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Have you ever worked to get better at something? If so, you soon realized that the cliché “practice makes perfect” is true. Olympic Athletes seem to succeed with effortless grace, but their performances aren’t as easy as they look.

The average Olympian trains four hours a day at least 310 days a year for six years before succeeding. Getting better begins with working out every day. By 7:00 a.m. most athletes have done more than many people do all day. How well an athlete performs is often attributed to mental toughness. But performance really depends on physical capacity to do work. That capacity is based on two factors—genetic talent and the quality of the training program. Good training makes up for some limitations, but most of us will never be Olympians no matter how hard we work. We haven’t inherited the right combination of endurance, potential, speed and muscle. But given equal talent, the better-trained athlete can generally outperform the one who did not give a serious effort, and is usually more confident at the starting block.

The four years before an Olympics, Greg Louganis probably practiced each of his dives 3000 times. Kim Zmeskal has probably done every flip in her gymnastics routine at least 20,000 times, and Janet Evans has completed more than 240,000 laps. Training works, but it isn’t easy or simple. Swimmers train an average of 10 miles a day, at speeds of 5 mph in the pool. That might not sound fast, but their heart rates average 160 the entire time. Try running up a flight of stairs, then check your heart rate. Then imagine having to do that for four hours! Marathon runners average 160 miles a week at 10 mph.

Two important training principles must be followed: Progressively increase the amount and intensity of the work. Train specifically. Weightlifters don’t run sprints, and basketball players don’t swim.

John Troup, USA Today, July 29, 1992, 11E