I recently asked all of the Training Think Tank coaches to compile a list of the top 5 habits that they would like all of their athletes to adopt on a daily basis. I figured this would be a good way to come up with a list of “best practices” that we could encourage our athletes to integrate into their daily routines to see improvements in both performance and quality of life. Not surprisingly, the lists that everyone came up with were remarkably similar. In fact there were three daily habits that every single coach identified as most important: (1) daily meditation, (2) movement and mobility work, and (3) keeping a detailed daily training log. I think that this is really powerful information - the fact that coaches of athletes of all levels and diverse sporting backgrounds all identified the same three things that they would want their athletes to adopt.
What follows is a compilation of the five most important daily habits from our coaches’ lists along with selected comments and research supporting the importance of implementing each of these into your routines.
What is it? - Meditation takes on many different forms, however it is generally considered to be the practice of calming your mind. There are some specific forms of meditation that have been shown to be particularly beneficial for athletes, specifically: Mindfulness Meditation and Progressive Muscular Relaxation. Examples of both types of meditation can be found here: Mindfulness Meditation, Progressive Muscular Relaxation.
Why do we recommend it? - Consistent meditation practice provides you with a window into your mind and one of the only ways to access your nervous system’s arousal. We live in a world that is constantly driving us into a state of heightened arousal (sympathetic / fight or flight), meditation is an excellent way to create relaxation and shift yourself back into a more relaxed state (parasympathetic / rest and digest). Few other tools can have such a dramatic impact on improving hormonal profiles, happiness, and wellbeing without anything more than a little time investment.
What does the research say? - Specific forms of meditation, like Mindfulness Meditation have been shown to improve “Flow States” in athletes, improve the rate of adaptation to endurance training programs, and create a significant reduction in burnout and perceived stress in athletes. These improvements are attributed to both an improvement in emotional and attentional awareness as well as a reduction of perceived stress. In essence by practicing mindfulness meditation you are both reducing your distractions (by reducing perception of stress) as well as making you more aware of when you are distracted both in training and your day-to-day life (improved attentional awareness). These skills are critical components of effective mental training for any athlete who aspires to move from competence to mastery in any sporting discipline.
Movement and mobility.
What is it? - “Movement” is anything that allows us to express our mobility (flexibility and strength). Mobility consists of training to improve the functional range of motion (ROM) of a specific joint. For example, the frog stretch is a mobility drill that can increase the ROM of the hips that can allow you to attain better positions in a movement like a squat or cossack squat. In this example, squatting is allowing you to express the ROM developed through your mobility training. There are many forms of mobility and movement training including static stretching, the FRC system, movement “flow” routines, and locomotion all of which can benefit you in different situations.
Why do we recommend it? - Just like meditation, movement or mobility work shouldn't be a mindless endeavor. At this point most athletes have begun some form of mobility practice or at least have heard of it. Most people will quickly use their movement or mobility “tricks” to get back to their planned activity as fast as possible. What if we treated movement and/or mobility work as seriously as our other training aspects. What tissues are we actually trying to change, is my breathing disrupted, can I keep my body calm, can I relax into the change vs forcing the change? Becoming more mindful of these different thoughts can lead to greater movement or mobility practice; which can help us hone in on what changes are we trying to make.
What does the research say? - The research on stretching specifically is quite difficult to synthesize into a bigger picture. Most of the research looks at one of three things.
- Does pre-event stretching reduce injury rates in athletes? The research attempting to answer this question is all over the place, with some suggesting a benefit and some suggesting no benefit. In my personal opinion this misses the mark. I’m less interested in whether stretching my hamstring before I run will reduce my risk for a hamstring tear during running, and more interested in whether stretching my hamstring will allow me to attain better positions while running, and therefore alter my risk for injury over the long-term. In general we believe best practices should be more long term focused than focusing on the quick fix that can produce temporary short term training adaptations.
- Does stretching reduce force production or power production during maximal strength or power testing (like a 1RM back squat or maximal vertical jump). The evidence here suggests that pre-event static stretching almost always reduces these metrics, thus hindering maximal strength performance by reducing the elastic rebound of our muscle tissue. However this issue is not that simple. Pre-event dynamic stretching has been shows to have no negative impact on explosive strength performance. As well, chronic stretching may actually improve explosive strength performance by allowing athletes to generate greater force by changing joint angles and lever lengths through improved positioning.
- Can stretching actually alter muscle-tissue length and joint ROM. The research here is unequivocal. Consistently applied stretching at the end-ranges of motion will eventually result in an improvement in the range of motion of the joint. The problem here is that while for many athletes it is important to increase joint ROM, having the ability to control the joint at the end-range is just as important. This is where movement training comes in, allowing us to learn to control the ranges of motion we have.
Breathing mechanics and diaphragmatic breathing training.
What is it? - The majority of us are born with perfect breathing mechanics. Children innately breathe into their ‘belly” (using primarily their diaphragm) at rest. Overtime however, many of us develop poor breathing habits and adopt breathing mechanics that rely primarily on the expansion and contraction of the ribs. This leads to a weakening of the diaphragm and a subsequent reduction in exercise performance. Retraining breathing mechanics can be as simple as practicing diaphragmatic breathing while you’re at rest, using a technique called Box Breathing, or performing inspiratory and expiratory muscle training against resistance.
Why do we recommend it? - Improving your breathing mechanics can lead to a number of health and performance benefits. Like meditation, proper breathing mechanics at rest can lead to a significant health benefits including a reduction in the arousal of our nervous system, shifting us into a more parasympathetically dominated state of relaxation. This in turn leads to faster rates of recovery and better adaptation to your training program. From a performance standpoint, improved breathing mechanics and respiratory muscle training can lead to a significant decrease in the “energy-cost” of breathing. Breathing, it turns out, can use a large percentage of our total oxygen consumption during high intensity exercise. By training our breathing muscles we can shift more of our oxygen and energy to our sport performance and less to breathing.
What does the research say? - The research on breathing, and specifically respiratory muscle training suggests that by training your breathing muscles you can see a significant improvement in endurance exercise performance. Interestingly these improvements do not come from alterations in your your VO2max or lactate threshold but through a reduction in perception of effort and respiratory rate. In addition research has clearly shown that breathing can shift you into a more relaxed, parasympathetic state. Further research has shown that athletes who spend more time in parasympathetic states recover faster from stressful training. For athletes who (1) struggle with “breathing” as a limitation in workouts and (2) have trouble recovering between training sessions, a combination of respiratory muscle training and diaphragmatic breathing offers a possible solution to these issues.
Maintaining a daily training log or journal.
What is it? - A training log is the best way to keep track of your training progress. There are a number of different ways to maintain a daily training log from old-school pen and paper journals to keeping an online training blog, to subscribing to software specifically designed to track training volume and recovery. A good resource for information regarding how-to keep a training log can be found here.
Why do we recommend it? - The number one obstacle that we run into as remote coaches is lack of feedback from our athletes. We use this information to adjust all of the variables in an athlete’s training program from movement selection to training load. Without detailed feedback regarding how the athlete feels, what the limiter was, and their perception of effort, remote coaches are crippled in their ability to provide effective training designs. Even for athletes who are self-coached, there are additional benefits of keeping a detailed training journal. They offer athletes a great tool for developing more self-awareness, a way to identify problems that consistently interfere with training, and an opportunity to reflect on progress made. Note that all of our coaches rated this as one of the most important daily habits for success in sport, and everyone suggested that athletes complete their training log as soon as possible after finishing their training session.
What does the research say? - As it turns out, there actually is research that shows that athletes who keep a training log progress faster than those who do not, and that keeping a training log can be an effective way to prevent overtraining. As well, there is some research that looks specifically at what types of information should be included in an effective training log.
- Energy level
- Hours of sleep
- Food intake
- Muscle soreness
- General satisfaction with training
Researchers found that by recording this information, athletes were better able to avoid overtraining than those who did not keep training logs or recorded different information. Regardless of your current level of performance, keeping a training log can be an effective way to improve communication with your coach and hasten your progress. I have always found that keeping a detailed training log allows me to be more mindful of the process of training and less worried about the end-goal. Having the ability to easily review your training progress and put setbacks into perspective is an invaluable tool for athletes looking to make it to the top of their sport.
Create intention for your training session.
What is it? - Every component of every training session should have a purpose. As athletes it is our responsibility to understand the purpose of our training so that we can maximize our adaptations to that training stimulus. The best way to accomplish this, is to set “mini-goals” for our training - whether performance or execution related this will keep you more engaged with your training sessions.
Why do we recommend it? - Having clear goals for every training session helps you to understand how to approach each component of your training. There are a number of ways to perform the same workout, each eliciting a different training response. For example:
This workout could be intended to be completed as a “for time” tester which might mean that you need to take strategic breaks within each of the movements in order to get the fastest overall time. On the other hand, this same workout could be prescribed to develop local muscular endurance, where your intention should be to complete each movement unbroken, resting as long as needed between movements. These are two very different training stimuli from the same workout. Understanding the purpose and intention of your training is critical to deriving the right adaptations from your program. This requires you to communicate with your coach when you’re not entirely clear how you’re supposed to approach your session (but doesn’t necessarily require you to understand WHY from a physiological standpoint). Having intention in your sessions is the difference between working out (no intention) and training (intention).
What does the research say? - I’m not sure if there is research that specifically looks at an athlete's intention and their rate of adaptation and performance (at least I couldn’t find any). However self-efficacy theory dictates that athletes who believe that their training program will improve a specific quality (i.e. strength or endurance) will make better progress than those who do not. Forming intention fosters this belief and may be a big component of why coaches consistently observe that athletes who set clear goals for each training session progress faster than those who do not.
Most of the five daily habits presented in this article are things that you were probably already aware of. You were probably aware in some vague sense that you “should” be doing these on a daily basis, and you may have even tried at some point to create these as habits (I know I have...and have failed). However for those of us who put incredible amounts of effort into our training (or designing your training) to not implement these simple steps into our daily practice is foolish. Meditating, stretching, keeping a training log, improving our breathing, and setting goals are all ridiculously simple and free things that we all should be doing every day to maximize our return on investment. Hopefully this article is enough of a reminder for you (and myself) to pick up and stick with some of these habits and really make an impact on our lives.