In the last three weeks I've been fortunate enough to meet and learn from two former Olympians. To become one of the best in the World – competing in the Olympics at a particular discipline, they clearly know a lot about what that takes. If I can learn just some of that and apply it to my own life, perhaps I can adapt their methods and enhance my own life? I also have a particular interest in their own nutritional beliefs and practices.
The first Olympian was American track & field athlete, Michael Stember, who taught a sprint class at PrimalCon last month. Being at PrimalCon he completely “gets” Paleo and everything that involves. I learnt a lot of practical running tips from him that I've been putting into practice – but what I found most enlightening was the psychology he applies to his sport. He made it really clear that just wanting to achieve a goal is not enough. To achieve a goal you have to dream about it and have the certainty that you are going to make it a reality.
Earlier this week I went to a talk by Australian Olympic swimmer Matt Welsh. He is an ambassador for a health fund, so I expected his message to be a blend of agendas. Matt started describing his own story and how he got into Swimming relatively late at the age of 18, but made the national team. I'm really interested in the mental aspect to training and achieving goals, which he spoke about at length.
Matt started off on a smaller scale with his training – but he always kept in mind the big picture of the goal he wanted to achieve. This seems far more realistic than launching straight into a daunting regime – which is going to do anything but inspire. I was interested to hear how much importance he placed on being confident in races. He achieved this by “sabotaging” small local competitions (i.e. deliberately not wearing his swimming goggles), which meant that if something went wrong on the day of a big race, he’d already encountered that situation and knew how to deal with it. He removed the fear of the unknown by creating these different experiences.
I was also intrigued to hear the how much importance was placed on visualisation. The swimmers would visualise every detail of the race, as if they were actually in it. This process ensured that on race day they knew exactly what they were going to do, which ensured they stayed focused – at the optimum performance and arousal levels.
After the session (before I broke into my obligatory nutrition question), I asked Matt what he thought about when he was in the midst of a difficult training session. I've been asking this question of every athlete I meet, as I've found just changing my thoughts during a training session makes the difference between a dreadful session – and an exceptional session. Matt told me he used to let his mind wander and look at the tiles at the bottom of the pool – then one day he realised he was wasting his brain power. He switched his focus and would think about what his muscles were doing with each stroke – or when on the treadmill focus solely on a spot in the distance and not let his mind wander.
It was interesting to hear Matt talk about how, when his focus was on swimming, he was fit and healthy. But being fit and healthy was a by-product of his swimming. He concentrated on training, technique, race strategy, nutrition, recovery and exercise to get to his swimming goals. When he retired from swimming all of a sudden good health and fitness were no longer automatic and for the first time in his life he had to make them his focus.
He stressed the importance of enjoying the exercise you do – and not just exercising because you feel you have to, rather because you enjoy the activity in its own right. Consistency is key.
I was very eager to hear what he had to say about nutrition; as you've probably gathered, this is my favourite topic. The nutrition discussion started well, as Matt stressed the importance of eating what you need, before eating what you want. If you focus on what you want you won’t have room for what you need. Sadly the nutrition section then turned into not only a teaching of conventional wisdom (food pyramids, cut out fat – you get the picture), but also a soapbox on the importance of carbohydrates (and he wasn't talking about sweet potatoes)!
Matt had mention that he’d just started reading “Sweet Poison” by David Gillespie, so I thought it was a safe bet he’d know something about Paleo. Or Primal, or an Ancestral diet – or even a Caveman diet! I wasn't sure what to ask to get onto the topic of nutrition, but I thought I’d ask what he thought about a Paleo diet, which is something that has been very beneficial to me, but seems very different to what he discussed. His answer made it apparent that he didn't know much about Paleo – but had always been taught the nutritional approach he’d spoken about and he knew there were lots of studies backing up that nutritional approach.
He’d mentioned in his talk that he doesn't think we need to know the ins and outs of nutrition (but that it’s great if you do learn). He said we all know what’s healthy and we just have to make the healthiest choice available at any given time. I found his response to my question really enlightening as I just assumed athletes would have an interest in researching nutrition and experimenting on themselves. After all, they know how essential nutrition is to their performance and recovery. Clearly this isn't the case and often the nutrition advice handed out is taken as gospel without being questioned or experimented with. Personally, I disagree. I think everybody needs to know at least the basics on nutrition. Given that we literally are what we eat – how can we not have an interesting in understanding what we eat and what our body does with it?
Do you think people need to understand a little about nutrition? Or is it enough that they follow advice that someone else has researched?