I was reading an article recently about the amazing lengths that Tour de France competitor Team Sky went to in order to prepare its riders for what is undoubtedly one of the most arduous challenges in all sports.
Sports science plays a key role in how the team approaches nutrition, fitness and equipment. Sky is the only Tour de France competitor to have appointed a dedicated Head of Apparel to the team. According to his calculations each cyclist’s clothes can hold up to 1 kilo of water (rain or sweat) and he has worked to produce clothing that can limit this effect. As a result riders have a choice of two different gloves and helmet to wear, with one of the helmets giving them an advantage of 1 second per kilometre due to its ‘closed vent’ design.
Nutrition is not left to chance either and the team has its own chef, providing each rider with a customised nutrition plan. Hotel food is absolutely not on the menu and the team controls each morsel of food which passes the riders’ lips. Hotel beds are also not required – they bring their own, along with pillows duvets and sheets. That means the riders get to curl up every night in their own bed, even if it is not in their own bedroom.
Team Sky’s goal here is obviously to get an edge over their competition. At this level of racing all the riders are insanely talented and train as hard as possible. It’s the little things that separate the guys at the very top of the food chain.
Down at the level of the weekend warrior, there is very little need to focus on such tiny performance details. Nonetheless, sometimes we can get caught up in the latest equipment, nutrition and even technological advances, which can often lead to a paralysis by analysis scenario.
I heard that x powerlifter or y strongman is doing the latest Russian squat routine – do I need to be doing that too? Am I taking enough creatine every day, or should I add some BCAAs to my post workout shake? Should I go for a 40/30/30 macronutrient (carbohydrate/protein/fat) in my diet, or would I benefit more from 20/40/40? I definitely need a heart rate monitor because I have to make sure I am working at 70%, not 65% of my max heart rate.
The above is all minutae. If you are a top level athlete then maybe you need to look at those things. If you have reached all your goals then maybe you need to delve more into the little things. However, for most of us worrying about tiny details usually means we forget the big picture and the basic building blocks for success.
If you have all the below issues in place and are progressing as planned, then you can start worrying about the details. Otherwise, focus on the basics, be consistent, train hard and you will reach your goals.
This is one of the biggies that most people completely ignore. The key here is both quantity and quality How much is enough? According to T.S. Wiley, the author of “Lights Out! Sleep, Sugar and Survival”, 9.5 hours per night. Now that might be a bit difficult in terms of fitting in other commitments like family and work. Paleo diet guru Robb Wolff has a nice saying here, which goes something like “get as much sleep as possible, without getting fired or divorced”.
Sleep quality is also very important. Ideally, your bedroom should be completely pitch black. That means no light from outside and no digitial alarm clocks or mobile phones with bright screens in the room.
The idea of increasing sleep is in line with evolutionary biology and our ancestors whose sleep patterns followed the rising and setting sun. According to Wiley, increased sleep can help weight loss, curb carbohydrate cravings, eradicate depression, lower blood pressure and stress levels, reverse type II diabetes, minimise risk of heart disease and help prevent cancer. Not bad for an investment of 9.5 hours per day (and yes, naps also count).
There is no doubt that lack of sleep will derail efforts in the gym, particularly with regards to fat loss goals.
Nutrition is definitely a huge subject, and a quick surf around the web will reveal hundreds of phliosophies and plans, all of which are touted as the best for optimal health and physical performance.
Personally, I like to keep things as simple as possible. Eat real food. Anything which has four legs, swims in the sea or river and grows out of the ground is fair game. Anything which has more than 1 major ingredient, or anything that you either cannot pronounce or have no idea what it is (think things like monocalcium phosphate or polysorbate 60) is not.
Once again, consistency is the key. If you consistently eat processed foods and junk, your results in the gym will be compromised. As with sleep, fat loss in particular will be completely derailed by a bad diet. If you must have some comfort food, limit it to once per twice per week.
Stress can be a seriously limiting factor when trying to achive any body composition or performance goals. Stress leads to the secretion of cortisol in the body from the adrenal glands. Cortisol is also known as the “fight or flight” hormone which kicks in when you are faced with stressful situations.
Chronic stress, however, means the adrenal glands work overtime in producing cortisol. Among other problems, high levels of cortisol can lead to:
- Decreased bone density
- Decrease in muscle tissue
- Higher blood pressure
- Increased abdominal fat
Exercise can also be a stressor on the body and too much exercise or workouts that can last too long can also lead to elevated cortisol levels.
Reducing stress of course is no easy feat, especially in today’s modern world of mobile phones, internet and around the clock communication. Some interesting research recently from Brigham Young University reviewed 148 studies that tracked the social habits of more than 300,000 people. The findings were that those with strong social networks of friends and family had a 50% lower risk of dying than those with less social ties. They went so far as to suggest that having few social ties could be as harmful to health as smoking a packet of cigarettes a day or being an alcoholic.
You might not be able to avoid the everyday stresses of the work place or an idiot boss, but spend your time with family and a cool group of friends and this can go a long way to allieviating those cortisol levels.
This is an absolute basic part of both body composition and fitness. If you don’t have any goals, you will never get anywhere. Likewise, if you don’t record your weights, times etc, you will never know if you are getting better.
Going into the gym and deciding on the spur of the moment to poodle around on a few machines with a few bicep curls and some cardio thrown in is not training, it’s wasting time. Every time you go into the gym you should know exactly what you want to achieve.
Having goals means getting specific. I want to get strong, or I want to lose weight is not a goal. I want to squat 150kgs or I want to lose 8cm off my waist is a goal. Again, that is where the measurement comes in. Is your squat increasing with every session, is your waist size decreasing? If yes, great, if not maybe it is time to assess your program or take an honest look and see if you properly followed your plan for the week.
There is an argument to be made that for those who just want to “get in shape” or sweat a bit, there is no need to worry about goals. Nonetheless I would always recommend that people set goals as it makes training much more fun and rewarding.
This is of course a no-brainer, but a lot of people get it wrong. Join a decent gym, have a smart, well thought out program and stick with it! It’s easy to fall into the trap of jumping from program to program and not really achieving anything, I’ve certainly been there.
If you can, find a decent trainer, a bunch of friends who want to train with you, or failing that, go ask the strongest, fittest guy in your gym for advice.
So there you have it. Remember that you are not a pro cyclist or athlete of any kind so leave the advanced protocols for them. Keep it simple, consistent and measurable and there is no reason why you can’t achieve your goals.