You Are An Athlete. And You Want To Get Better.


I see a lot of folks turning to a sport or activity, and taking it seriously. This is simply awesome. My personal journey to fitness started in a similar fashion - running with Team Asha. To be quite honest, I was simply viewing it as a tool to lose weight, not dissimilar to countless others. Training for long runs and triathlons was pretty easy (in SF). Good weather, awesome locations, crazy choice of events in amazing places which are conducted without a hitch. However, after participating in a couple of races, I became more interested in lifting barbells and kettlebells, and didnt do much of running/biking etc. So, along the way, I got more passionate about participating in these events, training for them, and took them a lot more seriously. After I ended up moving back to Madras (to start The Quad), I thought my days of running/cycling/swimming were done. C'mon - the weather is crazy, the roads are crazy, no trails or such to speak of inside the city. But now that am here, it is awesome to see that the most important part of the equation - the community - is vibrant here. If you wanna run, or cycle, or surf, or play Ultimate, or anything in between, there's already a ton of people doing it and who want you to join them. I do have to say, it is gonna be a while before I take part in 'hill sprints' though - running up a flyover is not for me. Yet. This post is aimed at these folks - whether you are just gonna pick up a new activity, or have been at it for a while. You have a passion for it, a drive to keep doing it. If you didn't, you wouldn't be waking up at god-awful hours to go on a energy sapping run/bike ride etc. And it is because of this fervent interest and passion that I believe you want to get even better at it. I'd like to draw from my experience, starting from being clueless to well, clued in. And I would love to hear from you on what your journey was like - what you got right and what you got wrong. I think it is absolutely essential to try to keep getting better, coz hey, where's the fun in stagnating?! Striving to Improve

From a simple activity like running to a more complex activity like Ultimate, there's a few things involved that we can work on. First (not in any priority), the necessary skill and technique required to play the game. Second, the mental aspect that's involved, and third, the physical aspect. What is the difference between us and an elite athlete? Well, about ten thousand hours of hard work, to simplistically quantify it. For more on that, you should read Bounce by Matthew Syed, or if you cannot get your hands on that, Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell should be pretty easy to get your mitts on. You do not get better by mindlessly repeating an activity, but you get better by quite simply, getting better at the three things involved. Else, we would all be world class drivers wouldn't we, considering the amount of time spent behind the wheel. Do you want to be stuck at the same level, or do you want to constantly challenge yourself and improve, even if it is little by little. Hint: The answer is the latter. Separating skill work from fitness work

It is important to separate skill and technique work, and do "lame" things. Because to learn the correct movement pattern takes 12-18 months! And if you learn the wrong thing, it takes a lot more to undo it. You can expect to do 25,000 repetitions to reform a bad movement pattern! So, learn stuff the right way. Take it slow, coz there's no easy undo button over here. Runners traditionally play the volume game, clocking in anywhere from 20 to 40 miles a week while training for a marathon. I trained this way for my first half-marathon, but when I did an Olympic distance triathlon, I modified my training style to be a lot more efficient. By separating skill work and endurance work, I was able to get better at both in lesser time, than trying to do both at the same time. Let's reason through this. I had never swam in open water, my freestyle technique sucked and I could breathe only via one side. And I had to swim about a mile in open water. Likewise, cycling 25 miles wasn't too much of a problem, except my technique had a lot of work. Running was the only thing in the bag - 6 miles - which is definitely a walk in the park when compared to the swim (for me). But these 6 miles come at the end of two hard legs. Obviously, I needed a lot of endurance work, I needed to get my heart rate under control and keep working at a steady state. So, I focused on things like HIIT, metabolic conditioning etc to build up endurance, while working on strength and speed - this is where the kettlebells and barbells come in. And I spent 2 weeks at a swimming pool, working on technique, before venturing out to the open water. Likewise for cycling. And to simulate the run, I would run across the Golden Gate bridge after finishing my crazy workout at San Francisco CrossFit. This was definitely against the traditional method of piling up the volume, and helped me keep the two things apart - skill vs fitness. [caption id="attachment_1667" align="aligncenter" width="450"] Finish a workout at SFCF, and then run to the end of the bridge and back[/caption] Skill work

  • Break down your sport. What are the 'duh' things that are so obvious that you do all the time? Long distance running - obviously running technique. You take about 110,000 steps while running a marathon! If you can get more efficient in one small thing, you make 110,000 tweaks to your run. Imagine that! Do you need to modify your running style to POSE running? What about heel striking, bounce, stride angle etc?
  • Break down your role or style of play. If it is tennis, what is your style of play? If it is football, what is your position? And what is the movement that you do all the time? The 80/20 rule most certainly applies. Get better at your strengths.
  • Make smaller drills for yourself. Break down the repetitive patterns into atomic units, and work on them. And then slowly put them together.
  • Practice the skill in a 'safe place', but make sure you try it out in the arena. The sooner you replicate the game situation, and make mistakes - the better it is. Learn from what happens.
  • Train with like-minded folks often. From being a support system to helping you get better, this is a no-brainer.
  • Shoot videos of yourself. This is a great analyzing tool to help you understand what you do. At The Quad, we see this all the time. What you think you are doing, and what you are doing is miles apart. For example, we ask folks to have a straight (not vertical) back when they swing a kettlebell. But most folks start off with a rounded back. A photo or video of what they are actually doing corrects the wrong mental image in their head of what they think they are doing. Once they know the problem, fixing it becomes easy. Likewise, for deeper analysis of yourself, a video is a must!
  • Be open to newer/alternate methods of training. Is it necessary to play the volume game while training for a long distance run? Like I mentioned earlier, keep the skill work separate from physical preparation, at least in the beginning.


Visualization. Creating the mental imagery and simulating the experience is what I mean by visualization. The most quoted study when it comes to visualization was done by Aussie psychologist Alan Richardson, > Richardson chose three groups of students at random. None had ever practiced visualization. The first group practiced free throws every day for twentieth days. The second made free throws on the first day and the twentieth day, as did the third group. But members of the third group spent 20 minutes every day visualizing free throws. If they "missed," they "practiced" getting the next shot right. On the twentieth day Richardson measured the percentage of improvement in each group. The group that practiced daily improved 24 percent. The second group, unsurprisingly, improved not at all. The third group, which had physically practiced no more than the second, did twenty-three percent better—almost as well as the first group!

See what Wayne Rooney has to say on this topic, > Part of my preparation is I go and ask the kit man what color we're wearing -- if it's red top, white shorts, white socks or black socks," he says. "Then I lie in bed the night before the game and visualize myself scoring goals or doing well. You're trying to put yourself in that moment and trying to prepare yourself, to have a 'memory' before the game. I don't know if you'd call it visualizing or dreaming, but I've always done it, my whole life.

See patterns, break it down. We spoke about this in skill work - breaking down fundamental moves that you do into their atomic units and making it into drills. And you perfect these drills while doing skill work. Now, connect the drill to the game. The biggest hole I see between practice and game is folks not implementing what they spent hours practicing. When in a game situation, we revert back to our old methods subconsciously. This is because we have not worked on how a drill makes sense in a game. In a drill, we have a less number of variables. But in a game, there's just lots more (more players, each doing their own thing) and we get disoriented. This is where visualization and connecting drills to the game comes in. When coming up with the drill, see in what situations the drill is gonna be used. Visualize and construct a point by joining together a few drills. Observe elite athletes doing what they do, and analyze it. C'mon, watching sport and calling it 'research' - you know you wanna do that. In fact, this is what am doing right now, this Olympic season ;) Physical Fitness

This one's pretty obvious, right? Well, not as much as one would think. Since the sport is a physical activity, most folks tend to think they have this covered. But hey, we are talking about improving, whether it is inch by inch or by leaps and bounds. And for that, training is necessary. Mistakes happen even at elite levels, so why wouldn't this be compromised by us? And it is. Sports fitness is a topic I could and will write focused articles on. So, let's look at a few examples for starters, and finish up with a few simple pointers. The Indian hockey team has a new coach, Michael Nobbs, who has completely revamped their training style. He has understood that we are on par, if not better, in terms of skill work but lag far behind in the physical aspect of the game. Definitely give the article a read, to see what he has done to reconstruct the hockey situation in India. > The deficiency, as he saw it, was not in skill but in fitness. You just have to place an average Indian player next to an average European or Australian player to see this. Fix that problem, and India can rule the astroturf. He wasn’t the first to have that insight. But, as every businessperson knows, insight is nothing without execution. And that is where the Nobbs story really begins—and ours.

At The Quad, we work with quite a few athletes, in fact teammates of mine at Chakraa, a Ultimate Frisbee team in Madras. The focus here was on fundamental stuff - strength, speed, endurance and mobility - the four tenets of The Quad, rather than on the fancy-shmancy stuff you see out there on the interwebs. There's a time and space for ladder drills etc but crawl first, then walk, then run! We are seeing tremendous results by just focusing on the basics, rather than jumping the gun.

  • Food as fuel. This one's obvious and neglected all the time. You cannot be an athlete if you keep piling crap in. Nope, sorry! Have you tried going gluten-free? Have you tried eliminating common allergens and irritants from your diet? Have you played around with macro-nutrient ratios to see which works better for you? Why not?
  • Stretching after your workout is important, in terms of recovery. In fact, athletes today spend a crazy amount of time in taking care of themselves, and a lot lesser time in actual training!
  • Listening to your body is important. If something feels off, figure it out. Stop hurting yourself.
  • Working on strength, speed, endurance, mobility & flexibility. Stick to the basics - the biggest gains are here, in the novice level. Once you exhaust all these gains, you can go to the details. But 80% of the gains are gotten here.
  • Being patient, not jumping the gun is important - and just an extension of the previous point
  • Are you injured? If so, STOP! Fix that injury first.
  • Being smart, and dropping that ego. You might have no current injury problems, but if you are too skinny or overweight, think about how much harder you are making it for yourself. I've competed in triathlons where I get my ass handed to me when it comes to skill work, but I get my own back coz of my much better physical shape. If dropping weight, or adding muscle would help you get better - duh, do it.

That's pretty much it, for starters. Sports fitness and nutrition is a different beast from mainstream fitness and nutrition. Work at it with a systemic approach, and you will see results. It is certainly one of my favourite topics, one that I hope to delve into a lot more detail here. For loyal readers, I sincerely apologize for disappearing on you. And hey, do share this post!

Show Comments