Despite almost qualifying as a member of Generation Z, Max Whitlock is already a veteran of his sport. “Gymnastics is really demanding,” he says, by way of understatement. “A lot of people are already thinking about retiring by my age, because that’s when they start to struggle.” The lifespan of an Olympic gymnast is short, but while most burn out in their early-to-mid-twenties, Whitlock has no plans to fade away. Already the most decorated athlete in British gymnastics history, he has his sights set on Gold at the delayed Tokyo Games–then Paris 2024, too.
For Whitlock, playing the long game has meant tuning into his body’s signals. As a teenage prodigy, he could handle 35 hours of training per week; now, he has dropped it to a more “moderate” 20 hours of graft, split over six days. Whitlock has observed older gymnasts training like juniors and wearing themselves down. “I’m hoping I’ll never burn out, because I’m careful not to push myself too far,” he says. “I do what I need to – and what I know I can recover from – so the next day is always productive.”
His training is very specific to his sport. What most people consider “cardio” is of little use. He might run once a week in the build-up to a competition, “but it’s just a mile done as quickly as possible. We’re only on the apparatus for a minute and a half to two minutes. So, it’s still targeted.”
He doesn’t lift weights, either – it doesn’t build the sort of strength he needs. Conditioning workouts are purely bodyweight-based, incorporating handstand variations, ring work, triceps dips, wide-arm press-ups and leg lifts. “I also do a lot of joint-strengthening exercises to make sure my wrists and ankles are ready for my session,” he says. “As I’m getting older, my joints need more attention.” Staying leaner and lighter also helps with longevity. Excess muscle mass would hinder his flexibility.
With an unanticipated additional 12 months to hone his Olympic routine, Whitlock’s focus is now on consistency and consolidation. “I was still adding in new skills last year, which is quite late,” he says. “My target is to keep [my routine] at the highest level of difficulty in the world. That way, I’ll always be in a position to gain the title. That’s my mindset.”
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