Of all the things that I have changed my mind on over the past 20 years or so in the performance space, carbs, alcohol, effectiveness of exercises, etc., the most profound one, at least to elite athletes, is training frequency. I used to believe that ‘time off’ was a good plan for a host of reasons ranging from recovery to mindset. But over the past few years, new science has emerged stating that this may not be the case. Strategies have evolved based on studies, and the data now shows a bit of a different approach for creating champions.
I do believe that the following strategies only apply to the elite athlete looking to be in the top tier of their endeavor. I am really referring to ‘elite’ athletes as anyone looking to perform on the collegiate level and beyond. This group of people are less than 1% of the population, and they must realize that, to accomplish extreme goals, does require taking extreme measures. Sure, there are some genetic freaks out there that can sometimes get away with less training frequency, but unless you are taller, stronger, and faster than most, do not compare yourself to these athletes. Work harder than them!
I have always been in the camp of a good ‘off season’ being a smart idea. Not necessarily ‘time off,’ more along the lines of cross training in a way that creates more functional and well-rounded athletes. Cross training would allow the athletes to strengthen in different areas and help prevent overuse injuries as well as help the athletes clear their mind and focus on other things for a bit so they could come back pre-season fresh, excited, and motivated. Maybe I would have a football player play beach volleyball in the summer, a tennis player swim in the winter, or a golfer paddleboard. These are all still good strategies that I often use, but rarely do I play this card with the elite. Yes, you can still have some fun, but after the work has been put into your practice. Sure, Kelly Slater can play golf a few days a week, which is extremely beneficial to his surfing, but his golfing is after work has been put into his surfing.
A decade or so ago, I read a book called ‘The Rise of Superman’ that kind of changed everything for me regarding athletes and performance. The book was really focused on flow state, but the main takeaway for me was how athletes like Shawn White and Laird Hamilton spent years perfecting maneuvers that kids now perform with a tenth the training. How is that possible? The athletes featured in the book are world class, with the best trainers and technology possible. But as I mentioned earlier, the science and the technology of performance has evolved, and new records are being set all the time. We must change with it if we want to keep up with the competition. So where do we go from here?
Like everything you would like to find success in, there must be a goal and a plan. So, if you want to be the elite 1%, your plan and goal is to play your sport year-round. PERIOD! There can be no scheduled off days because you will have unscheduled off days. Nature will take its course, and you will have unplanned breaks. Maybe the weather doesn’t allow specific training, or maybe you get sick, injured, or go on vacation. But even in these cases, there is almost always something that can be worked on. You can probably still perform some myofascial release, or stretching when under the weather, and you can definitely work around an injury. Hotel gyms work in a pinch, and there is always time on vacation to mix in some training. Assuming you have similar genetics, athleticism, and coaching as your competition, how do expect to compete with them if they train fourteen hours a week and you train six? You can’t… Sorry. And they are training this much and probably more. No more off days!
A lot of dogmatic gurus will comment on overuse injuries and mental breakdowns, but again, there are now tried and true strategies for all these concerns. In terms of training, proper periodization should solve most of your physiological concerns. I like to use lighter and more concentric loads during ‘in-season’ training, and heavier more eccentric loads in the ‘off-season.’ It is much more nuanced than that, but a good trainer can get you set up. Mindset and avoiding mental fatigue are a fascinating and fast-growing field that athletes are beginning to take advantage of. A sports psychologist, or even DIY mental performance training, is a great investment. Ever hear a coach say that you can only control what’s within your halo? Yeah, it’s a thing now.
Probably the most important aspect of training frequency is recovery. Sleep is king, and the paradigm has shifted on recovery. Your next training session is only as good as your recovery since your last training session, and this too has evolved. This isn’t an article on sleep but figure out how to optimize yours. He who sleeps the best recovers the best. Keep your space cool and dark, and try not to eat, drink, or use electronics for a few hours before bed. Daytime recovery practices are used frequently now as well. Top tier athletes are using bodywork specialists, cryotherapy, float tanks, IV’s, naps, meditation, and much more to heal up faster. You don’t see therapists telling elite athletes to rest and ice as much anymore after an injury. Athletes are typically moving and exercising again immediately in a way that doesn’t hurt.
Proper nutrition and supplementation are another crucial part in the performance and recovery space. You need to make sure your body has everything it needs to perform its best. Do you have proper hydration and electrolytes? Are your macros and micros optimal? Jot down a detailed food journal and see what’s going on. I bet there is something you could improve on. Maybe you need more creatine or protein or B vitamins to help the recovery process? All these parts play in together to create year round training programming that has allowed the optimal athlete to emerge.
The bottom line is that there is always something to do, and I really like the old centenarian that when asked his secret, groans out with a smile, ‘you stop, you die.’ I agree with him. Get a goal, get a plan, surround yourself with the best specialists you can in all areas from exercise to nutrition, to recovery, to mindset, and figure out how to optimize everything. Rise to your full genetic potential and you will realize how much of a champion you really can be!
We are here to help and if you have any further questions, please don’t hesitate to reach out.