At the start of this article series, I wrote that my athletics career was a series of moderate successes punctuated by significant injuries, and that, over time, my performance became increasingly hampered by the long term effects of these injuries. As someone who has lived through the frustration of this process—and indeed, was forced to retire from professional sport because of it—I want to be able to help others avoid what afflicted me.
Fortunately, thanks to the mountains of sports science and sports medicine research carried out over the last couple of decades, as well as the realization from professional sport that the findings of this research might be useful in supporting performance, we now much better understand many of the factors that are associated with underperformance, injury, and illness in athletes, and, during this article series, I’ve discussed many of these concepts in depth:
- Part 1: The case for performance health
- Part 2: Understanding injury causation through injury models
- Part 3: Understanding and measuring load in sport
- Part 4: Improving athlete immune function and support
- Part 5: Optimal energy intake for performance health
- Part 6: Psychosocial factors impacting performance health
- Part 7: Optimizing athlete recovery and sleep
- Part 8: The importance of coach health and wellbeing
Athlete performance optimization
Early on, I detailed how performance success or failure is largely driven by availability; if you can’t train, you can’t get better, and if you can’t compete, you can’t win. This is similar to the performance rules put forward by Dan Cleather in The Little Black Book of Training Wisdom that I wrote about earlier this year:
- 20% of your training (the hot sessions) will account for 80% of your performance improvements.
- Make sure you perform the hot sessions, and that they are completed with the most optimal quality.
- Don’t do things that negatively affect your ability to perform hot sessions with optimal quality.
If we’re injured or ill, we can’t train with the required quality. Therefore, we need to increase the bandwidth of our athletes as organisms to reduce the chances of injury or illness occurring. Ensuring sensible progressions of training volume and intensity, given that the majority of sporting injuries are chronic in nature, is therefore crucial. But so is ensuring we have enough energy to complete the required hot sessions, have the immune function to reduce illness risk, can recover optimally from the imposed demands that have taken place prior to a hot session, and are psychologically in the right place to optimally benefit. All these pillars are inter-related, as demonstrated throughout this series, so we can’t focus on one at the expense of others.
Injury risk reduction, not prevention
Of course, there is an easy way to avoid getting any injuries; don’t train or compete. In doing so, we don’t get injured, but we also don’t perform at our best. The end goal of coaches and athletes should be to maximize their adaptations in support of their performance goals. Winning an Olympic medal is exceptionally difficult, and often requires the athlete to be exposed to high training loads and risky activities. If you want to be an Olympic sprinter, you have to sprint a lot, which already puts you at a high risk of hamstring injury. You can—and should—take steps to minimize the risk of hamstring injury here, but, unfortunately, the cost of doing business is that you likely will experience a hamstring injury at some point.
Elite sport exists on a knife-edge; falling down one side means too much load and the related injuries and illnesses, whilst falling down the other means we’re underdone and can’t perform at our best. What this series has hopefully highlighted is that there are things we can do to enhance our balance on this knife edge; we can better understand the holistic loads placed on our athletes through a combination of training, competition, and lifestyle; we can support athlete recovery thorough optimal nutrition and sleep, we can mitigate our chances of getting ill by following some simple behaviors, and if we support mental wellbeing, we can further enhance our outputs across all these factors.
Finally, an important part of athlete success is the coach. If the coach is unable to effectively do their job because they are fatigued, stressed, ill, or burnt out, then the athlete’s performance will likely suffer. As tempting as it is to just focus on the athlete part of the equation, it is insufficient when it comes to supporting sustained success. As a coach, you have to look within and maximize your own health, wellbeing, and performance, in order to best help your athletes.
In summary, I hope this series has served as a primer of the key pillars of athlete health, and made it clear that this is much, much broader than focusing merely on the physiological characteristics of the athlete. I hope you’ve found it useful, and it has piqued a curiosity in you to explore and upskill in the areas mentioned, as well as more widely. Hopefully, as a result, your athletes will have success for a long time to come.