Beyond natural physical abilities, what makes skilled athletes so impressive is their commitment to their outdoor sports, their training and their own overall health. To get some insights about preparing like a pro, we checked in with three MEC Ambassadors for their top tips on how to focus, compete and recover. Whether you’re a skier, a trail runner, a climber, a cyclist or any active person who aims to improve, these six habits will help you to train more effectively and meet your goals.
1. Good sleep is critical
Sleep is crucial to training in so many ways: your body needs it to help build and maintain muscle and ward off injury and sickness, and your mind needs it to perform and stay focused. But good sleep habits (how often, how well and how much you’re sleeping) can require a lot of discipline, especially if you have a rigorous training schedule or do a lot of travelling.
Roz Groenewoud, a freestyle skier who represented Canada at the 2014 Winter Olympics, makes sure to take simple steps to keep her sleep schedule on track, even when she’s on the road:
“I travel with my own pillow in a cozy flannel pillowcase. It helps make any bed feel comfortable, keeps my neck in a good position during sleep and adds a bit of homey comfort to my travels.”
2. Train your brain
Psychological training is important for any sport, particularly those that require endurance or a high level of risk. This can mean visualizing a perfect race before you start or simply learning how to talk yourself through a particularly tough section.
“The longer you run the more likely you’ll fall into what I call ‘the black hole.’ It’s where your negative thoughts and self doubt can consume you. It’s important to have a way to deal with it and pull yourself out, [whether it’s] repeating a mantra, trying a self pep talk or singing a motivational song off-key.”
And while making time for physical recovery seems obvious, it’s important that you prioritize emotional and psychological recovery, too. After a big race or event, athletes should take the time to adjust and reflect. Reaching a goal can come with a huge high, but it also forces some athletes to ask “Now what?” Some runners, for instance, experience post-marathon blues after finishing a race. Take the time to set new goals and focus on areas of your life that you may have neglected during training – it’s an important step for recovery.
3. Don’t overtrain
Top athletes know that you can have too much of a good thing when it comes to training. Working too hard without enough recovery can lead to injuries that could throw off your progress for a month or more. If you’re intentional about your training and set clear and attainable goals, you won’t need to worry about spending all your waking time at the gym, the track or wherever you’re practicing.
Jim, like many other trainers, stresses that it’s important to find a healthy balance. “Running is obviously a high impact activity. Finding the [right training] balance, and then tapering leading up to an event, can be tough.” He also notes:
“There’s not a one-size-fits-all training plan, and I’d rather go into something slightly undertrained than overtrained.”
4. Know the tools of your trade
As any activity grows and progresses in the world, so does the gear and science that accompanies it. These days, advanced tech can help people take their sports to new heights. There are apps and watches that help you measure and track your outputs, and any of the gear you use – like running shoes, skis or bikes – is getting more and more specialized. Gear can help with your performance, but you can also use it to find ways to help you progress in training.
For example, Allan Prazsky, a former competitive cyclist who now coaches grassroots racers, acknowledges just how much training has changed with new technology for riding. “Gone are the days of riding by feel,” says Allan. He notes that:
“Today’s must-have piece of equipment for cycling is a power meter. At the end of the day, there is a quantitative number that tells you exactly how much power you produce. There is no hiding.”
5. Get in the zone
Whether it’s playing a song that amps them up or simply following a routine that puts them at ease, experienced athletes know the things that will help them perform their best. Figure out what helps you get into your zone. For Georgia Astle, a competitive mountain biker from Whistler, BC, it’s sticking to a schedule:
“When I prepare for downhill and enduro races, especially in new places, I need to follow a routine. Keep kits clean, lay out clothes, get up, shower, stretch, picture the track and get my lines dialled in practice.”
“It’s important to keep stress levels low and to allow your mind and body to perform at it’s best on race day,” says Georgia.
6. Know when and how to fuel up
Your fueling strategy will likely vary depending on what you’re doing, but successful athletes will tell you that they’re never without a snack on hand. Roz loads up on energy bars before she leaves for training camps, and also travels with almond butter and protein powder.
You never want to be running on empty when working out or training, but it’s just as important to know what fuel your body needs to recover after you’ve given it your all. Allen advises getting in some carbs after an intense session.
“Immediately following a hard workout, the body can work up to three times its normal rate to replenish lost fuel, essentially becoming a sponge to replace glycogen stores. The faster these stores are topped up, the quicker recovery takes place.”