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.
So far we’ve looked at athletes as the cornerstone of performance optimization, and perhaps rightly so; after all, it is the athlete who has to perform on competition day. However, an important component of getting an athlete to the point at which they are able to perform at their best is the coach.
When it comes to training, competing, and life all exert a significant amount of load on the athlete, through a variety of different mediums, including the physiological and psychological. In this article of the performance health series, I’ll explore what we can do to support our recovery from load.
Every month we take a deep dive into the latest research in sports science. In the June edition we take a deep dive into several articles on building mental toughness and resilience in training. Mental toughness is a term that is thrown around a lot, but without many coaches knowing exactly what it is or how to train it. We then look at the importance of individualized recovery, and how coaches commonly monitor athletes.
Whilst we may have previously considered the brain and body and separate entities, it is no longer viable to do so; the research is now clear that the brain plays an important role in moderating risk factors associated with injury and illness, and, from a performance standpoint, it is often psychological factors that most differentiate the performance of elite athletes on competition day.
As the performance health series continues, let’s stop to catch our breath, and briefly review where we’ve gotten to. So far, we’ve seen that the risk of injury and illness is complex and multifactorial, with a number of different models helping us to better understand how we might get injured. We’ve discussed the influence of “load”, a broad term which can include physiological, psychological, and lifestyle-related factors. We looked closely at illness and immune function and how psychological and lifestyle-related factors such as poor sleep and anxiety can increase the risk of both illness and injury. Similarly, inadequate nutrition, especially inadequate energy intake, is also a significant risk factor. This article will continue with this last point and take a deeper look at nutrition and energy intake.
I generally consider myself to be pretty hardy and robust, rarely suffering from illness. However, when I was selected to compete at the 2007 World Championships, I came down with a really bad cold in the pre-competition holding camp, which affected my training for about a week. In 2009, the week of the European Indoor Championships, I again had a terrible cold. In 2005 and 2011, I also was hit with really bad colds in the days before running my seasons best times. Maybe I just remember those colds because they’re linked to an important event I was taking part in, but an increasing body of research shows I was not alone and that athletes become increasingly susceptible to illnesses in the run up to major competitions.
In the previous article, I wrote about a variety of different models that better help us explain and understand why injuries occur. As a quick refresher, we typically have a predisposed athlete, who finds themselves in a local environment that increases their susceptibility, and they then have an inciting event which causes the injury itself. Central to many of these models is the concept of stress or load placed on the athlete. This installment of the Performance Health series looks to help coaches understand external and internal load, and what that means to coaches.
In the introduction to the performance health series we highlighted injuries as a major factor influencing performance. Injuries limit availability, accumulate over time, impact goal achievement, and are the a leading cause of youth athlete drop outs. As a result, we want to avoid injuries as much as we can, whilst also understanding that, in order to improve, athletes have to undertake training loads and modalities that expose them to an increased risk of injury. This is the balancing act that all coaches face, and in order to do our best we need to start off with an understanding of why athletes get injured in the first place. For that, we can lean on injury models.
More and more research shows that an athlete’s availability to train and compete is a leading factor in elite performance. In looking back at my own career, this was certainly the case. Throughout the month I will be presenting a 9-part series on performance health. In other words, what factors can increase an athlete’s availability to do what is needed for performance.