Track and Field 100m, 200m
Weight: 165 lb
Hometown: Lexington, Kentucky
Forget about Achilles tendons and glutei maximi. Tyson Gay, the American sprinter with the best chance of unseating Usain Bolt as the world's fastest man, reckons that nutrition might be the most important factor in his events: "When people think about long-distance running, they think about recovery. But the truth is that sprinters have so much explosive work to do to get ready to race, we do a lot of damage to our muscles. We need to make sure we recover." For Gay, that means getting enough protein, which speeds muscle repair and reduces the body's cortisol (stress-hormone) response. He sucks down post-workout protein shakes at the track and relies on a diet rich in lean, high-protein bison meat. For those wondering about the other methods sprinters might use to improve their performance, Gay was one of the first Olympic athletes to volunteer for a U.S. Anti-Doping Agency program that requires regular testing of blood and urine.
Weight: 126 lb
Sometimes the best exercises are the most basic. "Every single event in men's gymnastics requires a handstand," says Jonathan Horton, who starts every workout with one. "Anyone who's trying to build some type of gymnastics body, get up against a wall and do a handstand." Place your hands on the ground at the base of the wall and kick your legs over your head until they're resting against the wall. Hold that position with a slight bend in your arms. Start out with 30 seconds, go to a minute, work yourself to five minutes. "If you can do a five-minute handstand," he says, "your shoulders are going to become massive." When your shoulders start burning, you're making progress. (Pictured: Horton competing in the men's individual all-around in Beijing, 2008.)
Weight: 206 lb
Hometown: Long Beach, California
"If you haven't gotten your balls grabbed as a water-polo player, you're probably not playing at a high level," says three-time Olympian and American-team captain Tony Azevedo. Yikes. What else has Azevedo had grabbed during underwater skirmishes? "Probably the most painful thing I've had is my pubic hair and armpit hair ripped out." To avoid such indignities, Azevedo strengthens his lower body as much as possible, which helps him power out of the water to rise above grabby opponents and take shots. A staple of Azevedo's training is an exercise nicknamed convicts, in which you step up with one leg on a box, then step down and into a reverse lunge with the same leg. Put a barbell on your shoulders and do four sets of 10 for each leg to experience pain. And once those become manageable, mix them up with heart-thumping plyometric split squats: With legs staggered, drop into a squat, then jump up, switching legs mid-air, and land in a squat position on the opposite side. (Pictured: Azevedo wins the 2006 FINA World League Semifinal MVP trophy.)
Weight: 163 lb
Hometown: Sicklerville, New Jersey
Olympic freestyle wrestling matches are six-minute torture sessions that demand otherworldly mental fortitude as much as superhuman physical stamina. "That's why I enjoy it so much," says Jordan Burroughs, a two-time NCAA champion and the 2011 world champion freestyle wrestler. "You're pitted one man against another man. Basically, whoever imposes his will on the other wins." Burroughs builds his strength and endurance by doing a brutal pull-up routine. He attaches two 25-pound chains to a belt and does as many pull-ups as possible. (His record is 35.) Then he removes one chain and maxes out again. He does a final max set without any chains.
Weight: 170 lb
To improve his competitive performances, Thomas Finchum employs a training regimen that combines style with substance. His workouts include Pilates and ballet, but the exercise he considers his "least favorite" and "most beneficial" is called a trap-bar dead lift, and Finchum does it to improve his leaping ability. "I'm a platform diver, and the one thing I need to do is jump high," he says. "I don't have any spring to help me." The trap bar (or hex bar) can be hexagonal or even diamond-shaped, allowing athletes to step inside it and lift it from the ground. Finchum usually does the exercise, which builds lower-body explosiveness, with around 300 pounds, although he varies the weight and number of reps depending on how close he is to competition. It seems to be working: Finchum has a vertical leap of 38 inches and can dunk a basketball. (Pictured: Finchum in the men's 10-meter platform-diving preliminary in Beijing, 2008.) Editor's note: Finchum just missed qualifying and won't be going to London.
Weight: 200 lb
Hometown: Bronx, New York
Master of fencing, master of life. So goes the maxim in Tim Morehouse's swashbuckling sport. The 2008 Olympic silver medalist has mastered the mind game that precedes the physical joust. "People talk about six-pack abs," he says. "A six-pack brain would be more key." In 2007, Morehouse was underperforming in competition. "I had one week to improve my ranking or I was going to lose my funding," he recalls. He decided to shift his focus from his deficits as a fencer to the things he did well, and build upon those strengths. Morehouse had long viewed the awkward moves in his technique as weaknesses to be corrected, until he realized he was scoring more points that way. Now his goofiness is his biggest asset. "It starts with setting concrete goals," he says. Don't tell yourself you want to get in better shape. Set a specific fitness goal. "That's where you see those big shifts."
Track and Field, Distance
Weight: 134 lb
Hometown: Tucson, Arizona
In the 1500m finals at the 2004 Olympics, Bernard Lagat missed out on a gold medal by 12 hundredths of a second. It was painful to watch him lash his sleek frame toward the finish line only to get clipped at the end. In the middle and long distance events in which Lagat specializes—he holds the American records in the 1500m, 3000m and 5000m—endurance can trump speed, and it did that day. But Lagat has showed plenty of endurance throughout his career. London marks his fourth Olympics and likely his last chance to win gold, which is why he's more mindful than ever of warming up before a race. To boost circulation and soften and lengthen tissue in his hamstrings, quads, and calves, Lagat uses a foam roller on his legs for about 10 minutes before a run. He also likes rope stretching. "As I get older, those are the tricks to staying healthy."