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8X Olympic Medalist Apolo Ohno on Why Success is a Daily Practice

March 22, 2021 -
Posted by Matteo Franceschetti
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Health is based on three pillars: sleep, nutrition and fitness. I chat with some of the most interesting people I know to discover more about their Health Stacks: the behaviors and products they use to stay healthy and fit.

Olympic hopefuls around the world are currently training for a place at the Summer Olympics finally happening in Tokyo, and we are so excited to celebrate their breakthroughs in mind, body, and spirit. Sleep fitness has always been a foundation of Eight Sleep, as we believe—and know, thanks to scientific research—that your body’s performance can be maximized with the daily (and nightly) practice of optimized sleep. That’s why we’re so excited to be in conversation with one of the most legendary athletes of our time, Apolo Ohno, the speed skater and Eight Sleep member who pioneered the usage of high-performance biohacking to win eight Olympic medals. Since officially retiring in 2010, Apolo has been championing the Olympic mindset as an entrepreneur, speaker, and New York Times bestselling author. Read on to find out why it’s not always about speed—it’s about consistency and endurance, too.

Highlights

  • Apolo discovered at an early age that he was a natural at speed skating—but also realized that it takes more than talent to become a world champion, year after year.

  • Apolo went against the grain—literally, he was keto—in his nutrition and training style in order to adapt to new trends in short track speed skating.

  • Apolo replicated his bedroom at the Olympic Village in order to optimize his flow state before competing.

  • Apolo practices mindfulness and meditation in the sauna every day—followed by a cold shower to optimize his bedtime routine.

How did you get into speed skating in the first place?

Short track speed skating is a sport that most Americans didn't even know about back in the late ‘90s, which is when I began. I had seen the sport while watching the Winter Olympics at age 12 with my father. I had played all of the traditional American stick-and-ball sports like basketball, baseball, and football, but there was something special about short track speed skating—it looked impossible. My father wanted nothing more than for me to do something extraordinary, and so every ounce of his energy went into both taming the hyperactivity that I had as a kid, and also trying to find some passion and drive that I would love in terms of career path later on in my life.

I was invited to join the Junior Development Training Program in Lake Placid, New York. This was in upstate New York, where if you're a junior athlete, you come train—and they basically cradle and hold your hand through the training process as a junior to hopefully make it to the national team—and then onto being part of the Olympic team.

Within eight months of being accepted into that program and training there, I was ranked number one in the U.S. at age 14. I was technically the captain, but I couldn’t go drinking with the team until seven years later. I didn’t know how good I was at that young age—I was somewhat of a phenom because it came very naturally to me. I didn’t understand the importance of all the aspects that go into squeaking out the last quarter of the one percent of performance, but I started off with a bang.

All right, so you have this natural talent at such a young age. But as you said yourself, there is a big gap between having talent and beating the best in the world. You need to work on that top quarter of that one percent to step up your game. What are the main categories of performance that got you there?

This line of thinking really accelerated towards the end of my career. I felt that I was forced into redefining, reinventing, and adapting to the new era of athletes. In short track speed skating between 1998 and 2002, there was a very specific body type that people had—we were powerful and explosive. We looked like traffic and field sprinters. Then, four years later, athletes started to look lighter, smaller, and shorter—or very lean and very thin if they were tall. This is because athletes with the most efficient technique on the ice are able to glide at higher lap times without using the same levels of energy. If you weigh a certain amount of body weight, you have to push a certain amount of watts per that kilogram of body weight.

There was this massive shift to the Asian style of training, which emphasized not top speed, but sustained speed. The pure sprinter mentality started to go out the window, and we started to see these middle-distance athletes take over.

I naturally weigh around 165 pounds. I’ve always been very strong and could leg press around 1500 pounds. But in 2006, we saw that trend coming, and we had to cut back on some of the things we did. Even though I was very lean and I had cut my body weight from 165 in 2002 to 155 in the 2006 Torino Olympic Games, I was still 20 pounds heavier than the guy who was number one in the world. 20 pounds is a lot to carry through each corner if you're pulling 2 1/2-to-3 g-forces per leg every corner for nine laps. It's a lot to hold. You have to be significantly stronger than someone else. After Torino, I saw that my recipe and blueprint for success was not going to be duplicable if I wanted to be competitive in another four years because the sport was rapidly moving in a direction that wasn't natural to my style of skating.

That’s what led me down the path of thinking, “What type of training do I need to do and focus on? What type of nutrition really works best for my body? How can I lose the excess muscle mass?” I essentially became catabolic, eating the upper body muscle I had—there was no other way to lose it. I stopped carrying bags. I stopped activating my upper body. I wanted pure atrophy in the upper body. I essentially starved myself for most of the summer, to be really transparent.

So, four years before my final Olympic Games in Vancouver, BC, I began this real redefining transformation of body type and style of skating. I had hired a strength and conditioning coach to come live with me at my house to monitor the recovery and training aspects. It was like this delicate blend of three months of stripping away all of the excess muscle mass, three months of introducing this neuromuscular recruitment style of technological advancement in terms of recruiting more muscle fibers without getting bigger and creating hypertrophy. It was very hard, because typically, when we think of strength and muscle growth, we want to activate more muscle fibers, we want to grow more muscle—but we were like, "We don't want Apolo to get big."

I mean, I'd gain muscle just from walking by a weight room. Naturally, it was easy for me to build muscle and very difficult for me to maintain a lower body weight.

Fascinating. What were you eating at the time?

We were just trying to change the fuel source that my body was using as a primary means of energy. So instead of using typical glycogen and glucose and sugars and carbohydrates, we switched to using fat. We used a modified cyclical ketogenic diet as a part of my training.

The portions that I was eating were so small, but it was predominantly and dominated by coconut oil. I would have a very small piece of salmon with some asparagus and some broccoli and some other green vegetables that were cooked heavily or doused in either butter or coconut oil. Pre-workout, I had a combination of coconut oil, colostrum, and a few other elements. We kept the carbohydrates very, very, very low. We would add in the carbohydrates during or pre-competition, but then we would cut them back down again. It was waves of eating consistently. I was eating multiple times a day, but very small amounts, making sure that I had the right type of amino acid profiles. We used eggs frequently, every three to four hours.

It went against what our team nutritionist said, because she had grown up teaching track and field and Tour de France athletes, She’s like, "You need carbohydrates. You should be carbing up pre-, during, and after.” As much as I love pasta, when I eat so much pasta, I just don't feel well. I'm just tired all the time. I feel sluggish. So, I ate for my activity, and each day was basically the same, but the amounts were slightly different depending on how much activity I had or how much effort I had.

Besides nutrition, what else were you doing to raise the bar?

We did body work six-to-seven days a week, so essentially deep tissue body work to flush out systems and toxins. I would have someone come to the house and we would do very specific modalities to help flush the system. Sauna was the secret weapon to my recovery. I would use meditation and mindfulness in the sauna seven days a week, and I would always finish with icy cold water.

I had a house in Utah, and in the basement of my house, I had created and renovated this training laboratory. It was awesome! I had a bike, a treadmill, a weight room, and the sauna. The shower, for some reason, was so cold—it was like snow water. I would do it every night to wind down, and then I would get into bed. 

That sleeping environment increased my recovery by tenfold overnight. It’s this beautiful combination of heat shock therapy proteins and cold shock therapy proteins that get released, along with this great mindfulness meditation practice in the sauna, and then going to sleep and getting an amazing deep sleep that hits all the spectrums that I need from light, REM, deep sleep cycles—and waking up feeling brand new.

You could basically pound me into the ground in terms of volume of training, and then the next morning I would wake up fresh and ready to train again. Compound that every day, week over week, month over month for years. At the end of a four-year cycle, I had a year-and-a-half more training than anybody else because I was able to recover so much better. I can only train as hard as how fast that I can recover. Recovery became the single prioritized factor in the pursuit of reaching the podium again in 2010.

How long were you sleeping at the time? Any naps?

I am not a good napper. I would close my eyes in the middle of the day and just do breathing instead. Between seven-and-a-half and eight-and-a-half hours was my sweet spot. If I got to eight-and-a-half consistently, I was a different human, emotionally, spiritually, cognitively. There was almost nothing that I could replace with having good sleep. I would do all these modalities throughout the day, but if I slept like shit, it didn't mean anything. It was out the window. Sleep is a real superpower.

We call it sleep fitness because it is a form of training. You are training at night. You're training for recovery, but it's still part of your workout. That is why you can’t cut it. It's like if you were cutting your workout during the day. At the time, what biometrics were you measuring?

Basic measurements like body weight, body composition, and amount of sleep. We also measured heart rate—upon waking, getting into bed, going to sleep, throughout the day, and while resting. We measured a lot of different blood levels, like hematocrit levels, hemoglobin levels, stress levels in the system, white blood cell count, red blood cell count, and free testosterone in the system. We did so many blood tests to monitor what type of cytokine responses we were having in relation to the training.

When I went back to the National Training Program just last year and I saw what they're using for measurement, it was a different level. I mean, I wish I had access to that data back then. It's a different game. I mean, they changed their training during the day based upon the sleep that they got. The quality of sleep will dictate the type of training they do that day. They'll either ramp it up or scale it back. If only I had the Eight Sleep Pod back then. I spent 10 years of my life dedicated towards a race that lasts 40 seconds long, but I lived at the Olympic Village for one month before I compete. I wish I could have brought the Pro with me to the Olympic Village so I could replicate the feel, the sleep, the temperature—all the elements that go into your sleep abilities. It’s really cool to see how far we have come.

How do you manage the pressure of working four years for a performance that is only 40 seconds long?

All the top 20 athletes in short track speed skating can do the lap times. Because strategy's involved and because the races are so wild in nature, anything can happen. You could fall, you can get bumped, you can get passed too early, too late—something can happen out of your control. You develop this kind of hardwired resiliency to surrender to the outcome, if that makes sense. In track and field and swimming, you have your own lane. Not much can happen, unless someone falls into you. But as long as you’re the best in your lap times, you’re most likely going to win. In short track speed skating, that’s not the case because there are so many variables of change outside your control.

So psychologically, we became very used to focusing much more on the process versus the prize. Now, easier said than done. But the prize is the medal. The prize is reaching the podium. The prize is making the Olympic team. That's the metric that we use to gauge our success. But when you reverse engineer that, there's a four-to-eight-year cycle and process that has to be focused on year by year, quarter by quarter, month by month, week by week, day by day, and then even more granular, hour by hour. What do I do today to win or create micro wins before noon? And understanding that those small wins will compound each day, week, month, and year so that when I get to the Olympic Games, I can say that I've got the highest amount of output because I've been consistent.

The Olympic path is all about consistency: Consistency of training, consistency of mindset, consistency of putting forth the best effort, consistency of recovery and nutrition. Anybody can have a great weekend and be spectacular for one weekend, but can you do it day after day, week after week? That's what has separated those who've done things great and those who've just had flash-in-the-pan success. It's really hard to replicate success over and over again in sport, especially one that's volatile. But that's the passionate pursuit of addictive flow state that we are striving towards.

How did you get into this flow state at the Olympic Village?

I did sauna sessions at every single Olympic Games. We figured out how to bring a sauna or build a sauna in what we called the Safe House, which was outside of the traditional Olympic Village at every Olympic Games. I shipped my own bed. I was very extreme. I replicated the room that I lived in Utah at the Olympic Games in Vancouver. I had some friends in Utah. They got a U-Haul truck. They literally packed my bedroom and brought them to the safe house.

That’s awesome.

It was a game changer. You search for those small creature comforts when you're slicing the percentages down. When you're trying to win by a thousandth of a second—which is basically a human hair—you’re really searching for those elements to help you feel good and emotionally create stability and consistency across the board.

What about breathing exercises? Were they part of your training?

I was introduced to meditation mindfulness when I was 15. It was my second year at the Olympic Training Center. A graduate student had come to be an assistant coach/sports psychologist, and he was studying psychology and sports psychology at Colorado College. His name was David Creswell. This was 1997—we didn't really know much about sports psychology. What I was taught was that the optimal state can be achieved as a preparatory phase. So, if we know that Apolo performs well under these certain conditions, what are those factors that help him get into that flow state or high-performance state, like the flip of a light switch turning on and off?

That began by lowering heart rate, getting into this almost trance-like state where I could lower my heart rate in the sauna. I could visualize how I wanted the race to go. I could visualize how I wanted a pass to look, feel, see, and behave when I'd go out there. That was a really big part of my training that many athletes didn't focus on. It's very easy to become self-critical and self-sabotaging and tell yourself you're not good enough and you don't have what it takes and you're too old and you're a little bit sluggish. That's very addictive. Maintaining watch over your mind is a really critical part of maintaining consistency over that positive psychology.

Was this a daily practice?

Yes. Sometimes, the practice wasn't only about visualization. It was about disconnecting from the speed skating world, disconnecting from the Olympic world. During the body work, when I had my massage therapist come and work on my lower back and hips and quads. I would visualize the cellular healing, and it almost became a spiritual experience. That's why I had such a strong relationship with the sauna, because that was like my sanctuary, where I would heal not only on the physical level, but also on the psychological and spiritual level. You feel like a brand new human being, and you feel like you've reset something.

I love that. It really takes the stress away. It’s like waking up in the morning and feeling great. What do you think is your superpower?

The level of consistency which I would wake up with every single day for years—just completely relentless in my pursuit to be the absolute best version of myself. I thrived in that robot-like consistency. This everlasting consistency to focus on the process on a daily basis for years on end.

You’ve learned so much about yourself and about maximizing yourself. How do you carry on the legacy of what you’ve learned as an athlete?

When I first retired as a competitive Olympic athlete, I had the same drive and ambition in business that I did in sport, but I was starting from ground zero. I had no experience. I didn't know what I was doing. I had great relationships and great connections all over the world, but I didn't know anything about a spreadsheet. I didn't know how to run a business. I didn't know any of the basic stuff. I was a baby who had expectations that I was supposed to be a world champion for myself. And that was dangerous, because I was accelerating when I should have been shadowing. I should have been following; I should have been learning.

While I have my own natural talents and abilities, I know the real superpower that I have today is knowing how I perform my best in any environment, whether I'm conducting a workshop for Fortune 100 or I'm giving a speaking engagement or I'm starting a new business or I'm evaluating a business. It's my daily routine, it's my nutrition, it's my sleep, it's how I move and react throughout the day. I have five golden principles that I try to incorporate into my life every day. They are gratitude, grit, giving, gearing up personal expectations, and getting into action. I have taken on massive risks in many ventures because I think there's an inherent, innate confidence in my ability to always bounce back.

What’s next for you?

I just submitted the proposal to my new book, Hard Pivot, to my publisher. It’s about reinvention, adaptation, and high performance in a world that demands so much of our attention and is trying to hijack us away from being as present as we possibly can. A hard pivot in speed skating is going to the corner, pivoting on one leg, and going the opposite direction on the spin of a dime while going 35 miles an hour. We have that in our own lives. We have to reinvent in our businesses, in our career paths, and in ourselves. This book is dedicated to those who are seeking that—and hopefully providing some insights and guidance around some of the wins and losses that I've had in my life.

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