By Mara Abbott
Olympian, CTS Contributing Editor
There always seems to be a long list of ways we can improve, as athletes and as humans. That’s exciting: It means we have untapped potential and opportunities for growth.
One of the most simultaneously thrilling and onerous facets of pro athlete life is that every single choice (What do I eat? How much should I sleep? How should I spend my free time?) has a direct, apparent, and often measurable impact on your success — and your ability to sustain a livelihood. I was thrilled to bid goodbye to that insidious pressure when I retired from cycling, but the habits of purpose, attention, and ascribing critical value to each moment quickly became the things I missed the most.
Whether or not your big goals are tied to your paycheck, and whether or not they are sports goals at all, we all have opportunities to uplevel. Even when outcomes aren’t as quantifiable or precise as power numbers and race standings, we can still observe, tweak, reflect and improve.
What follows is a menu of performance-enhancing habits. Don’t be intimidated by the length of the list — I can’t think of a single athlete, even at the professional level, who is perfect on every account every day. These are options, not mandates, and different athletes will find different habits more effective.
Start small. Pick one area you would like to work on, and commit to it for a month or two. When you are ready, try a second. Allow growth to be a game or a personal challenge: What can I do this week, today, in the next hour, to improve my chances of success?
When life gets busy (or Twitter gets compelling) sleep is often the first place we compromise, but getting enough sleep is critical for both physical and mental performance. Could you find a way to get to sleep 15 or 20 minutes earlier each night? Start with an amount that feels realistic, even if it’s small. Then, commit to working your way up.
Do you have a big event coming up? Are you working to master a new skill? Commit to ten minutes each day of focused, positive visualization. As you practice, be sure to visualize from the perspective of being inside of your own body, rather than that of someone else watching you perform. Creating a consistent visualization habit can increase confidence, and studies have shown it can actually help your body learn how to perform.
Practice Good Sleep Hygiene
The way we prepare ourselves to sleep can impact the quality of our rest. Limit the amount of caffeine you ingest later in the day. Avoid heavy meals right before bed. Establish nighttime rituals, like stretching, reading, or journaling to wind down from your day, and try to avoid looking at screens for at least an hour before bedtime.
Many elite athletes have begun to speak out about the positive effects of meditation. One recent academic study on football players found that just 12 minutes of mindfulness meditation a day reduced the athletes’ level of mental strain and improved their focus and mental resilience when compared to non-meditating peers.
Be diligent about strength
You don’t need to work up a sweat every time you enter the weight room, but committing to a regular strength training routine can help balance your body, enhance mobility, keep tissues hydrated, and prevent injury. If possible, talk to a local trainer about building a program that works for your body and your time schedule. Some qualified trainers also have programs and apps available online specifically designed for endurance athletes.
Gut check your nutrition
Many of us already know ways we can improve our nutrition, and getting wrapped up in the latest diet and performance trends isn’t always the best way to accomplish it. Consider small changes — could you add more fruits and vegetables to your diet? Are you timing your meals around your workouts to give yourself enough fuel to both perform and recover? If you’re not sure about where to start, you could consider tracking your nutrition for a few days, like Chris Carmichael did last year, to seek out new insights.
Surround yourself with positive training partners
A consistent training partner or group can help increase your motivation and accountability, and give you an extra jump in energy. At the same time, training buddies who habitually engage in negative talk or try to convince you to deviate from workouts tailored to help you reach your goals can detract from your performance and enjoyment. After Shalane Flanagan’s New York City Marathon victory in 2017, a conversation popped up about the “Shalane Effect” and the power of positivity and mutual support within a training group. What can you do to surround yourself with people who support and respect your goals on a daily basis — even if your training is done alone?
Drinking water may seem like a no-brainer, but dehydration can sneak up on us and have significant performance and health impacts. Chris quoted Stacy Sims, a PhD sports science researcher, in a previous post with the reminder: “You can come back from an energy problem in minutes, but it takes hours to recover from a hydration problem.” Keep track of your hydration for a week or two, particularly when you are in a cycle of hard workouts, and chat with your coach about personally structured recommendations for electrolytes or sports drink mixes.
Let yourself recover
For a Time-Crunched Athlete, sometimes it can take more discipline to recover properly from a hard workout than it does to get the training done. Be sure to take in some recovery nutrition within 30-60 minutes of exercising, and try to take even just five or ten minutes to stretch, self-massage, and reflect on how the workout went and your level of fatigue after it. We can’t always help having to dash from activity to activity, but when you do have the opportunity to put your feet up, please take it — guilt-free.
Some of the most important characteristics great athletes share are mental resilience and an ability to continue to work through challenges and setbacks. As you set new habit goals for yourself, recognize that life will not always go perfectly to plan. If you miss a day or slip up, remain focused on the future. You can’t change the past, and you will encounter roadblocks that are genuinely out of your control. Growing as an athlete is a learning process, and at each moment you have the chance to choose to reset and focus on what you want to be for the future.