August 6, 2019

The Performance Equation

Rest is 50 per cent of the equation, yet many hard-working runners believe that more training is the answer to improving performance.

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This post was originally written for The Straits Times as part of a 16-week column preparing runners for The Straits Times Run 2019.

For nearly a decade, I was lucky enough to train and race full time. First, with the support of my parents and later, as I improved, as a professional athlete through sponsorships, prize money and funding from Triathlon New Zealand.

As a professional athlete, it’s your job to perform to the best of your ability as you represent your sponsors and country in each race. Countless hours are spent planning your preparation with the support of a team of specialists, to optimise every detail of what you’re doing.

It’s not enough to train hard; you need to train with purpose and recover from it so that you improve consistently.

Coaches, sports scientists, dieticians, physios and several other people all play a role in optimising an athlete’s training plan, diet and activity outside of training to improve recovery so that the athlete remains healthy and the quality of each training session is high.

Training and recovery must be in balance.

Performance = Stress + Rest

If you’re like the majority of the athletes I work with, I imagine you’re balancing your training with a full-time job, family and social commitments. With so many things fighting for your time, it’s often your recovery that gets neglected.

One hour less sleep, poor dietary choices and too much caffeine. No time for naps, stretching and other recovery practices.

Genetics aside, these are the real things that differentiate the pros from their amateur counterparts.

While the pro does their training and then goes home to fuel, nap and recover, the amateur gets dressed for work and grabs breakfast on the go.

The performance equation states that Performance = Stress + Rest.

Rest is 50 per cent of the equation, yet many hard-working runners believe that more training is the answer to improving performance. While sometimes the case, often you’ll benefit more by focusing on your recovery and improving the quality of each of the runs that you do.

With the importance of recovery now established, let’s look at some things you can do to improve the quality of your recovery and increase your training consistency, the ultimate performance enhancer.

Cut Race Times, Not Corners.

Racing at your potential and enjoying training is easy when you’re following the right programme.

How To Recover

Run For Time, Not Distance

Running 10km up a mountain will take you a lot longer and put you under more stress, than 10km run down a hill. 60-minutes however, takes 60-minutes regardless of whether you’re running uphill or down, into a headwind or on the sand. When stress is higher, for example, you run 10km up a mountain on a grass track into a headwind; you’ll cover less distance. When stress is lower, for example, running on a flat road, you’ll cover more distance in the same time.

As I discussed in a previous column, the amount of time you spend running is more important than the number of kilometres you log because it’s the duration of effort that your body senses – the stress.

Use A Heart Rate Monitor

Heart rate is a way for your body to communicate the amount of stress it is under. When your body is stressed, either through a hard training session or from life, it will respond with an elevation in heart rate. On days when you’re stressed, the elevated heart rate reading will mean that you must run slower to stay within your zone. Likewise, on days when you’re recovering well and feeling good, your heart rate will be lower, and you’ll be able to run faster. In short, you’ll always run hard enough to elicit a benefit but not so hard that you overdo things and can’t recover.

Prioritise Sleep

Studies have shown that you need 7 – 9 hours of high-quality sleep each night to function optimally. As an athlete, you’re likely on the higher end of that scale. If you’re not getting enough sleep, I recommend taking a hard look at your priorities and where you are wasting, oops, I mean spending your time, and trying hard to increase the amount of sleep you’re getting.

Improve the quality of your sleep by sleeping in a cold, quiet and dark room. Wear an eye mask and earplugs and avoid screens before going to bed.

Eat Real Food

Look at the ingredients list of the foods you are eating. If your grandparents wouldn’t recognise the ingredients, you’re likely consuming a food product, not real food. To improve your ability to recover, and your health, you need to eat real foods. Real foods are minimally processed, whole foods that have a minimal ingredient list, if any. Think fruits and vegetables, meat and fish, nuts and seeds. That type of thing.

So review your lifestyle and make better choices if you’re serious about becoming a better runner.

Photo: Zoe Tan

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Ben Pulham

Ben Pulham is the founder of Coached, a personalised training programme that helps runners & triathletes optimise, track and enjoy their training.