wellness theories

Volleyball Player April Ross on Meditation and Her Insanely Intense Olympic-Training Regimen

April Ross. Photo: Harry How/Getty Images

We were glued to our TVs during the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, watching our favorite athletes in awe. One of those athletes was U.S. volleyball player April Ross, who took home the bronze medal alongside teammate Kerri Walsh Jennings — while wearing their uniform of bikinis and visors. The Cut caught up with Ross over coffee in New York City to chat about her role as an ambassador for Essilor’s Xperio UV lenses, which protect her eyes when she’s competing on the beach. Ross opened up about wellness, eye care, and her insane training regimen.

How I start my mornings: If I have a little bit of time in the morning, my favorite ritual is to sit with coffee, and I either read news on my phone or I’ll post on social media. It’s just a peaceful way for me to get started. But to be honest, normally I don’t have that much time, so I just run out to get breakfast and coffee and eat it on my drive to practice. I have oatmeal on my more disciplined days, but on my less disciplined days, when I know I’m going to be very active, I actually will have a bagel sandwich with eggs, avocado, tomato, and onion on it. I have an hour and a half drive to practice, so I need to be on the road by 6:30 a.m. to get to 8 a.m. practice. I try to give myself extra time because I don’t like being stressed when I’m driving, so I’ll get up at 5:45 a.m. and get dressed real quick. Luckily, I don’t have to look very good for practice.

How I train: We just finished our season [which goes from mid-January to September], so we aren’t going to practice again at least until December. In season, it’s really intense. We practice five to six days a week on the sand, for two and a half hours, which you honestly never get used to. Our practices are really cardio-based. Our coach is always pushing us based on our fitness for those practices, so we’re always dead after that.

And then, four days a week, I’ll go to the gym I work out at, and work with my strength-and-conditioning coach for two hours. We’ll do mostly Olympic lifts there, really focused on gaining strength — so really heavy lifts and working on explosiveness, speed, and agility. We’ll do lots of drills, and then I’ll do cardio at the end of that, usually interval cardio, so sprints with walking on a self-propelled treadmill, which is the worst. There’s no motor and it’s on a curve, so you step on the incline and it pushes the treadmill so you go, but as you go you push it the entire time. So when you first get on it, you’re kind of wobbly, but after you get used to it, it’s easier to stay on it. But it’s so hard.

On the weekends, I do my own beach workouts. I’ll lug my medicine ball out there, a weight vest, a stool to jump on, and a sled. I’ll do a circuit on the sand, just to work on my agility on that surface because I believe working out on a hard surface doesn’t translate exactly to the sand. So I take that strength I gain at the gym during the week and get out on the sand and apply it to the sand right away. I feel like that transfers to my game for competition a lot faster. So that’s my training for season and preseason, along with mental training and stuff like that.

How I sweat in my off-season: Off-season, it tapers down a lot, especially now after the Olympics. I want to give my body and my mind a break. I’ve just been getting in the gym on my own. I feel like I have a good-enough handle on my body and enough knowledge about working out that I can do my own workouts. I start on cardio to warm up, then I’ll warm up and stretch, and then I’ll do three circuits of three exercises each. Then I’ll get back on the treadmill and do 20 minutes of cardio at the end. I feel like that gives my body enough of a break because it’s not super intense, but I’m confident it will keep me in shape if I eat properly.

To me, wellness is: being educated about health and making educated decisions, finding balance in your life, and moderation and listening to your body. There are a lot of things, especially foodwise, in the United States that people fall victim to because they’re not necessarily educated about the sources of their food. It’s really important to be educated about that and do your research about that.

You don’t have to achieve balance, but you have to be aware of getting as much balance as you can. A lot of times, when we’re training, I’m run-down and I’m tired. The last thing I want to do is hang out with my friends or my family, but I think it is better for my health and well-being if I push through and get some family and friend time. If I’m in the off-season, having a lot of fun, I need to make sure that I’m at the gym and finding that balance. Also, I don’t think anybody should deny themselves the opportunity to experience amazing food or indulge in your vices, as long as you do it in moderation.

How I eat when I’m alone: I eat the best when I’m alone, for sure. I eat really healthy. If I go out alone, instead of looking at the menu and being like, “What do I want the most?” I say, “What is the healthiest thing on the menu?” Whether I want it or not, that’s what I order. It’s different when I’m out with people, though.

On meditation: I read a book, The Way of the Champion, that was recommended to us by our sports psychologist. A lot of it is about meditation, and it really spoke to me. The thing I took away from it was how to cope with high-stress situations in a match. It works on envisioning how I want to feel on the court. I want my presence to be big and confident.

When you’re out there, you can fall victim to self-destructive thoughts. You can doubt yourself, and you can think about random things that aren’t pertinent to what you’re trying to do. When those things threaten to distract you, being able to clear your thoughts is helpful. As an athlete, that works for you because you have muscle memory, so even if you’re not necessarily thinking about anything or are not super focused on what you’re doing, your muscle memory will take over. You’re going to be fine until you can regain your focus. I thought it helped a lot.

I do meditation before bed. In the past, even if I was really relaxed and we had competition the next day, I’d get adrenaline. I’d start picturing us playing and be a little bit worried about how we were going to do tomorrow, making it really hard to fall asleep. I found that if I meditated or took care of all those thoughts before I went to bed, it would help me fall asleep better.

My wellness shortcut: Something really easy to do for your wellness is to drink a lot of water. If you can cut out your iced tea or your sodas or your juices and replace it with water, it helps your overall health, your skin, and to stay in shape. Your body can burn more calories if it’s hydrated. I drink a ton of water. When I’m training I’ll go through three 32-ounce water bottles at practice. I’ll have another one on the drive; I’ll go through two more at weights. Then I’ll have two or three more before I go to sleep.

How I protect myself from the sun: When I first started playing beach volleyball, I didn’t wear a visor. I did that for two years, and it wreaked havoc on my skin. So, I’ll always wear a visor now, even when I’m driving or hanging out off the court, I’ll wear a hat all the time. I try to get sunscreen with zinc oxide in it, and I know it makes you look white but my dermatologist friends told me that the white finish means it’s staying on top of your skin, which is the best way to protect it. A lot of sunscreens get absorbed in the skin, and they don’t do as good of a job at protecting you from the rays as zinc oxide.

On eye health: I think it’s common knowledge at this point about protecting your skin from UV rays, but the same goes for your eyes. UV rays are always attacking your eyes, and if you don’t protect them over the long term you’re going to see some damage, and health issues come up. I have a lot of friends with cataracts. We think of sunglasses as fashion accessories, something to wear at the beach and during the summer. You have to protect your eyes, and you have to do that with lenses that are UV protected. You can’t just go out and buy the cheap sunglasses because they’re not UV protected, not polarized, and not good for your eyes. I wear glasses all the time — when I play and when I’m walking around.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Olympic Volleyball Player April Ross on Meditation, Wellness