Get enough sleep, eat healthy, embrace the grind.

You’ve heard it all. 

The concept of physical wellness may seem like a gimme; after all, it’s no secret that taking care of your body correlates with stronger performance on the field and in life.  Yet the endless tales of seven hours of sleep, extra reps before the season, and rise and grind don’t tell the full story; in fact, they corrupt it in some ways. 

Physical Wellness..What is it?

“When we talk about physical wellness and how it relates to sport psychology, we define physical wellness as any potential action taken to keep your body fueled, healthy, and strong so that it can function optimally,” Dr. Justin Anderson, who is the founder of Premier Sport Psychology. “It’s prioritizing the behaviors that promote physical health, your body, which in turn ultimately helps your mind as well.”

You’ll notice Anderson didn’t mention early morning lifting or running an extra mile after practice; that’s because there’s a key difference between physical wellness and physical training.

“A lot of athletes focus on the importance of training, which is obviously important and well understood. However, somewhat less talked about or understood is that in order to achieve peak performance with any consistency, we also need peak recovery,” Anderson says.  “If you’re not giving your body an opportunity to recovery optimally after all the reps and hard work outs, it’s not going to absorb that training stress the way that it should, and it can set you back.”

The bottom line? Training sessions are only as good as the wellness and recovery that takes place between them.

The what is your opponent doing when you’re resting and four hours of sleep to get up and lift maxims leave out the fact that to be at your best, you need quality sleep, strong nutrition, and effective recovery. 

Sleep Hygiene..Why You Need it

“There has been a ton of research on the importance of sleep not only for physical recovery but also mental recovery.  What’s also interesting is we are seeing significant improvement in injury prevention and performance for those athletes who begin to adopt good sleep habits.  Many young athletes feel like they can get by without good sleep, and I guess they can get by, but they could thrive if they improved this one habit.”  Anderson says.

You’ve probably read of professional athletes waking up ridiculously early to lift and start their daily routine, forgoing recommended hours of sleep. While that may have worked for them, that’s not necessarily the best practice…whether you’re an athlete or not. 

The old-school mantra of I’ll sleep when I’m dead is gone, or it should be if you live by it.  If you want high performance on the field, court, or rink, sleep is a must. 

“Unfortunately, sleep is one of the first things that people, including athletes, tend to prioritize less,” Anderson says. “However, if sleep could become higher on their list of priorities—spending more time sleeping and less time scrolling on their phones—they would likely accumulate a lot more sleep weekly. This could help with everything from physical wellness to making better decisions, and being happier or in a consistently better mood.”

The Nitty Gritty..What You Need

Anderson recommends that individuals of all ages get at least eight hours of sleep (nine for teenagers). For athletes, even more is better.

Research is showing that athletes should be getting even more sleep given the demands of sport,” Anderson says. “A lot of athletes are (and should be) getting 9-10 hours.”

Numbers are great, but the greatest fault often lies in a routine sleep schedule. 

“The other thing that is often neglected is consistency with a sleep schedule,” Anderson says. “If your bedtime is inconsistent, your biorhythms get out of whack, and you’re more likely to be sluggish during your waking hours, along with a whole host of other negative consequences.”

Consistency helps wane those consequences. Having a set time when you go to bed and when you wake up (on both weekdays and weekends) teaches your body when it’s time to wind down and when it’s time get going, allowing you to reap the benefits of strong sleep and avoid the consequences of sleeplessness.

Sleep in itself is critical, but getting to that point is just as important and requires strong sleep hygiene. This includes things such as sleeping in a cool space, avoiding spicy foods before bedtime, and putting your phone away an hour before going to bed. 

“Many sleep experts are telling our athletes to limit their screen time right before bed, especially if they are having a hard time falling asleep. The light can trick the mind into believing that it’s time to get up rather than wind down,” Anderson says.

Anderson also recommends that athletes create a more comfortable sleeping environment by using blackout curtains to block out ambient light, and earplugs or brown noise makers (there are apps for that) if external noises are troubling their sleep. In addition, he advises creating a cooler environment, which can be critical for effective sleep. Anderson suggests sleeping in an environment that is at or below 68 degrees Fahrenheit. Excessive warmth and sweating can lead to restlessness and disrupt sleep; it’s best to address the problem before it arises.

Athletes know that sleep is important, and the benefits gained make a commitment to your sleep routine worth the effort.

“If you’re coming off a night where you slept at 70%, there’s a good chance that your training session could be 70% that day,” Anderson says. “By getting good sleep, you’re going to train better, think more clearly, make better decisions and have stronger mental strength.” 

Nutrients..Being Smart

Strong sleep is a major player in athletes who have strong physical wellness..but it isn’t the only one. Like gas in a car, athletes must fuel their bodies with nourishing and nutrient-heavy food.

That can sometimes be easier said than done, especially for high school and college student-athletes. While a slushy might be satisfying after a big game, it offers nothing to aid an athlete’s recovery or prepare her for her next practice or competition.  Cheat meals aren’t taboo, but should be part of an otherwise balanced diet.

Athletes with strong physical wellness fill their bodies with nutrient-dense foods. That slushy may have the same number of calories as a grilled chicken sandwich with rice and spinach, but it’s clear which option is going to give the athletes the resources their bodies need to perform.   

“Over the years, we’ve seen a of different fads out there such as intermittent fasting and Paleo, all may be helpful for some people, but at the end of the day, a vast majority of athletes just need good, high-quality nutrients to do its job,” Anderson says.

Hydration is another key indicator of strong physical wellness…not just hydrating during practice or a game, but throughout the course of each and every day. 

“Treat hydration just like your pregame routine,” Premier’s Dr. Adam Gallenberg says. “It may not feel like it at first, but by continuing to hydrate all day every day, it will become second nature.”

“At the end of the day, you need to ask yourself, am I being intentional about what I’m putting into my body?” Gallenberg added.

Being Proactive and Preventing Injuries and Burnout

There’s a connotation out there that more reps in the offseason equal better performance at gametime. That can be true, but be mindful of diminishing returns.  Extremes are not good and lead to injury and burnout. 

Many athletes will kick it into gear and train twice as hard in the weeks prior to their season starting. In reality, the opposite should be taking place. 

Going into the season with a fresh and rested approach is especially critical prior to intense training such as spring camp or tryout week. During those times, high-quality physical wellness is a must for athletes hoping to have a successful season. 

“Being extra diligent about nutrition, hydration, and sleep is especially important during intense training periods,” Anderson says. “Without that, we’re going to become more stressed, which makes our bodies more prone to injury.”

The Bottom Line

The concept of stepping away from the bench press or track to focus on physical wellness can be difficult for athletes. After all, the message of embracing the grind has become commonplace in today’s culture and athletes may feel like they’re depriving themselves if they ‘go the extra mile.’

That isn’t the case. Truth be told, going the extra mile means taking care of your body, knowing when to step away for a bit, and getting a proper night’s rest on a consistent basis. 

Doing these things will naturally increase your threshold for performance.  A late night at the gym that results in 70% sleep quality, followed by a poor breakfast, will give you a lower threshold for peak performance than capping your training early, getting an evening’s rest and nine hours’ sleep, and eating a nutrient-rich breakfast.

The road to peak performance doesn’t come through embracing the grind, it comes from minding the grind and taking care of yourself.  You can’t have peak performance without peak recovery and physical wellness. 

“There’s this perception that anything that you can do to get ahead of your competition is going to make you better.  That is such a recipe for injury and burnout.  It’s not sustainable.”

Tips for Increased Physical Wellness

  • Make your bed your sanctuary.  The last few years have made it easy for us to complete work and homework from the comfort of our beds.  That isn’t a good thing.  “Our beds should be for resting” Anderson says.  “Our brains get conditioned easily and if our brain doesn’t know it’s time to sleep, we can have a more difficult time winding down.  As difficult as it may be at times, try to find other spaces around the house, apartment, or dorm room for activities such as homework, work, and movie-watching.”
  • Create a bedtime routine. Commonplace for children, yet many young adults stray from this as they age. Anderson recommends making consistent bedtime habits such as taking a shower, brushing your teeth, or meditation that can help prepare your mind and body for sleep.
  • Stay away from alcohol and caffeine before bedtime. While many assume  that alcohol helps them sleep, it actually hinders sleep quality, given that it is a depressant. Anderson also recommends staying away from intense workouts before bedtime, given that they stimulate the brain in a way that prohibits quality sleep.
  • Go beyond macros when constructing your diet.  Athletes are well-trained in the number and proportion of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates required to reach their strength and conditioning goals, but be mindful of the nutrient content of your meals.  Adding spinach to your protein shakes, green vegetables to your meals, and a balance of fruit, healthy grains, and seeds to your daily diet will move you further toward your performance goals than hitting your macros alone.

This article is part five of a five-part series from Premier’s Research and Analytics division on unlocking personal performance potential.  Read part 1 here.  Read part 2 here.  Read part 3 here.  Read part 4 here.