There are some common-sense things that can enable an athlete at any level to get the most out of his or her talent. These lessons don’t apply just to hurdlers, but to any track and field athlete who is serious about his or her training regimen and is willing to make the sacrifices necessary to achieve success. Here are some of the things I’ve learned that can prove to be quite valuable if practiced consistently:
Probably the most important thing an athlete can do on a daily basis to ensure optimal performance in practice and in competitions is get a good night’s sleep. In our fast-paced world that puts such a heavy emphasis on productivity, making money, and all that other good stuff, sleep is often looked upon as something extra that can be done without. Well, it can’t be done without. It can in the short-term, perhaps, but in the long-term, not getting enough sleep will certainly catch up with you and negatively effect your output on the track.
My advice, especially to high schoolers, is to get your eight hours every night, and to be consistent with when you go to bed and when you wake up. When I was a senior in high school and decided that I wanted to end my high school track career with my best year ever, I committed myself to going to bed at 10pm every night, and waking up at 6am every morning. No partying with friends, no staying up late watching TV, no late-night snacks. At 10 o’clock, go to bed. It was hard at first, but became easier. And because I didn’t have to be at school until 8, waking up at 6am enabled me to wake up slowly, unhurried, so I could grab some breakfast and get my mind right before it was time to face the day. And I did go on to have a great outdoor season. I firmly believe that getting proper rest was a big reason why.
For college students, who don’t live at home, but live in dorms or apartments where there’s always something happening, getting eight hours of sleep per night is not a practical goal. The freedom that the college lifestyle offers can be dangerous, so you have to be mature enough to set your own personal rules, you have to learn to discipline yourself. If you want to excel as an athlete, then you can’t be like everybody else. And the sooner you accept that, the better off you’ll be. But yes, even if you do try to get your proper rest, there’s always gonna be other people making noise, so what to do about that?
My advice to the college student is to learn the art of taking naps. In college, unlike in high school, you’re not in class all day. So there are cracks in the day when you can take a nap to restore your energy. Take advantage of those cracks of time. Don’t feel guilty about it. Don’t feel like you “should” be studying. Taking naps is just as important as studying, because if you don’t have the energy to study, then what good is all that studying doing you anyway? You won’t retain the information, and will do poorly come test time. So, take your nap so you can at least somewhat compensate for the sleep you’re not getting at night. An hour-long nap can do much to restore energy and make you feel more awake and alert for the rest of the day. The most important thing is to take the nap at the same time each day, so that your body looks forward to it. Ideally, you can take your nap prior to lunch-time, so that you don’t snooze on a full stomach.
Yes, water is the number-one drink for the athlete in training. I know there are a lot of super-duper fancy-schmancy energy drinks out there available for consumption, but nothing keeps you hydrated throughout the day and replenishes you after a workout more effectively than plain old water. I’ve known pro athletes who carry a gallon-jug of water around with them everywhere they go, even during the colder seasons of the year. Why? “Gotta stay hydrated,” they say.
Some energy drinks can be effective if used in moderation and at the right times. If you go around drinking Red Bull and coffee for energy boosts, you’re an idiot. Soda? No. Carbonation just makes your stomach bubble, and you’ll pay the price when coach says we’re doing 400s today. Gatorade is effective, but has more sugar in it than is preferable for an athlete in training. Again, the pro tracksters I’ve known mostly drink Pedialyte after workouts. Why? Because it replenishes the lost salt without putting in the sugar that comes with Gatorade.
Personally, I’m big on fruit juices too. Like Gatorade, they’re heavy on sugar, but they provide one of an athlete’s most essential nutrients: Vitamin C. In the cold winter months, especially, heavy Vitamin C intake is so important when it comes to fighting off the colds and flus that are going around when people all around you are walking around with snot-bubbles in their nose, coughing and sneezing in your face. We all know that a bad case of the flu can put you out of commission for a week or so, which can put a huge dent in your training schedule.
I’d be a hypocrite to talk about what to eat, because nobody ate more donuts, muffins, etc. than yours truly back in my day. I had a major sweet-tooth, and I still do. But I’ll have to go do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do on this one. Leave the sugary snacks alone unless it’s fruit. Load up on grapes, bananas, apples, etc. Fruit tastes good and it has nutritional value. As for meals, let’s keep it simple: eat foods that will give you energy, that will give you fuel to help you run fast. Greasy fried foods sure do taste good, but as with the soda, you’ll pay the price when practice starts. Often, time constraints and a low income prevent you from eating as healthily as you should, but do your best to avoid taking the easy way out. If you have access to scrambled eggs, a cantaloupe slice, and a glass of orange juice for breakfast, then get up early enough to prepare it and eat it. Don’t settle for the poptarts out of the vending machine unless that’s the only viable option.
Got a funny story for ya: Once I had a kid on my school team who was new to track and didn’t expect to run in one of our early-season meets. But we had a few kids out sick, so this kid, I’ll call him Fred, had to run the mile. He walked up to me before the meet and said, “Hey McGill, Coach Green [the distance coach] says I’m runnin’ the mile today.”
“That’s a good thing, right?” I said, thinking he was happy for the chance to compete.
“I went to Qdoba for lunch,” he said. Qdoba Grill was a Mexican restaurant that was very popular with some of our kids. The school day had been a half-day, so the kids on the team went with parents or friends to eat prior to coming back for the meet.
“Qdoba?” I said. “You went to Qdoba for lunch on the day of a meet?”
“I didn’t think I was gonna run.”
“Hope it stays down for four laps,” I said.
It didn’t. After the first lap, Fred, was already holding his stomach. After the second lap, he caught my eye as he passed the starting line and said, “That’s the last time I eat Mexican.”
He was still holding his stomach. I cracked up laughing. A couple kids who were helping to time the race heard Fred too, and they also burst out in a fit of giggles. Fred managed to finish the race, but he went straight to the fence directly afterwards and dumped that Mexican cuisine into the grass.
Moral of the story? Be smart. Of course, Fred didn’t know he was going to be racing that day, but still. . . .
“Play it cool, and move slow,” to quote an old R&B song. When I was in college, I could spot a teammate a mile away just by the way he was walking. A slow bop with a bit of a limp was a sure sign of a track runner. For the serious athlete, the majority of your physical, mental, and emotional energy has to go into your practice sessions and competitions. Rushing around at a frenetic pace during the school day is a good way to exhaust valuable energy, raise your anxiety level, and sabotage your own training efforts. During the day, slow down. If you’re in college, give yourself enough time to get to class without needing to race there. When you drink your water, sip it, don’t gulp it. When you eat your food, chew it, don’t swallow it whole. Be reflective, let other people rush around, caught up in the illusion that all this yackety-yack really matters. Conserve your energy. Practice relaxation in everything you do. Then when it’s time to run, then go ahead and show your speed.
© 2007 Steve McGill