This August, more than 10,000 athletes will compete in 302 events at the Summer Olympics in London. But none of those contests will challenge the overall athleticism of its competitors as uncompromisingly as the decathlon. Over two grueling days, decathletes will test their limits in 10 track and field events, each emphasizing a different aspect of fitness—from endurance (the 1,500 meter) to brute strength (the shot put) to explosive power (the high jump). Athletes in other sports will rack up more medals, and the USA Basketball squad will dominate headlines, but only the decathlon champion will be awarded the title of World’s Greatest Athlete along with the gold. Just completing the event requires superhuman effort.
Consider the case of the sport’s reigning champ, 28-year-old Trey Hardee. Last August, on his final javelin throw at the World Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Daegu, South Korea, Hardee blew out a ligament in his right elbow. “I heard it pop almost immediately,” says the Birmingham, Alabama, native. For most athletes, that sound would have meant game over. Not for Hardee. Realizing that if he posted even a mediocre time in the 1,500 meter he could still clinch the victory, Hardee had his trainers wrap his arm. Then he ran. He finished the race in 14th place, securing his second consecutive world championship. “A tornado of emotions” is how he described his feelings afterward. “Nothing seemed to be going right, but that’s decathlon.”
All of which is to say, no, Trey Hardee shouldn’t be shy about claiming the title of World’s Greatest Athlete (though he has yet to earn it on the Olympic stage). Critics will point out that he is still regaining his form after Tommy John surgery last September. Or that, starting on June 22, he’ll have to fend off a U.S. team stacked with medal contenders—like Ashton Eaton, who finished a close second behind Hardee in Daegu, and Bryan Clay, the current Olympic champion—just to represent the United States in London. “It’s frustrating at times,” Hardee says of his long off-season, “but I’ve learned to remain consistent with the basics, because that’s what separates a great athlete from a good one.”
And that, say those who know Hardee best, is what makes him the odds-on favorite in August: he is a tireless student of fitness. His longtime trainer, Mario Sategna, a track and field coach at the University of Texas, says Hardee is that rare athlete who’s not only fast and powerful—he often posts top scores in both the 100 meter and the shot put—but also intellectually engaged with every aspect of his training. “Every day he works to get better,” says Sategna.
And this made us wonder: What if we had the World’s Greatest Athlete answer every nagging question we’ve ever had about nutrition and fitness? How much of what he knows would apply to us, too? Quite a lot, it turned out. “I’ve been through years of training,” says Hardee. “I know that certain things I do won’t apply to everyone. But we all have the ability to use our brains to get better.”
That, perhaps, is Hardee’s best advice: train smarter. In the discussion that follows, we asked him about everything from his strength-training philosophy to his favorite snack foods—because training smarter is a whole lot easier when you learn from the best.
THE HARDEE QUESTIONS
Smart advice from a two-time world champion
Let’s start with the basics: Should I focus on speed or endurance in order to get fit?
Both, says Hardee. The reason you don’t see as many recreational athletes doing sprint drills is because of misconceptions. “People are obsessed with burning some specific number of calories, and they think the best way to do that is by running high mileage, which is not always the case.” The other reason: sprint exercises are hard. They’ll make you exhausted and sore, which is why many people avoid them. But that’s exactly why you should include them in your workout regimen, explains Hardee. Your debilitating soreness after a fall touch-football game is a sign of a weak link in your fitness—your muscles are sore because they’re being taxed in a way that they never were during a summer filled with mountain biking and trail running. “Endurance isn’t a bad thing, but people think that’s the only way to get fit,” says Hardee. “Really, there are 10 different ways to do it, and the more ways you incorporate, the better.”
Hardee’s routine of choice is something he calls speed-endurance workouts. “They’re designed to tip you over the edge of your lactate threshold,” he says. “You’re in oxygen debt, and you’re forcing your body to work through it.” A common example for Hardee is a 450-meter run, a 350, and a 250, all with relatively short recovery times (roughly four minutes) between each one. He’ll follow those with a 10-minute break and then three 150-meter sprints, with a longer recovery period in between (five or six minutes). “At the end, your muscles are just swimming with lactic acid,” says Hardee. “Your body feels like it’s going to shut down, but it will learn to recover faster, which is particularly important for me when there are short times in between events.” For you, it means faster recovery between ascents on the bike or ski laps at the resort.
I’m just a runner/cyclist/swimmer. Is the weight room really worth my time?
Hitting the weights, insists Hardee, is necessary no matter what sport you do. But it’s not about getting bigger by isolating muscles. It’s about getting stronger for your sport through dynamic exercises. Hardee does heavy rotations of Olympic movements—power cleans, squats, and bench presses. “They’re our bread and butter,” he says. “There’s almost a one-to-one transfer of power we build there to all of the events we do on the track.” Not surprisingly, Olympic exercises are good for many outdoor sports, too, because they engage muscles throughout the body. Hardee and his coach incorporate other exercises, but Olympic movements are the foundation.
What about warming up? Should I stretch before I work out?
“Stretching isn’t warming up,” says Hardee. “Warming up is literally that—raising your body’s temperature and getting blood flowing to your muscles.” Hardee recommends dynamic exercises that are movement-oriented. Instead of going for a jog around the track and then bending over to touch his toes, Hardee goes for a jog around the track and then does lateral shuffles, jumping jacks, backward runs, lunges, box hops, legs swings, and other light exercises. “The idea is not to elongate your muscles,” explains Hardee. “It’s simply to wake them up and let them know what they’re about to do.”
How much water should I drink when I’m training?
“For me, there’s no such thing as too much water,” says Hardee. “My body craves it from the moment I wake up until I go to bed, and I drink until my body tells me I’m loaded.” Good call. Recent research backs up this basic but intuitive guideline: Hydrate if you’re thirsty, don’t if you’re not. In a survey of distance runners last year, more than a third said they drink according to a preset schedule, such as one liter per hour, and nearly 10 percent simply down as much as they can. Thirst, which has been honed over millennia, turns out to be a pretty good measure of how much to drink when working out. As you pay more attention to your body’s signals, Hardee says, you’ll be able to recognize the subtleties of thirst more quickly. “Even if you don’t change your diet but pay more attention to how much water you drink, it will make a difference,” he says. “You’ll be surprised at how good you feel.”
I’ve just done a hard workout—what’s my recovery routine?
“I can spend as much time getting ready for the next day’s workout as actually doing the current day’s regimen,” Hardee says. After an intense sprint session, he’ll go for a low-intensity jog, do exercises like leg swings against a wall or lateral jumping jacks, then stretch for 10 to 15 minutes. Hardee says the biggest mistake most athletes make is not taking the time to properly cool down after a heavy session. “You’re breaking down your muscles when you’re working out,” Hardee explains, “and you need to work equally hard to help them recover. I’m always actively trying to recover and get ready for the next day.”
What do you mean by active recovery?
For one, Hardee soaks in a 55-degree cold tub daily—he has one in his house—to help reduce inflammation. More important for non-Olympians is one of his other protocols: a quality meal high in protein and carbs within an hour or so after the last workout of the day (see his daily meal plan, below). After a training session, your body is primed to take in nutrients and use them to build muscle. To end his daily recovery, he has a foam roller that he self-massages with at night. To use it, he simple lies on it and lets his body weight do the work as he rolls back and forth on tight spots. In addition, he gets a professional massage and visits a chiropractor every other week—the former to loosen any particularly tight muscles and the latter to make sure everything is in proper alignment. The massage-and-chiropractor protocol is not so much an immediate recovery technique, explains Hardee, as a way to make sure there are no weak links that might cause an injury.
What about off days?
There’s no such thing as an off day—but that doesn’t mean you can’t have fun on non-training days. “Instead of giving yourself the day off, which may make you feel even worse,” says Hardee, “do something to raise the metabolism a bit.” That may be as simple as a few push-ups and sit-ups and then stretching. “Sometimes I’ll ride my bike or go stand-up paddleboarding on Lake Travis here in Austin.”
“Oh yeah. It’s great, because it’s low impact and it’s left up to you how hard you want to go. I also like it because it gets me out on the water and I can be in my own serene little world.”
What about food? Do I need to behave like a cyclist and weigh out every meal?
Not at all, insists Hardee, explaining that his meal plan probably looks a lot like a weekend warrior’s with a few hundred extra calories added in. “My meals are real simple,” says Hardee. “I use organic when I can and eat foods high in antioxidants to help my body recover.” Here’s Hardee’s prescription for a day’s nutrition:
Breakfast: A bowl of oatmeal with brown sugar, along with daily vitamins (more on that in a second).
Lunch: Because Hardee often eats lunch in between training sessions (weights in the morning and track in the afternoon), he likes a carb-heavy meal with a little lean protein, often something like whole-wheat pasta with turkey sausage and a side of broccoli. “If I’m still hungry after that,” says Hardee, “then I go to fruit, like bananas or apples, to fill in the gaps.”
Dinner: It needs to be a dish high in protein to help repair and build muscle, like grilled salmon or a bison-and-quinoa chili that has become a recent favorite of his. “We had a really good sweet Italian chili recipe and started throwing in quinoa to raise the caloric intake,” he says. “It’s unreal how good it is.”
Pistachios. “I eat my weight in them each month,” says Hardee. “That’s my snack if I’m watching a movie or just vegging out. They’re a good source of amino acids and have a low glycemic index”—a measure of how quickly the food breaks down into glucose in the bloodstream—“so they’re a great healthy snack.”
How do you avoid the mid-day bonk?
Hardee recommends a few sips on a sugar-free Red Bull. Seriously. And he swears it’s not because they’re a sponsor. “I lift weights in the afternoon for three or four hours, and if I’m feeling low on energy I’ll take a few sips,” says Hardee. “My blood sugar comes back up immediately and I won’t feel as bad.”
What about supplements?
Hardee takes a multivitamin in the morning, as well as flax- and fish-oil supplements. Which isn’t a whole lot compared with many world-class athletes. “I try to rely as best I can on the food that I’m already putting in my body for my nutritional needs,” he says. “But I can’t eat or drink enough calories to repair my muscles like I need to.” To augment, Hardee will also down a whey protein shake after a heavy workout. On non-training days, though, he says whole-food nutrition will suffice.
How do I stay motivated?
Set goals. But don’t make them unreasonable. “I set long-range goals that will be hard to achieve,” says Hardee, “but I keep it interesting by setting small, attainable goals, too. I get to accomplish these on a daily basis. In essence, I rehearse being successful.” For Hardee, the Olympics are always on the horizon, but a daily goal might be envisioning—and then completing—a flawless 27-foot long jump or a fast 400-meter run with perfect form. For you that might mean signing up for a race, like a sprint triathlon, which will serve as your long-term goal. Then, for a short-term objective, do five 100-meter sprint drills one day at two-thirds speed. Two days later, make it your goal to go a little faster or do an extra 100 meters.
How do I maintain performance all year?
First, recognize that you can’t be at your peak at all times. “There’s a tiny window,” explains Hardee, and his periodized fitness plan is designed to let him peak during competition—and back off some in between. Second, never back off too much. Listen to what your body is telling you, but don’t be afraid to push it. “That’s why older athletes are sometimes better,” says Hardee, “because they know exactly what their body needs to peak, but also how hard they can push it without hurting themselves.” Once you start paying more attention to your training regimen—or start one in the first place—your brain will almost automatically become more in tune with your body, and you’ll be able to expand what you thought were your limits. Lastly, compete with yourself to get better. “People talk about rivalries,” Hardee says. “I don’t have that urge. I just want to get better than my old self. I want to be better today than I was yesterday, and better tomorrow than I was last year. That’s what’s most important to me.”