An opportunity to fix your athletic weaknesses: in 2020, we’ve been forced into a situation where a lot of goals, events etc. have been cancelled.
I believe that to be human is to be an athlete. I’ve said this a lot and I will continue to say it to everyone who will listen.
If you have a body, you are an athlete.
Some people may express more of what our society considers athleticism but that doesn’t take away from the amazing machine that is your body.
Whilst some of this article refers to the need to fix your athletic weaknesses in a sport specific sense, most of it is applicable to the everyday human athlete; that’s you.
I’ve read articles in running, cycling and triathlon media where the approach advocated in these times of cancelled events is to schedule some kind of faux race event every 6 weeks or so, in order to maintain motivation.
No doubt, the strength world has similar; I’ve seen at least one virtual powerlifting meet advertised.
I disagree wholeheartedly with this approach.
Instead, I believe that many athletes have been gifted with an opportunity that they would never make for themselves. They have been forced to have a summer season where they cannot do their usual event programme.
This is not dissimilar to what I recommend all amateur athletes do every few years and which the wise ones implement: take a season off to work on your athletic weaknesses.
“Surely that’s what the off-season is for?” you ask.
Unfortunately, most people’s off-season isn’t long enough to work on weaknesses before they need to get back to their event-specific training. To be able to fix your athletic weaknesses, you need to spend a significant period with those as the priority, whilst maintaining your perceived strengths. This takes more than a few weeks of focus.
Right, now that’s out of the way, let’s have a look at some areas in which you might want to fix your athletic weaknesses.
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Potential Areas to Fix Your Athletic Weaknesses
As you might expect, there are several areas you could work on in order to fix your athletic weaknesses.
Some of these are what you would expect. These are the sport-specific areas. They’re where everybody looks when they want to improve. After all, it’s all about performance, is it not?
However, the areas that will make the greatest difference to every athlete, be they sports competitors or everyday athletes, might be considered far more basic in nature. That’s why most people flat-out ignore them.
Here’s my list…
- Health, consisting of...
- Stress Management
- Basic Movement Skills
- Base Cardio
- Sport Specific
I’ve listed these in what I consider to be the priority order but that doesn’t mean that others might not prioritise them differently; as I tell my kids all the time, different is not wrong.
Sports specialisation is by far the least important. How fast you can swim matters not a jot if you have sore shoulders all the time. That swim speed is adding nothing to the quality of your life.
You might have some of these areas under control, others not so much. I’d encourage you to take a very objective look at your own health and fitness. Be honest with yourself. Nobody else is looking, so the only one you get to cheat is yourself.
Those areas where you are currently weakest are the areas you should work on. It’s tempting to go after the low hanging fruit, the items where you’re close, and to leave the big things unattended. That’s human nature. It’s also a lost opportunity.
Let’s have a look at each area in which you might want to fix your athletic weaknesses in a bit more detail.
Health is the most important part of anyone’s life. Regardless of all the money or sport-specific performance you may have, if you don’t have your health, what do you actually have?
Do you want to be that parent or grandparent who is physically broken and can only talk about what they “used to be able to do”? Or would you rather be that great-grandparent who is still able to do stuff with their great-grandkids?The health area contains a few aspects: sleep, nutrition and stress management.
I’ve written a bit about sleep and my Healthy Athlete Course contains a fair bit on sleep too.
Sleep is the most effective physical and mental regeneration tool we humans have. However, because it’s seen as time “doing nothing”, it’s usually the first thing to be sacrificed when we’re under pressure to achieve something or meet a deadline.
Whether you’re a competitive athlete or not, it’s not uncommon for people to sacrifice a little bit of sleep in order to get the training in. This really is a mistake.
Long term restriction of sleep in order to train more results in sleep disorders for a significant number of people. It’s already estimated that one in five people in the US suffer from a sleep disorder.
If you’re not one of these folks, don’t risk developing sleep issues. If you are in this camp, you might need more help but implementing good habits now can make a significant difference towards beating the problem.
[Note: We always pick on my friends in the States with stats because (1) there are just so many of you and (2) stats are so readily available. Usually, much of the rest of the world is not that different.]
The opportunity that we’re presented with due to a raft of cancelled events is that we do not have this pressure to get the training in ahead of a looming deadline. We can take the time to re-establish good sleep patterns.
If you need a few tips to improve your sleep, I wrote this article about sleep habits a few years ago and it’s still as valid now as it was then.
Something I have seen with triathletes for a long time is late swim sessions because these are the only sessions that clubs can book pool time for. Consider carefully, as these open up again, whether these really are the best for your sleep and what alternatives might exist.
Nutrition is another of those things that I write and speak about all the time and it’s a vital area to address early on as you fix your athletic weaknesses.
I’m not alone in believing that nutrition is 90% of the game, it’s one of my athlete success principles and something I obsessively live by myself.
Principle #10 - Nutrition is 90% of the game
You simply cannot out-train a poor diet.
"I train so I can eat what I like." No, you can't.
We’ve been sold several lies in our busy world…
- Cooking is time consuming and difficult
- Nutrition is complicated
- The Food Pyramid/MyPlate Dietary Guidelines are the healthy way to eat
Intentional or not, that’s just what they are: lies.
Here are just a few things you can do to improve your nutrition so that it supports, rather than inhibits, your health and performance. Whilst these may contravene some of the education we’ve all received about healthy nutrition, they’re worth investigation at a deeper level than simply reading national guidelines. I’m confident you’ll find I’m correct (or at least not flat-out wrong) in those areas that are contentious.
Base your nutrition around animal products
Animal products are the most nutritious foods on Planet Earth. They’re also the most environmentally friendly, when you buy them from a local source.
Not only do meat, eggs, fish and dairy contain the most bio-available protein you can eat, they also contain fat for energy in the right proportion to that protein and a host of vital micronutrients, without which we do not thrive. You might not want to do so, but it’s perfectly possible to thrive on a diet that includes no plant matter at all.
In contrast, a wholly plant-based diet is deficient in at least 15 vital nutrients. Even some of those that you can get are not in the form humans need and must be converted by your body. If nothing else, this is an inefficient way to get what you need and probably requires that you eat more calories to get the nutrients you need.
On the calories point, while I am 100% against calorie counting, there is a sense in which energy balance is what determines whether we get fat or not. I’ve come to believe that this is not worth arguing any more, after all, nobody changes their mind because of your well-constructed argument; if you’re on Twitter, you’ll know this all too well.
What is worth arguing, is that energy balance is not under your conscious control anywhere near as much as people like to believe and proclaim. The margin for error is so small as to make it impossible (20kcal a day - Gary Taubes).
Because energy balance is not under our conscious control, the key is not to count calories, but to eat to satiety. Satiety is having eaten enough that you don’t feel hungry for hours afterwards and relies not on calories consumed but on the nutrition you’ve consumed. The most satiating foods on the planet? Animal foods.
Learn to cook
Celebrity chefs are on my hitlist. Not because they don’t make amazing food. Not because they don’t show us how to make those dishes. Not because they don’t write clear cookbooks and recipes. Not even because they tend to make food that contains way too much in the way of sugar, refined grains and even seed oils.
They’re on my hitlist because they make everything look too complicated, they cook for so long, their presentation is often so faffy that average people feel they won’t be able to reproduce that dish and they use a range of appliances that no average person is likely just to have in their kitchen.
Here’s the simple truth about cooking your own food.
- You need ten simple recipes based on animal foods.
- A selection of herbs and spices can transform even the simplest beef mince into something different.
- The need for variety is a myth. Most people eat the same thing all the time even when they claim variety. Food is first about nutrition, not entertainment (No, I have nothing against tasty food, I like to cook).
- You don’t need a huge array of gadgets
In a Cyclist magazine article a few years ago, I was asked what I thought would be the best purchase someone could make to improve their cycling (I don't recall the budget). My recommendation was cooking lessons.
Make a menu and a shopping List (and stick to them)
To fail to prepare is to prepare to fail. Or, to quote my military friends, the 6 Ps “Prior Preparation Prevents P*** Poor Performance.”
Deciding what you are going to eat and when is another area where most people fall down. If you’re going to have quality nutrition, you are going to have to plan. You might have to batch cook lunches so that you don’t find yourself trawling the supermarket or gas station aisles for sandwiches or salads, which contain heaven only knows what.
Set a day when you do your shopping. Make a menu and shopping list the night before. Then go shopping and stick to the list. I never forget what a friend told me, “A bargain is only a bargain if you need it.” If it’s not on the list, you don’t need it.
While many shops are reopening far closer to normal, there are still restrictions on opening hours and the requirement to wear masks, socially distance etc should indicate that we should aim to spend as little time as possible in these places. That makes this a perfect time to get into the habit of shopping once a week and then making do if we forget something.
Learn to read food labels
If you must buy pre-packaged food, it makes sense to read the labels on that food. Try not to eat anything made with sugar, refined grains and especially seed oils. You’ll be surprised how many foods contain ingredients you wouldn’t expect.
- Chilli infused olive oil that was mostly sunflower oil.
- Almost all sausages contain sugar.
- Beef burgers that contain cellulose, sugar and rice flour
As a simple guide, ingredients are meant to be displayed on labels in order of how much of that ingredient is in the food. So, for example, if sugar or seed oils are the first ingredient, definitely run away!
It’s also advisable to limit as much as possible anything that contains chemicals, the names of which you need my daughter’s phonics guide to pronounce!
Get to know your protein needs
Reading labels is also useful as you get to know how much protein you’re getting in your food. I only count the animal protein because many plant sources are not that easily absorbed. People argue with me. That’s OK, I say, you do you.
Arguments persist over how much protein you need and whether protein is detrimental to ketosis (for the keto/low carb folks). The bottom line is that most people do not eat anywhere near enough protein.
There are a few simple guidelines you can follow.
- 0.8g/lb (1.8g/kg) of reference/ideal bodyweight per day is a good minimum
- Aim to get most of your protein from animal products. This is the most bio-available food source.
- Only use supplements if it’s difficult to get your needs (ovo-lacto-vegetarians sometimes struggle to get enough protein for example).
- As you age, protein becomes even more important to maintain muscle mass.
- Even intakes as high as 1.5g/lb (3.3g per kg) have not been found to cause any harm. It’s hard work to eat that much protein, you’d have to be trying.
Consider Low Carb
If there is one thing that takes time and is thus avoided by most athletes because they’re training for an event, it’s the adaptation to being a low carb athlete.
If you’ve ever looked at this and had the correct “don’t do this before a big event” advice, the cancellation of events this summer provides the perfect opportunity to go through the adaptation process without the pressure of needing to be able to train at full volume and intensity.
Not only will you give yourself the chance to race better, it’s a healthier way to live too.
In a stressful world, most of us are looking for ways to reduce stress and exercise can be a part of this.
But when we start training specifically for something, what might have been a great stress release becomes a negative stressor. We often forget that training is a stressor too.
Adding stress to stress only means… more stress.
Humans aren’t designed to live in a fight, flight or freeze state, with the cascade of hormonal effects that come along with it.
Yet, that’s the exact state in which many of us live our entire lives. For some, even going on holiday (I think my US friends call it a vacation) is a cause of stress.
It’s time to look for ways to reduce stress. Consider the following:
- Yoga - the forward bends have a wonderful calming effect on the nervous system, as does the breath control.
- Meditation - just quietly focusing on your breath for a few minutes a day, thinking of nothing else is remarkable for its ability to pervade the rest of the day with a bit of inner peace.
- Walking - as a very basic human activity, walking also has a soothing effect on the nervous system. It’s even better if you’re able to walk barefoot on a beach or in a wooded area.
Modern lifestyles and modern sports tend to force us to spend time in fixed positions and to use limited ranges of motion. With the human body being such an amazing adaptive machine, we tend to adopt those shapes and ranges into our habitual posture.
It’s these adaptations that make us prone to injury. In fact, most people don’t get injured whilst they are doing their sport, they get injured in daily life because of their sport.
What’s more, if unaddressed, mobility and flexibility decline with age. If you started out as a teenager who was unable to touch their toes (that was me), losing mobility isn’t going to end well.
Most of us don’t generally do much about fixing that mobility because “mobility work is boring” and we struggle to see how it’s going to help us perform better.
But that much neglected mobility is vital if we’re to live high quality long lives and be athletic throughout those lives. It would be great to use some of the extra time available now to gain back some of the mobility you might have lost.
You don’t have to do a lot, but as a minimum, you need to pay attention to these areas.
- Hip Flexors
- Quadratus Lumborum
- Thoracic Spine
- Any other area you struggle with
There are some very objective joint angle measurements/tests that a professional can administer to assess your mobility. While that can be useful, you can assess them fairly well for yourself.
As a guide, can you…
- Perform segmental rolling strictly, leading with each of your limbs.
- Perform a deep squat with good form (heels flat on the floor, feet straight head, chest up)? If you can do that, how about with arms overhead?
- Touch your fingertips together in your mid back by reaching one hand over the shoulder and the other hand under?
- Step over a mid-shin high obstacle with one foot, touch the heel to the ground and return to the start position?
- Perform a split squat with your feet on a line, where your back knee touches down directly behind your front foot?
- Rotate to at least 45% when sitting with your legs crossed.
These are some tests you can do, but there are certainly others.
You might not even need tests as such. It might be obvious to you that you have restrictions in your mobility. If you notice these, simply address them.
Mobility Fix Protocol
There isn’t space in this article for a full explanation of the process but a separate article will follow soon. In the meantime, feel free to DM me on Twitter and I’ll do my best to explain it there.
In essence, as explained in my ankle mobility post, I follow this progression when working on mobility for any joint or group of joints.
- Tissue quality
- Joint position
- Learn good positions under load
Test your mobility before trying to make a change and retest afterwards to make sure the intervention works for you. If it does, it’s a keeper. If it doesn’t, try something different.
Basic Movement Skills
Like mobility, human movement skills often become less efficient as we focus our energy into just one area of fitness or, worse still, spend our days sitting in a chair staring at a computer screen.
Our modern lives, strength sports and endurance sports emphasise training mostly in just one plane of movement, the sagittal (basically straight ahead or backwards). The problem is, there are 3 planes of movement and they all need attention.
To work on movement skills, you can incorporate some of the basics like various types of crawling patterns, simple hopping, direction changes and jumping, all of them in different planes of movement.
This doesn’t have to be complicated at all, in fact it’s better if it’s not. A great way to think of basic movement is as play. Watch what kids do and copy some of that stuff. You may feel silly doing it, but your body will thank you for the refresher course in basic human movement.
Just being willing to play is an effortless way to fix your athletic weaknesses. Who said it had to be hard?
This is particularly for the endurance-orientated people. If you like doing chronic cardio activities, there is a good chance that you’re not all that strong.
The good news with lots of cardio is that you’re likely to have lots of mitochondria along with a strong, elastic heart and lungs. The bad news is that strength and muscle mass are directly correlated with longevity and quality of life into old age.
If you’re that elite level amateur endurance athlete who struggles to pick their 6-year-old daughter up off the floor, you’re in for trouble as you get older. This isn’t a sport specific thing, it’s a quality of life thing.
If you’ve never done any focused strength work, now is a great opportunity to put on a bit of muscle and get a bit stronger. You don’t need a particularly fancy programme. In fact, you can see amazing gains with just a simple bodyweight circuit.
Not only will extra muscle mass help you into old age, but it has other benefits too.
In the first place, it will help to injury-proof your body. A good strength programme doesn’t try to make you stronger in your sport specific movements, it makes your body stronger as a human body, ironing out the weaknesses that your sport will have allowed to creep in.
Secondly, having more muscle mass helps with your insulin sensitivity and staves off the creeping metabolic syndrome that so many endurance athletes suffer from as a result of years of sugar abuse.
This is the other side of the sport specific coin. Strength athletes are often loathe to do any cardio because it might “harm their gains”.
What this belief misses is that better cardio conditioning means better recovery and increased work capacity in your lifting sessions.
Lifting weights does have cardiac effects, some of them positive. However, lots of heavy lifting can result in concentric ventricular hypertrophy, where the muscle wall of the left ventricle thickens, the chamber size decreases and the heart essentially becomes less elastic over time.
Low intensity steady state cardiovascular training doesn’t suffer from this and is, in fact, great for building an efficient, elastic heart.
You don’t need hours of running or to train for a marathon to get a great benefit, but time spent on low intensity cyclical cardio will result in benefits for your sport, but also for your overall health.
With heart disease still being a major killer, along with hypertension, stroke and type 2 diabetes, the risk factors for all of which respond positively to increased cardiovascular fitness, this is worth the small time-investment.
Something like the MAF workout, performed 3 times a week for between 20 and 30 minutes is plenty to put in place a good basic cardio fitness level. If you’re really deconditioned, this might be as simple as regular walking.
Sport Specific Aspects
Sport specific training is where most people’s minds go when you talk about wanting to fix your athletic weaknesses. Whilst not top of my list, it’s a valid place to look.
If you have a part of your game that needs work, spend some focused time on that area, which you might not ordinarily spend.
This could be your swimming if you’re a triathlete, your serve if you’re a tennis player or your sprinting ability if you’re a road racing cyclist. It might be something fairly small, but it might also be quite a big thing that takes a lot of focus.
A top tip here are to find a coach who can help you to pinpoint the best way to work on that technique or physiological weakness. Often, we think we know what we’re doing and what we need to do to fix it, but we can be wrong and there is nothing like getting the help of an experienced, objective eye.
Don’t Neglect Your Strengths
“An unguarded strength is a double weakness.” - Oswald Chambers
Someone told me this years ago and I ignored them.
I spent a winter improving my cycling significantly. Lots of time in the gym, building bigger legs and lots of time on the road, putting in the miles. I did very little running because I was already a good runner.
Come the spring, I entered an early-season triathlon race, confident that I’d be nearer the front of the field at the end of the bike leg than I had been in previous years so that I could unleash my running (and win).
I was second out of the swim, level with the leader after the bike (with someone who I knew I could easily outrun) and somewhere around 20th at the end of the race!
What went wrong? It’s simple really: I had been so confident in my running ability that I’d neglected it to the point that it became a weakness. My legs had got so big and so unaccustomed to impact that running that 5k fast was almost impossible.
Sometimes, that kind of disappointment is the best lesson. I’ve never forgotten it.
It’s for this reason that you need a longer period away from focused event training if you want to fix your athletic weaknesses. The extra time allows you to place more emphasis on the weakness, without sacrificing areas that are already strong.
In 2020, we’ve been gifted with this opportunity.
A lot of what is happening around us isn’t great and the longer-term implications for the sports, challenges and activities that we love are unknown at this point.
Understanding that the sports we choose predispose us to developing weaknesses in some basic areas or that we may have weaknesses within our sports themselves means that we can use this opportunity to be more complete human athletes.
I wrote extensively about athletic readiness and setting basic physical standards for yourself.
The problem with the concept is that it’s difficult to set and work towards these standards while you’re still specifically training for a sport. What you have now is an opportunity to work on these for yourself.
Perhaps, just perhaps, the experience will help more athletes to see that stepping away from specialised training every few years is a worthwhile exercise to fix your athletic weaknesses, not a case of missing out on a much loved sport.