The Gaps in Your Training Aren’t in the Gym

You need to get more reps in, but not with a barbell.

When it comes to training, people are always convinced they need to do more. In a way, they are right. But what almost all athletes need significantly more of is not the cool stuff that gets retweets. It’s nutrition, mobility and recovery education, and most of all, mental training. For athletes at any level, these hidden gems are every bit as important for performance as your lifting, but they are largely ignored.

If your goal is to get to the next level, I encourage you to train and develop these other qualities. Here’s how to do it.

It’s not always extra work in the gym that will elevate your performance. [Photo courtesy Cara Kobernik]


I’ve written at length about the way our nutritional habits damage the health of our nation. For athletes, poor nutrition costs even more. Without the right foods and enough of them, your workouts will not be as intense as they could be, and results may go down the drain.

Nutrition can be complicated, but it comes down to a few staples:

  • Drink water almost exclusively, and avoid soda.
  • Eat breakfast, lunch, dinner, and a few healthy snacks.
  • Post-workout meals should be high in protein and higher in carbohydrates.
  • Eat more real food by shopping on the periphery of the grocery store.
  • Athletes may require more food, so adjust accordingly.

If you feel you need even more guidance, set up an individual consultation with a Certified Sports Nutritionist, who can take blood, urine, and give other tests to create an individualized plan.

Mobility and Recovery

Better mobility translates to improved speed and strength. Athletes who can move through a greater range of motion will be more resistant to injury and able to get in positions that make them far more effective on the field. In most physical contests, the low man wins, regardless of strength.

For help with mobility I look to the the simple methods highlighted in these two articles:

Overwhelmed? To simplify mobility, find a good yoga class and commit to going a few days a week. I also recommend anything by Kelly Starrett, whose website MobilityWOD is full of helpful videos.

Mental Training – Visualization and Meditation

One of the secrets of mobility is calming the mind, which leads to the final key to better fitness: mental training. This is the most ignored and most beneficial training modality. Today’s athletes are brought up in a world of constant distraction and ego development from social media. Young athletes obsess about how they look on the field or what people will think if they don’t make varsity this year. All of these concerns take the mind miles away from what’s important now. Often the consequence is erratic self-sabatoging behavior and the propensity to make small challenges into overwhelming struggles.

In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg tells of a young Michael Phelps. Phelps was diagnosed with ADHD, and he was defiant, easily distracted, and emotional. His coach, Bob Bowman, saw this, but also saw his amazing talent. He went to Phelps’s mother and explained the only thing that could hold Phelps back was his emotional intelligence. He had to begin training his mind.

Bowman gave her a series of tense-relax mental exercises for Phelps to do before bed each evening. He then taught Phelps to ritualize a pre-contest routine that trained his brain to expect success. This routine culminated in him “putting the tape in.” Phelps would visualize vivid details of his upcoming race and its impending success. This training helped Phelps become the most decorated Olympian of all time, with 22 Olympic medals total, and a record eight gold medals in one Olympic games. These visualization routines have long been used by the best and can be found in books like 10 Minute Toughness by Jason Selk.

The greatest tool for mental training and focus is meditation. Anyone who has ever tried it will see that quieting the mind is like trying to catch a fish with your hands. The difficulty of this pursuit reveals its value. At its root, meditation is simply training your mind not to be swept away by every thought and urge that runs through your consciousness. It is being mindful of what is here and now. Most people are at the whim of their emotions, and being mindful teaches you how to calm your mind and allow your training to take over.

The track record of meditation in the athletic world is well-established. Recently, Novak Djokovic has climbed to the top of the tennis world using meditation to make his focus razor sharp and his mind clear. Hall of Fame basketball coach Phil Jackson is famous for using meditation personally and collectively with his teams. He employed George Mumford, a vigilant meditator, to help advise his athletes. Mumford’s advice to Kobe Bryant before his career best 81-point game was simple: “The best way to score is not to try to score.” By not forcing what wasn’t there, Bryant was better able to focus and react to what the defense gave him.

There are many great resources to help you get started, but I recommend Headspace to anyone who’d like to begin training in this way.

It Isn’t Glamorous, But It Works

If all you ever do to recover is eat well, stretch, and train your mind, you will be ahead of 99 percent of athletes. There are other recovery modalities, but before you overwhelm yourself with a regimen of ice baths, I recommend starting with the above methods.

These training methods aren’t sexy. They don’t get high numbers of hits on YouTube, and they certainly aren’t the kind of thing athletes brag about. Can you imagine that conversation?

“Bro my meditation is paying off. My systolic blood pressure is under 100 and I can touch my toes for the first time ever.”
“Dude, that’s nothing. I totally removed artificial sugars from my diet and got eight hours of sleep every day this week. I’m so alert its scary.” 

Still, if you want to get to the next level and build healthy habits that will enrich your training and you life, this is where you start.

Stuck on a training plateau for what seems like forever? It may not be your training:

Lower Stress to Increase Fitness

Coaches: Your programming has to mesh with your clients lives outside the gym:

Do You Have Flexibility in Your Programming?

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