To be clear these aren’t ‘fake’ strategies that the majority of athletes use as a crutch to make up for their poor lifestyle. I’m never going to recommend chronic use of potent stimulants which may give the impression of being fresh and alert but can have severe negative effects in the medium term. The same goes for painkiller use. That isn’t to say that I haven’t used these crutches myself in the past, I certainly have, however I am now confident in this list of strategies to get me in the right place to perform without compromising my ability to repeat the performance the following week.
In no particular order:
Contrast Therapy – This is just a fancy way of describing the use of temperature extremes. Most athletes nowadays will be grumpily familiar with ice baths and will begrudgingly admit to the benefits of this recovery tactic. Contrast therapy takes this a step further. The technique I’ve been using involves an 11min hot bath, it should be hot enough to make you a bit sweaty and uncomfortable. I throw some magnesium salts in to this as well. After that you jump straight into an ice cold shower for 4mins. This is initially incredibly refreshing but quickly turns miserable, bear with it! I find that this technique gives my nervous system a boost making me feel fresh and energized. Exactly how I want to feel pre-game. I’ve used this technique the night before a game and the morning of. Have a play and see what works best for you.
Foam Rolling – Awareness of the importance of foam rolling and other myofascial release techniques is increasing yet the vast majority of users are unaware of how best to utilise it to gain maximum benefit. Rolling, whether by a roll, a lacrosse ball or a stick, produces a great parasympathetic response which helps you feel calm and sleepy. This therefore makes post workout or pre bed the ideal time to get stuck into any knotted or gristly tissue. I set aside 30mins the night before a game to tackle any tight areas and help me wind down.
Mobility – Regular readers will hopefully now be aware of the importance I place on a daily mobility practice. This takes on extra importance in the build up to a game. I want to arrive at the game without having to worry about any muscle tightness or soreness. The pre-game warm up should just be about raising your heart rate and building intensity, it isn’t the time for ensuring your joints are all functioning smoothly, this needs to be done away from the competition. I therefore set aside 30mins on the morning of a game to run through a basic mobility routine, giving particular focus to hips, shoulders, thoracic, knees and ankles. This practice leads on nicely from the rolling done the night before.
Meditation – Whilst this technique may still be viewed as a little ‘woo woo’ by some, there is no doubting the amount of successful people incorporating daily meditation into their routines. I personally feel that a simple mindfulness practice (I use Headspace) can have huge benefits in the build up to games. It is only natural to start feeling some nervous energy or anxiety creeping in during the build up to any event. Using a meditation practice at these times helps clear your mind and provide moments of calm and clarity. I try to fit in a 10min meditation the night before a game (which aids sleep) and then again on the morning of the game.
Visualisation – This is a word that is regularly thrown around in a sporting context yet often has different interpretations. Personally I use visualisation to memorise my roles and give myself extra time on the field. Rugby is increasingly a game of numbers with teams going into games with an extensive list of patterns and moves that they will run at certain times or positions. This makes ‘knowing your role’ crucial to the success of the team, if one person is a fraction late on a move it can all break down. It isn’t enough to think on the spot either, in fast moving sports you aren’t allowed the time to think, thinking is death, you have to just act. Therefore mental practice becomes crucial, if you can reinforce the neural pathways prior to the game then it will give you vital extra seconds on the field. This is how I use visualisation – in the days building up to the game I will run through each move in my mind in great detail. It is important to immerse yourself into the experience as if you were on the field, the closer you can get to that state the easier you will find things on the field. I encourage every athlete to start increasing their mental practice reps – it could well be the detail that separates victory and defeat.
Coherence – This is a biofeedback term referring to a healthy heart rate variability. In the build up to a big event your stress levels will increase, whether you notice it or not. This is likely to have an effect on your heart rate variability which can have knock on effects, both mental and physical. I find it really helpful to spend some time restoring healthy heart rhythms, this exercise gives me a feeling of calm control, like being in the zone or in a flow state. I use a fancy little device called an Emwave2 for this exercise but you can do it with a simple breathing exercise. Just inhale through your nose for 5 seconds and then exhale through your mouth for 5 seconds. Maintain this rhythm for a few minutes and you will soon notice a shift in state. Try this whenever you feel the nerves kicking in. I use it the morning of the game and when I get to the ground.
Nutrition & Hydration – I’m not going to go into detail here, safe to say that every individual in every sport has an optimum fuelling strategy. It is your responsibility to discover yours. Research what others are doing, read the science and experiment. Test different strategies in training to avoid costly mistakes in competition. Find a routine that works for you and stick to it. What you eat and drink prior to and during a competition can have a huge effect on your performance. Don’t underestimate the importance of this.
Supplements – Whilst I am not one for a medicine cabinet full of pills and potions there are certain supplements that are very well researched and are proven to be effective. Personally I use creatine, beta alanine and caffeine. These aren’t huge game changers, they are the 1%ers that contribute to performance but won’t transform it on their own. Focus on the above methods and when you’ve nailed those you can start thinking about supplements.
This isn’t an exhaustive list, these are just some of the strategies that I have picked up along the way. Whilst they may seem overkill I would disagree. All have scientific evidence to support positive effects on performance and if you are a professional athlete then it is your job to walk into the arena as prepared as possible. If you aren’t a professional athlete then these techniques will still work for you. Many can be easily slotted into regular routines and will give performance benefits beyond sporting endeavours. Experiment with them and share your experiences. I’m keen to hear any other ideas that I haven’t mentioned above – please share in the comments below.