I wanted to follow up Max’s satire article: Top 10 Characteristics of an Elite Athlete with a more serious list of 10 things that you SHOULD be doing on a daily basis. While Max’s article was certainly hilarious, hopefully it was able to highlight some areas in your training or lifestyle where you can make improvements.
Despite what many aspiring athletes actually believe (and what Max satirized in his blog) you should not try to kill yourself in every workout. In fact, elite athletes in every sport mix the intensity of their training on a daily, weekly, and monthly schedule. This is the basis of good training program design. We need to have some training days where we feel great when we finish as well as days where we can barely walk to our car after the session. This variance in training intensity is part of what leads to the adaptations that allow us to perform well in workouts with vastly different time domains i.e. CrossFit™.
There are no one-sized fits all nutrition guidelines. The fact is that everyone’s nutritional needs will vary based on their genetics, training background, and daily activity level. Some people tolerate high carbohydrate diets better. Some athletes tolerate high fat diets better. The only way to figure out what works best for you is to either experiment or to hire a knowledgeable nutrition coach. Regardless, more than likely the best option if you don’t have time to treat your nutrition as it’s own job is to stick with BALANCED nutrition and eat meals that provide adequate carbs, protein, and fats daily in order to refuel and repair from your training sessions. If you are able to maintain consistency with a simple strategy then you can begin the process of individualization to determine what works for you.
If you want to be ELITE at anything, you’re going to have to spend time practicing. I differentiate between ‘practice’ and ‘training’ in that practice is actively engaging in a task in order to improve your skill or execution of the task while training is attempting to create physiological changes that can improve the expression of the skill. If you read any of the literature on talent or talent development it becomes clear that people who have mastered their craft have spent extraordinary amounts of time refining their skills. They are elite because they were willing to expend the mental energy that is required to stay focused on what most people would consider boring or mundane. If you’re not regularly engaging in mindful practice and you wonder why you’re not improving at (insert technical Weightlifting or Gymnastics element here) you now know why.
Pacing and Heart Rate Training
Pacing is an essential part of competition in any energy-system based sport (think: CrossFit™, running, swimming, cycling, triathlon, track, etc). Pacing is another way of saying: managing your intensity level in a way to ensure an optimal performance outcome. Athletes who are good at pacing are generally good at their sport. Good pacing requires athletes to know their bodies. Learning your body requires feedback - for most of us who are not so physically gifted to be able to read our physiological feedback mechanisms this should come in the form of external bio-feedback. Monitoring your training heart-rate is one of the simplest and most effective tools that exist for monitoring your training intensity. By implementing HR monitoring and training, overtime you will begin to understand the signals your body is sending you and will be able to improve your ability to pace workouts effectively.
Keep an Open Mind and Learn from Everyone
Too often athletes and coaches ignore science because it is complicated or confusing. The reality is that exercise science is generally 10 years behind the current trends in the field, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore its implications or the potential to improve our training knowledge and expand our training toolbox. On the other hand we should not see science as dogma and allow overthinking to cripple our progress. Just as in most areas in life, we need to strike a balance between skepticism and open mindedness to allow us to continually move forward. Read, learn, ask questions, experiment, and think for yourself.
Spend your Time on things that make you better
Time is money. Spend your time on the things that will create the greatest degree of change. Most athletes want a quick fix, whether they want to improve their mobility, technique, or heal from an injury. The problem is that spending 60min 1-on-1 with a weightlifting coach is just that...60min. During that time you may gain understanding, but without repetition of the skill you cannot expect for that skill to hold up under the pressure of competition or the pain of fatigue. Likewise injured athletes will seek out the best specialists to treat their injured parts and spend exorbitant amounts of money for one time treatments. Again, one adjustment, or one pass of ART is just that - one pass. Soft tissue overuse injuries take time to manifest and one treatment session is not going to solve the problem. Seek out specialists and coaches who will provide you with direction and then go implement the strategies for improvement daily.
Over the past few years lifestyle management has taken a bigger and bigger role in my interaction with all of my athletes from masters to the elite. Again this comes back to the basics: sleep, nutrition, and stress management. Most athletes understand the impact that nutrition has on their performance (though they are probably not implementing any of the things they know…) but so many people don’t give lack of sleep and stress the attention they deserve when it comes to athletic performance. Today’s “GO” culture thrives on stress, we’re constantly plugged in, always available, and always on deadline. We get so burnt out that we need to engage in ever more stressful activities, and come to rely on our training sessions to give us that boost. Eventually we get to a level of sleep-deprivation and under recovery that is so extreme that even a hard training session isn’t enough to give us our adrenal spike….so we turn to pre-workouts and more coffee. Obviously this is a recipe for eventual disaster. Each individual has a maximum capacity for stress and once we’ve exceeded this threshold we can become ‘broken’. I’ve seen this in athletes who burnt the candle at both ends for too long who were no longer able to enjoy training or bring any type of intensity to their daily life. Changing your lifestyle is hard, getting 8-10hrs of sleep nightly is hard, cutting back on caffeine consumption is hard, setting aside time for stress management and meditation is hard - but these are the kinds of things that make a big difference not just in your athletic performance but in your qualify of life.
As an athlete, sometimes it can be very difficult to accept criticism. It can often feel as if you’re being personally attacked (I know this well, I’m an extremely stubborn person and tend to take everything personally). Learning to objectively listen to coaching feedback is critical for athletes to progress from good to great. This requires athletes to be humble and detach their self-worth from their performance (which is a good thing itself!). Uncoachable athletes will always limit their performance ceiling by ignoring feedback. If you don’t have the answer - seek out someone who does. Even knowledgeable athletes can benefit from having mentors or hiring a coach.
All athletes can benefit from effective recovery strategies. Prioritizing recovery in your training program can mean taking a planned rest day 1-2 times each week, taking a day off when your body is saying you need it, or simply taking a contrast shower (alternating hot/cold) to alter nervous system activation. The less ‘elite’ your genetics are the more this matters. Elite athletes tend to be elite because their physiologies allow for faster recovery and greater adaptation to a training stimulus. If you’re not blessed with these genes and want to be competitive, then you need to ensure that you're doing everything you can to recover as quickly as possible. That doesn’t mean go out and buy the latest and greatest recovery device - it means being consistent with the basics: nutrition, sleep, stress management, mobility, and getting professional care when you need it.
Use what you know, every day. So many times I talk to athletes who have a good sense of how they should be eating and recovering, they know that they need to implement stress management techniques, and they know that they need to be doing mindful technical practice...the problem is that they don’t do it! The journey to athletic success requires YOU to DO WHAT YOU KNOW YOU NEED TO DO CONSISTENTLY and to build upon our own body of work. Success in any endeavour is never an accident it requires a balance of all of these factors day in and day out. There are many people out there who will try to help you - but you are the only one who can make the decision to be a champion.