If you’re wondering what the heck sport science even is, it’s a lot like what you’d imagine: running tests and experiments in labs, filling spreadsheets with data, and scribbling white boards with metrics and training plans. The goal? To help athletes optimize their health and performance through research and science.
But to sport scientist Allen Lim, Ph.D., Olympic-size success isn’t really about science. “It’s about practice,” he says. “It’s the application of will and sweat and pain and patience into the unknown.”
It’s a craft, and although Lim has been on the cutting edge of sport science advancements his entire career, it’s his sensitive side that gives him—and the athletes he works with—the real edge. Here he talks about what it’s like to work with the athletes most idolize from afar and gives some advice on how you can find success in your own life.
Tell us about what you do.
My regular job puts me at the ideological and emotional helm of Skratch Labs, a company I founded in 2012 to help people realize their personal potential. At Skratch Labs, I work on vision, culture, product development, and education for products that help people who believe in activity and real food take better care of themselves and their families.
For me, the fundamental beliefs that led me to start Skratch Labs are the same that have always attracted me to the Olympic movement. They’re what compel me to do whatever I can to help my friends and family. So four years ago, that meant taking the summer off from my normal day job to help athletes prepare for the London Olympic Games. Today that means I’m taking the summer off once again to help athletes prepare for Rio.
What’s a typical day on the job like?
Each morning begins at 8 a.m. at Skratch Labs, where I meet with the athlete to go over the day’s training plan. It’s critical that we check in each morning to make sure that day’s plan is still the right one. We don’t just blindly follow a schedule—we’re dealing with a human being, not a machine. Meanwhile, a small support team helps prepare food for training, fill bottles, and load up the support vehicle that will follow us during training.
By 9:30 a.m. we’re out the door. Training sessions will last anywhere from two to seven hours depending on the day and goal. While on the road, I’ll motorpace on a scooter or simply observe and encourage.
We end training with a recovery meal. After, the athlete will head off to something else like physical therapy, massage, chiropractic work, yoga, or meditation. During that time, I’ll try to focus on my regular day job for a few hours or get in a workout myself.
Finally, we end each day with a family-style dinner. It’s a way for everyone involved in the training process to get together, share a meal, talk, relax, laugh, and become better connected. It’s the best part of the day and sets us up for an early night in bed before starting the entire process over again. Ultimately, the daily routine is built around a lot of work, a lot of monotony, and a lot of real human support. It’s Americans that send athletes to the Olympics, not America.
What’s it like working with Olympians versus other athletes?
In terms of action, it’s the same. In terms of importance and inspiration, it’s a bigger deal. The Olympics is one sporting event that matters to almost everyone. It’s an event where the sport you do doesn’t really matter. In that sense, working specifically with someone preparing for the Olympics is different because it connects us all to each other in a much bigger and more meaningful way. The Olympics is something else, something that has it’s own magic.
What’s the coolest part about your job?
Inspiring the inspirational.
What’s the hardest part about your job?
Being away from home, the loneliness, and sacrificing my own health to help others maintain theirs.
What’s one of the most surprising things about working with elite athletes?
As much as we glorify them as superhuman, they are merely mortal. They suffer; they hurt; they miss home, and like many of us, they are trying to chase or find more. They aren’t always happy. The problem with elite athletics is you start to believe that success will make you happy. In reality, it’s finding a way to be happy—regardless of what it is we do or dream about—that makes us successful.
Is there something we can all do to live a bit more like an Olympian every day?
Be flexible with your plan and listen to yourself. You might go to the gym with a certain workout in mind and feel terrible. It’s important to not simply push through it. Most Olympians have learned that they have to listen to their bodies to get the most out of their bodies. That sometimes means going harder than planned when they feel good and going a lot easier than planned when they feel bad.
What about the mental aspect—how can we think more like an Olympian?
Believe in what you do or do something that you actually believe in. The thing about Olympians is that they believe despite impossible odds. Mentally, this is what gives them their edge.
What’s your advice for people who want to live a happy and healthy life?
The first thing I do is I remove—and teach the people I work with to remove—the word should from their vocabulary. Nobody does anything when should is involved. We should get together sometime. Yeah, right, never going to happen. So be definitive. Don’t make health and happiness a “should.” Make it real. And reality starts with the little voice in your head. Change the voice. Get that voice to stop using should. It works.
In one word, what inspires you to go to work every day?
And just for fun... what’s the background on your phone right now?
A picture of a stone carving along the Boulder Creek bike path that reads, "Love Inches Madly."
Coffee or no coffee?
Dark-roast caramel goat lait with air-roasted beans.
Favorite guilty pleasure?
Marathoning old episodes of The West Wing. (Bartlet for president!) And naps. I love naps!
Quotes edited for clarity.