Girl Planting seeds

The Holistic Athlete: Natural Tips For Optimal Performance

Lawrence Rosen, MD


Every year in August, like clockwork, my schedule fills up with back-to-school physicals.  I especially look forward to reconnecting with my adolescent patients who come in but once a year, many of whom are athletes gearing up for the fall sports season.  These visits present tremendous opportunities to remind kids and families about the importance of basic lifestyle prescriptions for optimal health.  The kids are particularly motivated by what might help them gain an edge in the increasingly competitive sports world, so I leverage this interest to promote healthy living behaviors.  My goal is to help them cultivate skills to not simply perform better but to cope more effectively with what life brings.  It’s a win-win strategy based on these four basic principles.


1.    Eat real food.  It amazes me how many teen athletes turn to expensive, questionable nutritional supplements while ignoring basic healthy eating rules.  The primary focus should be on eating real foods and avoiding processed junk full of artificial sweeteners and dyes.  It’s not really about high protein or carbs or low-fat diets and so on – there are healthier choices in each of these macronutrient categories.  Healthy choice proteins include lentils, nuts and seeds (assuming no allergies); healthy choice carbs include gluten-free options like quinoa or brown rice; healthy choice fats include omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish, flax, and chia seeds. It’s really important to avoid the yo-yo swings in blood sugar that come from eating high-glycemic foods.  For more even brain and body performance, the key is to eat chemical-free foods with a balance of nutrients to promote optimal metabolism. 


2.    Stay hydrated.  I encourage teens to drink at least 6-8 cups of water a day.  This is hard to do, given that most kids won’t carry water with them throughout the school day.  I advise them to have a stainless steel, glass or toxin-free plastic water bottle with them and drink from it throughout the day.  I also strongly recommend coconut water as an alternative rehydration solution to artificially-flavored and –colored sports drinks.  One comparison study concluded that coconut water “was significantly sweeter, caused less nausea, fullness and no stomach upset and was also easier to consume in a larger amount compared with” plain water or a conventional carbohydrate-electrolyte beverage.  Also, I always highlight the need to avoid caffeinated energy drinks – the PED’s of choice for many teens these days - at all costs.  As noted in a recent publication, “Frequently containing high and unregulated amounts of caffeine, these drinks have been reported in association with serious adverse effects, especially in children, adolescents, and young adults with seizures, diabetes, cardiac abnormalities, or mood and behavioral disorders or those who take certain medications... Energy drinks have no therapeutic benefit, and many ingredients are understudied and not regulated.”


3.    Value sleep. In my experience, adolescent athletes get less sleep than their classmates.  They stay after school for practices or games pretty much every night of the week, get home late, eat a quick dinner (see point #1), start their homework, and then they go to sleep after midnight and wake up for school at 6am.  This kind of lifestyle definitely doesn’t lead to optimal functioning – not just in sports, but in life.  Lack of sleep has also been tied to an increased risk of injury in adolescent athletes.  While we are advocating for more humane scheduling for kids, each child can focus on good sleep hygiene and aim for 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep per night.  One important strategy is disconnecting from social media at night and unplugging in order to recharge.


4.    Exercise the mind-body connection.  Right or wrong, kids look to emulate professional athletes.  Amidst the concerns about performance-enhancing drugs like steroids, I’ve notice one very positive trend.  More and more world-class athletes are crediting mind-body practices like yoga with enhancing their performances.  It’s not enough to have the physical skills.  Rich Roll, a two-time top finisher at the Ultraman World Championships and one of Men’s Fitness "25 Fittest Men in the World,” discusses  “Why Every Athlete Should Do Yoga” in an article for MindBodyGreen.  Benefits he cites include strength, balance, flexibility, and mental control.  It’s this last piece, the importance of the mind-body connection, that is worth emphasizing.


“When you look at the highest levels of sport, all the athletes are incredibly talented. They all train equally hard. So what distinguishes the Olympic champion from the also-ran? The mind. The guy or girl who wins typically knows he/she is going to win. Unrestrained by fear, free from negative thought patterns, and laser focused, I think it’s fair to submit that the champion athlete most likely has enhanced dominion over his/her thoughts when compared to his/her competitors, able to leverage it’s incredible power to focus entirely on the task at hand and remain thoroughly rooted in the present moment without the invasion of unhelpful thought patterns. They visualize success so completely that it literally becomes a foregone conclusion.”



close (X)