The Secret to Increasing Athletic Performance

Janice Ferguson
July 31, 2023
The Secret to Increasing Athletic Performance

Bandit and d’Iberville Warrior athlete, Gracie Ferguson, has been experimenting with the art of recovery since she was 12 years old.

by, Janice Marie Ferguson

Inexperienced athletes can often make the mistake of believing that training alone is the number one factor in increasing their athletic performance. This is a common folly of the novice athlete. While physical training is a key component in becoming stronger and faster at any physical task, the secret to improvement lies in mastering the art and science of RECOVERY from the actual training.

When you train, you are causing a physical breakdown or change in your muscle fibers and other body tissues and body systems. The ability of your body to adapt to that stimulus and rebuild stronger is what makes you better at any physical task. To help your body adapt to (AKA recover from) the training that you are doing, there are three things you MUST prioritize:

  1. Nutrition
  2. Sleep
  3. Rest from Activity

Failing to prioritize these three components as highly as your actual physical training is setting yourself up for disappointing performances that are well below your expected capabilities.

Eating a balanced diet is essential for improved performance. In fact, it will be almost impossible for an athlete to meet his or her potential if they do not prioritize their nutrition. For the purpose of this article, I also broadly consider taking in enough fluids/proper hydration as part of your “diet.” Later in this article, you will see ideas of some proteins, carbs, and fats that can help you to maximize your nutrition to help you recover from your training. It is also important to note that besides balance in the three macronutrients: protein, fat, carbs, you must also have sufficient quantities of each of those based on your unique metabolism.

Getting AT LEAST 7-8 hours of sleep every night is essential to help your body repair itself. Sleep is how our bodies reset and recover from all the physical and mental stressors in our daily lives.

As mentioned, training (or physical activity) alone is not the magic ingredient that makes you better at physical tasks. You must also take breaks from the activity so your body can recover, reset, and adapt to the training stress. For the purpose of this article, rest can include no activity, massage, stretching or any other body maintenance activity.

These are the effects of not enough rest, poor nutrition and sleep habits while under a rigorous training schedule:

  1. Increase risk of injury
  2. Lackluster performance
  3. Dehydration/heat exhaustion
  4. Increased risk of getting sick (colds, flu, etc.)
  5. Feeling lightheaded, dizzy, fainting.
  6. Moderate to extreme fatigue and low energy

Nutrition Tips:
Every day, you need to get an adequate amount of the three macronutrients: carbohydrates, protein, fat. The average American gets most of their daily calories from unhealthy (poor quality) carbs and fats. All too often, the intake is much higher than necessary. This leads to a lot of preventable diseases for the average person. For an athlete, this leads to all of the effects listed above. To get the most out of your body in terms of peformance, you should eat a good balance of calories from within all three of the macronutrients.

I often find that my athletes, particularly girls and women, are not eating enough food at all, let alone enough from the three micronutrient categories. Most teenagers that I work with are severely limited by their school days (more so a lack of preparation) and only eat a full meal twice a day (lunch from the cafeteria, and then a supper at home—which is often highly processed foods). Then, the rest of the day is spent eating sporadically, and inconsistently, AND with food that is not very healthy: chips, granola bars, cookies, pop tarts, Gatorade, and sodas. All of these things are high sugar and mostly composed of carbohydrates. While I don’t think people have to live without foods they like, it certainly becomes problematic when the majority of their food intake comes from highly processed and sugary foods.

What about Weight Gain?
This is a common question I’m asked when I tell an athlete he or she is not eating enough food. I always tell them if they’re of a relatively normal body weight, and are an active person, with no underlying medical conditions, eating to perform (which often means eating more food) will not lead to fat gain. In fact, if you’re eating the right balance of the macronutrients, and eating to support your activity level, you may even gain some “weight.” But, many times that weight will be in the form of functional muscle. Functional muscle will help make you stronger and faster at everything that you do. It will also help you look more like an athlete. On the other hand, if you are carrying extra body fat, you still need to eat enough quality food. Don’t deprive yourself and go on a low calorie diet to try and lose weight. To see the changes you want, you will need to simply make better food choices.

Either way, normal or overweight, let’s not obsess about the scale!! If you’re active and eat right, everything should fall into place for you—unless you have some sort of imbalance that a doctor would need to diagnose. I see many clients in my gym who feel they are overweight, but according to my InBody body composition scanner, they simply have more dense muscle mass. Their body compositions are actually very healthy, but the scale shows their overall body weight is something they aren’t used to. That’s a whole other topic for another day.

Healthy Eating Tips

  1. As often as possible, avoid high sugar/heavy starch foods: cereals, granola bars, yogurt, Smoothies, candy bars, sodas, pizza, fast food.
  2. Shop the perimeter of the grocery store. Avoid the isles. Eat meat, vegetables, healthy grains/starches, fruits, nuts and seeds.
  3. You must plan and prepare ahead of time. If you don’t have your healthy food ready, it is very tempting to eat the first thing available, which is often a bad food choice—processed foods like Hot Pockets, corn dogs, Pizza Rolls, potato chips, cookies, sugar-y cereals, etc.

Here is a sample daily intake of quality foods. If your meals don’t look similar with variety, you may not be eating enough or you may need to change the quality of the food you are eating:

Protein: Eggs, Bacon or sausage, (limit the bacon or sausage if you are eating fatty foods all day)
Carbohydrate: Oatmeal, Berries
Fat: Tsp of real butter, or ghee, in the oatmeal

Protein: String cheese or grilled chicken tender
Carbohydrate: Apple and Celery Stick, Baby Food Packets
Fat: Almond Butter or Natural Peanut Butter

Protein: Tuna Salad, Chicken Salad, or some kind of low-processed lunch meat and cheese
Carbohydrate: Bread on the Sandwich (whole wheat, Ezekiel, or some other low glycemic bread)
Fat: Mayo or avocado in sandwich or handful of nuts

Snack: (one hour before practice or working out )
Protein: Beef Jerky
Carbohydrate: Rice Cakes or low sugar granola Bar
Fat: Almonds

Post workout:
Protein Shake with carbs (carbs can be anything starchy—banana, rice cake, low-sugar granola)

Protein: Some kind of meat
Carbohydrates: Veggies, Rice, Potatoes, Beans, Healthy Grains
Fat: Butter, Oil Based Dressing, Cheese

Good Food Choices
Protein: Eggs, any meat (chicken, beef, pork, seafood, etc.) that is not processed or battered and deep fried. Dairy products also have protein in them. However, dairy products also contain carbs and fat.

Carbohydrates: Any fresh fruit or vegetable. You should also include some starchy carbs: Sweet Potatoes, white potatoes, rice, oatmeal, wheat bread (Ezekiel bread is better for you), healthy pastas. Watch the quantities on these pastas and starches. Between 25-40 grams of carbs, depending on your unique activity levels and body composition, is about average. For example, the Bear Naked granola I have is 21 grams of carbs for 1/4 cup. And 1/4 cup of granola is not a lot of food. Carbs are very dense calories. And it doesn’t take a whole lot of them.

Fats: Olive Oil, real butter/ghee, avocado, coconut oil, nuts and seeds, nut butters
Note about nuts and nut butters: Don’t overdo it on these foods. Nuts and nut butters have Omega 6 fats. If you eat too much of these omega 6 fats, you get out of balance with your omega 3 fats. The Omega 3 and Omega 6 balance helps you to keep “silent inflammation” in check. Silent inflammation is not good for an athlete. When your body is dealing with inflammation at the cellular level, it is spending too many resources controlling the inflammation rather than taking care of repairing your muscles from training, or keeping your immune system in check. Silent inflammation is also linked to many immune and hormonal disorders: Lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, irritable bowel syndrome, psoriasis, and more.

Many of us my athletes do their training at the hottest part of the day. This means it is imperative that these people drink enough fluid. Not only is it important for your safety to avoid heat exhaustion, but it is also important for your performance. Dehydrated athletes do not perform to their potential. Why? When you aren’t properly hydrated, your blood is thicker. When your blood is thicker, it doesn’t flow as smoothly to your muscles. When your muscles don’t get as much blood, they don’t get as much oxygen. Oxygen is what drives your energy output. So, if you are dehydrated, even just a little bit, you physically cannot will yourself to perform at your maximum output. It becomes physiologically impossible and no amount of previous training or “willpower” can help you to muscle through. Secondly, if you are training each day in a dehydrated state, you simply cannot get the most out of your training. Over time, this will cause you to leave a lot of potential performance gains on the table. A champion is not made in one, two, or three training sessions. It’s squeezing out every ounce of performance day-after-day and training session after training session.

Two extra notes about hydration:

Let’s do what the best athletes in the world do!! Train hard, rest accordingly, eat and drink enough, and sleep well!! But, that’s only a part of the secret. The other half of the secret is that all of these things must be done on a consistent and daily basis. Training for your athletic potential doesn’t stop the minute you leave the training grounds. The best athletes in the world are maximizing their recovery outside of their training all day, every day. This is the part that takes natural ability to elite levels. It’s a chain reaction. The more often you prioritize nutrition, rest, and sleep, the better you can recover. The better you can recover, the harder you can train. The harder you can train, the more adapted you become. The more adapted you become, the better your performance.

Use this secret to your advantage–only then will you realize your true athletic potential!

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