Our understanding of player performance has taken a comprehensive approach and is being informed by age defying superstar athletes such as LeBron James and Tom Brady. In this article I will explore key approaches to optimizing recovery and ensuring career longevity.
Maximize rest and recovery
Although intuitive having adequate rest is important to performance and longevity. In particular ensuring adequate sleep should be an important part of every athlete’s regimen. During sleep, the body’s healing processes are triggered and waking up the following morning mentally refreshed has significant benefits for optimizing play. Much has been made of LeBron James’ attention to his sleep schedule and sleep environment. I believe that it is an understated key to his career longevity and something that is taken for granted by many athletes. In my own experience as a pre-med college basketball player at Columbia University I was known to pull a few all nighters studying for tests and then heading to practice. I felt like a warrior for being able to play at a high level despite not sleeping a lot. In hindsight however, I now know that I was stunting my own athletic performance even if my academic performance did not suffer.
In general, I believe that athletes should attempt to obtain eight hours of sleep each night. In order to achieve this, athletes must place an emphasis on bedtime routines – a practice generally referred to as “sleep hygiene”. For some people they may be in the habit of watching TV before bedtime – good sleep hygiene suggests that you shut off the tv in order to minimize stimulation prior to sleep. Some individuals may find that they have an ever-active mind “racing brain” and can find it difficult to fall asleep as they have a number of things on their mind prior to sleeping. Practices such as meditation can be very helpful in these situations. Even LeBron has gone on record to mention that he uses the Calm App as a resource to listen to some soothing sounds prior to falling asleep. In my own personal battle with optimizing my sleep hygiene I have found that setting a regular bedtime can go a long way for establishing reasonable sleep hygiene.
In scenarios where an athlete is not able to obtain adequate nighttime sleep, a well timed nap can be highly beneficial. The currently available sleep literature suggests that naps are most restful if kept short and under 45mins. Additionally, naps taken after 3p can interfere with night time sleep. With that said however everyone is different and I would encourage each individual athlete to figure out a nap quotient that allows him or her to wake up feeling sufficiently recharged.
Well what about modalities to maximize the recovery happening during sleep? Should I be using a hyperbaric oxygen chamber? The short answer is – maybe. Much has been made of LeBron’s use of the hyperbaric oxygen chamber. In theory hyperbaric oxygen treatment increases tissue perfusion, vascularization and healing. However, there is no level one evidence demonstrating that hyperbaric oxygen has superior efficacy for addressing sports injuries. There is certainly no downside – beyond the cost. So, if you are one of the luck few that has access to a hyperbaric oxygen chamber, you may want to try some well timed naps with high pressure oxygen.
You are what you eat
Beyond optimizing your rest and recovery, I believe that a keen attention to diet is the key to optimal performance and career longevity. Anecdotal evidence suggests that diet has played a key role for the durability of athletes like Tom Brady, Chris Paul and LeBron James. A completely separate article can be written about diet and what types of diet to implement for an athlete. I will give an overview with a few guiding principles.
Understanding that diet plays an important role in performance and career longevity is a critical first step. I generally counsel athletes to follow dietary guidelines that are palatable and easy for them to follow in the long term. For example – low carb diets can be difficult for athletes to maintain during the season as carbohydrates can be an important source of fuel. More important than following a specific diet (e.g. Paleo, Intermittent fasting, Mediterranean) is being a mindful eater and eating “clean” when possible. In general, “clean” eating seeks to avoid highly processed foods and items high in added sugars. Healthy eating has been shown to have positive effects for general health and when adopted as part of an athlete’s regimen I believe that it can unlock the secrets to longevity. As a general rule – lean meats, leafy greens, plenty of vegetables and adequate hydration should the staple of an athlete’s diet.
Beyond paying attention to food sources and composition it can be helpful to supplement. Specifically, athletes while in training are often in a protein deficit. As such it is important to supplement with protein after workouts and in some cases prepare a pre-workout shake to fuel the body ahead of grueling workouts.
Pay attention to the soft tissues
Keeping the athlete’s body supple and flexible is often overlooked and actually goes beyond warming up and cooling down. A stretching routine should be part of every athlete’s regimen and should be done before/after workouts and on off days. To that extent some athletes will incorporate yoga as part of their routine to increase flexibility.
The benefits of manual therapy are also being increasingly understood. Athletes such as Russell Wilson have gone on the record to exalt the benefits of daily massage treatments and for professional sports teams, massage therapists are an instrumental part of player health. The reality is that massage therapy can be a fringe benefit that is not available to the amateur and recreational athlete, however this can be supplemented with other self-assisted modalities like foam rolling and massage sticks. There is evidence now demonstrating that self-myofascial release (i.e. foam rolling) can improve joint range of motion and muscle reactive forces.
Taking a comprehensive approach to athlete performance can improve performance and ensure career longevity. In the recreational athlete, lessons learned from athletes like LeBron James and Tom Brady can prevent injury and optimize performance. In the aspiring athlete – taking a comprehensive approach can provide a performance edge, minimize injury and ensure career longevity. Although elite athletes have an armamentarium of resources and staff to help achieve their comprehensive focus, I believe that the general lessons can be adapted and applied by the masses. On a simple level – paying attention to sleep optimization, nutrition and keeping your musculoskeletal system primed should be top of mind.
To learn more about Dr Benedict Nwachukwu and his practice philosophies please visit www.manhattansportsdoc.com