Olympic athletes are the pinnacle of physical strength, endurance, and commitment. Athletes competing in the 2016 Summer Olympic Games, premiering Aug. 5, are preparing to push their bodies to the edge after years of training and sacrifice. More than 10,000 athletes from 207 countries will participate in the first South American-hosted Olympic Games in history.  

Athletes who compete at the Olympic level work with their coaches and trainers to set a goal to medal or break a world record. Years of rigorous training is systematically broken down into smaller time periods with goal markers along the way, making a seemingly unreachable goal attainable. They don’t work alone, and heavily rely on teams of experts who know how to exercise the body in a way that is both safe and effective to reach each athlete’s performance goals.

To learn more about what happens behind the scenes in the Olympic Games, Medical Daily spoke with licensed sports physiotherapist and three-time Olympic trainer Mark Alexander. As a physiotherapist, Alexander is an expert in movement and function through exercise therapy, and ultimately helps patients to manage pain and prevent injury. Success in his field has led him to work with Australian athletes in three Olympic Games; from Sydney to Athens and then Beijing. He’s trained with gold medalist sprinter Cathy Freeman, archer Simon Fairweather, and triathlete Emma Snowsill to physically prepare them for the intense pressures they underwent in competition. He exclusively worked with the Australian Olympic Triathlon team that lead to winning Gold, Bronze, and Silver medals.

After decades of intimate work with Olympiads, Alexander is treating Olympic athletes rather than training them by providing a second opinion on injuries. His work led him to invent BakBalls, a portable FDA-approved medical device that’s designed to relieve back stiffness and pain while athletes train on the road. Although he is not working with this year’s 2016 Olympic team, he continues to consult and treat former Olympiads and elite athletes. Alexander’s ultimate focus has been establishing injury prevention routines and exercises for athletes who breach the physical limitations of their bodies with the hope of bringing home a medal for their country.

How did you start working with the Australian Olympic team? Did you need any special qualifications?

I initially worked at the Australian Institute of Sport as a general physiotherapist before specializing in Triathlon and being selected as the team physiotherapist. I had a special interest in Triathlon having competed in Triathlon since I was 18, thus having deep sports-specific knowledge.

To work with the Olympic team in Australia, physiotherapists have to complete a specialist qualification. I had received a Masters in Sports Physiotherapy and also a Level 3 Sports Physiotherapist qualification which enabled me to achieve the title of ‘Sports Physiotherapist.’

What unique challenges do Olympic athletes face leading up to competition?

Compared to other athletes, the main challenge is pressure. The Olympics only happen every four years so the pressure to peak for that one event on one day every four years is immense.

The Olympic athletes also face the risk of injury as they are pushing themselves to the limit every day in training to get to, and then maintain, peak performance.

What is your favorite part about working with the Olympic athletes?

Definitely being part of a team that is aiming to achieve something big, something unique, something beyond explanation is a very satisfactory feeling. We’re supporting athletes in a team aiming to be best in the world on a given day in a given sport at a given time and there can only be one! That’s exciting!

Having worked with a team where athletes have won an Olympic gold -Cathy Freeman (sprinter), Simon Fairweather (archer), Emma Snowsill (triathlete) — it is a very special feeling seeing the look on an athlete’s face and knowing that you had a small part to play in that success.

The other thing is travelling with the teams. Being part of the ‘family’ is fun. When you are overseas for 3 to 4 months of the year you develop amazing friends and an amazing bond that to this day is still pretty special.

Do you travel to each event with them?

I traveled to most events in the lead-up to Olympics and for 3 to 4 months of the year every year. There would always be a 2 to 3 month training camp in Europe where we would base our team and then travel from there to races.

How do you work on them, meaning what part do you play in their training? How long do you train with them?

I would swim every morning in the same pool with them and run with them 2 to 3 times a week for fitness. My role was injury prevention and injury treatment. So every day I would run a stretching class, which was 60 minutes of stretching like a Yoga class, and a recovery session where athletes would immerse themselves in an ice bath for recovery. I would also treat each athlete every 1 to 2 days to keep them in top shape.

How can the average non-Olympic athlete apply your training advice to their workout routine at home or at the gym?

Below are five tips that sports enthusiasts can put into practice to recover like an Olympic athlete after intense training sessions:

  1. Warm-up: It is important to warm up effectively with 10 to 15 minutes of light exercise to get a sweat up and target those specific areas of tightness and stability before exercising. 
  2. Flexibility: General and specific flexibility are key to injury prevention and recovery from intense workouts. Specific flexibility is relative to your activities and sports, such as swimmers and throwers who need to have mid back thoracic flexibility. 
  3. Stability: Abdominal, pelvic, and hip stability is essential to be able to recover effectively from running sports and shoulder stability is critical for shoulder athletes 
  4. Strength: Sports-specific strength is critical as well to be able to effectively perform in given sports and activities and recover well from sports. Examples are quads, glutes and calf strength and strength endurance for running sports. 
  5. Recovery Activities:  
  • Cool Down: This is key to be able to recover fast. Ten to 15 minutes of light exercise after an intense workout helps athletes to recover faster.
  • Ice Baths: Leg (running athletes) or full body (contact and full body sports) ice baths are helpful for fast recovery from intense training sessions.
  • Massage: Massage 1 to 2 times a week can make a big difference to injury prevention and recovery to become aware of the tight areas and work on them to prevent injury.
  • Sleep: This is a crucial component to recover from intense workouts. The Olympic triathletes would sleep (or at the least rest) every afternoon for 1 to 2 hours to allow the body to recover.
  • Specific Treatments: If any issues arise from workouts or from the massages, physical therapy may be required to treat issues and prevent them from becoming injuries.