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Health and performance hacks for athletes

May 22, 2015

We all know that training hard is a pretty big stressor to our bodies. Sometimes you just feel a little “off” and you can’t put your finger on what is causing it. I get this way from time to time, when I start overly stressing, under-performing and I just feel blah in general.

Over the years I have been learning how to listen to my body better. This is something that takes a little effort initially. You have to look at common symptoms and signs and stay pretty switched on. You have to keep tabs on how you are feeling on a day-to-day basis, how you are performing and how your stress levels are overall. But once I got it down pat, taking care of my recovery started to come naturally to me. I got sick a lot less, had fewer niggles from training, felt less tired and just had a better balance overall. Now I feel like I can keep things in check without too much effort.

Here are some tricks I’ve picked up along the way that help me out. Whenever I feel like something is “off” in my training, performance or recovery/health, I take a look at these things and see if I have been neglecting any of them. Usually I find I have been skimping on something, and that has caused a domino affect in other areas of my life.

It’s not *just* about the training sessions

I wrote this on my Facebook page this afternoon:

“It’s good to remember that your success in training relies on how you recover as well. Rather than thinking only about your training, it’s important to also think about the aspects of your recovery. Believe me when I tell you that quality sleep, recovery tactics, fueling your body, hydrating, getting quality nutrients and vitamins in your diet (also the right combination of macros), spending time de-stressing, and adding in mobility/activation work unlocks great performances. If you have been feeling your training suffer, one or more of these things could be out of whack. Don’t forget to place recovery as high on your priority list as you do your training.”

This is something I’m still learning myself. There are many variables in your life that can positively affect your training consistency and health. There is no magic number of hours that you need to train a week. What's important is how you use your available hours. You must accept that the hours you have to spend on training are enough because often times putting even more time in for training will end up compromising your sleep, diet, work productivity, family and social life. And these things are just as important to your performance as your training is.

Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate

Drinking water is such a simple solution to so many performance problems, but you would be surprised at how many people just don’t drink enough water. A good rule of thumb to stay hydrated is to drink at LEAST 2-3 litres of water a day. And that’s the absolute minimum, especially for an athlete or serious exerciser. If you’re working out extra that day, eating lots of salt, training outdoors in the heat, drinking caffeine and/or drinking alcohol you should drink more. I drink about around 4 litres of water every day. Drinking water will help with recovery, hydration, digestion, and keep your body and organs functioning properly.

Eat your carbs around your training sessions

Sometimes it takes me a lot of extra effort to encourage athletes (especially female athletes) to eat enough carbs. Many times these woman are after body composition changes and automatically assume they need to cut their carbs down. But if they are trying to perform well and train hard on barely any carbs this tends to backfire. As a very health conscious person and an active individual myself, you will never see a day in my life without carbs. It is the body’s #1 choice of energy to fuel high-intensity training and activities. Eat it around your training sessions, before, during and after, to utilise it as best as possible and to give yourself enough energy to support all your training.

Boost your calorie intake and exercise output

Reposting from a previous blog post:

“A little trick that I picked up along the way for breaking a plateau (whether fat loss, or performance based) is to increase you calorie intake by 25% while also at the same time increasing how many calories you expend by 25%. By doing this you’re pretty much telling your body that you’re not “calorie broke” and you still have food coming in.  When this happens your body will often go right back into athlete mode! You’ll fire up your metabolism and give your body a lot more energy and fuel. All you really have to do is add another small meal in somewhere in your diet or eat a little more with each meal than normal.  Then add in another 2-3 training sessions each week or increase the intensity in your training a little.”

I have never been a fan of eating less and exercising more, as all this does is puts way too much stress on your body (fat loss in itself is a stressor). Initially you might see extra fat loss, but the long-term affects will catch up to you sooner or later, whether it’s in the form of cortisol and hormone problems, injuries, fatigue or under performing. Why not give your body extra healthy calories (energy), and put that energy to good use. I realise this doesn’t apply to everyone as not everyone has extra time in a day to train, but for athletes or those who are more serious about their training/sport, this can often work as a good little hack, even if it’s just for a period of time.

Change your routine/take a deload week from time to time

It doesn't matter how much you love your training routine or your active lifestyle, but without ever giving yourself a break, your body and mind will eventually start to break down.

Many times, people feel guilty for skipping a workout. I struggle with this myself. Even if I am sore and I know I need a break (and deep down I know skipping the workout will benefit me more), I will push through anyway, just to get the workout in.

When this happens we often begin to overcompensate with ways to keep a sore or tired body moving (like caffeine, energy drinks, pain killers, skipping workouts and then overloading the next workout, etc. etc.) but this is not what a healthy and performance focused athlete should be doing.

I think it’s important to change up our routine from time to time. When we do this we give ourselves the opportunity to recover. Deloading for a week doesn’t mean doing nothing and become inactive. You can take a deload week, and just go lighter and easier, or maybe trade some full-on training sessions for lighter cardio or doing extra yoga sessions or swimming instead of training. Change things up.

Check your diet habits

Are you eating enough fruit and veggies (the nutrients in these are important for your recovery)? Perhaps you need to make more time for meal planning and cooking? Maybe you find yourself binging in the evenings because you didn’t eat enough during the day? Maybe you aren't spending enough time understanding your sports nutrition before, during and after workouts? Whatever “eating better” means to you, focus on making a few small changes at a time. Be mindful as well, of how an increased training load or a change in training phases (i.e more cardio leading up to the open season or a greater strength focus during a strength phase) will affect your diet needs and habits. Don’t just eat haphazardly. Stay in tune with what your body needs. You are in charge of what you put into your body. Make food choices that make you feel good when you eat AND after you eat. Learn how to properly fuel your training to get the most out of every workout.

Try to limit your stress-levels about “being healthy”

At the same time (and this will apply to some more than others, just as the above point would apply to some more than others) you don’t want to get too obsessed about your diet or about “being healthy”. The idea of someone overly stressing about trying to be healthy is a bit ironic. Because stress is NOT healthy. It can cause health problems and can trigger all sorts of hormonal issues. If you find yourself overly stressing about your exercise regime and your diet to the point that you are unable to relax and enjoy life, you might want to rethink your methods. Improvements in any area of life require attention and perhaps some degree of obsession, but when your thoughts and habits in regards to health and food are all-consuming and have taken over your life, it’s might be time to re-evaluate your relationship with food. Find something that is sustainable, enjoyable and manageable in the long-term and that doesn't cause you unnecessary stress, otherwise you could end up exhausted, under-fueled and under performing.

Food should NEVER cause anxiety and believe me when I say that you do not have to have an extremely restrictive diet in order to perform well or reach body composition goals. It’s okay to have fat loss goals and/or want to eat as healthy as possible, but if you are an athlete with performance goals I would suggest avoiding extreme dietary shifts in macronutrients, calories or eating patterns (unless your doctor tells you to). This will all backfire as well. If you want to perform well then you need to focus on a healthy, wholesome, balanced, performance-focused diet.

Check your sleep habits

What you want is good quality sleep over quantity. Don’t stress too much about getting 9-10 hours of sleep a night and instead make the hours you get good quality sleep. I perform best on 7 ½-8 hours of sleep a night but when I only get 6 hours some nights of the week I try to make those hours as good as possible. Some tips for making your sleep better is to turn off all electronics so there are no lights in your room at all and sleep in a cool room (not cold though). Try to go to sleep when it gets dark and wake up when the sun comes up. If you really struggle with sleep, try to keep your training and exercise earlier in the day. Then use some relaxation tactics: a hot bath, a book in bed, a bit of yoga or stretching, meditation etc. There are also some supplements like melatonin and valerian that can help.




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