January is the month to make improvements to your lifestyle and if you do five things this year, make it these, says Peta Bee

Sleep low

Manipulating your carbohydrate intake is key to a good sports diet and in 2016 researchers from the French National Institute of Sport, Expertise and Performance in Paris rigorously tested the practice of ‘sleeping low’ – that is skipping carbs after 6pm so that your body has low reserves by the morning. The theory is that in training sessions the body would be forced to turn to fat for fuel.

Previous studies had produced mixed results, but this one – published in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise – was the first to pair the diet with intense training to see what, if any, effect it had on performance.

After completing a simulated indoor triathlon and numerous fitness tests, 21 competitive triathlete volunteers were divided into two groups, one group eating a regular, carb-heavy sports diet, the other a ‘sleep low’ diet where almost all of their carbs were eaten at breakfast and lunch, with none at the evening meal.

On four afternoons a week, all of the athletes also completed a tough interval session, designed to deplete their glycogen levels but only the control group replenished their carb stores at dinner.

When they got up the next morning, all of the athletes cycled for an hour on an indoor bike and later consumed their carb-rich breakfast and lunch. They continued with this routine for three weeks during which time the lead researcher, Laurie-Anne Marquet, and her team carried out numerous tests.

At the end of the trial, the athletes repeated the simulated triathlon they had done at the start. Results were impressive for the ‘sleep low’ group who improved their 10km time by an average 75 seconds, or 3%, and had also lost body fat, changes not seen in the control group. It was not without its downsides – some of the ‘sleep low’ athletes complained they felt hungry each evening – but Marquet suggests that in the run up to an important race, it’s a technique that may work for many.

Brush and floss

A staggering 18% of athletes at the London 2012 Olympics claimed their oral health had a negative impact on their performance, reported Professor Ian Needleman and his team from the UCL Centre for Oral  Health and Performance in Sport.

According to the researchers, oral disease can cause immense pain, systemic inflammation and a downturn in self-confidence, all of which are performance limiting.

Unsurprisingly, a consensus statement by Needleman and other experts, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, called for all athletes to improve oral health with easy measures such as better brushing and flossing, suggesting the gains could be significant.

“Simple strategies to prevent oral health problems can offer marginal performance gains that require little to no additional time or money,” they wrote. “Things like better tooth brushing techniques and higher fluoride toothpastes could prevent the toothache and associated sleeping and training difficulties that can make the crucial difference between gold and silver.”

In their latest study, Needleman and his team have been looking more closely at how and why elite athletes fall down with their brushing and flossing. Results will be presented at the International Olympic Committee conference in Monaco in March and are expected to drive home the message that your mouth matters when it comes to sport.

It’s something that is already being taken seriously in the football world. Since Needleman published results of a 2016 study into professional footballers’ oral hygiene habits, clubs including Manchester United have introduced pre-season dental health screening.

Check your symmetry

Ensuring you are as symmetrical as possible is the current goal of top sports therapists. There’s plenty of evidence that muscle symmetry is a key factor in elite performance with numerous studies by evolutionary biologists at Rutgers University confirming the link.

As part of the Jamaican Symmetry Project, the Rutgers researchers assessed body symmetry in a group of 285 Jamaican eight-year-olds between 1996 and 2010 and found that the children with good knee symmetry in 1996 and 2006 went on to run faster in 2010, suggesting it was a predictor of running speed.

In 2014, they looked at the knee symmetry of 74 elite Jamaican runners, including Shelly Ann Fraser-Pryce, twice Olympic gold medallist in the 100m, and a control group of non-athletic Jamaicans matched for age, sex and weight.

Results, published in the journal PLOS ONE, showed the knees and ankles of the top 100m sprinters were the most symmetrical and that symmetry was significant enough to predict the fastest race times at other distances.

Some symmetry is down to good genes, but you can also improve your lot with targeted assessments and programmes such as those provided by the system called ViMove, available at selected physiotherapist clinics around the UK.

A physio will carry out a detailed examination of your muscle symmetry to find where improvements might be gained. Typically, the highly symmetrical athlete will have variations of less than 4% when each side of their body is tested with the ViMove technology, but many club level athletes tend to have around 11-18% variations when different sides of the body are compared.

For details of clinics where you can have a ViMove assessment, visit yourphysioplan.com.

Look after your gut garden

Taking daily probiotics – substances that promote the growth of healthy gut bacteria – is the best step you can take towards boosting your immune system in 2017, experts claim.

A recent trial at the Medical University of Innsbruck in Austria found a daily dose of ‘multi species’ probiotic containing a variety of beneficial bacteria not only enhanced immunity, but reduced the risk of athletes getting upper respiratory tract infections (UTIs).

After 12 weeks of hard training, athletes taking a placebo had 11% lower levels of the amino acid tryptophan, important in controlling immune responses, compared with those who had been given a probiotic supplement. The placebo athletes were also 2.2 times more likely to get sore throats and other UTIs.

Try Healthspan Elite High Strength Probiotic (£29.95; healthspan.co.uk).

Monitor sleep patterns

When it comes to physical performance, sleep science is now a significant part of an elite athlete’s preparation. Stanford University trials have shown how getting enough sleep improves speed, accuracy and strength in athletes and professional football clubs including Manchester United, Chelsea and Real Madrid have woken up to the idea of hiring ‘sleep coaches’ to help players learn how to ensure their ‘sleep environment’ is well-prepared.

Elise Facer-Childs is a researcher into circadian rhythms and sport at the University of Birmingham’s school of biosciences, says it’s important to recognise your own sleep patterns.

“When you most naturally wake up on average determines whether you are a lark or a night owl,” says Facer-Childs.

In research yet to be published, she has found that while the number of larks in the general population is relatively scarce, there are significantly more elite sports people who are natural early risers.

But no rules apply. She says there are Olympians who prefer to get up at midday just as there are couch potatoes who are up before dawn. Trying to squeeze in a pre-breakfast training session when your body wants a lie-in could be counterproductive.

“Everyone needs at least a couple of hours to adapt and prepare for exercise after their natural waking time,” Facer-Childs says. “And recognising that is important for performance.

“Larks and moderately early risers who get up before 8.30am perform better five to six hours after they rise, whereas people who get up later are not at their physical peak until 10 hours after they climb out of their beds.”