By Sam Cortes, Communications Coordinator
As I write this, I am sitting in front of my TV watching the Olympic Games, excited to watch elite athletes compete on the world stage and show their talent, resilience, and hard work after a very trying year.
These athletes had their Olympic experience postponed last year, and when you spend your life, especially the last four years, preparing for the Olympics, that news can be devastating.
Many of the Canadian athletes in Tokyo would have competed at the Canada Games at some point in their young athletic careers, and it would have helped pave the way to get to where they are today.
Your Time is Now
One of those athletes, for example, is Tyler Mislawchuk. A Team Toba alum, Tyler competed in his second summer Olympic Games in Triathlon and had a solid showing once again.
As you can see from Tyler’s example, the Canada Games can be a springboard to competing at the highest level in sport. That is why, for all you athletes, your time is now to start preparing for Niagara next summer.
Now that we are about a year away from the start of the 2022 Canada Summer Games, I can’t help to think about the future generation of Canadian Olympic athletes and their chance to compete.
These games were originally set to start in just a couple weeks from now, but due to COVID-19, the games were postponed a year to 2022.
The announcement to postpone the games resulted in disappointed athletes, coaches, and families across Canada. The organizers have had to adjust, set new plans, and coordinate with sport organizations so athletes can get a chance to compete at their first Olympic-like experience.
Let’s face it — the last 18 months have been hard on everyone. For athletes, they have had their sports shut down, training opportunities halted, and, in most cases, the chance to compete for their club teams or provincial team delayed or eliminated because of the pandemic. It has been a difficult time for sport.
As provinces open up and sports resume, there is hope for 2022 and the time is now to begin your journey to Niagara.
So, what will it take for athletes to return to their sport stronger than ever and prepare for a great Canada Games experience?
First, let’s talk about the physical side of preparation. Physical preparation includes physical training, recovery, and nutrition, and all three of these things are equally important when it comes to peak performance and health for athletes.
At this point, being about 380 days away from the Canada Summer Games, athletes have a lot of time to prepare. Even though they haven’t been able to train for their sport consistently for over a year, keep in mind that every athlete is in the same boat, they have all been locked down at different times over the last year and a half. It is a level playing field.
It is important to remember that athletes can’t go back into the gym, on the court or field and put in the same volume and intensity of training as they did prior to the pandemic. This is where monitoring the training load of athletes becomes critical.
The key in this process is progression. Athletes are resilient and can handle big workloads, but they need to build on a solid foundation and that does not happen without knowing where they are physically before starting a training program.
Some simple field tests can see where athletes are at (baseline) and can help drive programming both on the field for technical and tactical work, and also the physical training (strength and conditioning) component.
In terms of progression, research has found that the sweet spot for increasing workload is approximately a 10% increase weekly to improve the physical abilities required for their sport.
The graph below shows that there is a significantly increased risk of injury between a 10% and a 15% increase in training workload week-to-week. It seems like such a small increase in workload, but over time, it can make a huge difference in reducing the risk of injury.
Another important aspect of a successful training program is the deload. Near the end of a training block or cycle, a deload period, where intensity is maintained but volume is decreased (usually in ½) for 4-7 days, can also help athletes continue to progress without risking over-training.
Coaches must keep in mind that this applies in all aspects of physical training. The number of sprints and the distances of those sprints, any conditioning drills, and even the volume of skill drills all count towards an athlete’s overall training load.
It is not just the amount of work done in the training room that counts, it is all of the workloads combined. Start easy and build week by week with that 10% increase in volume as a guide to reduce the risk of injury and optimize training results.
It is also important that coaches, therapists, strength coaches, and all support staff are communicating during the process to make sure the athletes are working within a healthy workload. Time is on our side, let’s use it wisely and build strong, healthy, and resilient athletes.
Now that we have a better understanding of the building of athletic capacities and qualities, let’s take a closer look at how to best recover from that training to improve performance.
There are many factors that can aid in an athlete’s recovery from training and competition. First and foremost, our bodies repair themselves when we sleep. Athlete’s, especially younger athletes (teenagers), need to get 8-10 hours of sleep each night. If they are not, a simple strategy to get there is to go to bed 15-30 minutes earlier for a week or two, and once that becomes easier to do, go to bed 15-30 minutes earlier than that, and keep following that pattern until athletes are in that 8-10 hour range.
Once an athlete consistently achieves 8-10 hours of sleep, it is important to make sure those 8-10 hours of sleep are quality hours. This can be achieved by building some simple sleep hygiene strategies to help athletes fall asleep faster and sleep better with limited disruptions.
Here are just a few things you can include in your pre-sleep routine to help you get the most out of your sleep time:
- Try to limit blue light to one hour before going to bed. Get a blue light filtering app on your devices, or try to put the phone in another room while sleeping.
- Reduce the temperature in the room to around 18 degrees Celsius. A cool room helps to reduce body temperature. The body works in its resting metabolic rate while sleeping, which typically functions at a lower body temperature.
- Make sure the room is dark. Black out blinds and/or sleep masks can help block out any light from the room or outside.
Keep in mind that limiting screen time for a teenager is pretty difficult, so athletes may have to start with a goal of limiting screen time to 30 minutes prior to bed.
Another important aspect of the recovery process is nutrition. The few hours immediately after intense training is a critical time in replenishing energy stores and speeds up recovery.
Carbohydrates – Athlete’s Energy Source
The body uses carbohydrates as its main energy source during exercise and training.
Carbohydrates are stored in the muscles and liver in the form of glycogen, and glycogen is then used to produce energy, so the body can run, jump, sprint, swim, and basically any other activity you can think of.
Protein – Muscle Building and Repair
During intense activities, muscles will get little microtears in them that require protein intake to help repair the muscle tissue between training sessions and competitions. It can take many forms, including meat, fish, poultry, plant-based and protein supplements. Typically meat, fish, and poultry contain all of the essential amino acids required by the body, but for those who eat a vegetarian diet, all of those amino acids can be consumed through using a variety of different plant-based sources, so fear not. It just takes a little more research to make sure that athletes get all of those essential amino acids to help repair and build those muscles for competition.
Meal Timing for Recovery
In terms of timing, the fuel intake within the first 30-60 minutes after intense training could take a liquid form that is easily digestible by the body and gets into the bloodstream quickly. Typically, the ratio of carbohydrates to proteins should be between a 2:1 and a 3:1 ratio. The most popular post-training drink is chocolate milk. It is relatively inexpensive and available at most sporting facilities. There are other alternatives as well that can be purchased at any health food store or supplement store. Look for the ratios above and make sure the supplement is NSF certified or safe for athletes.
The next feeding opportunity should take the form of a meal consisting of whole foods with again a ratio of 2:1 or 3:1 carbohydrates to proteins, and minimal fat intake to promote quick digestion and to replenish energy stores and protein synthesis in the muscles. A sample meal might look like this: 1 cup of rice, 1 chicken breast, 1-2 cups of vegetables and a glass of milk.
OTHER RECOVERY STRATEGIES
Once athletes master their sleep and nutrition strategies to optimize recovery, there are a handful of other things they can do to help them recover even faster. We won’t spend a lot of time on these, as the goal is to get the sleep and nutrition habits looked after before considering these other strategies..
Here are just a few recovery strategies that can help aid in recovery:
- Massage – this can take the form of a massage therapist or other self massage tools like foam rollers, lacrosse balls, massage guns, etc.
- Cold Tubs/Hot Tubs – there is varying research on this topic, but this one can often be more of a psychological benefit, where athletes just feel better after a cold or hot bath, or a contrast (alternating hot and cold) bath.
- Breathing/Relaxation techniques – training and competition stress out an athlete’s mind and body. Teaching the body how to relax and get into a parasympathetic state can help athletes relax and in turn aid in recovery.
Mental Preparation for a Return to Sport
Now that we’ve covered the physical side of preparation, let’s take a quick look at the mental side of preparation for returning to sport and competition.
It has been a very difficult time for everyone over the past year and a half, and athletes are no different. It has been hard to get motivated to train and start to play sports when there have been multiple times where things get going for a while, only to get shut down again and again. It is frustrating to say the least.
The Athlete Mindset
There have been so many negatives about the pandemic, but hopefully we can keep that in the rear view mirror and start to focus on practicing, training, and competing again!
With that said, it is important to have the right mindset when returning to the field of play. Where an athlete is at right now does not determine where they will be in a year. Look at this coming year as an opportunity to improve as an athlete. To become stronger, faster, more explosive, better conditioned, more skilled, and technically better at your sport. This is what is called the growth mindset and it can help you focus on continual daily improvement or kaizen, the Japanese word for daily improvement.
Say This, Not That to Yourself
Most athletes know there is positive and negative self-talk. For most people, positive self-talk usually works far better than negative.
Here are some often-used phrases that athletes will say to themselves or others when talking about training and competing for sports, and also some ways to turn those phrases around into a positive:
I have to train today –> I get to train today
That was a brutal play –> The next play is mine
Today’s session was not my best –> Today I did this well, tomorrow I will nail that
As athletes, we often find the negatives and fixate on them. Your goal over the next little while should be to write down the common negative phrases you use and then turn them into a positive phrase that can flip the switch for you to improve your performance. Great athletes can do this and drive their performance to new heights. We are all human and make mistakes, that is part of life. The key is to learn from those mistakes and grow and develop as a person and an athlete.
Seek Out Help
If you are an athlete struggling to get back into sport after a long lay off, consider looking for a mental skills coach or a Sport Psychologist to help you build some strategies to help get you back in action and adopting the athlete mindset.
We have a list of providers that can help you with that. Please do not hesitate to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will be happy to get you connected with a coach to help in that area.
It’s Go Time
In this article, we have covered a lot of topics in a short period of time. Each topic could be an article in and of itself, but this is just a snapshot of what is involved in an athlete’s successful return to sport after a long layoff. If you have any questions or are interested in building your return to sport plan, do not hesitate to contact us at performance@sportmanitoba or 204-925-5751.