We had the pleasure to meet with Steve Solomon in person and hear about his inspiring story. Here we share some of his unique health insights as both an olympic athlete and as a Masters student at the prestigious Duke University. Steve talks about how he maintains his peak performance, both nutritionally and psychologically.
Can you tell us a little about when you developed your keen interest in sport, running in particular, and how the 400m became your event?
For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved sports. My parents were very good at letting me explore my energy as a child; carting me from soccer training, to rugby practice, to tennis lessons, to squad swimming, to cricket.
From my earliest years, I loved the competitive side of sport, as well as the opportunity to tangibly measure my development as I spent more and more time in a sport. That developmental feedback came both extrinsically, such as when I would be selected into representative teams, but more often, it came intrinsically in the forms of my energy and passion for the skills required in each sport. Sport mirrors our developmental curve so well, and we “naturally” get better by way of increases in our strength as we mature from kid to teenager to adult. I loved the opportunity to persist in sports while my body got physically taller and stronger, and the new powers that were unlocked naturally as I grew up.
While I enjoyed an eclectic mix of sports, I never really had an enduring “favourite”. One week it would be soccer, probably when David Beckham scored a trademark free-kick. The next week, Rugby, when John Eales converted a penalty kick to win the game. It wasn’t until I was 16 that I decided to dedicate myself to athletics, and in doing so, put my other sporting interests and ambitions aside to specialise and devote myself to the 400m.
That switch to the single sport of athletics came as a product of two things. Firstly, I was naturally fast, and given the diversity of sports I enjoyed growing up, I had built up a lot of strength and skills that translated well to running. Soccer taught me to be light on my feet. Rugby taught me how to change gears of speed, swimming taught me how to coordinate my arms and legs. That background positioned me well for athletics, and in addition to my physical strengths, athletics suited my passion for controlling my success. I loved the individual nature to the sport; the opportunity to get out exactly what I put in. So along with my physical fitness for the sport of athletics, there was a second factor, more pronounced in its importance, that transitioned me as a sporting generalist to a specialist; and that was my first running coach, Fira Dvoskina.
Fira was 76yrs old when she started coaching me, and she quickly became one of the most important people in my life. She deeply believed in my talent, she deeply cared about my success on the track and off the track, and in the end, she harnessed an environment of professionalism and success that hooked me both to the sport of athletics as well as the event of the 400m.
Of your many achievements, is there one in particular that stands out for you or holds special meaning?
Making the Olympic Final as a 19yr old in London stands out for me among the crowd of moments in the sport that I am very proud of. This was my first Olympic Games, and the first time competing against the very best runners in the world. For me to be able to run the three fastest races of my life, in front of 90,000 screaming sports fans, with the pressure of one of the fiercest events in the entire Olympic program, I am tremendously proud of the way I kept my composure and brought the best out of myself. What made the result extra special was being able to share the experience with so many friends and family members who made the trip to London in support.
2012 was also a year after I finished high-school, and many of my friends had decided to take gap years and travel across Europe. After the Olympics, I was greeted with so many messages from my mates who bumped into fellow Australians at random bars during ridiculous hours of the evening who were all there to yell loudly at the TV to help energise my races. Such stories really are special to me for they beautifully capture the power of sport to connect strangers in celebration of competition and achievement.
How do you juggle the demands of your athletic career and academic endeavours and what advice can you share?
The best advice that I can share on combining athletics and academics is to be very purposeful and deliberate in how you design your environment. It will be very helpful to your pursuits if you are intentional on how you set up yourself for success; who you select to be in your support teams (athletically, coaches, physiotherapists, doctors… academically, study groups, mentors, classmates), what routine you will stick to (bedtime, meal time, study time, training time), and very importantly and often neglected, designing your ways to “switch off”.
Having acute self-awareness is a skill that takes time to develop, but you will be infinitely better equipped to succeed both in academia, sport, and life, if you take the time to develop the muscle. Being present to where you work well, when you are stressed (and how to destress), when you are tired (and need a break), when you are most productive (and attending the most important tasks during this time) will allow you to stretch the full 24 hours in a day, which will allow you to achieve more than you think possible! I am constantly redesigning my environment to make sure that it is optimised for me and the goals that I have in any given point of time.
To be as physically fit as you are, apart from a gruelling training regime, can you run us through a typical day for you in terms of diet?
Training upwards of 25hrs a week for an event that requires me to push my body to the limit, my diet is the fueling force to my efforts both physically and mentally. As a general rule, I do not stick to a prescribed plan, but rather am very conscious of the decisions that I make around what I consume and when I consume energy through food and beverages.
My fueling plan is focused in the mornings, as I do most of my training in the afternoons/evenings and don’t like the feeling of food in my stomach while I train athletically. I typically will stop eating 4hrs prior to training, and hence load up on energy at breakfast, maintain at lunch, and refuel during dinner.
I typically eat a large breakfast, usually three pieces of vegemite or avocado toast made from my mother’s freshly baked bread, a bowl of oats with home-roasted muesli and fruit, a large cup of tea (either green or black), and a small yoghurt.
For lunch, I usually have a salad with lots of vegetables, some carbs in the forms of rice/quinoa, some protein (chicken, cheese), and some bread.
Between lunch and training, I will have a muesli bar or some nuts. And for dinner, as it’s currently winter, I will have a bowl of vegetable soup, two slices of toast with cheese, and whatever delicious main my mother cooks up (with a strong preference for spaghetti bolognese or a steak).
Do you find nutritional supplementation necessary and if so, do you have any recommendations?
I don’t personally take any nutritional supplements as I believe that I have a well-rounded diet and also don’t fully believe in a magic pill to solve any deficiencies. Given that most vitamins are water-soluble, I’m not convinced on the benefit of consuming supplements along without the accompanying fibre like we get when we naturally consume them through food.
I do however enjoy baths 2-3x a week to which I add magnesium salts to as a form of supplementation as I’ve heard that the salt is well absorbed through the skin.
How important is recovery time?
Recovery time is SUPER important. You can’t drive a car in the redline RPMs without changing gears, or else the motor will burn out, and the same is true with the body. I cannot detail strongly enough how important it is to look after your body and mind, and be present to its needs to switch off and recharging after heavy bouts of work. Everybody recharges differently, and I encourage you to become self-aware enough to discover what activities are appropriate to you in that situation. One person’s form of relaxing is different than another – for example , when I walk my golden retriever Nala, it’s very meditative for me, while being the complete opposite and very stimulating for her!
For me, I recovery physically by taking swims at the beach, ice baths, massages, stretching, and resting (not exercising!). Mentally, I recover by meditating, reading, juggling a soccer ball (I find the concentration relaxing), talking with friends, and taking a nice afternoon nap.
How important are your support networks?
Support networks are the keys to my success. I believe that when you surround yourself with the right people and channel the group’s incentives to the direction of your goal, you will be set up for success.
At the end of the day, in any pursuit, athletic, academic, professional, you are only in control of a part of your destiny. Luck is a major factor that while you cannot directly control, you can increase your likelihood of being a positive recipient of by selecting your support team with intentionality and focus.
You need people in your support network to help you through the good and the bad. You need people to be honest with you when it’s needed, and others to help distract you from reality when you need a boost. Pay attention to who you allow in your support network, and be careful not to let anyone creep in that disrupts the harmony of your flow.
Studies show that using mental rehearsal has a similar impact on performance as actual practice. Can you tell us a little about your experience in this?
I visualise various parts of my race multiple times a day. While at training, I will often “run” the training session in my head before I do it in my body. It’s a skill that I am still working on; mental rehearsal is not easy, and I would encourage and support you in your persistence of the art. I think the biggest benefit in the practice is priming your muscles for the task – when I mentally rehearse, I can feel my nervous system wake up and tune in closely to my thoughts.
What are your aspirations for the future?
Right now, I am focused on acquiring the skills that I believe to be valuable to be a great leader. In the future, athletically, I hope to become one of Australia’s fastest and most distinguished sprinters, while also setting up a particular culture for the future of Australian 400m runners around respect, professionalism, and optimism.
Professionally, I look forward to pushing myself to reach the heights of success in the business world that I have achieved on the sporting field; adding value to the lives of my teammates and above all, being a respected and giving member of my communities.
To find out more about Steve Solomon’s impressive career and story, head over to his website.
Read more of our in depth interviews with inspiring members of the health industry here.