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?

“Physical wellness is the actions and steps taken to keep your body fueled and strong so that it can perform,” Dr. Erin Ayala, who leads Premier’s Research and Analytics team, says. “It’s prioritizing your physical health and your body.”

You’ll notice Ayala 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. In order to get peak performance you need peak recovery,” Ayala says.  “If you’re not giving your body an opportunity to rest after all the reps and hard work outs, it’s not going to absorb that training stress the way that it should, it hurts you more.” 

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

“The field is starting to turn and recognize the importance of sleep because of the research that’s coming out and the long term consequences of sleep deprivation,” Ayala 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. 

“It may have worked for them, but we also know that it does not work for the general population,” Ayala says. “I also wonder what could have been different if those athletes did get eight hours of sleep.”

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. 

“Sleep is one of the first things that athletes tend to let go of,” Ayala says.  “People with busy schedules and college students especially struggle with this.  Their downtime comes before bed and can lead to ‘doom-scrolling’ on their phones which prevents them from needed sleep.”

The Nitty Gritty..What You Need

Ayala 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,” Ayala 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,” Ayala says. “If your sleep is all over the board, you’re more likely to be sluggish in your waking hours, your reaction time slows down, and there are tons of 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. 

“If you want to read an old-school book, that’s fine, but you’ve got to stay away from the screens.” Ayala says. 

A cool space is critical for effective sleep. Ayala recommends sleeping in an environment that sits at 62-63 degrees fahrenheit, as the core temperature of our bodies increases when we sleep. Excessive warmth and sweating can lead to restlessness and disrupt sleep; beat the problem before it arises. 

Ayala also recommends to her athletes to get blackout curtains to block out ambient light and to use ear plugs or headphones if external noises are troubling their sleep.

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,” Ayala 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.   

“There are a lot of different fads out there such as intermittent fasting and Paleo, but at the end of the day, your body just needs good, high-quality nutrients to do its job,” Ayala 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?” Ayala 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. 

“I tell my athletes and especially those who train year round to take at least one or two weeks to relax and chill to absorb all the training stress before your season starts, because if you don’t, you’re setting yourself up for injury,” Ayala says. 

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,” Ayala says. “Without that, you’re going to become more stressed, which makes your body 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.  “Your bed should be for sleeping and sex,” Ayala says.  “Our brains are super associative and if your brain doesn’t know it’s time to sleep, you’re going to struggle.”  As difficult as it may be at times, hold yourself accountable for finding other spaces around your house, apartment, or dorm room for activities such as homework, work, and movie-watching. 
  • Create a bedtime routine. Commonplace for children, many young adults stray from this as they age. Ayala recommends making things such as taking a shower, brushing your teeth, meditation, or even letting your pet outside part of a habit that prepares you 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. Ayala 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.

To measure your own performance mindset and profile, try Premier’s Athletic Wellness and Performance Assessment.