Filed under: Performance
Sleep is vital. Think about it: sleep loss causes performance to suffer, but getting plenty of sleep results in better performance. Most people wouldn’t consider going without food or water, and sleep is no different—it’s a necessity. Lack of sleep is equivalent to being drunk. In fact, after being awake for 18–20 hours, you’d function as if you had a blood-alcohol content of .1% (about four drinks for a 150-pound man). Little or no sleep affects your eye-hand coordination, reaction time, and multitasking abilities—and how you remember important sequences, remain attentive, and stay organized. If you’re tired, you may be able to learn skills and work well enough, but training while fatigued might impact your ability to do your best.
Many people believe that they can overcome being tired or “get used to it.” But evidence suggests sleeping only 6 hours can jeopardize your resilience, health, and well-being. As people become more sleep-deprived, they become less aware that they’re impaired. When someone says, “I’m used to being tired,” they’re simply used to having impaired awareness and judgment. When possible, sleep more to help boost your energy level, thinking ability, and readiness!
There’s an unpleasant situation that runners sometimes experience called “runners’ trots” or diarrhea. While short lasting and generally harmless, they can be annoying and cost you time during training or a race.
Certain activities such as high-intensity or long-duration exercise and vertical-impact sports (e.g., running vs. biking) increase your risk of gastrointestinal (GI) discomfort. Dehydration, poor conditioning, medication, and eating habits can cause GI irritation too. Despite the lack of hard evidence as to what causes these GI issues, there are things you can do to help settle your stomach:
- Avoid trying new foods or sports drinks during a race.
- Increase the time between eating and activity. Wait at least 3 hours after eating a large meal, or eat a smaller meal or snack closer to training time.
- Plan out your meals, especially for endurance events.
- Pay attention to what you eat to help identify foods that increase your discomfort during running. It’s best to avoid these until after you finish your race.
- Limit your intake of gas-forming or fiber-rich foods (e.g., broccoli, onions, and beans).
- If you’re sensitive, avoid coffee and other forms of caffeine before a run.
- Hydrate before and during endurance activities; it will help blood flow to the GI area.
- If you use sports gels or chews for endurance events, drink enough water (three to eight ounces every 15–20 minutes) to stay hydrated.
- Give yourself time to use the bathroom before an endurance exercise.
- Increase distance and intensity gradually.
If symptoms persist for more than a few days, even at rest, seek medical attention. Enjoy your run!
Whatever your goals are, keep in mind that they’re easier to accomplish when they’re SMART goals:
It’s a well-established method for fitness-oriented goals—to lift a certain weight, cycle a century, or run a marathon in a certain amount of time—and it works equally well in other areas of life. Maybe you want to reach a specific rank at your job or finish college by a certain date. Goals aren’t just for dreaming big; they’re for achieving.
- think through exactly what you’re aiming for;
- determine if this goal is a good fit for you;
- measure and track your progress;
- use success-oriented language to think and talk about your goal; and
- break down the end goal into manageable steps.
Feeling stuck in your workout routine? Periodization is a training method that can help you overcome the plateau and boredom from doing the same workout repeatedly. For example, if you follow the same lifting routine for too long, your body will eventually adapt to the stresses of training, and you’ll see little or no improvement in performance. Following a workout routine for “too long” depends on factors such as your age, training program, duration, intensity, and recovery. In order to see improvement, researchers suggest adding a periodization plan to your workout. Periodization works by changing different variables of a fitness routine (such as the amount of weight, number of repetitions or sets, or intensity) every 1–6 weeks. Changing components of your workout forces your body to constantly try to overcome the new stresses and encourages continual growth and increased performance.
Creating a periodization plan also reduces your risk of overtraining. Consult a certified trainer to design a program that can help you overcome any workout plateaus, or check out the Navy Operational Fitness and Fueling System (NOFFS) strength and endurance training series.
Most energy drinks are now labeled with Nutrition Facts instead of Supplement Facts, but that doesn’t automatically make them safe. The most popular energy drinks contain about 80–120 mg of caffeine per serving (8 oz.)—about the same amount of caffeine in an 8-ounce coffee. Caffeine isn’t necessarily a bad thing. When used appropriately, caffeine can boost mental and physical performance. But each energy drink can or bottle often contains more than one serving, making it easier to consume larger amounts of caffeine, especially if you drink more than one per day. Too much caffeine (>400 mg) can cause nervousness, shakiness, rapid heart rate, and trouble sleeping.
In addition to caffeine, energy drinks commonly contain amino acids, vitamins, and plant-based ingredients such as guarana (which also contains caffeine) and ginseng. Although these ingredients are generally safe, there still isn’t enough reliable information about their long-term safety or how combinations of these ingredients might interact in the body.
If you drink energy drinks, here are some things to keep in mind:
- Be aware of how much caffeine (from all sources) is in each can or bottle, and limit the number you drink each day.
- Avoid caffeinated foods, beverages, and medications while using energy drinks. You may be consuming more caffeine than you realize.
- Don’t mistake energy drinks for sports drinks. Unlike energy drinks, sports drinks are designed to fuel and hydrate you during long workouts.
- Don’t mix energy drinks with alcohol. Energy drinks can mask the feeling of intoxication but still leave you impaired.
- Find other ways to energize yourself. It’s best to get the sleep your body needs, but you can try other ways to stay alert, such as exercising or listening to upbeat music.
The ultimate performance mind state is often referred to as “the Zone,” which scientists refer to as “flow.” It isn’t something you can decide to suddenly experience, but you can remove obstacles and learn mental skills that help pave the way. This experience of being completely immersed in an activity involves:
- Clear goals and immediate understanding of whether actions are helping or hurting your progress towards goals.
- Being intense and focused on the present moment.
- A merging together—in the moment—of what you do and what you are aware of.
- Not feeling self-consciousness or anxious.
- Time slowing down or speeding up.
- Your attention focused on exactly where you need it to be.
- Feeling challenged yet taking opportunities even when they’re a slight stretch.
- Feeling in control and prepared to face whatever happens next.
You can experience the Zone in many ways, whether you’re engaged in combat, playing competitive sports, or raising children. It can’t be forced, but you can set the stage for it by doing many hours of deliberate practice and by honing good mental skills.
Fall sports preparations are under way for many teen athletes, making it important for them to know what and when to eat and drink to be on top of their game. Two-a-days, strength-training programs, speed training—it sounds like the workout schedule of a professional athlete, but these are often components of teen athletes’ training for sports. Fueling the Adolescent Athlete contains valuable information on how they can fuel their bodies before, during, and after practice.
Fueling comes in two forms: what teen athletes eat to fuel up and what they drink to help stay hydrated. Eating nutrient-packed meals and snacks before, after, and even during practices and games is essential for optimal performance. The right balance of carbohydrates and protein work together to fuel and build muscles.
Staying hydrated goes hand in hand with peak performance. It can be difficult for adolescent athletes to stay hydrated in heat and humidity, but drinking regularly and keeping an eye on their urine color can be helpful.
For more adolescent and family nutrition information, check out HPRC's Family Nutrition section.
You can learn to use the same mental imagery skills that elite athletes use to achieve peak performance. Mental imagery is the practice of seeing (and feeling) in your mind’s eye how you want to perform a skill, as if you were actually doing it. It’s a popular sport psychology technique that service members can take advantage of. You can enhance your usual training to help maintain—or even surpass—your current skill level, even when you’re sidelined.
Some of the benefits of mental imagery include:
- Better decision-making
- Fewer errors
- Improved attention
- Increased confidence
- Reduced stress and anxiety
You can create imagery in your mind for just about any task, such as improving your running time or marksmanship. Good mental imagery uses all of the senses, but it often helps to listen to a scripted audio recording. Use HPRC’s Building an Imagery Script worksheet to guide you through the steps of creating your own imagery script.
Watching others can also help. In fact, being a spectator can boost learning even more than mental imagery by itself because you’re viewing what you’d like to accomplish rather than conjuring up images with your own mind. Both methods of learning are effective. Observing can be in person or by video, but you can also combine video/imagery approaches and potentially get even more bang for your buck.
With any of these approaches, it’s important to “feel” yourself executing the skill, even though you might be sitting or lying down. Of course, you don’t have to be sitting still to use mental imagery. Try using it in the setting where you’ll actually perform the skill. You can even incorporate it into existing training protocols.
Getting the right nutrients at the right time can give you the edge you need when it comes to performance. Are you drinking the right kind of beverage to keep you hydrated? Do you know what to eat after a workout to optimize your recovery? Find answers to these questions and more in HPRC’s FAQS: Fueling for Performance.
And while you’re there, be sure to check out our other Nutrition FAQs for more answers to common questions we’ve received about nutrition.
Routines often can help your performance, but you need to be flexible too. Some of the world’s best athletes have scripted routines that begin with what time they wake up. Top performers find that routines can help shift them from stressful anticipation of how things are going to turn out to focus instead on what’s most important in that moment. In other words, routines can help you reduce anxiety.
But while rigid routines can be useful when the events are predictable, overly rigid routines can morph a helpful tool into a superstitious or obsessive ritual. The best athletes regard flexibility and adaptation as crucial to their own, often finely honed, routines. With service members for whom crises are part of the job, the best teams are able to go “off-script” when needed in order to work together most effectively.
For more information on mental aspects of performance, visit HPRC’s Mind Tactics domain.