It’s the simple things

Six basic – but often overlooked – steps to enhance performance and training effectiveness

Posted on January 26, 2012 by
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Whether you are an athlete or a coach, you will expend a significant amount of resources in pursuit of your training goals. This could be time, energy, money or good old-fashioned blood, sweat and tears. However, many pay insufficient attention to the six easy “wins” that can greatly enhance the effectiveness of their training and which will cost very little in terms of the resource that they expend.

Training is only 100 per cent effective if your body is prepared for it. What this preparation entails varies, but simplistically it means that you are not approaching training in any way depleted.

1 Hydration

This is the easiest of easy “wins”. Adequate hydration is so uncommon in many athletes and it’s worth re-emphasising this malaise. Athletes are not “normal” people and the generic guidelines for sedentary people do not apply – government guidelines for water ingestion recommend six to eight glasses of water per day. An athlete who trains intensively for two hours in normal conditions needs to take on more fluids to maintain hydration. A mere two per cent of bodyweight loss through dehydration will be detrimental to performance – an athlete starting a training session in this state will fail to get the desired benefits from the workout.

Staying hydrated is vital all week long irrespective of a hydration plan for training itself. A daytime hydration strategy of a combination of regular intakes of water and taking fluid through “wet carbs” in the form of juicy fruit will be sufficient.

It is important to keep a track of intake otherwise you will fail to stay hydrated. There are a variety of ways to do this such as drinking a glass of water every hour or having a drinks bottle that you sip from over the course of a morning. The easiest indicator of hydration is that your urine should be the colour of light straw. However, be warned, thirst is not a good indicator and you are already dehydrated if you are craving for a drink.

Pre-exercise is when sports drinks become useful. These enable the body to process the liquid more e ciently with the addition of electrolytes and other elements. Start with 500ml in the half-hour before exercise. During the session, your body will consume liquid and this will be lost in the form of sweat.

Monitoring how much fluid you lose during a session is easy – simply weigh yourself before and after. A kilogramme of bodyweight lost is equal to one litre of fluid. If any fluid is taken during the session then this needs to be factored in as well. Therefore, fluid loss equals bodyweight before minus bodyweight after plus drink volume during workout. For example, 90kg before minus 89kg after plus 500ml during = 1500ml lost.

In our example above, our athlete would need to consume 1500ml of liquid to maintain hydration levels over the course of that session and this should be taken in small amounts to avoid over-hydration, such as 250ml every 15 minutes. In practical terms, that is the equivalent to a 500ml bottle of sports drink every half an hour! How many athletes do you know who carry a six-pack of drinks around with them on a two-hour session or run (including before and after)? These are just guidelines and weather conditions and the type of session, as well as an individual’s metabolism, will vary.

2 Diet

Most athletes have reasonably healthy diets in comparison to a sedentary person. However, normal guidelines do not take into account the needs of an athlete – food is fuel for an athlete.

Many athletes fail to take on enough protein. This should be part of every meal, including – and especially – breakfast. While carbohydrates are the most important aspect of fuel for an athlete, as protein intake is usually inadequate, it should be the highest priority. The main reason protein intake is low tends to be because athletes assume it is meat or fish and therefore it is only a main meal intake. However, peanut butter, baked beans, cheese rolls, yoghurt and eggs are also all good sources of protein. For example, a 90kg athlete in heavy high-volume training could need more than 120g of protein per day dependent on their type of event.

There are many sources of carbs and even sports drinks contribute. The well-documented pasta is a good staple and potatoes and bread weigh in quite nicely too. Fruit is also a good source of carbohydrate. However, we need a lot. For our 90kg athlete, a rough guide would be a requirement of 900g intake per day. A good way of keeping on top of micronutrient intake is to eat lots of fresh fruit and vegetables. While the government guidelines for a normal person are five portions of fruit or vegetables per day, an athlete would be better off with seven to eight portions. Recent studies have indicated that this should also be the same for the general population. Fruit smoothies are a great source of a few portions in one go. So how can this be an easy win?

Eat smaller and more regularly. Every two hours is better than a couple of big meals per day. Try to eat protein with every meal. Have carbohydrate with each meal and include wet carbs such as oranges, apples or plums where possible. This will keep you on top of your intake for carbs, protein and nutrients without becoming bloated.

3 Sleep

This is fundamentally important to both recovery and performance. It is widely recognised that a lack of sleep will cause a loss of performance in the same way as dehydration affects training capability. Additionally, the body’s recovery systems are in overdrive during sleep and a good deep sleep has a major impact on training adaptation. Dr Sara Mednick, a sleep researcher at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, says: “Not only do athletes need sleep to improve on their athletic skills, but the restoration that occurs within muscles during deep sleep is important. If you don’t get enough sleep it can be detrimental to your performance.”

To get a good night’s sleep:
» Make sure the room is sufficiently dark
» Keep cool – we sleep better when it is cool rather than warm. Regulate the temperature with sheets or blankets you can throw off
» Noise is a factor. Obtrusive sounds like a door banging are most disturbing. Masking these with background music can lead to a more restful night if they can’t be avoided
» Comfort affects the quality of sleep. When you buy your next bed or mattress, consider getting a large size and making sure the support and comfort is good. Mattresses designed specifically for athletes can prove relatively good value and may be worth considering

The way you wake up is also important. You need to be confident that your alarm will sound on time otherwise you will be unable to relax. The type of alarm might be worth considering. A few different methods are around that may be more beneficial than a loud bell. Smart phone apps can monitor your movements with the purpose of waking you in the most appropriate sleep cycle within a given time frame. Also available are clocks that manage your sleep cycle by using light to bring you into the right zone before the alarm wakes you up.

Avoid alcohol. Some believe a snifter will help them sleep, but the fact is, though it will help you drift off, the overall affect is that the sleep is more disrupted and fragmented and not as effective from a rest or recovery perspective.

4 Stretch

Supple muscles are stronger and faster and less prone to injury. Stretching can be done when you’re relaxing after training, watching the TV or even in the bath! Flexibility is often neglected and its importance cannot be overestimated. It doesn’t need to impact on training time and can be done 30 minutes afterwards when you’re winding down.

5 Preparation

Most runners don’t need much in the way of equipment, but consideration of the type of training session that is to be done is important. Staying warm, especially at this time of year, is vital and, while it may be less of an issue for a road runner who runs continuously, a track and field athlete who may have intermittent run and rest periods can ruin a training session by not bringing the right clothing or footwear.

6 Training diary

A training diary can take many forms. It can be a very simple pocket diary or it can be a detailed spreadsheet including such items as: workouts, frame of mind, heart rates, rep times, weather conditions etc. It has been shown that the athlete who keeps a training diary will come out on top because of lessons learnt from past training sessions and competition performances.

There is no rocket science in this article – just simple common sense. However, common sense isn’t always prevalent and knowing something and putting it into practice can be two very different things. Training hard is a mandatory obligation for an athlete who wants to improve, but neglect any of the aforementioned items and all of that hard work can be rendered useless.

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