Hockey player Onthatile Zulu shows us how to train like an Olympian

With a month to go before the Paris Olympics, Onthatile Zulu and long-distance runner Ryan Mphahlele share the secrets to their workout routines

Hockey player Onthatile Zulu.
Hockey player Onthatile Zulu.
Image: Supplied.

The life of an athlete is a paradoxical tale, characterised by years of endless hard work for a career that is often short lived. There are limitations related to age and having to retire while you still have stamina.

Similarly, when we start our fitness journeys, we often find ourselves putting in the weekly hours over months or years towards a body goal. And once we achieve that goal, we find a new one.

The quest for body goals has seen a growing number of ordinary individuals training insanely in order to not stay the same, with fitness programmes such as high-intensity interval training (HIIT), CrossFit, and Hyrox gaining popularity. The truth is, we all want to train like athletes, even if it’s just in our minds. But what does it really take to train like an athlete, specifically an Olympian? What does it take to look like you are gunning for gold?

Mental toughness

“More than anything, it’s a mental game. It takes a lot of sacrifice and is about making the right choices that will benefit you long term,” says 24-year-old South African hockey player Onthatile Zulu, who is on her way to her second Olympic season in Paris. “Hockey, for example, is a high-speed, intense physical sport — if you’re unfit, you’re going to struggle with the technical side of things. It is not a sport for which you can train once every other week; if you miss one week you’ve already fallen behind, so you have to make sure you are training consistently.”

Every trainer and coach will tell you that, no matter what your fitness goals are, consistency and finding ways to keep you on the journey should be prioritised over a specific training programme, as that is what gets you results.

“Although we have a coach and sports scientist from whom we get our training programmes, often our training relies on us. I am lucky enough to have been training with my teammates for the majority of this year because most of us live close to each other. This is great because I then have other people holding me accountable, which is very important,” adds Zulu.

Preparation meets opportunity

Zulu and her teammates represent the only African country participating in hockey at the Olympic Games, where they are the lowest ranked country overall. In their attempts to do better this season, they are going into the games physically stronger than their opponents, adopting an underdog mentality.

“Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays we do strength training in the gym with weights. The further we are from a game the heavier we go, and the closer we get to the game the lighter we go in terms of both weight and reps. Tuesdays and Thursdays are cardio and conditioning sessions, so we do a lot of running, like tempo runs at different paces and directions to challenge our agility. On Saturdays we have sprint sessions,” Zulu explains.

She spends approximately six to seven hours a week training in the gym and four hours a week in hockey sessions. Training is often done in the morning, with Mondays focussing on the lower body, Wednesdays on the upper body, and Fridays on the full body, with three core exercises, each made up of three sets of 20 reps.

The core is one of the most crucial aspects in being “athlete fit”. “Another big thing is getting power in your legs because it’s hockey. You need a lot of strength in your legs — it is a very physical game and you can’t afford to be bumped over, which is why we spend so much time in the gym. You need to be able to stand your ground,” says Zulu.

Image: Supplied.

"We do a lot of lunges, squats, calf raises, and stability work. At the Red Bull Athlete Performance Center in Austria recently I found out my right leg is stronger than my left, so I find myself doing more reps on my left leg to make up for it,” she laughs.

As in hockey, if you want to be built like a runner you need to build your base and strengthen your legs, like long-distance runner Ryan Mphahlele, who will be making his Olympic debut this year.

“My coach and I found that going to the gym is not something I need currently, especially in season, as I already keep fit because of the races. Off-season, though, I train twice a day, with one morning jog and one in the afternoon,” says Mphahlele. “We also have a lot of drills for our workouts and warm-up sessions and then on Fridays we do core sessions.”

On average, the 25-year-old athlete runs 100-120km a week in his off-season.


Although one cannot out-train a bad diet, both athletes focus more on how food makes them feel than on what it makes them look like.

“There isn’t much restriction on food for me; it is about knowing how to fuel my body and understanding what I need and when I need it,” says Zulu. “Before a game I will usually carbo-load because carbs produce a lot of energy, so my diet consists of pasta, potatoes, and fruit, especially a few hours before a game.”

Zulu’s snacking is made up of bananas and peanut butter to ensure that she gets optimum sources of energy.

“For me, there isn’t much of an eating plan, it’s more of a drinking plan,” laughs Mphahlele. “For example, I don’t drink during the off-season, as my focus is on training, but in season in-between races I can have a glass of whisky to unwind. In terms of eating, I just make sure my food is not too oily, so I stay away from things like pork, and eat dishes with minimal seasoning and spicing. The food must just be clean and cooked properly,” meaning grilled, steamed, or boiled.

Rest and recovery

Sundays are often an active rest day for Zulu. She also rests for a day or two after a big game. “I fuel my body with a carbohydrate drink after sessions and games in order to replace energy and electrolytes,” she says.

“Rest is very important, but I often struggle to sleep, which is one thing I am really working on,” adds Mphahlele. “I don’t take recovery supplements but, when I’m tired I am honest about it with my coach, who will then give me a day off if need be. It’s really about listening to your body but not making too many excuses — that’s what makes an athlete.”