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Principles for Athletic Performance

Four years after leaving CMU a school record holder and captain of the track team, I’m faster and stronger than ever! With a few years of self-coaching and more than a decade competing in track meets, I’ve learned a lot about what works and doesn’t for me as an athlete. This post sets down some high-level athletic principles I abide by. They apply no matter what sport you play or what goals you have. First, of course, you have to have a goal!

Set good goals

It’s not enough to set goals - most goals are awful. For example, take the common goal “I want to get in shape”. That statement is subjective: there’s no accepted definition for what “in shape” means. And without a time horizon, it’s easy to move the goalposts - it’s technically always achievable. Getting “in shape” could range from “lost a pound” to “lost 50 and got my body fat under 15%”, or from “improved my mile time by one second over 5 years of training” to “ran a marathon in under 3 hours”. A goal like that doesn’t give the goal-setter anything specific to aim for.

Good goals are 1) specific and 2) achievable. Goals should be specific in both desired result and time. Specific goals give you a well-defined finish line - you’ve either succeeded or you’ve failed. If you integrate this feedback, it can help you adjust your training plans and future goals. Moreover, setting multiple checkpoint goals on the way to your end goal will help keep you on track.

Goals also need to be achievable. We all know the saying “shoot for the moon”. I think that’s bad advice. If you’re always attempting 99.9th percentile outcomes, you’re only going to achieve your goal 0.1% of the time. Even if through intense training and focus you manage to improve your odds by a full 10x, you still only have a 1% shot of attaining your goal. That’s not good for your psyche! Instead, I set goals around my estimated 90th percentile outcome. These goals are challenging enough to act as a forcing function on my behavior while remaining realistic enough that with hard work and a sprinkle of good fortune I can achieve most of them.

Example goals

  • “I want to get faster”
    • This goal isn’t specific - a better goal might be “I will run under 10.9 FAT in the 100m by the end of 2021”.
  • “I’m going to win World’s Strongest Man this year”
    • Unless you’re already a world-class competitor (why are you reading my blog then?), this isn’t achievable. Maybe try a local competition first?

It’s a marathon, not a sprint

Ironic, coming from a sprinter.

Without a coach to keep me in check, I tend to overtrain. One more set, one more rep, why not give it 100% every workout? Because track seasons are long - careers are even longer. The most successful athletes, in any discipline, are those who are able to consistently train year over year, building on their existing fitness. Athletes who overtrain end burnt out or injured - which forces them to spend time rehabilitating their base instead of improving it.

Overtraining has permanent consequences. I’ve learned this lesson many times over and I have the battle scars to show for it: nasty lumps of scar tissue in my hamstrings, persistent tendonitis in my knees, a shoulder that can dislocate putting on a jacket… the list goes on. These days, I train less than I ever did in college. I stay focused on the long-term - as long as I’m working sustainably, I have many reps, many workouts, many seasons ahead of me.

24/7

This comes straight from my head coach at CMU, Coach Aldrich. Coach A always emphasized that there are 24 hours in a day, and you only spend two, maybe three at most, of them working out. No matter how hard you work in those few hours, you still have more than 20 hours every day to make your own choices: do I sleep on time? Do I eat the brownie or the protein shake? Do I party and drink on Fridays? Are you willing to do what it takes to be the best athlete you can be? Actions speak louder than words - your answers to these questions illuminate your real priorities.

Three important daily factors:

  • Eat right: Diet can make or break an athlete. The food you eat directly impacts your short and long-term performance. What you eat will depend on your sport - as a sprinter, I prioritize protein first, then carbs and fat about equally. To keep my weight and body composition in check, instead of counting calories, I weigh myself daily and take ~biannual DEXA scans. It’s also important to stay hydrated. I’ve gotten into the habit of bringing a water bottle with me everywhere. Drink even when you’re not thirsty - by the time your throat is dry you’re already quite dehydrated.
  • Drink water, not alcohol: Of course, a single drink now and then probably doesn’t hurt. That said, there’s lots of research detailing exactly how drinking affects athletic performance (hint: it’s really bad).
  • Recover: Spend at least 9 hours in bed every day. If you want, buy a sleep tracker (I have a WHOOP). Do the little things that help you recover for the next day: stretch, ice/contrast bath, nap, foam roll, do yoga, get a massage, whatever works for you. Remove stressors from your daily life; chronic stress negatively affects both your physical and mental health.

Learn

Now that I write my own workouts, I’ve become obsessed with the art and science of track coaching. There’s a wealth of information freely available on the Internet - I can’t fit every resource I’ve found in this post, but I particularly love Simplifaster’s blog, r/sprinting, Mike Young, and Tony Holler. They’ve been invaluable to me as I keep learning about the many different philosophies to train athletes at any level.

Each workout also provides signal into how your body is responding - be sure to amplify that signal. Maybe you respond really well to short speed work and Bulgarian split squats - or maybe trap bar deadlifts fatigue your CNS too much to meaningfully incorporate them into your weightroom sessions. Either way, each and every workout is a learning opportunity.

Love what you do

I was recruited to run at CMU - but I quit the team after freshman fall training. I didn’t really gel with the team, I was out of shape, and I just wasn’t having fun. I didn’t think about track for another 18 months. It wasn’t until I became a buggy pusher the next spring that I recaptured my love for competition. Thankfully Coach Aldrich let me back on the team the next fall, and I went on to set a school record in the 60m in my first race as a Tartan. Without passion for their sport, how can anyone put in the sweat and tears required to become a successful athlete?

These five principles have guided me through the past years as a self-coached athlete. As I turn 26, I’m faster, stronger, and healthier than I’ve ever been. I still have a long athletic career ahead of me, and I’m excited to see how far I can push myself!

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