How do you achieve peak performance in sport?
Achieving peak performance in sport is something that we all aim for; however, what is meant by peak performance varies sometimes even by the day. Personally, I find having a definition to be really helpful, but the definition of performance in sport is something that can be a bit vague when you consider recreational sports versus competitive sports, so I looked for an expert’s opinion.
Dr Greg Wells PHD, is a performance psychologist, scientist, athlete and author. You can find his podcast, talks, and books easily via his website. He has a definition of peak performance that really resonates with me, he defines peak performance as the
zone of optimal functioning and flow… a moment when an individual puts it all together, when they are in the zone, when everything flows, and when they achieve an exceptional performance.
In his peak performance white paper which you can read here.
There are numerous resources to assist with achieving peak performance across various elements of your life, all it takes is a quick web search to turn up books, podcasts, TED talks and websites relevant to any aspect of performance. There is a lot of cross over between different areas, so the elements of achieving peak athletic performance can also be applied to the achievement athletic performance can also be applied elsewhere, such as the achievement of performance at work and vice versa.
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Using your brain for peak physical performance
Your brain is your top tool for achieving your best performance. But it is also responsible for taking care of your physical health and seems to have a mechanism for telling your body to stop exercising well before it reaches its physiological limit. Organizations like the various military special forces break through that barrier by prizing mental toughness and the ability to just keep going, no matter what. There are multiple facets of training your brain for peak performance:
Mindfulness and Self-care
- Emotional control and coming down off the stress hormones of adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine. Using breathing exercises and meditation to prepare the body for relaxation and switch off stress hormones. If you struggle with meditation, consider trying a yoga class, an app like Calm or Headspace, or a breathing exercise like the Navy Seal 4 by 4 for 4 – breathe in for 4 seconds, breathe out for 4 seconds, repeat this for 4 minutes.
- Goals are used to encourage focus and direction. They also are beneficial for measuring your levels of success. The process of setting goals involves careful consideration of the outcome that you want to achieve. The goals should be important to you so that achieving them has a high value in your life. It’s important that you understand why the goal is valuable and important to you. Choosing a valuable goal can generate motivation which will assist you if you start to doubt your abilities to achieve your goal.
- Use SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time-bound) goals with short, medium and long term timescales to assist with motivation.
Visualization of Success
- Create vivid, detailed positive visualizations engaging all the senses. What does it smell like and taste like? Can you feel texture and temperature? Engage with the visualization until it becomes automatic.
Bulletproofing your mind
- Breaking everything down into the smallest elements, both challenges, and victories
- Reframing – critically examining negative interpretations of external events and challenging those views into more positive interpretations. Convert bad events into challenges.
The Physical Elements of Peak Performance
It is important to fuel your body for peak performance, you need to optimize your nutrition and calorific intake to support your training. I’m not going to tell you how to fuel, but I will mention the key elements so that you can then go to research or seek expert advice.
Please consider seeking the advice, especially if you are on a diet that contains specific restrictions. We are not talking about eating for survival here, we are talking about eating to thrive and become the peak version of yourself – both macro and micronutrients have a key role to play and this area gets very complex very quickly!
In brief, your body requires Calories to fuel your training and performance. A calorie is a unit of energy, you may have noticed the big ‘C’ on the calorie above, this is because a Calorie and a calorie are two different things! A calorie was defined as the amount of energy required to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water by 1 degree Celsius; but the Calorie you see on food packets to used to measure the energy value of food is actually a kilocalorie, 1000 calories or a Calorie!
There are three different major energy sources used by your body as fuel, depending on preference, body type, health conditions or preferred diet you may prioritize Calories from one of these macronutrients (or macros) over the other two.
- Protein contains approximately 4 Calories per gram
- Fat contains approximately 9 Calories per gram
- Carbohydrate contains approximately 4 Calories per gram
As you no doubt know by now, it’s difficult to get any one macro in its pure state in a form that makes for a pleasant dining experience (unless you’re fond of unflavored protein powder or slurping olive oil directly from the bottle). Because of this, a lot of people turn to macro calculators to track their calorific intake and macro split. Personally I like the basic version of MyFitnessPal for times when I’m actually tracking my macros, I haven’t upgraded because I really don’t actually use it all that often.
The physical training requirements for achieving your peak athletic performance will be unique to both your body and your sport. Using a defined training plan and associating your short and medium terms goals to it can assist you in measuring your achievements (great for motivation!) and adjusting your plan to accommodate any life changes that occur.
When considering your physical training plan, make sure you allow for cross-training in addition to your sport-specific training. I started CrossFit as a means to get the functional training that I needed to benefit my running. Cross-training is great for balancing out imbalances caused by your primary sport. For me, running causes me to develop a strange muscling pattern in my legs that results in my knees being really painful – and having a strong bottom half paired with a weak top half!
Cross-training is also beneficial for providing exercise without the pressures of your primary sport, it should give you something to look forward to and enjoy, while still providing physical benefits to complement your sport of choice. Ironically, I now run to improve my CrossFit – it’s amazing how sometimes your focus changes when you try something new!
Sleep and Recovery
My absolutely favourite training book has loads to say about sleep and recovery, in fact, there is half a section on it spanning 4 chapters. If you’re looking for an excellent training resource, I’ve found Maximus Body by Bobby Maximus and Michael Easter to be my go-to book.
The first element of Bobby’s recovery profile is sleep – and lots of it! The chapter is actually called Get More Sleep. Sleep is key to muscle building, cognitive processing, natural hormone function and increased immune system function.
And on to recovery, I’d picked up some niggles over the past few weeks of CrossFit and I finally succumbed and booked myself a sports massage to work out all the kinks. It’s amazing how much difference that 45 minutes of being manipulated has made and not just to the areas that I thought were causing a problem. I’ve decided that a monthly sports massage will become part of my regular recovery routine.
Finally, Bobby suggests that recovery is an active practice, so sitting at home watching Netflix all day doesn’t really do you any good! The activities that Bobby recommends for active recovery include:
- mobilizing joints – methods such as foam rolling and mobility exercises focusing on your tight areas
- walking – one of my favorites, I commute by running, walking or cycling – it’s not only good for stimulating low impact blood flow, but it’s also beneficial for reducing my stress level
- hot and cold showers – alternating 3 to 5 minutes of hot with 3 to 5 minutes of cold water
- ice baths – for the really brave, sitting in a bathtub with 10kg to 20kg for 10 to 15 minutes
The Final Advantage
Now that you’re motivated, at peak physical condition and properly recovered you need that last 1% advantage. Now think of all the things that you’ve experienced during your training. Remember those niggly moments while something was just that tiny bit annoying? Perhaps your socks rubbed just a little across your toes and it was all you could think about for the full session, or maybe you got a tiny bit overheated, or a tiny bit cold.
The last 1% advantage comes from making sure you’ve got the right kit and equipment on and around you to achieve your goal in relative comfort and support. If you’re focusing on a small area of discomfort, annoyance or worry it will have an effect on your performance; but, in addition – there are a few studies that have investigated whether your sports bra can actually impact your running performance! It is believed to have to do with forces exerted on the body by the way the breasts can move partially independently of the torso while exercising. We took a deeper look at how runner’s breasts move while looking at high impact sports bras for running.
There are numerous people who swear that compression socks help with both performance and recovery, in fact, we discussed why you should consider giving them a try!
Personally, I find my underwear to have been the worst distraction over the years. Once it decides to relocate upwards it is all I can think about, and while dealing with a wedgy the last thing I’m focusing on is how to achieve the zone of optimal flow! My favourite performance knickers (I love that word!) of the moment is the Runderwear thong. Its exceeded my expectations at every turn, conquering long runs (as expected), hellish numbers of sit-ups at CrossFit (for some reason I almost always chafe doing sit-ups) and even horseback riding (I was so impressed that they got a footnote on my review of equestrian underwear brands!)
I was musing on peak performance last night, knowing that I was going to be completing this post this morning. This post has been percolating for quite a while as I’ve just decided to undertake some serious lifestyle changes and to achieve my goals over the next 12 months I need to be at my peak!
I was inspired to look at how I’m going to take care of my mind and body on this journey and came up with my personal top 7 list of ways I’m going to achieve my performance peak this year! I’d love to hear your thoughts – how do you achieve your peak performance? Let me know in the comments!
Hi Lisa, thank you for this great article. I like that you out the brain in the first place. I also think if we manage to break through brain barriers we can achieve great results. Nutrition is the part where most of the people go wrong, at least I did. Once I began to eat well my results were significantly better. Overall you gave helpful tips and information. I’m going to read some of the books that you are suggesting.
Thank you! I completely agree with you! The brain is such a powerful tool that is often easy to overlook how much it can be helping you or drawing you back.
On the nutrition front, I’ve found that eating right is one of the things that its easy to postpone because you don’t see immediate results or downsides – its more of a gentle slope in either direction and then you have to figure out what you’ve done differently to hit the peak or have slide all the way back to the bottom!
Hi Great article I’m always looking for ways to strengthen my brain and these tips look like they could hit the bill to try.Thank you for such a enlighten article I will give these tips a try and tell you how they worked.
I’m so glad you’ve enjoyed it! Please do keep in touch I’d love to hear how you get on with the tips!
First of all, congrats on posting such a descriptive article. I completely agree with all the suggestions you made above. I’m also of the opinion that you need to visualise your goals on a regular basis to reinforce them in your mind and keep you motivated.
What’s your opinion on using compression socks for weight training? Do you think it’s necessary or would it provide much aid?
Thanks for your feedback, I’m completely in agreement on the motivational elements of visualization.
Personally I don’t wear compression socks for weight training, although I do wear them for running periodically. However, there are a number of people at my CrossFit gym who swear by compression socks for weight training both for the protection from the bar and a reduction in exercise-induced muscle soreness.