Improvements in performance past maturity
A relevant fact here is that once athletic physical potential has been reached, physical improvements are difficult to improve upon. There are however technical improvements that can be made.
In a study of the world’s top 100 sprinters, mean annual improvements were in the range of only 0.1–0.2% . What’s interesting (and to be expected) is that in sports with a technical and equipment inclusion, performance could be increased further than in sports heavily reliant on physical abilities such as running. This is because technique can have a disproportionate impact on results.
We also know that an athlete reaches their physical peak at a range of ages. For example, research shows that in sports requiring a lot of outright power, peak age tends to be around 27. In swimming, where power isn’t as big a factor, peak age tends to be younger (around 20). In endurance sports where power plays very little role in success (ultra-endurance cycling), peak age is around 39 .
What this shows is that achieving a PB isn’t simply a case of working harder in training, it includes practical training as well.
We’ll start with skills, because the technical element of a sport has a huge impact. All sports have skills and techniques to master, from running to gymnastics. The variance is in how technically demanding these skills are.
There are various approaches to skill acquisition and no ‘silver bullet’ approach, but what we do know is that different sports have differing levels of skill requirement. For example, swimming, jumping, weightlifting, throwing etc have a much great reliance on technical proficiency than, say, marathon running.
Research shows that working with specialist skill coaches provides more effective skill acquisition and mastery than working in a group setting .
At the elite level, it translates as getting granular with a skills coach will yield more effective technical returns than working in group training sessions, performing drills you’ve done the entire time. If you want to improve performance, breaking out of what you’ve previously done may be the answer from a technical standpoint. Evidence suggests non-linear models of skill practice (practicing skills in a variety of settings and environments) may lead to better long term skill acquisition and mastery .
Training complexity dictates that there’s no single approach to achieving maximum physical capability. For example, the training needs of an 800m runner will be different from those of a triathlete.
What research tells us is that an appropriately periodised training programme, followed to with a suitably progressive volume and intensity delivers the best results. Taking an event and working back allows you as an athlete or coach to decide the most effective time period and intensity increase to ensure the athlete will be in peak physical and mental shape ahead of the event.
Periodisation has long been accepted as effective in the endurance world, but more recent analysis has shown it to be effective in the strength and power sports environment too, cementing its place in all aspects of sport .
The appropriate level of fitness will be reached around a week before the event, then maintaining during a period of tapering, allowing the athlete to be fully rested and recovered ahead of competition. Tapering strategies vary between sports and individuals, with some studies suggesting a short, sharp taper is most effective and others saying that a longer, slower taper works best.
The research is inconclusive in the sense that both approaches work. The important thing is that there is a tapering period included in the programme, which will allow you to rest, recover and continue to improve up until competition day. Research shows that expected improvements in tapering weeks can range between 2-8%, with rare exceptions showing over 22% .
The intangibles – rest and recovery
We know that rest and recovery are vital to achieving maximum performance output, but what we can’t make a recommendation on is how much. The reason for this is that we recover at different rates, so to make a blanket suggestion wouldn’t be right.
Conclusive research suggests that athletes suffer from compromised sleep patterns, possible due to travel (jet lag), high training loads and exposure to competitive situations which increase arousal, reducing the ability to sleep and the subsequent sleep quality .
The studies suggests that 7-9 hours are optimal for athletes and the researchers make the following recommendation for improving sleep quality…
- Always aim for 7-9 hours of sleep per night
- Take daytime naps if night sleep isn’t sufficient
- Improve sleep hygiene – consistent bedtimes, early exposure to natural light, avoid stimulants etc.
- Sleep in line with your body clock – avoid training too early or late to allow time to rest afterwards.
- Be careful with sleep monitors – they can cause sleep anxiety which affects sleep patterns
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