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Perform Better

The Health and Wellbeing Journey

The Health and Wellbeing Journey

The Sport Science Program Home Page

I hope you will put the lessons of this Program to good use by developing the habits you need to succeed such as staying in the Zone, finding your focus, changing the state of your body and using proactive relaxation techniques. They are all approaches to the “mental game” that will help you improve your performance considerably.

Chinese poet and philosopher Lau Tzu is credited with observing that you can go as far as you can imagine, but only if you make a commitment to yourself. The central idea is that everything worth doing begins when you say, “I have a dream, and I am going to make it happen.”

Everything in these components has been about your personal journey. Being 1% better every day isn’t about big, dramatic changes. You can’t leap ten miles at a time. You can’t move ahead to next week or next month or next year. All you can do is give this moment – this day – your full attention.

With one exception: your dream.

Make sure you are always thinking about your dream. Focus on it at all times. And then weave it into everything you do. That’s how it will become a reality.

Every person is capable of exceptional things. To you, It’s living better, achieving more, feeling good, having energy, staying healthy, and believing in yourself. It’s offering your best at school, at home and at practice.

It has been a pleasure spending this time with you. I’ve enjoyed your questions and comments and stories about your journey. I’ve heard a lot about your dreams and your challenges, and I’m grateful for that. One way of being 1% better every day is to learn from others, and I’m lucky to have learned so much from you. Thank you for participating and striving and sharing.

I wish you the very best on your journey!

Today's POWER-UP


The 4 Keys to having a GREAT taper

The 4 Keys to having a GREAT taper

The Sport Science Program Home Page

I want to talk about what is probably your favourite time of year - taper. However, while it might seem simple, there are many ways to have a great taper, and a lot of ways to have a bad taper. I want to make sure you are one of the minority of athletes who can consistently improve your performance on the day of the competition. To make this happen I've identified 4 key areas you can focus on.

1. Limit Your Stress

When I was working for the Canadian Sport Institute, I did a search of all the research that had been done that tried to identify what factors determined whether or not an athlete would improve their performance at the Olympics. This was a really important question because only about 20% of Olympians achieve a lifetime best performance at the Games. So knowing what could help people get into that 20% was critical.

After lots of reading and analysis I discovered that there was one factor that, above all others, determined if an athlete would improve their performance. That one factor was stress. The athletes with the lowest levels of cortisol in their blood and saliva had the greatest improvements in performance.  

As I mentioned earlier in this module, acute stress is beneficial for performance, however chronic stress can be detrimental to health and performance. If cortisol is at an elevated level in your system consistently then it blocks adaptation. And when you're tapering you need as much adaptation as possible. You want new blood cells, stronger muscles, faster acting nerves and less inflammation in your body. If you can lower your stress levels and help your body to recover better you're well on your way to being one of the few athletes who can improve your performance consistently when it's race time. Here are a few ways to do that.

2. Sleep

As you learned in the Sleep Soundly module, you need a good solid sleep to repair muscle tissue and speed recovery. Therefore, for your body to adapt during taper you need to sleep more. You need 8-10 hours on a regular basis. During your taper and during racing I'd love you to add a 20- or 90-minute nap during the day (remember our discussion on the importance of the length of your nap). This includes a midday nap between sessions during a competition.

Also no screens before bed. This can be a huge lifestyle change, but television, iPads, laptops and mobile phones all compromise your ability to fall asleep and then sleep deeply. So you might need to cut out the late night talk shows or YouTube clips and pick up a good book instead.

3. Relax

I want to introduce you to Progressive Relaxation, which is a technique used to relax the body and mind.

This exercise will further develop your ability to recognize and relieve tension. Muscle tension consumes energy inefficiently and decreases circulation, leading to physical aches and pains. Progressive relaxation can have significant benefits: improved digestion and cardiovascular function, relief from aches and pains, and improved sleep. All of which are important during taper.

Progressive relaxation consists of alternately tensing and releasing different muscle groups. Hold each muscle contraction for 3-5 seconds and each relaxation phase for 10-15 seconds.

Some basic instructions are provided below. As you try the techniques, notice the differences between sensations of strain and calmness. You can be seated in a chair or lying down for this.

  • Lean back and make yourself comfortable.

  • Close your eyes. Raise your toes as high as possible, hold, then release and let the tension go into the floor. Point the toes and repeat.

  • Tense the upper part of your legs. Experience the tension. Hold then relax, feeling your legs against the chair and your feet against the floor. Experience the relaxation.

  • Tighten your stomach muscles . . . then relax. Take a deep breath, feeling the tension in your chest. Exhale and relax. Concentrate on how calm you can get.

  • Make tight fists with your hands and hold for about 5 seconds. Unclench your hands and let the tension flow out, noting how it feels different to relax.

  • Do the same with your upper arms, then your neck. Frown, and then relax. Take a moment to notice any other areas of tension and concentrate on releasing those as well.

  • Take a few deep breaths and open your eyes – you will be totally alert and relaxed!

If you would like a guide to doing this technique check out The Inside Edge audio program by Dr. Peter Jensen on iTunes.

4. More Energy Less Tension

A few years ago I had the chance to go watch a training session with one of the Olympians that I work with – Adam Van Koeverden. You can check him out by visiting his website Adam’s a kayaker and has won 4 Olympic medals and numerous World Championship medals – so he’s a reasonable athlete! During the workout we headed out onto the river and Adam did his workout in the boat while I watched from the motorboat.

During the workout I asked that Adam work through a descending set. It’s a tough workout but I love it because it lets me see where fatigue sets in and how athletes respond to the physical discomfort that comes with the buildup of lactic acid, carbon dioxide and other chemicals in the body.

What’s super interesting about descending sets is that different athletes respond completely differently to the same physical and mental stress. Some experience fatigue, muscle pain, hard breathing and then increase their effort and get tense and tight. They’re working really hard to finish the training. Others – like Adam – move into the very challenging part of the workout and they almost seem to relax more as they go faster. Their energy output increases but they don’t try “harder”. They just go “faster”.

They accomplish this by being ruthless about where they place their energy. Adam will activate the muscles that he needs to use to hold the paddle in the water and exert force on that paddle. But other muscles that are not being directly used to move the boat forward are completely relaxed. As a result he’s able to be efficient, paddle with better technique, and be faster while putting his energy right where it’s needed to achieve his objectives.

Tension makes us feel like we’re working hard but it leads to more distress, decreased circulation, bad moods and ultimately more fatigue and poorer performance. We need more energy and less tension in our training, especially leading up to a big competition.

The first step in learning how to do this is to be aware of your body and mind. Try the tension release exercise below a few times during the day to see if you can release tension, reset and recover better.

By focusing on these 4 keys during taper, we can make sure you take your performance to another level.

Visualize Yourself Succeeding

Visualize Yourself Succeeding

The Sport Science Program Home Page

By Dr. Sarah Gairdner

Manchester United striker Wayne Rooney has been known to request the club kit details for the following days match (including the colour of the shirts, shorts and socks). He requires this level of detail in order to enhance his ability to produce an accurate visual image in his mind, a huge part of his psychological preparation for upcoming games.

“I lie in bed the night before the game and visualize myself scoring goals or doing well,” he once revealed. “You're trying to put yourself in that moment and trying to prepare yourself, to have a 'memory' before the game.” Having a clear understanding of which kit he will be wearing allows him to create a detailed and rich image, which translates into better mental preparedness. “I don't know if you'd call it visualizing or dreaming, but I've always done it, my whole life.” 

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High performers regularly use imagery to help them prepare for big events. In this case, Rooney uses imagery to create or rehearse a positive mental experience in order to enhance his ability to achieve a successful outcome in real life. It is important to consider both the process (using technical skills on the field of play, careful dribbling and passing) and outcome (completing a goal task successfully, winning the game) when using this technique to increase your confidence and improve your performance.

One key to making this technique work is to use all of your senses… Can you smell the freshly cut grass and sweat from your uniform? Can you see the bright lights and vivid colours in the stadium? Can you hear the fans cheering, and the sound of your teammates and coaches communicating? Can you feel your cleats on the grass and your uniform grazing your skin? The more detail you can conjure up the better, as research shows that successful imagery requires creating the most accurate and realistic depiction of your environment as possible.

Today's POWER-UP: Ready, Set, Write!

Create a short film in your mind which exemplifies your journey to successfully achieving your goals. Perhaps it is a well-executed swim race, or a powerful shift in hockey… maybe it is a ‘stuck’ beam routine. Tell the story of what it looks like, feels like, sounds like, and smells like to be out there in the pool, or rink, or gymnasium, successfully completing your ideal performance.  

Start from the beginning... What is it like in the locker room? During your pre-performance warm-ups? Once you get into the flow of the swim, game or routine? Completing the event successfully and being announced as champion?



The Sport Science Program Home Page

By Dr. Sarah Gairdner

Michael Phelps is the most decorated Olympian of all time, winning 28 Olympic medals across four Olympic Games, from Athens to Rio. While it is hard to imagine a time when Michael Phelps wasn’t dominating the pool, interviews with his coach Bob Bowman reveal that young Michael needed work to fine tune his ability to control his thoughts and emotions.

Bowman explained that when he first met Michael at age seven, though he had the “perfect swimmer’s body” he struggled with stress and emotion and was struggling to calm down before races. Bowman realized that if Michael was going to live up to his physical potential and talent, that he was going to need to fine tune his mental and emotional skills.

Bowman recalls buying a relaxation book for Michael and his mother to use on a nightly basis to improve his ability to cope with stress. The book contained a script – “Tighten your right hand into a fist and release it. Imagine the tension melting away” – that tensed and released each part of his body before he fell asleep.

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Flash forward fifteen years, during the 2008 Olympics, Michael described watching the calming documentary, “Planet Earth,” on repeat and performed a meditative relaxation exercise in the competitors ready room. Michael went on to win eight gold medals at that Games and was famously quoted saying “Swimming is normal for me. I’m relaxed. I’m comfortable, and I know my surroundings. It’s my home.”  Michael creates an internal environment of calm for himself and is able to succeed in the pool as a result. 

Relaxation refers to a release of tension in the body and mind. Michael Phelps’ story exemplifies how world class athletes use relaxation to optimize their performances, using it as a way to attain a state of calm and return their body and mind to an equilibrium, even in stressful and high energy environments. 

Today's POWER-UP: Tension Release

Practice tension release to stop yourself from bracing – a habit of lifting your shoulders and clenching your muscles. This can lead to relaxation and improved mental performance by increasing your circulation and energy.

To accomplish this, begin by becoming aware of muscle tightness and body position. Do so by asking yourself several questions:

1. Can I drop my shoulders?
2. Can I relax my hands? Stomach? Legs? Forehead?
3. Can I sit in a more comfortable position?
4. Can I relax my core and deepen my breathing?

Then, when you find an area of tension, use the focus breathing we have worked on already to release the tension and free your body and mind of limitations.

The key to executing this technique is awareness of your body. You have to recognize when you're tense then stop - and then take 10-15 seconds to practice the tension release technique. Once you get good at this it can happen faster and faster and it will be come automatic. 

Dive Deeper: Try Meditating :-)

More and more athletes are incorporating meditation into their usual training. Kobe Bryant reports meditating every day, one time during a game! Other athletes are starting to use meditation on a regular basis, making it as high a priority as getting proper nutrition, rest, and recovery. Check out the article How Meditation Gives Pro Athletes The Edge on how meditation improves mental and physical performance. 

I suggest the headspace app. Download it at

Build Your Flexibility

Build Your Flexibility

Stretching (also known as building flexibility and mobility) is an incredibly important element of athletic performance that is often overlooked. Yes, there is an ongoing debate about exactly what kind of stretching is best, but there is no debate about the fact that everyone should do it. Regular stretching decreases muscle tension, reduces pain and improves range of motion. 

But what kind of stretches should you do?

There are two major categories of stretches: static and dynamic. Static is the name for traditional stretches where you put a muscle on stretch and hold it for a period of time. Dynamic activation is the name for any motion that extends your muscles while moving, like swinging your legs or arms or doing lunges before a workout. Each type of stretching has an opposite effect on the nervous system.

Before you exercise, dynamic activation is the preferred approach. Dynamic activation causes excitatory neuromuscular signals to be sent from your brain to your muscles and increases range of motion, blood flow and muscle temperature, all of which help with exercise.

Static stretching is best done when you are cooling down or when you're just stretching to relax. It helps to align your muscle fibres and reduces tension. So do this type of stretching after a workout.

Today's POWER-UP

See the cardio warm-up for examples of dynamic stretches you can do before your workout and this stretching routine for static stretches you should do post-workout.

Don't Get Sick!

Don't Get Sick!

As we continue our Perform Better module, we need to consider the link between exercise, recovery, and the immune system. 

Imagine you've trained tirelessly for more than a decade. You've thought of everything and prepared endlessly to make sure you have the best chance of reaching your potential. Then on the plane to your event, you pick up a virus and get sick. Even an infection as simple as the common cold can disrupt your performance and end your dreams.

A fascinating paradox in human physiology is the concept of the J-shaped relationship between exercise training and health. The “J-shaped hypothesis” suggests that, in general, people who exercise regularly experience fewer illnesses and infections than those who do not. However, increasing the amount of exercise beyond moderate levels does not improve immunity further. Quite the opposite happens. When athletes train at volumes and intensities excessively higher than normal for extended periods, they experience a significant increase in illnesses. I'm sure you've experienced this on many occasions during periods of high-intensity and high-volume training.

Immunoglobulins, also known as antibodies, are proteins produced by white blood cells that identify specific pathogens. Research on soccer players suggests that exhaustive exercise may cause a temporary suppression of these antibodies. This immune suppression is temporary and may last from a few hours to a few days, depending on the volume and intensity of the exercise. In this situation, a lower immunoglobulin level presents an "open window", or an opportunity for viruses, bacteria or other microbes to gain access to the body. 

As an elite athlete you are under tremendous physical and mental stress. You're probably intuitively aware of the J-shaped relationship, even if you haven't read the research. So how can you prevent getting sick in periods of high training? The good news for you is that great advances are being made in our knowledge of how to keep athletes healthy during stressful training, intense competition, and while traveling. Here are some simple but effective suggestions:

1) Refuel. Your muscles and immune system are competing for nutrients after exercise, so make sure you're refuelling with proper carbohydrates and protein, especially after a really hard workout. 

2) Fruits and vegetables. Make sure you're eating a balanced diet, including lots of fruits and vegetables. 

3) Supplements. Eating foods that are high in nutrients is ideal, but supplements can help ensure you’re getting what you need to keep yourself healthy during training or periods of high stress. Many athletes take L-glutamine, an amino acid used by the body to repair muscle tissue, and to fuel white blood cells. Taking an antioxidant supplement containing vitamin C, vitamin E and beta-carotene is also suggested.

4) Hygiene. Wash your hands and avoid touching your eyes, especially during the first hour after exercising.

5) Sleep. Make sure to get extra rest and sleep after periods of really hard training or competitions.

Today's POWER-UP: Vitamin C to Improve Immune Health

How to treat the common cold, and specifically the use of vitamin C to do so, has been a source of controversy for decades. Dr. Robert M. Douglas and Dr. Harri Hemilä looked at studies of elite athletes and determined that in those participating in physically stressful events such as marathon running, cross-country skiing or physical training, vitamin C supplementation decreased the risk of infection by 50%.

They also noted that one study, which had a very large sample size, indicated that treatment of the common cold with 8 grams of vitamin C per day after the onset of symptoms had a beneficial effect on the symptoms experienced.

So, although I am sure there will be more research and debate on this topic, for now it appears that you should be taking some vitamin C regularly—and that you should increase the amount you take if you get a cold or participate in some serious physical activity.

Excellent food sources of vitamin C include broccoli, bell peppers, kale, cauliflower, strawberries, lemons, mustard and turnip greens, brussel sprouts, papaya, chard, cabbage, spinach, kiwi, snow peas, cantaloupe, oranges, grapefruit, limes, tomatoes, zucchini, raspberries, asparagus, celery, pineapple, lettuce, watermelon and fennel.

The Locus of Control

The Locus of Control

The Sport Science Program Home Page

At the Atlanta Summer Olympics, American swimmer Gary Hall Jr. faced off against Russian swimmer Aleksandr Popov in the final of the 100-meter freestyle event. The best in the world. America vs. Russia. Hall on home turf. Intense.

As they were introduced, Gary played to the crowd, shadowboxed, and looked up into the stands while Aleksandr stared calmly at Gary. As they prepared for the race, Aleksandr stared at Gary more while Gary looked aroud. And when they were racing, Aleksandr breathed so that he could see Gary alone.

Throughout, the attention of the two athletes was very different – and when they arrived at the wall to end the race, Alexsandr out-touched Gary to become Olympic Champion.

A key factor that led to Aleksandr’s win was his belief that, if he focused on Gary, he could control the outcome of the event. In the scientific literature, this is often referred to as the locus of control.

If you can learn to direct your attention toward the tasks or factors that you can change and control, you will be more able to get into the Zone and succeed. You will also be less anxious because you aren’t worrying about things that are beyond your control, such as your teammates' moods or what the weather conditions will be like on the day of the competition. They are things to hold in mind but you cannot change them.  

Being clear about our locus of control allows us to focus on the right things at the right time. By concentrating on the things that you can have an impact on, and not getting worked up about those you can’t, you are far more likely to achieve an ideal state and excel.

Today's POWER-UP: Clarify your locus of control

Look at this image of a green circle inside a red circle:

Now write down a list of things in the white space all around the two circles that stress you out or that require your attention and energy. Brainstorm for as many stressors as possible. Then draw a line to the green area from each stressor that you can actually control and a line to the red area from each stressor you cannot control.

Act on the items in green (green means GO!) and let go of the ones in the red area (red = STOP!).

By doing this exercise a few times, you’ll quickly discover how you can control your attention and direct your efforts and energies toward things that you can affect and improve. This will make a huge difference in your life. Your mindset will be simply, “I can’t control that, move on.” Or, “I can make a difference here, let’s get to work.” Try it out and see how that helps you to direct your focus and energy.

Welcome to Perform Better!

Welcome to Perform Better!

The Sport Science Program Home Page

Welcome to our final module - Perform Better! I think it’s a good idea to launch this module by recognizing the presence of stress in our lives and making choices about how to respond. The reason for this is that if we can rise to the challenges that we are faced with, perform to our potential, then recover and regenerate optimally we will ultimately reach our potential.

So in this post, I want to share with you how to use stress to your advantage and minimize its negative effects so you can perform better.

Surprised that there are advantages to stress? Many people are. But stress is a lot like food: none at all is bad for us and too much can make us sick. We can learn to lower stress levels and help our bodies and minds to recover after periods of high stress.

You know what acute stress feels like: you've trained hard the entire year, the day of the big competition finally arrives, and you're standing behind the starting blocks, or about to run onto the court, or throw your first pitch. Your heart feels like it’s going to pound out of your chest. Your adrenal glands have just dumped hormones like epinephrine (also known as adrenaline) and cortisol into your blood. Adrenaline and cortisol increase the activity of various organs like the heart, the lungs and your muscles. You feel like you’re buzzing.

The benefit of hormones like adrenaline and cortisol is that they increase our capacity to function at a high level, both mentally and physically. The activation of the nervous system and the powerful effect of hormones improves our brain function and the strength and power of our muscles. This stress is built to improve our performance. This is a good thing in short bursts. But it’s a bad thing to be flooded with those hormones for long periods. If they remain in our systems over time, or are dumped into our bloodstream day after day, they can cause problems. That’s what chronic stress is – not just a short burst but a prolonged period.

Short bursts of stress (called acute) are essential for helping us to perform at a higher level. But elevated stress over long periods of time (called chronic) can make us sick. 

So hold in mind as we explore stress that the classic signs of stress – anxiousness, difficulty sleeping, irritability, headaches, chest pain, brain fog, and so on – arise in us when we feel threatened and afraid. And while we’re surrounded by many stress triggers, the answer isn’t to eliminate stress. There is upside and downside. We’re going to look at both, so you can perform better than ever.

Today's POWER-UP

Check out this TED talk by Kelly McGonigal on how to make stress your friend.

Power Words

Power Words

The Sport Science Program Home Page

At the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, Skier Alexandre Bilodeau used a technique sport psychologists call cue words to help him win a gold medal. I've renamed cue words as Power Words - I think they're super impactful so the new name works better for me. I hope you agree. Let me explain. As Alexandre stood looking down on the moguls run, the potential for distraction was massive, including 10,000 cheering fans. So he focused on the two things that he and his coach had decided were key to victory: letting his knees go forward over the bumps and being soft and relaxed during his second air.

To do so, he stood in the starting gates and said softly to himself “forward” and “soft” – pre-arranged Power Words he used to focus on the most important elements of his run. The result? Pure gold.

When I rode across Africa in 2003, I had time at night in my tent to avoid the malaria-carrying mosquitos. With no Internet, all I could do was read. So I took in a few autobiographies – Mahatma Ghandi’s, Nelson Mandela’s – and a biography of Mother Teresa.

All three books were profound. Especially the way they illustrated that each figure had single words that represented their beliefs and guided their decision-making in the face of threats to their life, imprisonment and regular contact with the worst possible conditions of life.

Ghandi liberated India from the British Empire using “Truth.” Mandela endured 25 years in jail and forced the South African government to abandon apartheid using “Equality.” And Mother Teresa became a saint for her work tending the poor and the sick using “Love.”

We can all apply this technique at peak performance moments. Think about what you need to do to have a great performance and then see if you can describe those actions in one or two words. Then say those words to yourself right before the performance begins to remind yourself of what you need to do to be successful.

Today's POWER-UP: Follow these steps to establish your own Power Words

1. List a skill, technique, strategy or other element that is critical to your execution of your dream / goal performance.

2. List the key elements of that skill, technique or strategy that will result in a successful performance.

3. Is there one word or phrase that could summarize the response that you should have? That is your Power Word.

4. When is it most important to remember to use your Power Word?

Power Words remind you of who you are and what you should be doing in a challenging situation. Figure yours out and use them to power through tough challenges.

If you'd like feedback on your own Power Words, you can fill out this form.