Simple Advice From a Star: Make Your Workout as Productive as Possible

By Howard Schneider and Vicky Hallett
Tuesday, July 29, 2008

From poolside, Kate Ziegler looks like just another kid, bobbing in the water and staring up at coach Ray Benecki along with other members of the Fish, the McLean team she has trained with since early in her swimming career.

But when she takes off down the lane, she is under her own set of instructions for what to practice and focus on. And when she leaves the pool briefly to use the restroom, it's to supply the urine sample for a doping test. And by next week, when the team is winding down its summer schedule, she'll be in Beijing, taking her mark in the 400-meter and 800-meter freestyle events.

Ziegler is a bit of Olympic lightning who emerged from the network of neighborhood swim clubs that preoccupy thousands of Washington area kids. What sets her apart, and what can we learn from it?

Over the next four weeks, we'll be highlighting local athletes who have made the jump to Olympic-level competition, looking at what lessons they offer for everyday fitness and exercise.

Swimming is one of the Olympics' life sports, an activity we can all learn and practice as we age (as opposed to, say, the hammer throw or the uneven bars). It's a sport where Ziegler has plenty of company, too: dozens of teammates on the Fish, among the tens of thousands of kids around the country who swim competitively in the summer or on school teams during the rest of the year. Unlike less-popular or less-accessible pursuits, swimming is one sport where the elite emerge from among the crowds for whom the pool can be as much social diversion as athletic vocation.

"There are kids, 7-year-olds [on the team], and it is really fun -- I never thought I'd hold a world record -- to be able to tell them, 'You're probably faster than I was' at that age," said Ziegler, 20, who attends George Mason University but cannot compete with the college team because she has turned pro and accepts endorsement deals.

Even for those not ready to commit to 21 hours in the pool each week, not to mention four additional stretching and conditioning sessions, Ziegler and her coach distilled a few training principles that could benefit anyone serious about getting healthier and stronger.

She is, for example, deliberate about every workout. It is part of the coach's job to make sure each training session has a purpose, but Benecki said Ziegler is just as intent as he in establishing that focus.

During a recent practice at the Spring Hill Recreation Center, home of the Fish, Ziegler was working on a kicking technique she hopes will gain her critical tenths or hundredths of a second in Beijing. Adding to her standard two-beat kick -- a kick of each leg for each cycle of the arms -- she is using a six-beat kick after the turn at each end of the pool.

That's a high level of precision for a high-level athlete, but the idea is universal. To make your time in the gym or on the trail as productive as possible, set a small goal for each session. If you managed half an hour on the elliptical with the resistance at level 5 last time, for example, increase the intensity to level 6 for at least a few minutes during the next workout. Add some incline running to your treadmill session, or, if you're on the road, commit to making it up your route's most annoying hill without slowing.

Whatever the sport or type of exercise, those sorts of steady, small-bore goals will make you better.

"She sets herself up for this, and she knows what she wants to accomplish" with each workout, Benecki said.

Ziegler is also her own best competition. In such disciplines as swimming and running, the distance of an event affects the pace. Tyson Gay's blazing 9.68-second performance in the 100-meter dash at the Olympic trials would equate, for example, to running a full marathon in about 68 minutes.

That distance-pace relationship holds true even when comparing two short distances. But Ziegler consistently tries to push the physical limit, jumping from a time of 1 minute 58 seconds in the 200-meter freestyle to 4 minutes 4 seconds in the 400-meter event, just a few seconds short of her 200-meter pace.

The same idea of trying to attack longer distances without losing speed can be used to set exercise goals at any level, whether in the pool, on the bike or on the trail (either walking or running). If walking a mile in 15 minutes is challenging, for example, strive over time to do two in half an hour.

In the pool, rather than a steady swim of 45 minutes, spend some time racing yourself: Swim a fast 50 meters, rest, then see if you can match the pace over 100 meters.

"It's self-evaluation," Benecki said.

Adding mock races to an exercise session has another benefit: working the body's different energy systems. A long, steady swim or run will primarily rely on aerobic energy. Break that up into sprints, with a couple of minutes' rest in between, and you are training your anaerobic system, which you rely on when you walk up the stairs.

Coaches like Benecki work to design training sessions that manipulate those systems in different ways, but even for casual exercisers the idea can apply: At least once a week or so, work at an intensity that is hard to sustain for more than a few minutes (perhaps as little as one or two).

The idea, Benecki said, can be simplified with a question that works across the board: "How do I stress myself?"

Adding intensity, structure and some shorter ranger goals "beats just getting in the pool and swimming your 2,000 yards."

Or running your six miles or biking your 50K or doing the same round of weight machines month after month.

And who knows where that will lead?

London, 2012?

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