The Real Secrets to Athletic Success

Actually, there are no secrets…just a few undeniable facts.

Get healthy first. A healthy body absorbs training and performs with excellence. Trying to train an unhealthy body or compete in a suboptimal state produces marginal results at best.

The basics of health aren’t sexy, but they form the critical foundation from which we launch athleticism. Sleep optimally. Eat well. Stay active in addition to training smart. Know yourself and get into the flow state with the world around you. Make your job work for your health, not against it. Those are the 5 foundational components of lifelong health: sleep, food, movement, awareness, and ergonomics. I’ve talked about those a lot in my classes and presentations, my books, these blogs, on the podcast, and in many videos. Dial in those 5 components and everything you do athletically will work and stick better.

Combine the 3 essential elements of peak performance. Train in accordance with your unique inner beast. Doing so must fit your body type, genetics, lifestyle, personality, and the associated factors that make you a special snowflake. Practice the art of recovery. It’s more than the passage of time or the use of a modality or supplement. Learn how to convert the stimulus of training into gains and adaptation by becoming a zen master at recovery. And use a winning mindset — one that is positive, realistic, and flexible. On the playing field, don’t just have a will to win…refuse to lose. Then shut that off when it’s not necessary, and support and encourage others.

What amazes me is that I often fall into the trap of believing that everybody knows and applies the tidbits of the last few paragraphs. I’m surprised when I meet so many people who want to be healthy, vital, vibrant, and athletic — to keep crushing performances year after year — who slowly fade to black due to self-sabotaging behaviors. As in not doing that 5 + 3 mentioned above to become the 1 Lifetime Athlete I’m always harping on (I know…I preach, lecture, and rant from time to time but it comes from the heart). 

What I want to zero in on today is training. While lifelong health is critical, and recovery and mindset are equally valuable, it’s in training where I see a lot of errors. Most people (especially adult recreational/competitive athletes and those no longer involved in organized team sport programs) don’t train to be a more athletic athlete. They (usually inadvertently) don’t achieve or maintain balanced athleticism. 

First, let’s look at the 5 capacities of human performance. They are of equal importance and can be presented in any order.

  • Strength (maximum force generation, from 1 to possibly numerous reps)
  • Speed (maximum velocity…all out, or relative to given distance)
  • Power (ability to apply force over distance divided by time, and also VO2max)
  • Agility (moving athletically by combining mobility, stability, reactivity, and fluidity)
  • Endurance (muscular fatigue resistance and ability to deliver O2 submaximally for long duration)

As you can see from the list above, all of those capacities are essential for athletic performance, as well as good overall life function and longevity. Having stated that, I want to clarify the specialist versus generalist argument in context with today’s discussion. Sport specialists tend to be highly focused in one or two areas, as a rule. Weightlifters score high in strength, divers in agility, and ultramarathoners in endurance. That’s a given. In order to excel in those sports, one needs to have some genetic proclivity toward proficiency, and then he/she needs to emphasize the targeted capacity in training. Agreed. But being an athlete for life, even if you have a sport or area of specialization, means that you must not totally ignore any capacity. Sure, young and motivated competitors can usually concentrate only on the major capacity required, but they must never let the other areas drop so low that they potentially become a detriment to performance or long term health. 

Now I can come back to what I see most athletes and fitness enthusiasts doing, especially the uncoached ones. They lift. They stretch. They do some cardio. Or maybe they mainly do only one of those things. Resistance training is great for building strength, muscle mass, and bone density. Stretching or yoga practice (I realize yoga is more than just stretching so don’t bash me here) improves mobility (only one of the requirements of agility) and enhances parasympathetic nervous system states. Aerobic exercise like jogging or cycling develops endurance and cardiorespiratory efficiency. But these things alone don’t make a complete athlete. 

What defines winners in practically every sport? Speed, power, and agility. Do they give out medals to anyone who is weak, slow, and stiff? Go to the playground. What characterizes youthful vitality? Speed, power, and agility! Kids don’t do reps, they don’t static stretch, and they don’t jog. They are natural, playful animals…BEASTS! 

Yet the arguments and resistance to incorporating natural, evolutionarily consistent training into the regime are many. “I could never do such and such because I’d pull a hamstring!” Don’t you think that is a problem, a deficiency, and a liability? If you can’t move like a natural, athletic beast…you are what we call easy prey (for your competitors and in the end…The Reaper). There is always a way to address training intelligently, progressively, and scaled to be age and ability-appropriate. 

I think I’ve made my point. Specialize all you want (I do it too). But never let yourself become unbalanced. To the best of your ability, be a balanced, athletic athlete. If you are inspired by this message, check out my recent podcast with world-renowned speed and agility coach, Lee Taft (The Speed Guy) or my video “Identifying and Leveraging Assets and Weaknesses in Training.”

If you are disturbed (but hopefully not enraged) because I said yoga, jogging, and lifting won’t cut it alone…try some cutting, jumping, landing, and sprinting (safely) in your next workout. You can restore the elements of play and fun along with work and challenge in your training. And you might just wake up one day and think “Hmmm…I can do just about anything I feel like today (within reason).” That’s being a Lifetime Athlete and it’s definitely the representation of Hard to Kill.

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