5 ways to push performance: Olympian talks Iris, advice

Photo: Ryan Riley/Iowa State Daily

Ian Warner competed on the Olympic stage in 2008. Warner ran in the 4×100 men’s relay for Team Canada after qualifying in the 2012 Canadian Track and Field Championships. He has competed in international competitions since 2007 and has unique insight into the professional-sprinting lifestyle and how mentality can make or break an athlete.

For an athlete, there are few worse feelings than having a season in which you fall short of your potential, when you know that you didn’t do everything possible to succeed and the only thing you can do is wait until next season. From past experience as an olympic-level sprinter, I believe that there are five very important aspects that athletes should monitor in order to optimize performance. Any advice given below is personal. I recommend that if an athlete has questions pertaining to these topics, they should consult their coaches, dieticians and other members of the coaching staff. It’s important to understand that every athlete responds to training, diet and other external factors differently.

Sleep

“Sleeping is the golden chain that binds health and our bodies together.” – Thomas Dekker

When I was running track at Iowa State University, I was blessed to call Kenyan distance runner Betsy Saina my teammate. At the time, she was not only a NCAA champion in the 10k run but she had recently finished fifth at the Rio Olympics, in the same event.

One thing I remember about her is how much more she slept than the rest of the team. She tried to get about 14 hours of sleep in per day. It’s clear that this amount of sleep isn’t beneficial for every athlete, but Betsy had discovered the correct amount of sleep her body required for restoration after training.

When the team would get to a hotel, many athletes were interested in hanging out or seeing what was around the hotel, but all Betsy wanted to do was sleep. If she wasn’t running or eating, she was catching Zs. Great athletes understand the power of sleeping and taking naps.

Management consultant, Peter Drucker once said “What gets measured gets improved.” This concept is applicable to athletic performance. The Athletigen Iris app is a great tool for measuring sleep patterns and for providing insight into why different athletes require different amounts of sleep.

As an athlete, it’s difficult to track your sleep patterns over the course of a season if you do not measure it. There is a reason you know how many points you score per game or what your best time is, it’s because you measure it so you can improve it. Sleep isn’t different. Iris is also beneficial for your coaches in regards to sleep as it helps them understand how much sleep an athlete has been getting and why they may need more or less.

Communication

“Communication is a skill that you can learn. It’s like riding a bicycle or typing. If you’re willing to work at it, you can rapidly improve the quality of every part of your life.” – Brian Tracy

Communication between athletes and coaches is crucial for success in every sport. You need to be able to speak with your coaches, therapists and teammates if you want to progress towards your peak performance. In my experience, the goal here is to understand how others communicate, and learning how to speak with them in an effective and clear manner.

Communication in sports also comes down to being honest and bold. Are you willing to tell your coach that you’re not feeling 100 per cent today? It’s imperative to be honest with your coaching staff  if you want to succeed. Your coach can only see and hear you, but they cannot feel what you feel, that must be communicated to them.

It can be difficult to talk truthfully to your coach if you’re afraid it will get you pulled from training and that you’ll fall behind the competition. Tools like Iris can help you out with this. When the right data gets tracked, it gives your coach a better idea how you’re feeling that day, and provides an important starting point to discuss the best ways to adjust your training if needed.

Through the app, a coach can see stats on an athlete’s diet, mood, sleep schedule and more, all of this comes together to give a coach specific information tailored to their athletes. If your energy levels are low one day and you’re feeling a bit sluggish, Iris can give your coach a couple of suggestions on how to remedy the issue – mixing your genetic predispositions with your environmental influences – and together you can move towards improvement. Iris can help spark the conversation with coaches that otherwise would have slipped through the cracks and hampered athletic performance.

Fears

“Never say never, because limits like fears are often just an illusion.”-  Michael Jordan

Athletes are sometimes romanticised to be fearless warriors – mounds of muscle smashing through all barriers between them and a podium, mental rocks that never equivocate – but you and I both know, this is not the truth. Athletes have all types of fears:

Fear of letting people down.
Fear of certain teams.
Fear of certain coaches.
Fear of too much contact.
Fear of failure.

When I was competing in track and field, my fear was of my older brother. We both competed in the same event. Lining up against him felt like it was too much to bear. I always felt that since he was a person I looked up to my whole life, how could I ever beat him? I focused so much on him that I would crumble in my races and the other runners would beat me too.

In 2012, I acknowledged this fear leading up to the Olympic trials. Once I looked that fear in the face, it slowly disappeared. When we raced at trials he just barely beat me, but I came in second and made the Canadian Olympic team. If I didn’t deal with my fear, I believe I could have easily been the last runner across the finish line.

A lot of dealing with fear gets back to communication. It’s important to be honest with yourself and acknowledge your weaknesses or fears so that you may communicate them with your coaching staff.

Beat your best

“When you compete with a person, you only have to be as good or better than that person to win. If you compete with yourself, there is no limitation to how good you can be.” – Chu Chin-Ning

Photo: Ian Warner/Facebook
Photo: Ian Warner (left) /Facebook

You have to beat the competition if you want to win, but to do that you must focus on beating yourself. In my sprinting experience, as long as I kept beating the best version of myself, I performed better in competitions.

When we focus on others, it can be easy to beat yourself up because we see their accomplishments from a very limited perspective, often the social-media highlight reel. You never know what another athlete had to do to get where they are. All you know is your story, and you have a PhD in your own struggle.

The more you focus on others, the easier it becomes to think everyone has it made which can have a negative effect on your mood and motivation. Iris is beneficial for athletes in this situation as it blends your daily mood with your genetic markers correlated with mood and motivation into longer term statistics that your coach has access to, facilitating a conversation between athlete and coach.

Focus on what you have to do to reach your peak performance level. If you and your coach set a goal for you to get one extra hour of sleep per day, don’t focus on the athletes who are out partying that night, concentrate on the hour of sleep you need to get. All you need to do is keep beating your past self.

Every person’s body responds differently to sleep, nutrition, stress, exercise and other factors. This is in part because of differences in your DNA. Iris is built specifically to blend your external environment – what you eat, how much you work out, etc. – with your genes. If you want to beat your best, it’s important to know as much as possible about your body.

Focus On Small Consistent Efforts

“Success is the sum of small efforts – repeated day in and out” – Robert Collier

In my experience, it’s not beneficial to approach training as if one big workout is going to be the difference between success and failure, or as if one day of being sick is going to be your downfall. Success is about consistency over an extended period of time. It’s important that you and your coach figure out exactly what kind of exercise, diet and rest your body needs to perform at the highest possible level. This has to be done one simple and consistent effort at a time

Can you manage your daily stress levels for a long period of time?
Can you take the necessary steps to prevent daily soreness and possible injury?
Can you fill out your Iris questionnaire consistently and honestly for the next four years?

Anyone can train or eat perfectly for their body for a couple days, but it takes dedication and resolve to be consistent for a longer period of time. In my personal experience, athlete’s don’t need to make life-altering changes to improve. Success is achieved through consistent efforts.

The common denominator that links these five aspects with athletic optimization, is analytic tracking. Without proper tracking of sleep, mood, training, personal bests and diet, it becomes increasingly difficult to improve. An athlete’s progress should be measured daily if they are to eventually stand on a podium or hoist a trophy. Genetics and environmental factors go hand-in-hand when creating statistics on an athlete’s progression and performance patterns. A good understanding of how an athlete’s body works – on a genetic level – and how it responds to a training environment is a determining factor between an athlete who falls short of a goal and an athlete who unlocks their full potential.

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