We often get asked questions about how much focus individuals should put into adherence towards their training and nutrition. Like anything, the answer is often, “It depends”.
The best way to answer this question is by addressing the different stages of athletic development. Let’s start with the top:
Professional and Elite Athletes
Athletes at this level often compete for a living, or their competitions consume a significant portion of their calendar. Often, their focus on everything is amplified. They tend to micromanage their training and their nutrition. They work with a schedule that revolves around their competition as a priority. At this level, athletes see their pursuit as less of a “goal” and more of a “craft”.
Their “grind” is simply a part of them.
At this level, it’s not unusual for someone in their respective sport (let’s use bodybuilding or powerlifting) to be extremely focused on micromanaging the finer details of their nutrition plan down to hitting macros and calories targets as close as possible, and paying close attention to their meal timings so as to achieve the best possible outcome for their training. They often track their training volume and intensity, as well as look closely into their recovery routine. Their lifestyle choices often revolve around their competition.
It’s important to note, that this is generally the mindset for pros and elite athletes during competition, but they often do shift into an off season or developmental phase after they are done competing (generally looking to make improvements for upcoming comps).
As you would come to expect, the number of people actually in this category are few and far between.
These athletes are generally hobbyists or people who have a genuine passion for the sport but often have other priorities as well that override the priority of their chosen craft.
Occasionally, people who excel in this category will advance to a pro level, but not always. This category will typically break down into four sub categories:
- Those who are willing to do what it takes to advance to a pro level and have the capacity to achieve it.
- Those who are willing to do what it takes to advance to a pro level and DO NOT have the capacity to achieve it.
- Those who are happy to repeatedly participate in a recreational capacity, “I compete for FUN.”
- First timers, novices and beginner competitors who may or may not compete again.
At this level, athletes can take either a focused or slightly more relaxed approach to their craft. Generally speaking, the focus and plan adherence capacity for the 3 lower sub categories, are much lower than those in the Pro and Elite levels.
However, as a competition approaches, that focus can increase to the same capacity as a top level competitor.
Off Season or Developmental Athletes
Athletes in this category are either seasoned athletes who preparing for a competition in the distant future, or first time novices who are preparing for their first competition.
Most aspiring athletes think that you can simply enter a competition prep without “prepping for prep”. This is not the case for bodybuilding and powerlifting (likely also the case for other sports).
In order to enter a comp prep, you must first develop your foundation and key competencies. In the case of bodybuilding, you must have a solid muscular and metabolic foundation before you start dieting, so you look somewhat competitive when you get on stage. In the case of powerlifting, you can’t simply enter a powerlifting program if you need to work on refining your skills and improving your form for the squat bench and deadlift.
If you prematurely enter a prep for either sport, the gap will unravel at some stage during your prep, or it will affect your performance during the competition itself.
At this level, tracking macros and calories should be somewhat relaxed. You would generally do just as well tracking protein, fibre and calories whilst having some flexibility around your carbs and fats intake. Training volume would be roughly tracked with the main focus being on progressive overload and progress tracking would also be quite relaxed and overall the athlete and coach wouldn’t be as attentive as they would during competition prep, as noone can maintain that level of focus for a year or two.
It’s absolutely worth emphasizing that athletes who are genuinely interested in competing should spend the bulk of their time and schedule in this category.
At this level, people who aspire to be athletes should focus on self assessment and have an inward focus to determine if they have or can develop an athletic aptitude.
If they choose to work towards athletic passions, they should start by learning about the sport, and applying the fundamentals. If done consistently, this would advance them to the next developmental phase, where it is likely that they would spend the next few years.
However, some people just don’t have it.
Sure, the idea of beating the odds sounds alluring to most people but in reality it’s not always ideal for someone to be pursuing an elite level career. Particularly in extreme sports, like bodybuilding or powerlifting.
Of course, there are always outliers. Of course there are the inspiring stories and as much as possible, we encourage people to pursue greatness. We honestly do.
However, if you spend the bulk of your time trying to convince yourself that you should do this, but always fail to execute, consider that you may have other priorities or values that are more important to you than being an “athlete”. That’s actually absolutely fine.
In those cases, we encourage people to find a pursuit they love and go do that. Some people will never have an athletic aptitude. Some people will never be athletes. They don’t have to be.
You can be happy and enjoy an engaged lifestyle, being active and healthy without having to compete in a sport.
Don’t get us wrong, we encourage the participation of sports. Particularly early on in life. Sports can be an excellent teacher.
However, we’ve also seen the other side of the coin. Where people succumb to social pressures and choose to compete for the wrong reasons, or convince themselves that they will feel better about themselves after a competition (specially in bodybuilding and fitness modelling). This simply isn’t the case for most who choose to do that.
Hopefully, this helps you understand where it is appropriate to take a more relaxed approach and when it is appropriate to have a more refined and focused approach.