When athletes train, they usually enter a sports complex called the palaestra (Latin; Greek παλαίστρα), which in classical times often referred to the wrestling ring but by the Roman era came to designate a specialized area for professionals who trained for the games. It could be part of a larger gymnasium (γυμνάσιον) or an independent facility by itself. Vitruvius Pollio gives an entire description of how to build the palaestra in his work On Architecture (5.11). 

Six Greek athletes at the games (ca. 510 BC)
Photo of the funeral relief taken by Max Lee © 2014 Athens Museum

A quick visit to the ancient sports complex or gym, via the literary description of several Greco-Roman authors, can help the modern reader appreciate the kind of intense training an athlete underwent. The Roman playright Plautus, in his play Bacchides, for example, has his character Lydus, a tutor, describe his visit to the palaestra as follows: 

  • Unless you got to the sports complex (palaestram) before the sun rose, the gym supervisor (gymnasi praefecto) laid a strict penalty upon you. When this occurred, there was an additional punishment: both the coach and the trainee were in disgrace. Here in the sports complex, trainees worked more at running, wrestling, throwing the javelin and discus, boxing, playing ball, and jumping than at kissing prostitutes. They spent their time there [= the gym], not in shady sports [= the brothels]. (Plautus, Bacchides 3.3.20-26; Eng. trans. modified from Sweet, pp. 113-14)

Lucian, the 2nd century AD satirist, makes these comments about the gym workouts:

  • When we arrived at the gymnasium (γυμνάσιον) we removed our clothing. Then someone [in our party] practices holds at arm’s length (ὁ μὲν τις ἀκροχειριασμῷ), another neck-holds and upright wrestling (ὁ δὲ τραχηλισμῷ καὶ ὀρθοπάλῃ ἐχρῆτο). Another [of our group] after rubbing himself with oil practiced slipping out of his opponents grasp by twisting (ὁ δὲ λίπα χρισάμενος ἐλυγίζετο); another punched away at the sandbag (ὁ δὲ ἀντέβαλλε τῷ κωρύκῳ); still another shadowboxed with lead weights in his hands (ὁ δὲ μολυβδαίνας χερμαδίους δράγδην ἔχων ἐχειροβόλει). (Lucian, Lexiphanes 5; Greek LCL text but Eng. trans. modified from Sweet, p. 114)

Next, the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, a near contemporary of the Apostle Paul, has these things to say about the diet and exercise routine of athletes: 

  • You say, “I want to win at the Olympic games!” Wait a minute. Look at what is involved… you will have to obey instructions [from your trainer], eat according to regulations, keep away from desserts, exercise on a fixed schedule at definite hours (γυμνάζεσθαι πρὸς ἀνάγκην, ὥρᾳ τεταγμένῃ), in both heat and cold; you must not drink cold water nor can you have a drink of wine whenever you want. You must hand yourself over to your trainer (παραδεδωκέναι σεαυτὸν τῷ ἐπιστάτῃ) just as you would a doctor. Then in the competition (ἐν τῷ ἀγῶνι) itself, you must gouge and be gouged. There will be times when you will sprain a wrist, twist an ankle, swallow mouthfuls of sand, and be flogged. And after all that, still there are times when you experience defeat (νικηθῆναι)(Epictetus, Diss. 3.15.2-5; Greek LCL; Eng. trans. modified from Sweet, p. 114)

Finally, Galen, the 2nd century AD physician, comments on how unnatural the athletic training program is. It rips away at the body. As a doctor, he does not recommend the physical conditioning an athlete endures as a normal routine. It is extreme:

  • For Hippocrates [5th cent. BC doctor] says somewhere: “A healthy condition is better than the unnatural state of athletes” (διάθεσις ἀθλητικὴ οὐ φυσει, ἕξις ὑγιεινὴ κρείσσων). Or again: “Among those who do sports/train (γυμναστικοῖσιν), peaking conditioning is dangerous, that is to say, in the bodies of athletes and those who sports-train (ἐν τοῖς ἀθλητικοῖς τε καὶ γυμναστικοῖς σώμασιν).”  But you must understand now that in saying “athletic” or “sporting” Hippocrates does not refer to the activities of those who exercise randomly… but those who compete as [professional] athletes against the strength of opponents (Galen, Thras. med. 9 = Claudii Galeni Pergameni Scripta minora, III.45 = Kühn, V.820, lines 1-8; Eng. trans. modified from Sweet, pp. 115-16)

So, if I were distill the above excerpts into a quick summary, I would describe the overall training regime of athletes as follows: 

  1. Wake up early in the morning. Before the sun even rises, you are already at the palaestra starting your workout routine. Otherwise, be penalized by the gym supervisor.
  2. Workout involves several intense exercises with weights, sandbags, grappling hold practice, sparring, shadowboxing, throwing practice with javelins, discus and balls. There was also sprinting and endurance running. But at the end of the day, you got to wind down at the public baths. Think spa.
  3. Abstinence from sex. Period. Sometimes, you can have wine, but not often.
  4. Strict dieting. Absolutely no desserts. Low carbs. High proteins. In fact, some even went on a meat-only diet (Diogenes Laertius, Lives 8.12). I think modern nutritionists would scratch their heads on this part of ancient athletics. All meat, no carbs, makes for a buffed but energy-less competitor. 
  5. Get a trainer who will push you beyond your limits. And obey him/her (but it was usually a “him”).

Want to learn more? I recommend the following sourcebook and commentary, from which I drew the English translations (Greek and Latin texts were from other sources): Waldo E. Sweet, ed. and trans., Sports and Recreation in Ancient Greece (Oxford Univ. Press, 1987).
   Food for thought: now what do you think the writer of the Pastorals meant when he charged a young pastor in 1 Timothy 4:7-8: “Train (Γύμναζε) yourself towards godliness (πρὸς εὐσέβειαν). For bodily training (σωμτικὴ γυμνασία) is beneficial for a few things, but godliness is valuable for all things.” 

Postscript 06/13/14: Exegetical Exercise: 1) Read the above post. 2) Go to the bible dictionaries/encyclopedias in the reference section of the university library and learn more about athletes/the games in the Greco-Roman world. 3) Interpret 1 Cor 9:24-27 drawing insight from your background study. In other words: how does understanding the training, discipline, and endurance of the ancient athlete in the Greco-Roman world help you to understand Paul’s message/exhortations in 1 Cor 9:24-27? 4) Be sure to consult at least one academic commentary on your biblical text from the reference section.