Adhering to a solid nutrition plan, training hard, and getting consistent sleep are the fundamental pillars to success in any sport. Executing on these fundamental pillars plus your sport-specific skills will most likely propel you to becoming a good athlete.
However, leaping from good to great and ultimately separating yourself from other athletes is a game of inches. The small and often overlooked intangibles separate the elite from the above average.
For athletes looking for the tiniest advantage, here are three simple things you can do to boost your performance.
Pay Attention to Your Breath
When it comes to improving your endurance, VO2 max, energy levels, mental focus, body composition, and fatigue—few athletes immediately think of their breathing patterns.
If you’re like me, you most likely don’t notice the intricacies of your breathing throughout the day. But learning to breathe correctly, specifically more through your nose and less through your mouth, can serve as a powerful performance booster in every athletic category.
A 2011 study appearing in the Brazilian Journal of Otorhinolaryngology concluded that “mouth breathing children had cervical spine postural changes and decreased muscle strength than nasal breathing.”
When you have less-than-ideal posture, this can reduce your lung capacity by a much as 30 percent, according to the late Dr. Rene Cailliet. Moreover, as we continue onward, reduced lung capacity equates to less oxygen reaching various body tissues, which can affect both your mental and physical performance.
For example, distance runners and swimmers will pay attention to their running economy. In simpler terms, the better your body can use oxygen efficiently and effectively, the less energy you’ll need to expend to run and swim at your pace, which will equate to a higher running economy.
Limiting your breathing frequency (i.e., taking fewer breaths) improved the running economy in a group of swimmers compared to those who took in more breaths, according to a study appearing in the 2013 issue inside the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science In Sports.
Lastly, suboptimal breathing patterns may also contribute to musculoskeletal pain and motor control, according to this study appearing in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy.
In a perfect world, we would be able to switch to nasal breathing during our activities immediately. But unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. One thing that helped me, which can help you, is to leverage the Body Oxygen Level Test (BOLT). I first came across this after reading The Oxygen Advantage by Patrick McKeown.
For more information on how to do this, you can check out the instructions here.
During your games isn’t the ideal time to focus on your breathing techniques. Instead, focus on your breathing techniques throughout the day, and practice during your warm-up and afterward for recovery purposes.
Focus on Quality Sleep
It’s no secret that sleep is essential. After all, insufficient sleep will compromise your athletic performance, recovery, metabolism, pain and fatigue perception, immunity, and mental focus.
Therefore you’ve probably been told to get your 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night. While the quantity of sleep is important, focusing on the quality of your sleep, specifically your deep and REM sleep, is paramount.
Getting optimal deep sleep (also known as slow-wave sleep) will help rebuild and grow your muscle tissue, along with helping you recover from your games. During REM sleep, you’ll consolidate and retain the skills and various amounts of information acquired throughout the day.
How much should you get of each?
It varies due to factors such as genetics and many other things that make up our bio-individuality. However, 22 to 26 percent is average for REM sleep for a general range, while 17 to 20 percent is average for deep sleep.
A great way to keep up with this is to leverage today’s various wearables, such as FitBit, Whoop, Garmin, BioStrap, and many other brands. Lastly, there isn’t a one size fits all strategy for improving sleep. But here are a few key practices that could help:
- Establish a cutoff time for caffeine
- Make your room as dark as possible
- Wake up and fall asleep around the same time
- Establish a screen cutoff time
- Set your room temperature at or around 68 degrees
- Have your last meal a few hours before bed
Long before you receive the college scholarship, hoist the trophy, or achieve anything else remarkable—it was created in mind.
A prime example of this is a Nike ad years ago featuring a nine-year-old Serena Williams receiving instructions from her father along with him telling her that she’s at the U.S. Open. Athletic success at the highest level requires dedicated and rigorous training, but it also requires a dedicated approach to the mental side of things.
Dr. Charles Garfield discussed a popular study that put visualization on the map in the book: Peak Performance: Mental Training Techniques of the World’s Greatest Athletes. In the book, four groups of Soviet athlete’s training regimens were studied.
The training regimens were:
- Group 1 – 100 percent physical training
- Group 2 – 75 percent physical training, 25 percent mental training
- Group 3 – 50 percent physical training, 50 percent mental training
- Group 4 – 25 percent physical training, 75 percent mental training
Just as nine-year-old Serena was able to craft the exact image of her movements and achieve her desired result, participants in group four ended up with the fastest improvements.
Set aside ten minutes (or even less if that’s too much) and start mentally crafting your desired outcome in detail.