Athletic performance can always be improved to some degree.
It doesn’t matter how old you are, what genetics you landed or what you did or didn’t do in the past, you can still improve.
All of those factors will affect your absolute potential, but the ability to improve is universal, thanks to biology.
There are many factors that go into improving athletic performance, this article will focus on those that have the biggest impact.
There Is No Easy Way
Was the title of this article clickbait? No. I meant easy in relative terms. You’ll see why shortly.
The biggest (controllable) factor in athletic performance is always going to be the amount of work done.
Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.
This improves both skill and capacity, which are both involved in athletic performance to various degrees. However, one thing that often gets overlooked, is economy.
Being Economical Is A Good Thing
So what is economy, when it comes to athletic performance?
Economy is the energy cost of performing a task. In endurance activities, this is measured by oxygen consumption, which is analogous to fuel efficiency in a car.
In strength or power based activities, it is a little harder to measure economy, because in a matter of a single lift, throw or jump, peak values are more important than sustained values. However, you can measure maximum force production along with muscle activation and then compare it to the task at hand to get a gauge of economy.
As an aside: efficiency is not economy.
Efficiency refers to the conversion of total work done to productive work.
In a car, the engine has about 25% efficiency, which means that most of the energy is converted to heat and other forms of energy which do not propel the car forward.
There is debate among sport scientists as to how much efficiency can be improved, if at all. That there is debate, suggests it is not the easiest attribute to change, when compared to something like economy.
Generally speaking, being economical is a good thing, because it means you can sustain a higher output for longer, whatever size your total output is.
Factors Influencing Economy
- Skill: whatever you do, there is a skill component. Thus, the more you practice the skill of movement, the more economical you become. This is due to the law of specificity (you get better at what you do) having task specific improvements in both motor control and tissue adaptations. This is true whether it comes to running and jumping or playing a ball sport.
- Anthropometry: you don’t need to have a degree in biomechanics to appreciate some body types are better suited to certain activities. Tall people with long limbs and great cardiovascular systems make good rowers. Tall and powerful people make good jumpers. The better suited you are to a task physically, the more economical you will be.
- General movement ability: Better movers will have an easier time learning the specific task skills (motor learning is a skill in and of itself) and have less/more efficient internal resistance when performing movements. Internal resistance can be thought of as the different intrinsic factors that impede movement/output.
You can hopefully appreciate that anthropometry is hard to change, outside of gaining and losing weight (which is still fairly difficult to change beyond a certain point).
That leaves us with the skill of performing the task or general biomotor ability as our targets to improve athletic performance.
Considering that getting better at running by running more and running faster is actually quite hard work, it becomes obvious that the easy way to improve athletic performance is to improve your general movement ability, and more specifically, reduce your internal resistance as much as possible.
Performance Is An Output
Before I describe the easy way to improve performance, and give specific examples, it is important that you understand a simple model of human function.
Basically, this says that performance is an output, governed by inputs and processing.
An output that is dependent on multiple variables can be improved in multiple ways.
The typical way is to try and change the output by affecting processing.
Think of someone learning to swing a golf club with a coach. The coach might demonstrate what a swing should like like, explain the mechanics and theory of the swing and perhaps provide feedback via video.
This can work, but it is not always the most efficient way to go about things, due to the way we learn movement. When we perform a task, our brain is only concerned with whether that task is completed. However, with no reference point as to what the completed task should look or feel like, it simply doesn’t know what it needs to change in the execution to become better at the task.
If we can give better inputs – sensory information from both the external (outside the body) and internal environments – then the brain has a better time in learning the task, because it has more information it can process, which multiplies the potential for better outputs (performance).
It is usually easier to provide better sensory information to the body than it is to improve skill and capacity, hence, this is the “easy” way to improve athletic performance.
How Do You Improve Inputs?
Improving your inputs, with the end goal of becoming more economical and thus improving your athletic performance can be done in a number of ways. In my experience, these have a synergistic effect – the more you use over time, the better.
Focus On End Points
The first change to sensory input you should give yourself, is exposure to the “end points” of movement.
Continuing with the golf swing example, this would we the top of the back swing and the top of the follow through. By learning these positions, your brain builds a “memory” from which it can determine success or failure of the planned task. What happens in the middle will be inherently variable anyway (more on that later), but if you can get the end points right, you are off to a good start.
Find The Path Of Least Resistance
What happens between the end points will be determined by what your body can and can’t do.
Remember I mentioned internal resistance as a factor affecting your general movement ability? Think of the internal resistance like an anchor or handbrake – it won’t necessarily stop you, but it will definitely slow you down and effect economy.
Generally speaking, most people should have a certain range of motion available to them at each region throughout their body. There is always some individual variance, but enough people have been measured to find that we all fit within a range.
We can lose this range for a number of reasons. In the Selective Functional Movement Assessment (SFMA), fundamental patterns are assessed, and if they are painful or dysfunctional (including lack of range or poor control), these movements are further broken down to find the limitation.
These limitations can be caused by a number of factors, which are categorised as:
- Joint mobility dysfunctions
- Tissue extensibility dysfunctions
- Stability/motor control dysfunctions
Regardless of the system, it becomes obvious that you probably can’t resolve a mobility issue with stability drills and vice-versa.
These dysfunctions (the term is theirs, not mine – I prefer adaptations or defensive outputs, because they are usually protective against something the brain is worried about) will contribute to your internal resistance with movement.
By addressing them, you take the brakes off and without getting stronger, more powerful, fitter or more skillful, you are free to express your full ability, and thus you improve your athletic performance.
When we perform any repetitive task there is an inherent variability involved. No two repetitions are exactly the same. This is a good thing. It helps us manage fatigue and minimise loading on any single tissues.
Movement variability is a factor in economy too.
Ideally, we have low end point variability (you hit the golf ball dead centre every time), but enough variability within the movement to utilise the most effective path at that instant in time.
Reducing internal resistance facilitates variability, whilst providing feedback ensures that the variability enhances, not detracts from performance (novices demonstrate more variability than experienced athletes, by definition reducing economy).
This is similar to, but not the same as learning the end points of a movement. Feedback should be objective and external initially, which progresses to a subjective and internal “calibration”.
It is easier to express this with an example.
When learning to hit a golf ball, initially you are focused on simply hitting the ball. If you make contact, then the hit is deemed successful. This is an objective and external source of feedback. You either hit the ball, or you don’t. After repeatedly hitting the ball, you begin to learn what it should feel like, which is a form of subjective and internal calibration.
Taking this further, you want to hit it in a certain direction. If the ball lands where you were aiming, you get an objective, external feedback of success. With repetition, you start to feel when you are striking the ball well and how this correlates to the direction of the shot.
With more focused practice still, you begin to calibrate the feel of the swing with the direction and distance of the ball. All of this happens unconsciously, because you are getting more sensory input about the task.
Over time this leads to improved skill and thus better economy. End result? You guessed it, improved athletic performance.
Where Do You Start?
To know what you need to do to improve your athletic performance, you must start with an appropriate assessment.
A good assessment will look at all the factors involved in athletic performance, including those related to health, and from there you will be able to devise a more specific approach targeted to your needs.
From there, you need to have outcome measures, which usually comes down to your specific athletic event. If you are a runner, then your run times are the outcome measures. If you are a golfer, your driving distance and accuracy and your handicap become the outcome measures.
Once you have established your needs, have a base of outcome measures to compare against, you simply apply the interventions as you need, with the aim of improving the sensory inputs and processing sides of the equation before you retest after the appropriate amount of time.
It is impossible to reduce performance down to one or two factors – we are human after all, and thus very complex.
What I wanted to illustrate with this article, was that to improve your athletic or physical performance, you don’t always have to push harder and harder on the output side of the equation.
Often working smarter on the input and processing side of the equation will yield much better results, with much less effort.
There is an expression in performance circles:
Strength is not built, it is granted to you by your nervous system.
When it comes to athletic performance, the concept is the same.
If you have lots of “anchors” weighing down your performance, it is going to be easier and more effective to cut them loose than it is trying to crank the engine harder in order to go faster.
This blog post was written by Dr Nick Efthimiou (Osteopath), founder of Integrative Osteopathy.
This blog post is meant as an educational tool only. It is not a replacement for medical advice from a qualified and registered health professional.