The Fire Combustion Triangle is a basic model for understanding the ingredients required to produce a fire. The triangle shows the three elements that fire requires to ignite: heat, fuel and an oxidizing agent (usually oxygen). Extinguishing the fire can be done by removing any of the elements in the fire triangle. Igniting peak athletic performance follows the same concept in that sleep (recovery), nutrition, and training are the three elements required for athletic success.
Removing any of these elements will lead to an athlete’s failure to achieve optimal performance. When we sleep the mind rejuvenates and the body repairs itself. It is during periods of quality sleep that the body also absorbs all of the hard training that has been performed. The benefits of quality sleep apply to everyone, regardless of whether you are an elite athlete, an age-grouper like me, or even whether you are involved in sport at all! To ensure growth, one needs the right amount of sleep accompanied by excellent nourishment. Now, how can any athlete optimize sleep and nutrition so s/he can perform optimally without adding any extra training time? In the following paragraphs, I will discuss how my change in training perspective helped me improve athletically. I will also share ways in which you can improve sleep quality and finally, I will outline the nutritional practices of elite athletes.
Some Personal Perspective
I am a father, husband, coach, graduate student, typical age group competitive athlete – my life is busy! I have limited time to train as I also need to prioritize work and school, as well as find quality time for my family. As an athlete, I am constantly looking for ways to improve and ultimately beat my previous personal best times without compromising other aspects of my life.
As an academic who investigates various factors that influence sporting performance, I’m interested in studying and comparing the daily life routines of elite and age group athletes. Obviously, elite athletes dedicate a significant chunk of time to training, and this makes sense as training and competition is their job! It is simply impossible for most age group athletes to carry a comparable training load. Considering all the commitments I need to juggle, an increase in training volume to improving athletic performance is impractical. This led me to shift my attention to investigate how optimizing recovery and nutrition might lead to gains in my own athletic performance. I have found that making changes to these two corners of the athletic performance triangle are more practical and sustainable for a regular age group athlete like me.
Shortchanging the Zzz’s
The first corner of the peak performance triangle to consider is recovery. A meta-analysis performed by Pilcher & Huffcutt confirmed that overall sleep deprivation strongly impairs mood, cognitive and motor task performance (1996). According to Wheaton et al. (2016), “Sleep deprivation has been documented to harm athletes as it increases the risk of sports injuries” (p.337). That is why everyone, especially those who seek peak performance, should prioritize sleep. It is during sleep when our body recovers, restores, and rebuilds.
Unfortunately, despite abundant evidence, most people do not give enough importance to sleep. The causes of disrupted sleep or low quality of sleep can be attributed to any of the following factors: hard training sessions one to two hours before bedtime, a lack of exercise, ingesting caffeinated drinks too close to bedtime, exposure to blue light (e.g., screens on smartphones), poor sleep habits, depression and stress.
Prioritizing Sleep Hygiene
So how can one increase sleep quality? According to Stepanski & Wyatt (2003), “sleep hygiene routines can be adjusted as a stand-alone treatment or component of multimodal treatment for patients with insomnia” (p. 215). Another study by Brown et al. (2010) affirms that “sleep hygiene awareness, sleep hygiene routines, and sleep quality are related” (p. 33).
The key to enhancing sleep is changing one’s perception toward sleep and giving it more priority within one’s daily routine. What follows are some highlights of the sleep hygiene routine that I practice consistently for the purpose of optimizing the quality of my sleep. I begin by activating the blue light filters on all my gadgets to minimize blue light exposure throughout the evening and night or wearing blue light filter eye glasses. Next, I reduce the use of electronic gadgets by 7 pm, take a warm Epsom salt bath and drink milk with honey. I end my evening with 15 minutes of Yoga, meditation, and nasal breathing.
In addition to following this pre-sleep routine, I also try to practice each of the seven keys to sleeping soundly from the book The Ripple Effect by Greg Wells (Wells, 2017), these include:
- Avoiding caffeine after 2 pm (caffeine has a half-life of about 5 hours which means that taking it later in the day might affect one’s sleep.)
- Defending my last hour – this means calming down one hour leading up to when you want to fall asleep by reading.
- Keeping the bedroom dark as this promotes the production of melatonin which regulates wakefulness and sleep.
- Keeping the bedroom at about 19 degrees Celsius.
- Sleeping seven to eight hours each night.
- Taking two 20 minutes naps during the day.
- Taking up naturally by not setting any alarms.
Pivoting to Nutrition
The second corner of the peak performance triangle to consider is nutrition. Two books guide my nutrition compass, one of which is The Endurance Diet by Matt Fitzgerald. The Endurance Diet is composed of five eating habits that Matt Fitzgerald observed from all the athletes he interacted with both directly and indirectly during his research. These habits are easy to follow:
- Eat everything – this means that no food types are forbidden. A person should regularly eat foods that include all six of the basic categories of natural whole foods: vegetables; fruits; nuts, seeds, and healthy oils; unprocessed meat and seafood; whole grains; dairy.
- Eat quality – this means focusing on nutrient-dense, high quality, unprocessed food.
- Eat carb-centered – 60-80% of an athlete’s total calories should come from high-quality carbohydrate-rich foods (remember – vegetables contain carbs!).
- Eat enough – try to minimize time spent counting calories and instead, mindfully pay attention to your body’s signals of hunger and satiety.
- Eat individually – this means fine-tuning your own diet instead of copying someone else’s diet, as what works for one athlete will not necessarily work for another athlete.
The second book that has informed my views on nutrition for athletic performance is The Ripple Effect by Greg Wells (Wells, 2017). The seven keys for optimized nutrition outlined in this book are consistent with those of Matt Fitzgerald’s Endurance Diet.
These seven keys are as follows:
- Hydrate – Considering that our blood is composed of almost 80% water, our bodies have a decreased capacity for transferring nutrients and oxygen when dehydrated.
- Eat mostly plants – aim to eat more colourful fruits and vegetables as they are the best sources of antioxidants. Furthermore, the fiber from plants will keep us feeling full longer and will aid in digestion
- Consume more nutrients and fewer calories by eating nutrient-dense food rather than calorie-dense food.
- Eat anti-inflammatory foods – eating polyphenol-abundant fruits and roots can help regulate oxidative stress in our bodies. These possess anti-inflammatory properties, promotes faster recovery. The faster we recover, the sooner we can train again.
- Eat healthy fats – not all fats are harmful. The trend of thinking that low-fat foods are better for us is misguided – foods that are low in fat are almost always high in sugar (this is how low-fat foods are made to taste better). Healthy fats include extra virgin olive oil and coconut oil.
- Eat healthy carbohydrates – the goal is to eat more whole grains (i.e., “brown carbs” which are rated low on the Glycemic Index) than highly processed carbohydrates (i.e., “white carbs” which are rated high on the Glycemic Index).
- Eat healthy proteins – We can get protein from many sources including plants, legumes, meat and fish. If taken strategically, it will help us perform better in sports. For example, eating a high protein/low carb meal will help us become alert, while eating a low protein/high carb meal can help us relax and sleep better at night.
If we re-examine two of the three elements for athletic success, it becomes clear that focusing solely on one aspect will not bring about optimal performance. I believe the combination of simple strategies is the most effective method to reach peak athletic performance – starting with fine-tuning pre-sleep routine, being mindful of one’s body (for response to training as well as for the need for rest, response to stress, and the need for nutrition), focusing on one’s breathing, sleeping more than seven hours per day, train consistently and progressively, and eating healthy food all go hand in hand. Our peak performance triad is complete: if you remove one leg, the tripod will not stand. I feel it is essential to understand the interconnection of each strategy and how each of them interacts with each other.
Fitzgerald, M. (2016). The Endurance Diet: Discover the 5 Core Habits of the World’s Greatest Athletes to Look, Feel, and Perform Better (1st ed.). Da Capo Lifelong Books.
Brown, F. C., Buboltz Jr, W. C., & Soper, B. (2010). Relationship of Sleep Hygiene Awareness, Sleep Hygiene Practices, and Sleep Quality in University Students. 33–38.
Pilcher, J. J., & Huffcutt, A. I. (1996). Effects of sleep deprivation on performance: A meta-analysis. Sleep, 19(4), 318–326. https://doi.org/10.1093/sleep/19.4.318
Stepanski, E. J., & Wyatt, J. K. (2003). Use of sleep hygiene in the treatment of insomnia. Sleep Medicine Reviews, 7(3), 215–225. https://doi.org/10.1053/smrv.2001.0246
Wells, G. (2017). The ripple effect [electronic resource (eBook)]: Sleep better, eat better, move better, think better / Greg Wells.
Wheaton, A. G., Olsen, E. O., Miller, G. F., & Croft, J. B. (2016). Sleep Duration and Injury-Related Risk Behaviors Among High School Students—United States, 2007–2013. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 65(13), 337–341. JSTOR. https://doi.org/10.2307/24858002