How to Improve Athletic Performance at Any Age

athletic performance

How to Improve Athletic Performance at Any Age

Whether you’re a seasoned athlete or looking to improve your weekly game of pickup basketball, it’s never too late to improve your athletic performance. Along with biometric health measures (like blood pressure, resting heart rate, weight, and fasting blood glucose), physical performance is one of the ways to gauge your overall health and wellness as you get older. It’s also a way to track progress over time if you’re an elite athlete or participating in competitions. 

Athletic improvement, much like any form of personal health care, is all about strategic training, eating, supplementing, and quality sleep. You want to work hard but not hurt yourself by overtraining. 

You want to eat the food that will fuel your performance, which may include weight loss, muscle gain, or a strategy that does both. You want to supplement the right nutrients to optimize how you build muscle and use energy, and you want to hydrate properly. You also want to make sure you’re getting enough sleep so that you’ll be at your best on game day. 

Each of these categories — training, food, supplements, and sleep — can be tweaked based on your sport-specific goals and your current physical condition and age. You might start by hiring someone to help you at the gym. Private personal training is a great way to get the ball rolling and learn a few routines that you can then practice on your own. But we’ve compiled some ideas to get you started, whether or not you’re a fitness club member.

Training for Athletic Performance

Woman climbing a mountain with impressive athletic performance

Every sport has its own athletic requirements, but many of them overlap. In most modern sports, you need to be conditioned for endurance, cardiovascular agility, and strength. The mental game is also critical when it comes to competition. It’s how you get there for each sport that is personalized with sport-specific training programs.

For example, a rock climber is an endurance athlete who uses isometrics, slow and careful body movements, and lots of strength and body balance. A climb could take five minutes, five hours, or five days, and a mistake could be deadly. 

This kind of endurance and sustained mental focus is totally different from a long-distance runner or cyclist who needs to go at a somewhat consistent pace for a long time and has at least some room to go on autopilot mentally. 

Likewise, this type of endurance is different from a basketball or soccer player sprinting up and down the court or field for minutes at a time with brief rests between while running plays that require team coordination. 

Athletic training for the mechanics of each of these sports might be varied but a focus on conditioning the heart and body, having strength and power, fine-tuning specific muscles and movements, and honing your mental game is key to sports performance. Let’s review some options that can improve athletic performance.

HIIT and Standard Cardio

HIIT workouts (high-intensity interval training) involve short bursts of activity followed by brief rests. They require a timer to be done properly — there are free apps you can download to make this easy. Here are a few to consider:

There are a few ways to complete a HIIT workout. One is to have a timer for 20 seconds of activity with 10 seconds of rest before the next 20 seconds of work. You do eight rounds of one exercise (a total of four minutes) before moving on to the next exercise. This type of HIIT workout is called Tabata and usually takes 20 minutes to complete. Other HIIT workouts can have a longer “work” window and make sense for exercises that take longer to complete — two to three minutes of work with a full minute of rest, for example.

Standard cardio is a lot simpler. Jumping on your stationary bike, setting it to 8 and grabbing a book is a more standard way to do cardio. Running five miles at roughly the same pace the whole time is another. You might be working hard, but you’re not hitting your max. Also, you’re generally doing these activities for more like 30 minutes to a couple of hours (or longer for long-distance athletes). 

HIIT makes sense for agility athletics — soccer, basketball, lacrosse, volleyball, tennis — and athletes who need bursts of movement and then time to recover like climbers, mountain bikers, and skiers. Long-form cardio is more suitable for distance athletes like cyclists, distance runners, and triathletes. 

This isn’t to say that different types of athletes wouldn’t benefit from each other’s training programs. In fact, research shows that if you switch up your movements, you’ll reap greater gains than if you stick to doing the same thing all the time.

A great HIIT workout for an agility athlete might include burpees, sprints, box jumps, high kicks, and back kicks. These activities not only condition the athlete, but they also overlap with skills required to play the sport and build up the muscle — and muscle memory — of doing these moves.

For a climber, skier, or mountain biker (or other extreme sports athlete), the above HIIT workout would be great. However, it might make more sense to sub out the sprints and kicks for sustained core work like planks in all their variations, and balancing exercises like one-footed squats or jumps. 

The idea with all of these is to not only condition for endurance but for the specific type of endurance and movements the sport requires.

Strength, Flexibility, and Balance

Training for strength, flexibility, and balance is just about the best way to reduce your risk of injury, no matter what sport you’re playing. Athletic ability doesn’t matter if you’re sidelined with a rolled ankle or torn shoulder. For this reason, stabilizing exercises to improve balance, stretching for flexibility, and weightlifting (including bodyweight) for muscle strength are key to sports training. It’s in the what and how much that sport-specific recommendations come in, although dynamic stretching for a warm-up is good for basically all kinds of athletes.

We mentioned one-footed squats briefly, but the importance of strengthening the stabilizing muscles in your ankles and feet can’t be overstated for almost any athletic pursuit. For agility athletes, you’re turning quickly; edging off of one foot; jumping as high as you can; landing; kicking a ball; rounding a corner intentionally falling, rolling, or sliding; changing directions; and doing all of this without looking at your feet. 

Lunges, squats, one-legged squats, calf raises, and squat jumps are all good examples of exercises that cover strength and balance. Athletes who need to get strong and bulk up will add weights to these moves to build muscle. A climber or wrestler, however, might not benefit from the bulk as much as a football, baseball, or lacrosse player. Athletes who need to remain strong and lean will do more reps with low or no added weight, while athletes who want more mass will go with heavier weights.

Core and upper body strength and flexibility are also important for many sports. Throwing, serving, and hitting a ball, reaching for a ledge in climbing, and even gripping a bike on a downhill ride all require core, back, shoulder, and chest muscles. 

Strength training exercises like bench press, military press, flies, pull-ups, and lat pull-downs will engage all of the big muscle groups you need for your core and upper body to get strong. Again, the sports that don’t benefit from weight gain will do more reps at lower weight while athletes who benefit from bulk will add more weight to their workouts.

Food, Supplements, and Hydration for Athletic Performance

Man making a banana protein smoothie to enhance athletic performance

What you eat can significantly impact performance, whether it’s game day or time for practice. Most experts recommend fueling up on carbohydrates one to three hours before your workout and supplement with a quick-absorbing protein drink after — for example, ioWhey Protein.

Examples of healthy pre-workout carbs include whole grains, fruit, vegetables, or low-fat yogurt. That doesn’t mean you should avoid fat during meals or other times of day — it’s simply not ideal before a workout because it could make you feel sluggish. 

A post-workout smoothie that’s rich in protein — such as ioPea Protein — and a few more carbs will give your muscles what they need to refuel and repair, especially after a heavy lift. Even if you can’t consume your protein shake within 30 minutes after your workout, the main goal is to get the proper total protein intake for optimal results.

Hydration is vitally important for health and performance. You don’t always need an electrolyte-rich beverage while working out, but it’s nice to have just in case. Unless you’re wringing yourself dry during training or it’s intensely hot outside, water will usually do the trick. 

In the case of an extremely intense workout, a long-distance competition, or a really hot day, make sure you’re properly hydrating with an electrolyte drink to avoid heat exhaustion and muscle cramping.

Sleep for Athletic Performance

Nothing works the way it should without good sleep. This is true of physical activity, reaction time, and mental focus, all of which need to be tip-top for athletic performance, especially during competition. 

Having enough quality sleep will help you think clearly, improve accuracy, make better split decisions, run faster, and be a better team player. Without sleep, things start to fall apart. That’s why sports medicine experts recommend at least 7 hours of sleep for athletes over 18 and 8-13 hours for young athletes.

If you’re serious about improving your athletic performance, you can’t let your sleep schedule slide. Work on getting into a good routine, practice good sleep hygiene, and get your zzzs. 

Enjoy Optimal Athletic Performance at Any Age

There are plenty of reasons to continue working on your athletic performance long after your student-athlete years are over. Not only does daily physical activity help increase longevity and quality of life as you age, but so does eating well, sleeping enough, and honing the mental toughness required to be a good athlete. 

Whether you’re fueled by competition with others or just looking to challenge yourself to beat your personal best, get started with some of the exercises we’ve outlined here and start getting to bed a little earlier. Also, consider a high-quality protein supplement to support your goals. Your body will thank you.