Modern day life by its very nature is full of stress. We seem to spend more time engaging in work related activities to the detriment or personal and family time. In a sporting context the demands placed on elite athletes means that their lifestyle can be particularly chaotic and stressful. The variety of stresses that our leading athletes are exposed to in their daily lives necessitates that in order to perform consistently at the highest level they need to have a high degree of self-discipline, good time management and above all a healthy and balanced lifestyle. According to former Olympic Champion and head of the 2012 London Olympic Games, and President of the IAAF Lord Sebastian Coe, “Great athletes are a complex mix of genetics, environment, an indomitable will to win and often a sacrificial lifestyle.”
A serious athlete may train for up to 4 hours a day, or in some cases longer. However, it is what they do in the remaining 20 hours of the day which may ultimately impact on their performance. This is best illustrated by the concept of a floating ice berg. The small visible piece sitting above the water represents training whilst the large invisible mass beneath the sea represents lifestyle. We all know which piece of the ice berg sank the Titanic and it is the same for an athlete. Without the safety net of a balanced and healthy lifestyle an athletes training will ultimately suffer and in the long run may lead to fatigue, underperformance and increased likelihood of illness and injury.
The core principles and importance of adopting good lifestyle practices not only apply to our sporting role models but also the wider population. If you do not engage in healthy practices and have a balanced approach to everyday activities such as work, study, exercise, sleep and nutrition, and offset these with appropriate periods of rest and relaxation then not only will your general health be compromised but you will not perform at your best. Therefore lifestyle needs to be balanced and managed.
A large body of research has been published investigating the negative effects of sleep deprivation on physiological and cognitive function in groups such as shift workers long haul travellers and the military. From an athlete’s standpoint, sleep also plays an important role in the body’s natural repair and regeneration after training and competition and should therefore be taken seriously – think of sleep as your natural ergogenic aid! In terms of how much sleep you need, there appears to be large individual variation but it is generally recommended that you should ideally aim for between 7-9 hours per night. However the quality of sleep is probably more important than the duration, with the first 3-4 hours being particularly important as this is where you gain most of your recuperative slow wave (deep) sleep. Athletes generally sleep more deeply and for longer which probably reflects the stresses placed on the body from training. Training needs to be balanced by appropriate periods of rest and sleep otherwise the positive effects of regular exercise will not be fully realised.
Regular moderate intensity exercise has been shown to have a positive effect on the body’s immune function. In contrast athletes engaging in strenuous exercise may have a lowered immune status and as a result can be more susceptible to illness and infection. Athletes therefore need to self-monitor and be aware of when they are feeling run down and susceptible to illness and infection. Personal hygiene his critical to promoting good health and simple measure like properly washing your hand have been shown to have a dramatic impact on reducing the risk of illness and infection in athletic populations. A common question that is asked is should you train when you have a cold. As a rule of thumb so long as the symptoms are above the neck and you are not running a fever then it is probably alright to continue to exercise but the session should be modified accordingly. In contrast training through an infection may prolong the duration and increase the severity of the illness which may require an extended lay-off from training
For anyone engaging in regular training good nutritional practices is one of the central pillars of a healthy lifestyle. Carbohydrate is the fuel of choice during most forms of exercise. Unfortunately the body only has limited stores of carbohydrate which must be replenished on a regular basis. Unless the body is fuelled properly, both before, during and after exercise, it will not function optimally. It’s a bit like a finely tuned grand prix racing car – if you put diesel into it, it will splutter and eventually grind to a halt!
Balance is Key
A balanced approach to lifestyle is the cornerstone of athletic performance in the same way as it is the foundation of healthy living. Athletes work hard during training but they also need to strive to achieve and maintain good lifestyle practices. This requires dedication, commitment and planning with the athlete taking responsibility for the process with the support of the coach and other members of their support team.
Giles Warrington is a Senior Lecturer in Sport and Exercise Physiology here at the University of Limerick. View Giles’s Profile here!
Giles’s Email: firstname.lastname@example.org