pound bobsledder won two Olympic bronze medals in 2014 and is known for his explosive 6-foot box jumps. Now 34, Langton came out of retirement in February 2017 and claims that in his “old age,” he’s smarter.
“I do just what I know will translate to [pushing] on the ice,” he said.
So what’s his hardest workout? Squatting 545 pounds.
“My speed is there, my clean is there,” he said. “We’re tracking to be at least as good as I was in 2014.”
For the women, Aja Evans is also known for her box jumps (just a few inches shy of Langton). The sister of NFL defensive lineman Fred Evans, Aja’s hardest workouts are with his NFL friends and teammates, particularly prowler pushes. (A prowler is a metal sled-like rack loaded with weight.)
Evans once loaded fourteen 45-pound plates onto the prowler — 630 pounds total. (The NFL guys load 20-30 plates onto the prowler, she said.)
“Working out with other women, you can have your excuses or you can take a little break,” she said. “But with the guys, they don’t care if you’re a woman. There are no breaks. If you’re hanging with them, you’re with them until the end. There’s no getting tired, no complaining, no nothing. It’s just a constant grind. It’s tough, but it made me really strong.”
Evans can outjump the NFL guys, with her highest box jump at 54 inches — about a half-foot shy of Langton.
For luge world cup winner Tucker West, 22, any workouts that raise his heart rate for extended periods are tough.
“If you see luge, it’s not a cardiovascular sport,” he deadpanned.
Every spring, the team’s trainer sets up a boot-camp-type workout — prowler pushes, throwing a 50-pound ball, moving battle ropes, etc.
“It’s maybe an hour [long],” West said. “It’s pretty intense. Your heart rate is probably up to 180-190 the entire time. We usually have a few pukers every workout.”
The craziest workout prize might belong to cross-country skiers Simi Hamilton and Jessie Diggins.
Shortly after winning her second world championship medal in 2015, Diggins, 26, was inspired by her boyfriend to run a marathon. Concerned that Diggins’ body was not accustomed to running such a long distance on hard pavement, her coach suggested that she run on a trail. Diggins mapped out a route on the Appalachian Trail near her training base in Vermont. The route crossed four 3,000-plus-foot peaks on a slippery, rocky, root-filled trail and took her 6 hours, 45 minutes to complete.
“To be able to run up and over mountains, it was such an empowering feeling,” she remembered. “So a two-hour run next weekend will be no problem.”
This past summer, she roller skied 100 kilometers — “because if you can ski for six-and-a-half hours straight, you can do anything,” she said.
Along the “you can do anything” theme, Hamilton, 30, is another winner. This past summer, Hamilton’s best friend talked the two-time Olympian into pacing him in a 100-mile race in California. Hamilton “just did 50 with him.”
“It ended up being about 12 hours of running,” he said.
Well, technically 11 ½ hours. On trails at elevations between 7,000 and 9,000 feet, with 9,000 vertical feet of climbing per lap (Hamilton did one lap, his friend two). After Hamilton finished, he thought, “If I really had to, I could probably go out and do that again and make it 100 miles.”
“It’s a pretty atypical workout for any of us to go do something for 12 hours,” said Hamilton, who has won a world cup sprint race.
“But it’s probably good to do that like once a year,” he added. “Or once every few years.”
For Ashley Wagner, 26, the toughest workouts are the days her coach wants to build endurance. The 2016 world championship silver medalist heads onto the ice with a water bottle in each hand (or hockey pucks, or anything weighted) and skates laps for 30 minutes.
“Raf (coach Rafael Arutunian) really likes us to train tired,” she explained.
The tired figure skaters then perform their double axels and triple toe loops, or the ends of their long programs.
“Fighting for those jumps when your body is exhausted,” said Wagner, “it’s really good training.”
Jason Brown’s toughest workout happened off the ice. With a stress fracture in his lower leg last December, the 22-year-old effervescent figure skater had to train for five weeks in the pool before the 2017 U.S. championships. With his coach pushing him to go harder, Brown sprinted in a tub that was pushing water at him.
“It’s my worst nightmare of drowning, and you’re trying …,” he said, gasping for air and moving his arms as if shielding his face.
“That’s how I was able to make it through [my long program] because I kept my cardio up,” he explained, “even though I only had one week of training on the ice before U.S. championships.”
Brown finished third at the 2017 U.S. championships and then seventh at worlds two months later.
Meghan Duggan, #20 on SI’s “Fittest” list, recalled a bike workout she did this past summer. After two hours of weight training and plyometrics, Duggan, 30, and her teammates did a 5-minute time trial on Airdyne exercise bikes. The harder they pedaled, the harder the resistance.
Their trainer wanted them “to be dead at the end,” said the two-time Olympic silver medalist and seven-time world champion.
They finished the time trial, and Duggan felt as if she was about to vomit.
“I’m falling off the bike and he goes, ‘All right, I’ve got a twist for you, you’re not going to ride one 5-minute time trial, you’re going to ride two,’” she remembered with a grimace.
At that point, Duggan briefly considered walking out of the gym, but then hopped back on the bike and hammered out another time trial.
Recently, Duggan tweeted, "There are no shortcuts to anyplace worth going," under a picture of her sprinting in the gym.
Long Track Speedskating
For four-time world champion Brittany Bowe, 29, the hardest speedskating workout is intervals on the ice: two laps on, two laps off for six repetitions, or one lap on, two laps off. Then repeat.
“You feel lactate up to your head,” said Bowe, who’s won world titles at the 1,000- and 1,500-meter distances, as well as at sprint worlds (a combination of 500 and 1,000 results). “I didn’t know if that was possible, but it is.”
It takes days to recover, she said. But the next day, she is back on the ice ready to train again.
Snowboarding is not traditionally associated with grueling workouts. But as the sport’s top stars have aged, and the tricks have become bigger, the gym is more of a frequent stop.
“We didn’t work out when we were young, we just snowboarded ourselves into snowboard shape,” said Nate Holland, 38, a seven-time X Games snowboardcross gold medalist.
Three-time Olympic medalist Kelly Clark, 34, now does “two-a-days,” where she often runs stairs and hits the gym. Some days, she does time-limit challenges, where she sees how many stairs she can run in 20 minutes. She will go back later in the week and try to beat her time. She also does agility footwork on the stairs, running sideways, jumping over two or simulating a speed ladder.
“I was telling my trainer this summer that I’ve become like a real athlete because I always have to take naps between my workouts,” Clark joked.
For Holland, boot-camp-like circuits in the gym are killer.
“Weights, jumping, lifting this for 30 seconds, running to the next, running to the next,” he explained. “It’s not pretty. There’s some puking involved. There’s some sitting down.”
His trainer prods him for another round, and he replies, “Dude, I’m dizzy, I’m going to lay down or I’m going to pass out, I’m not even joking.”
Holland is focused on making his fourth Olympic team this season — and maybe more.
“Who knows what my body will do or what I’m feeling or where I’m at in life?” he said. “Why not five [Olympics]?”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered four Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.