So you’ve signed up for your first Spartan race, you got yourself a training program and you’ve succeeded in staying on top of it. That’s awesome! But what if I told you your training is just one piece of a larger more complex puzzle to achieving success? What else should you be doing to optimize your performance and make sure all your hard work is not in vain? Check out my 5 top tips for your best performance yet.
1. Eat more
Yes, you heard me right. Eat more! Whether you’re doing the Sprint, Super or Beast event, chances are you’re training hard to prepare for the ultimate challenge your body has faced in obstacles and endurance. So be smart! Make sure you are adequately fueling your body before, during and after training. Of course this doesn’t just give you a free reign to stuff your face indiscriminately, you want to make sure that you are eating more of the right stuff in the right amount. Quantity and quality of food should be finely balanced. Simply eating ‘healthy’ foods but not eating enough calories for your body’s requirements will not get you the results you want and will not actually improve your overall health.
Nor can you get away with a poor selection of food. I’m sure you’re familiar with the phrase “you can’t out-train a bad diet”. Well let me put it another way for you. You can exercise until you’re blue in the face (or red if you’re like me) but if you don’t fuel your body with the nutrients it needs then you won’t be adding any value to your performance. Check with a nutritionist or personal trainer that you’re getting sufficient calories for your goal weight and then make sure your macronutrients – those are your carbohydrates, proteins and fats – are appropriately balanced. As a simple rule of thumb an ideal breakdown is 40-30-30 percent of your total calories respectively.
I know this one sounds obvious and you’re probably thinking “I already drink plenty of fluids!” but research suggests that up to 75% of Americans may be suffering from chronic dehydration. I am usually staggered by how little water people consume so when you start taking caffeine, alcohol, exercise and climate in to consideration then it’s not surprising that a large proportion of the population 8 glasses a day is most likely not enough. Why is staying hydrated so important? In addition to flushing and cleansing the body, water regulates your body temperature, transports vitamins, minerals and hormones, and lubricates joints, eyes and your digestive system. The bottom line, proper hydration is essential for every function your body performs, if you are even slightly dehydrated you will function less efficiently. Water is to humans what oil is to engines. Did you know that you can live for 30 days or more without food but that you would die in 3-5 days without water?!
Here are just a few ways in which you could be limiting your athletic potential if you are dehydrated:
If you’re dehydrated, you use glycogen at a much faster rate. These stores are the primary source of fuel for short bursts of activity – like jumping through fire, climbing a rope or doing burpees, you know, Spartan-type activity. Staying adequately hydrated means your energy stores are being spent wisely.
Diminished muscle contraction & recruitment
Your muscles are controlled by a complex network of motor neurons that carry signals from the brain to a motor unit to create muscular contraction. Dehydration can slow this process down hindering your ability to recruit your muscles to their full ability meaning your strength, speed, power and balance can all be limited.
Blood volume reduction
Without enough water your blood becomes viscous and does not flow as easily to the heart resulting in diminished cardiac output and early onset of fatigue. Adding to muscular fatigue, the effectiveness of nutrient delivery could also be reduced. This could go on to affect your recovery.
So how much water should you be drinking? According to the Institute of Medicine Food and Nutrition Board, most adult men and women need somewhere between 64 and 128 ounces a day. To ensure you’re meeting your minimum daily water needs, take your bodyweight in pounds and divide in half. For every 30 minutes that you work out add 12 ounces to your daily total.
3. Practice your race day diet
Never consume new foods or drinks on the day of your race or the day before. All experimenting should be done well in advance to avoid any issues on the day. You can find information on what will be provided along the course here but as a general rule you will want to bring your own provisions including a camelback if you’re doing anything longer than the Sprint. For the Sprint your main focus will be meals before the race and after as it’s unlikely you will need to consume additional calories during the race. Everyone’s different though so make sure you test your body sufficiently in advance and carry something with you just in case.
Recovery is vital to your progress and performance. Your body cannot repair itself and grow stronger if it is not getting the recovery it needs. Recovery does not mean do nothing. It is multifaceted as different systems need to recover in different ways. These include hormonal, neurological and structural systems (muscles, tendons, ligaments, and bones). Here are some specific areas of recovery that you should pay close attention to.
Why do you think babies sleep so much? Sleep is vital for our recovery and growth. I used to be guilty of falling short on sleep, particularly because I had to get most of my training done in the mornings before going to work. I was constantly exhausted & it got to the point where getting out of bed to train was a real struggle. Now I try to ensure I get 8 hours every night, my sleep is sacred and I look and feel so much better for it! So how much is enough? Typically, somewhere between 7-10 hours but it really depends on the individual. I have found that 7 hours is not enough for my lifestyle and activity level. Research also suggests that hours slept before midnight are more effective than hours slept after. A great excuse to get off to bed early!
Yoga is a great form of active recovery. Yoga helps to release your muscles and joints, it increases your flexibility and restores the balance of your parasympathetic system – the system responsible for your ‘rest and digest’ mode. If you’re new to yoga I would recommend you practice at a studio where you can get appropriate direction and assistance from an instructor. For more passive yoga that you can do at home give ROMWOD a try.
Take a rest day
Either taking a rest day or doing some light active recovery like low intensity running, swimming or biking is extremely important. Exercise acts as a short-term stressor on the body. On a physical level It causes muscle fibers to tear, they then repair and grow back stronger. Too much exercise or exercise without enough rest can lead to overtraining causing stress and excess cortisol levels.
Fuel your body before and after exercise.
A common misconception is that your body will burn more stored fat if you don’t eat prior to exercise. This is not true. Your body is like a wood burning fire, and in order to burn it needs fuel in the form of carbohydrates. If you have not eaten within 1-2 hours prior to exercising, you will not burn the fat you want to and you will also not have sufficient energy to exercise at intensities that produce the most significant results. Your body needs glucose to convert fat to fuel. If you deprive it of that it looks for ways to create glucose. How does it do that? It takes protein from your lean muscle mass and converts it into glucose. The exact opposite of what you want your body to do! For the same reasons it is important to eat following exercise. For women especially it’s a good time to take on protein to help your muscles repair.
5. Reduce Alcohol Consumption
I know for some of you this is a big ask but saying no to a night out can make a dramatic difference to your recovery and performance. Alcohol is a diuretic so drinking too much can lead to dehydration, the effects of which we’ve already covered. According to InsideTracker alcohol can also have the following effects:
- impairs muscle growth
- prevents muscle recovery
- depletes your energy/endurance
- increases fat storage & adds calories to your diet
Abstaining from drinking leading up to the race doesn’t mean you have to become a social hermit crab. Encourage a friend to join you for moral support and incentivize each other with a friendly wager. Try drinking soda water with a slice of lime when you’re out to avoid feeling self-conscious, no one will know you’re not drinking!
These are just some habits that are central to my well-being and growth as an athlete and person. Start incorporating these tips into your training regime and you will be well on your way to looking, feeling and competing like a Spartan!