Do you think and train like the athletes you coach?

In the world of bodybuilding many will argue that you cannot truly prep someone for a bodybuilding competition without having done one yourself, and I can imagine many Triathlete coaches would say the same about competing and coaching in triathlon.

While this statement isn’t fully true as science is science in many respects (we know how to diet someone, whether it’s just to drop a stone or to get lean for a bodybuilding competition or fight), part of the battle with coaching others isn’t the science itself, but the application of it.

Why isn’t a theory working?
Why can’t the client follow my advice?
What is the issue here, it should be simple?

If you’ve never done a Triathlon yourself, do you think you could empathise with the situations a Triathlete will encounter at all stages of the prep, and have better strategies knowing what they actually feel like at particular parts of the race, or in their training? Coaching is all about listening and finding a way to get a successful outcome. If you talk to your client a lot, listen and identify with the problems as a practitioner of nutrition you should be able to find the right strategy for them, and test it in a training environment before it is used in a competitive environment. But even with this being said, could you not have the edge as a coach if you have been there yourself? If you know what it feels like it adds another dimension to a fully evidence based approach utilising all of the latest scientific approaches.

Woman treadmill running in oxygen testing mask

Scientifically testing v02 max

The key point here is experimentation with the strategies we use as coaches. I don’t often work with high level individuals in sports I haven’t competed in or experienced myself. This serves two purposes; first I can’t really be passionate about a sport I’m not remotely familiar with myself, so if I was to work with someone competing in one I feel my application and general interest in the client couldn’t be as strong. I just wouldn’t apply myself fully. On top of this if I can’t identify with where the client is at and how they feel in the environment we’re trying to optimise through coaching, what use am I when my client calls me to let me know they are struggling? If I’ve been there, done it, felt it, experienced it, I feel I can offer so much more of myself to the coaching environment as I have a full depth and breadth of understanding.

This is why I am happy to coach in sports like rugby, hockey, football, basketball, running, fighting and swimming, because I’ve been there and done it and competed at a good level myself. Now don’t get me wrong, a lot of sports have a large carry over to one another, but some don’t, and some can be miles removed from another sport you are familiar with. This might not necessarily be in terms of the fueling demands, but in the mental and emotional demands of that sport.

So in that vein, are you testing and applying your work to yourself?

I personally believe that to be a master of your trade you have to be in the trenches. This is why I compete myself, train myself, try things myself, and am always experimenting with myself as the first human guinea pig. I do this out of genuine interest and love for my job and what I do, and to know how it looks and feels to actually try and implement new theory.

Over the last 18 months I have accelerated this journey of experimentation with myself and will now accelerate this journey even more as I have just chosen to retire from rugby at the age of 31 to focus my efforts on some new challenges for myself, and for my business.

If I was to single out the biggest area of contention right now in my own training, and with all athletes and clients I’ve coached, it’s the recovery and performance balance. We are all looking to train as hard as we can, largely because we often enjoy it, and many of us would likely train more if we could to either get better or because we simply enjoy it. But everyone has a set recovery capacity, whether that is genetic or environmentally driven.

Many try and exercise intensely for many hours a week, but if they were honest with themselves their recovery capacity doesn’t allow it. How do we know this? Because its affecting daily energy levels, DOMS and overall feelings of well-being. Exercise and pushing the body needs to have a positive impact, not just on our fitness, but also on our career, home life and health markers. If our training starts to impact that we need to question the volume of training we are doing and our ability to recover from it. Ultimately, is there any point in training hard every day if we can’t recover from it?

I want to be doing what I do for many years to come, so constant assessment of how effective I am being needs to be made.

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Sure, sometimes as a high-level competitor your body has to be pushed for that edge and a few occasions might be lived in a slightly dark place while the body catches up from the overreaching plan you are on. This is temporary and planned, though – not a weekly occurrence. And if you’re trying to do this on top of a full-time job and other commitments? Good luck.

It’s hard to argue against the idea that sleep is the #1 integral factor for exercise recovery; because as soon as sleep quality or duration declines, it becomes very hard to recover from the training needed to achieve optimal human performance. This means that if a person’s environment doesn’t allow them to always sleep well, they are not going to be able to push their training. This is because a decline in sleep quality or duration causes a decline in central nervous system (CNS) activity (1), and thus our ability to apply force and effort – and this is compounded by impaired CNS recovery from hard training. So if we sleep badly, then can’t train effectively, should we exercise at all in that state?

Many athletes and dedicated trainers, in my experience, accept over time that it’s a badge of honour to feel tired and sore most of the time, that its part of the cause to leading a fit and elite lifestyle. But what we must appreciate here is the context that person lives in every day. Are they elite? Are they pushing for the 1% edge over the competition? Do they need to push hard today, or can they do it tomorrow when they are feeling better rested? In all honesty even elite athletes ask these questions – Olympians don’t get out of bed feeling like trash 7 days per week.

I battle daily with my desire to be some elite level something, but the reality is that I am just a guy that works in this industry, likes to keep fit, likes to challenge his body, but ultimately does it to get the best out of his life. While I can push hard mentally, if I don’t get the balance right then it starts to dysregulate my sleep, I get tired during the day, I can’t concentrate properly on my work, I get grouchy with my partner, and I’m just not as good a human outside of the gym. Training to this point becomes more of a negative to the rest of my life when it should be a positive all round.

So we need to get the balance right, but how?

With many clients I see that there is an element of anxiety around reducing training volume. Some feel they won’t be as fit, some feel they will put on weight, and some also feel worried about what they then fill their time with as training is a huge part of their life but also their identity as a person. These are all mental battles that are fixed with functional strategies and an alignment with the science of nutrition. If we are training less we need to eat less, so no one should put on weight if we reduce our calorie intake in line with our reduction of training volume.

If someone is too tired to push themselves and train hard, the chances are that if they train a little less they will be able to push harder and actually get a greater training effect by making progress. If you’re not feeling recovered enough to do a little better over time it doesn’t matter how mentally tough you are, you aren’t physically capable of progressively overloading.

Then there is the identity issue, which is a legitimate problem that a client will usually simply disguise in their comments back to you as ‘Oh, I’ll have to find something else to do’. That is code for “what an earth am I going to do if I don’t train”. It’s become part of their habit and identity. This is then a broader conversation around physical and mental health and us having lots of things in our lives that stimulate us, that we enjoy, and that allow us to grow as people. And sometimes this is part of the coaching process, helping your clients get back in touch with these things if training intensity and frequency does need to drop.

So where has the core point of this case study come from?

Over the last 18 months I’ve been trying out a few things that have been aimed at improving my recovery. Those are magnesium supplementation and dosing levels, meal timing and allowing for big feeds at social occasions, and maximising nutrient intakes. Now I’d like to quickly take a second and say that nothing I am doing here is ground breaking, there is very little that changes in our world at a ground-breaking level. Where I feel the greatest improvements come in managing your own athletic potential or the potential of others is the balance we strike between our performance goals, and our normal lives.

The modern world asks a lot of us, especially if we are not diligent at having boundaries and time out for our body and minds. Work hours can be long, social media is always there, there is always an email in your inbox waiting for an answer, kids demand much, the list can continue. Our management of all of this is for me the biggest struggle an athletic person has, because it can all easily affect optimal performance far greater than forgetting to take your magnesium or fish oil does.

So much of my job feels like I’m just giving people a nudge. It’s not always about massive realisations or dramatic changes in the approach or technique, but instead pointing things out, strategising, talking, highlighting issues, leading someone to the facts, and allow us to find a greater recovery and performance balance.

I’ve noticed that as I’ve got older more of my time has been demanded by others. As my business has grown, so have the questions placed at my feet, this then leads to a more troubled mind, this can affect sleep and gym/training performance, so managing this is far more important than the supplement I might have forgot. I’ve noticed I’ve wanted to be more social and its actually become a bigger part of my work, eating out and being cooked for more and more. I’ve shifted my goals with training, but I’ve still wanted to train just as hard, for me it’s not always about training volume, but intensity, so I have to maintain my recovery to allow me to train with intensity, and I’ve found that training 3-4x a week with maximum intensity is far more beneficial to the body and the results I’m getting over 4-6x a week that are at 70-90% of my training intensity potential.

So what have I seen as the most dramatic changes for my health and performance over the last 18 months?

  1. Turn my phone off for periods of the day. If my phone is off I can’t even think what might be there, it’s off, allowing me either solid periods of deep work, solid training with no distractions, or my full attention on a social or family event
  2. Increasing my magnesium intake to 600-1000mg a day. A 400-600mg daily oral dose, then the rest as topical magnesium post training. I’ve found the more I’ve taken the more benefits I’ve seen despite what some research has indicated (2), so I definitely feel there is a dose dependent response from what I have seen in practice with myself and client, and with intense training the need/benefit only seems to go up and up (I’m taking Daily Dose and Recovery Spray from Awesome Supplements)
  3. I’ve eaten higher protein and higher fibrous vegetables in the early part of the day, or implemented intermittent fasting so that I can get by on only eating around 1500-2000 calories during the bulk of the day often saving 1500-2000 calories for my last meal of the day so I can have more flexibility with evening engagements around food
  4. I’m training less often, but with the same volume, with less rest in my workouts. Because I am getting more recovery time I am able to have more intense workouts with less rest, this has meant I’m getting an even greater cardiovascular benefit and also saving time, and time is always something I am looking to save, here is an example of this on my Facebook Page with Cluster Training
  5. Taking my business active. I’m always looking to increase my overall energy expenditure so it’s easier to maintain my weight, so I take calls then pop out for a walk, do social media or emails on an exercise bike, or take walking meetings. Just wherever I can I take the opportunity to do what I would normally do sitting, but moving.
  6. Allowing myself a nap for 20 minutes or a 20 minute awake nap (resting the eyes) when my brain is tired. If I can refresh my brain then my body follows, and this has had a positive effect on my readiness to train, and my overall productivity
  7. I’ve always seen positive benefits to my health and recovery the more vegetables and fruit I eat, so I try eat a serving of soup every day and a 5 portion smoothie per day on top of my normal eaten vegetables and fruit. This means I’m often hitting 10-12 servings per day, and I love the feeling eating this much good stuff in my daily diet has on my health and energy.

And that’s it. A few simple changes, but it has impacted my recovery and performance in a big way, and been more manageable as my work and family demands have evolved over the years. I want to be doing what I do for many years to come, so constant assessment of how effective I am being needs to be made. If anything I hope this case study on myself has allowed you to think more objectively about your own training and recovery as a practitioner, and how you approach that of your clients. If you would like to learn more about what I do on a daily basis with my training and nutrition Instagram is the place to follow me, or Facebook for more expanded musings, and for the geeks get on my podcast, the UK’s #1 Rated Health & Fitness Podcast, more knowledge than you can shake a stick at!

References

  1. Uchida S, et al. Exercise effects on sleep physiology. Review Article. Front. Neurol., 2nd April 2012.
  2. Newhouse, I. et al. The Effects of magnesium supplementation on exercise performance. Clinical journal of sports medicine. July 2000.