Be an Amateur with a Professional MindsetDonovan van Gelder
December means time off from work for most of us. It is a time when amateur athletes get to pretend they are professionals for a few weeks. But what about when life returns to normal in January? The athletes that this article is aimed at are a bit older, who have careers and families, bonds and car payments. The ones that are up at four in the morning for their first session and eat breakfast in the car on the way to work afterwards. The ones who go to meetings at two still smelling like chlorine from their lunchtime swim workout and the number one thing on their mind in that meeting, is what time they will need to have their next meal so that it won’t upset their stomach during their evening fartlek run.
These competitive age-groupers are good. They are looking for podiums at their next 70.3 or full distance race. They aspire to go to 70.3 World Champs or Kona and they have a good chance. They have personal coaches and have physios and massage therapists on speed-dial. They are committed and motivated to be as good as they can be… possibly too much so.
They follow the World’s best on Social Media and realise that the pro’s training does not differ that much from what they are doing. So what is the difference? Are they just not as gifted as the pros? Are the pros doping? Fortunately, apart from only a few cases, this is not true. The difference is in the way the professionals conduct themselves outside of the pool, off the bike and out of the running singlet.
The biggest disadvantage of the amateur athlete in comparison to their professional counterpart is not in the training they do but in what happens between the training sessions. This impacts: recovery; health and mental well-being. Obviously this is all bound by available time and the demands placed on this time and much of this is out of the amateur’s hands. Fortunately there are some things that can be done to maximise our time and at least narrow the gap between us and the pros… We need to have a professional mindset.
I have broken this down into three categories but these are not mutually exclusive and they have a direct bearing on each other. For ease of discussion we shall separate them.
Recovery – Sleep!
This is by far the biggest thing that every age-group athlete that I have coached could do better. Many get by on five or six hours sleep a night and this is just not enough when you are training at the level that they are. The body does it’s best work when we’re asleep. The levels of growth hormone rise during sleep and this is a massive factor in repairing the positive damage we have inflicted upon ourselves. Allowing the body sufficient time to not only repair but also to improve itself is also largely dependent on how much, and how good our sleep is. So, if there are only twenty-four hours in a day, how do we find at least two more hours of sleep? The first step is to make sure that we fall asleep quickly and soundly. A lot of an athlete’s sleep hours are lost in actually trying to fall asleep. Here are some tips that I have found help in this regard:
- Try to avoid training too hard, too close to sleep time. I realise that this is not always going to be avoidable but wherever possible, try to keep your evening session to a lower intensity or, if it needs to be a hard one, try to be finished with at least three hours until you are going to hit the sack. The stimulation of an intense session, too close to lights-out, can make falling asleep difficult and the quality of the night’s slumber as low as if you’d had a double espresso as a night-cap.
- Drop the TV – Let’s be honest, most of it is pretty rubbish anyway. This will probably also gain you a few more hours in your day just by simply not watching. Just as significant is the fact that the TV is just too stimulating before bed and the brain takes some time to ‘calm down’ and reach a restful state after staring at a flickering screen. I have a few things I like to watch and, for the most part, I do this while performing my recovery spins on the indoor trainer. Helps to make the time pass and saves time at another time in the day.
- Read a few chapters – I know this is not everybody’s cup of tea but a good novel or at most an autobiography is a great relaxer and transports us away from the everyday things that may occupy our minds and keep us awake. Self help or motivational books are not good for obvious reasons. No-one wants to get pumped up before trying to dose off. I actually find reading my six-year-old her Roald Dahl before bed a great way to prep for sleep. She often makes it further than I do.
- Routine – This to me, is the most important. Prepare for bed in the same way every night and your body will get used to it and know what is expected of it. Yes this may be boring or lack spontaneity but athletic improvement requires sacrifice and discipline. I have dinner fairly early so that my body’s metabolic activity is quiet. This meal is generally a light one as well. I have a shower, make some Rooibos tea and jump into bed with my book. My body is so tuned to this routine that it makes it easy to repeat when travelling to a big race and the pre-race sleep is as good as it always is. I very rarely am woken up by my alarm. I wake before it, refreshed and ready to go.
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Nutrition – There are so many diets and ‘nutritional cults’ that this becomes almost like discussing politics. So I am not going to point you in the direction of some exotic vegetable that is almost as hard on the taste buds, and wallet, as it is to find in the shops and could probably be substituted by something you can find at your local supermarket anyway. There are some fundamentals in your approach to eating though:
- Know why you are eating – We do not eat for pleasure. Sorry if that makes you sad but what are your priorities? Food or speed? We eat for recovery or for fuelling. Make sure you are clear what the priority of each meal in your day is and then choose the ingredients that will give you the best results.
- Get the timing right – You will know when your next training session is and what it consists of. The timing of your meals before and after your sessions are critical to providing the nutrients for either recovery or fuelling but also to not negatively impact the training-effect that you are seeking. For example: a high-carb meal an hour before a long, low intensity cycle will inhibit the body’s ability to utilise fats as fuel. That kind of meal is better consumed in the hour immediately after such a session when refuelling is necessary for the workout to come. Similarly, a high protein, recovery-orientated meal needs to be consumed with enough time prior to a hard interval session so that the slowly digested protein does not upset the stomach while you are busting out your 400s at the track.
- Know what you are eating – read labels and make sure that everything you consume conforms to the nutritional approach that you have chosen to follow and have found works best for you. A nutritional approach is only successful through consistency and the longer you are diligent, the better the results will be. So if you are cutting out sugar or gluten make sure that you check the labels for it.
- Supplement – This does not apply to everyone in the same way. Body types, living environment and hereditary factors all impact how and how much supplementation is required. The quality of the food we consume is obviously a major factor. The good news is that it is fairly impossible to overdose on vitamins and minerals because what we don’t need just comes out our other end. I probably have incredibly expensive pee but at least I know that my body has access to what it requires, should it need it. There are things to consider though like how vitamins and minerals often work in pairs and too much of one can cause a deficiency or a need for more in another. Maintaining a healthy immunity and resistance to illness is critical for a working athlete who is exposed to germs from others far more than a professional athlete who probably only spends time in the company of others who are just as concerned about their health.
Take care of yourself
Now this used to be a euphemism for doping in the bad-old-90s but we are not referring to that here. Swimming, cycling and running 2-4 hours every day will result in an exceptional human machine but it does also place a lot of strain and wear and tear on that machine. Just like you keep your bike clean and well lubricated, you need to maintain the body to be able to handle the punishment that is necessary to stimulate improvement. As in most things, when it comes to injury or illness, prevention is better than cure.
- Mobility and flexibility – Most modern jobs involve sitting for long periods. Whether it be behind a desk or behind the wheel, the static angle of your legs in relation to your hips will cause tightening and limitation to the range of motion in your hips. This is where many running injuries stem from. Even injuries as far down the kinetic chain as the achilles can be solved by improving your hip mobility. Getting aero and staying aero is also dependent on your range of motion through the hips. The body rotation in swimming… hips. So if you don’t stretch or engage anything else, and you probably won’t need to if you get this right, spend some time every week on improving your hip mobility.
- Massage – Getting a regular rub is one of the best ways to identify trouble areas before they cause… well, trouble. Muscle imbalances and poor alignment generally start with trigger-points and knots and niggles. I know as many read this they will be thinking, “yes but massages cost money,” or, “where am I going to find the time for this?” Obviously first prize is to get a professional massage on a regular basis. Most will have cost-saving packages for those that commit long-term. Many massage therapists also travel to their clients. It is also possible to perform effective self-massage, which is what I do. As for training and nutrition, massage needs to be done regularly. If you don’t have a regular rub-down, don’t have your first one in race week. This will often cause more trouble than good. As in all the above, consistency and frequency is key.
- Don’t drive the Ferrari offroad – We are triathletes, we swim, cycle and run. We don’t sprint the hundred at our child’s sports day. Certainly not without a warm up. We are not powerlifters so get someone else to bring in the new couch you bought at the ‘Black Friday Sale’. Save your energy and protect your muscles and joints for what you are preparing for. We are the most disciplined people who are also the laziest when it comes to doing anything else. Our bodies are our tools and wonderful, precious tools they are. Take care of them.
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I admire the performances of a professional athlete in the peak of their form. This is the pinnacle of our sport and shows us what is possible when genetics and a totally devoted approach combine. I am a little more impressed by an age-group athlete though, who commits to a lifestyle with so many challenges and overcomes them, to produce a race performance that has pros looking nervously over their shoulders.
They do things, every single day, that most wouldn’t ever consider attempting once, so that on the weekends, at the races, they can do things that very few can.