-- There are some athletes who get your immediate respect because of the sheer depth of their talent and skill. Then there are others, like Olympic medalist and track and field star Sanya Richards-Ross, who gain admiration by being undeniably gifted, exceedingly gracious and sweet as all get out. Her positivity and poise leave her looking like a winner, no matter how things might go on the track.
But, uh, the record will show that the woman is a powerhouse, so nabbing the gold is also totally her thing. She won the 400-meter sprint at the 2012 Olympics in London and took gold in the 4x400-meter relay at the 2012, 2008 and 2004 Games, while also ranking No. 1 in the world in the 400 meters for much of the past decade. And although she failed to qualify for the 400-meter final at U.S. nationals last month, her focus is locked on Rio for next summer.
Richards-Ross, 30, took time out from training to make her fourth Olympics to chat with espnW about recovering from setbacks, the benefits of sun salutations, and how she finds balance between going hard and putting a priority on rest. Richards-Ross, originally from Jamaica, also got a chance to let her West Indian flag fly proudly, talking about her favorite rum-and-raisin ice cream.
espnW: What does your typical workout consist of?
Sanya Richards-Ross: It depends on the time of year. For fall, my workouts are very different than right before a competition. In the fall I go for longer runs -- for a sprinter, 30 minutes is a long time! I also do a lot of functional training, where I do body weight training and circuit. I also do a lot of Pilates all year round. As the season progresses, I get back on the track and my workouts are very 400-meter specific; so repeat 200s, 300s and 500s that help to get my speed and my strength toned up. Before competition, I also get very aggressive in the weight room. I do more Olympic lifts, snatches, box jumps, cleans -- more dynamic movements.
espnW: Could you walk me through one of your dynamic moves in the weight room?
SR-R: The power clean. I lift 130 to 140 pounds, and start bent over with the bar at the floor. Then I pull the bar up, and have that really quick, explosive move -- I literally leave the floor with a jump -- where you get the bar up and catch it on your shoulders and rest in a front squat position.
It's one of the more full-body exercises you can do. Sprinters do power cleans for explosiveness. Moving the bar that quickly is reminiscent of getting off the blocks. It's moving weight quickly. It's also excellent for full body because you're squatting, it's full extension -- from the ankle, knee, hip -- and also upper body because you have to pick the bar up, which incorporates the shoulders and back.
If you're not an athlete, the key to this exercise is using moderate weight. If you go too heavy, you could really hurt yourself. But even with moderate weight, once you master the technique, it's an excellent exercise to tone up all of your muscle groups.
espnW: In the offseason, how do you change up the routine?
SR-R: That's when I do more functional work and circuit training, like arm drives, push-ups. It's the nitty-gritty, hard stuff because I'm doing a lot of reps, like up to 100 reps of squats, with no weight.
espnW: Do you have a fuel regimen that you swear by?
SR-R: I drink a lot of water. I also incorporate protein shakes every day. After my tough runs or tough lifts, I try to get a protein shake or some nuts within 30 minutes of my workouts. I also have a pretty clean diet. I don't eat red meat.
espnW: When you're training, what does your average day's menu look like?
SR-R: The first thing I do when I wake up is drink a 16-ounce bottle of water. Then I'll have breakfast: either egg whites or oatmeal and fruits. For lunch I'll usually have a grilled chicken salad, grilled chicken sandwich or tuna sandwich. But I'm not really big on carbs. I don't like to have a lot of bread; it weighs me down a little bit. Over time I've noticed that if I eat too much bread I don't feel as good during my workouts.
I also juice a lot of my fruits and vegetables. My dad [who lives nearby] really helps me with that. I'll usually have my first juice of the day at lunchtime.
One of my favorite juice recipes is called Popeye's Power: half an apple, a handful of spinach, four carrots, one organic celery stalk, half of a beet, and a handful of parsley. It's by far my favorite juice mix. It gives you with energy and fuels you up.
Post-workout, I'll have another protein shake. And then for dinner I'll have grilled salmon or chicken with grilled vegetables and some rice. I'm a simple eater, and I don't usually go outside my diet. I eat to live; I don't live to eat.
espnW: Is there something that's outside of your usual diet -- a treat -- that you like to have?
SR-R: Yes! I eat clean all week and then on Saturday or Sunday I'll have pizza or ice cream. But I keep it in moderation.
I just love pizza. If I weren't an athlete, I would eat pizza two to three times a week. I like thin-crust, New York-style, nothing fancy -- from some hole in the wall place -- just cheap, cheese falling off, scorching hot and greasy. I also like rum-and-raisin ice cream.
espnW: Your Caribbean-ness is showing! My family is from Barbados and my folks love rum-and-raisin ice cream, too! Classic Caribbean.
SR-R: Yes, yes! Most people pause whenever I say I like rum-and-raisin, and I'm like, "You wouldn't understand." (laughs)
espnW: Do you have a favorite recipe -- maybe one while training and another when it's chill time? And, do you stick to the same nutrition plan whether you're training or not?
SR-R: Yes, it's tilapia or salmon that we grill in the oven, seasoned with garlic powder and a little salt and pepper, throw it in the oven for about 20 minutes with steamed rice (brown or white), and boiled broccoli.
espnW: Who handles most of the cooking at home?
SR-R: About two or three years ago, my husband became the chef of the house and I love it! I'm also lucky because my parents live really close to us, and my mother is an excellent cook. My dad is, too. It's nice that we can share those duties between the four of us and always have a healthy, home-cooked meal. We don't really order in much. Usually six nights out of the week we'll cook at home.
espnW: Are there any traditional Jamaican dishes that you like to have and look forward to as a special treat?
SR-R: There are quite a few! My mom makes a mean curry chicken and a great brown stew chicken. My sister also lives close -- about 30 minutes away -- and she'll drive down for this: a traditional Jamaican breakfast, with ackee [the national fruit of Jamaica] and salt fish and fried dumpling and boiled banana. My mom doesn't make it that often, but it's definitely a treat that we all really enjoy.
espnW: Taking about another kind of fuel: motivation. The recent U.S. 400-meter final didn't go the way you wanted, but almost right away, you took to Instagram talking about looking forward; plus this IG post/tweet two days after the setback. That is what draws people to you and leaves them feeling inspired. Where do you draw your inspiration? How do you move through the setbacks?
SR-R: It's not easy, but I believe that light that I try to shine really comes from my faith. (I'm getting a bit emotional now...) After that race, I was so broken and disappointed. I really saw 2015 going differently for me. But I know I have so many young people who look up to me, and I think they especially watch you in those moments when things don't go your way. And that's when you have a real opportunity to make a greater impression, especially on a young person.
Too many times in life the narrative is, "If you don't win, you're a loser." I don't believe that. I don't believe that every race must be won in order for you to feel like you've accomplished something great.
espnW: At 30, do you find yourself treating your body differently?
SR-R: After nationals, [my team and I] did a deep dive into what went wrong. I train hard, and have been running faster than when I was at 19 and 20 years old, so why wasn't I performing better? It forced us to say, "At 30, maybe training harder isn't the answer."
I did a lot of research into overtraining. I've been running for over 20 years, and I'm now learning about focusing on rest and recovery; really listening to my body and maybe dialing back on the training, so I can have fresher legs. It's a challenge, because I like to put in 110 percent every time.
espnW: How do you deal with injury? Is there a specific part of your training that focuses on prevention and rehab?
SR-R: I definitely focus on prevention. This is something I just started: I incorporate a full stretch routine in the mornings. I'll do a few yoga sun salutations for about 15 or 20 minutes. That's been helping a lot. I also get frequent massages. I have a physiotherapist that I travel with. During the offseason, I try to get one to two massages a week, plus tons of ice baths and Epsom salt baths.
espnW: If you had to boil it down to three key tips for maintaining your health and athletic edge, what would they be?
SR-R: First is finding and maintaining balance between work and my personal life. It's about not overdoing one or the other. Second, being spiritually connected makes me feel like the best version of myself. So whatever that looks like to you--for me, that's reading the Bible and going to church -- it's about feeding your soul. The third tip is keeping it fun and light. Sometimes I make things bigger than they are. Whenever I remember that it's just a race and I need to go out and have fun, that's when I compete at my best. So have fun and enjoy the moment.
espnW: When you're not pouring it all into your training, what do you do for self-care?
SRR: I love soaking in the bath for 30 to 45 minutes and reading a book or journaling, which I've always done throughout my career. And I love spending time with my husband--he's the best! So we'll watch a movie or hang out together. I also really like to engage with people, so I'll connect with people on Twitter. Those kinds of things make me happy.
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