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7 ways anyone can become an athlete

The term "athlete" isn’t just for the sports elite. Find out how you can bring pro-level quality to your personal fitness regime

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soccer player

Go ahead, call yourself an athlete

There are two kinds of people in the world of exercise, it seems. There are those who are really good; the kind you see on TV competing at an international level, or leading the pack at a local road race. And then there are the rest of us who, no matter how hard we try, may never excel at our chosen sport.

But not being the best doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take your athletic endeavours seriously-or call yourself an athlete. After all, Merriam-Webster defines an athlete as “a person who is trained or skilled in exercises, sports, or games requiring physical strength, agility, or stamina.” Nothing in there about winning.

So what truly separates the amateurs from the athletes? It’s not how well you play; it’s how hard you try. Here are seven ways anyone can become an athlete-you and me included.

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1. Find a sport you can be passionate about

Gym-going is a healthy habit, to be sure, but you won’t find many people devoting their lives to keeping up in step class. For real athletic potential, find a sport or activity you truly love and commit to getting better at it. As a bonus, doing something you enjoy will actually make you more successful because lower stress levels lead to better muscle recovery, according to Brendan Brazier, a former professional Ironman triathlete and author of Thrive Fitness. “If you enjoy exercising, your stress level is lower than if you’re trying to do things you dislike all the time,” he says.

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2. Define yourself as a member of the community

What makes someone who runs a “runner?” It’s not the amount of miles they’ve logged-it’s the moment when they define themselves by what they do. The same goes for tennis players, figure skaters, rock climbers and yoga devotees: their sport is a part of their identity.

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runner stretching

3. Make your sport a priority

Pro athletes make their sport a full-time job. That’s nice, but most of us can’t manage that on top of…well, our regular full-time jobs. But that doesn’t mean you can’t make your sport a priority in your life. Work dates with your sport into your calendar and treat them like you would any other important appointment-as a requirement, not an option.

Brazier also notes that fitting in a regular routine will improve your performance, which will then make your workout more fun, too. “I know some people who are new to running and never really like it because they do it sporadically,” he says. “But when they started doing it more, they felt so much stronger and fitter that there wasn’t that feeling of doing work.”

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basketball player

4. Test yourself

Even if Olympic gold is out of reach, you can still set milestones in your training and record when you’ve reached them. Love to swim? Time yourself in a monthly 50-metre sprint and see how fast you can get. Prefer basketball? Set a target-say, number of baskets in a game, or perfecting your three-point shot-and see how quickly you can get there.

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lifiting weights

5. Cross-train

Professional athletes treat their bodies really, really well. That doesn’t just mean getting regular massages to loosen tight muscles (but go for it!)-its about knowing your body, understanding what your sport does to it, and making sure to strengthen and stretch the right muscles to keep yourself in balance. Consult a physiotherapist or coach about the stretches that are important for you to do regularly, or even sign up for a private yoga session to get a tailored routine.

As for cross-training, every sport has complementary activities. For example, high-impact athletes can benefit from a regular spinning session to give their joints a break, whereas swimmers should make sure to get in some weight-bearing routines to strengthen bones.

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eating banana

6. Eat right

The pros pay a lot of attention to their food intake to make sure they’re consuming optimal fuel before a workout and the best foods to help them recover after they’re done. You can do the same by making sure you’re eating nutrition-packed meals all day long and targeting your pre- and post-workout snacks to your body’s needs.

Before a workout, aim for some easily digested carbohydrates, such as half a banana or a carb-heavy energy bar, suggests Brazier, who transformed his personal research on performance-oriented nutrition into Vega, a line of all-vegan nutritional supplements. When you’re done, make sure to eat something light but protein-rich within 45 minutes to speed recovery. “A fruit smoothie with some protein added is good,” he says.

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7. Push harder

Remember when you watched triathlete Simon Whitfield compete in the 2008 Olympics? If there’s one thing to take from that performance, it’s how hard he was pushing himself. When’s the last time you gave that much of yourself to your sport? Don’t do it all the time-you’ll be asking for injury-but once in a while, when the moment is right and you’re perfectly warmed up, see how hard you can go.

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