Is competition good for your body and if so why? What are the pitfalls?
The effect of competition on your physical health
Participating in competitions throughout the year is physically demanding. And so it should be. To be competitive amongst your peers requires you to push yourself physically in order to achieve as much strength, flexibility, and coordination as possible. Realistically, it is often an upcoming competition that provides you with the motivation to lift yourself beyond your current level of fitness to achieve your personal best.
Generally, this is a wonderful thing for our bodies.
Strength, flexibility, endurance and coordination pay dividends in many aspects of our lives, certainly well beyond the competitive arena. If we push ourselves to do well in our upcoming competition we may well find that we sleep better due to the increased exercise, think better due to enhanced sleep, our posture may improve due to better muscle endurance, and we may find we enjoy our sport more now that we discover we are better at it. Our bodies need challenges to improve the status quo of physical health. Competitions are a wonderful way to provide that challenge.
So what do we need to consider so that we can optimise the impact of competitions for our physical wellbeing?
The role of stress
‘Stress’ in this context refers to the feeling we get in our bodies when we prepare to do something that makes our heart race. A competition is a good example of this. In the hours or minutes before and during a competition our bodies release a complex mix of hormones, including adrenalin, that prepare our bodies for physical action. Our blood flow is directed to the muscles that we need to be strong and powerful, we start breathing more rapidly, our heart rate increases and we may start to sweat. Each of these responses prepares us to jump higher, run faster, and usually (unless it is too extreme) this permits us to perform better than we knew we could.
So in the short term stress is good. But what about when the thought of an upcoming competition makes us feel constantly stressed for days or weeks beforehand?
This is referred to as chronic stress, and this is not good for our bodies. Chronic stress can weaken the immune system making you more susceptible to illness and less adept at recovering from injury. If your upcoming competition is making you feel constantly anxious and panicky some days or weeks out from the competition date, you should talk to someone you trust about this. You won’t be the first or the last person to experience chronic stress. Your GP is a good starting point for helping you find some strategies to better cope with competition stress.
What should I do to avoid injury in the lead up to competition?
There is a natural inclination to increase training hours and intensity before a competition. This is not a bad thing, and is often necessary to achieve the standards of competition that are required. However, you must be careful not to increase your workload (hours x intensity) too rapidly. As a general rule, if you have been exercising 6 hours per week on average, you should avoid increasing this number of hours by more than 50% in any subsequent week. In this example, exercising more than 9 hours in the week leading up to the competition would place more strain on your body than you are likely to cope with safely. To avoid this, increase workload gradually in the lead up to competitions. Our bodies need time to adapt to increased demands. Giving them this time ensures you will get the best out of your body without exposing it to heightened injury risk.
Avoid competition pitfalls:
- Avoid attempting difficult or highly demanding activities if you are feeling fatigued. Save it for the following day, or after you have had time to rest
- Never underestimate the importance of ‘down time’. It is important physically and mentally that our bodies are given the space to recover and repair. Adolescents need ≥9 hours of sleep per night on average to perform at their best
- Never stretch into pain. Best case scenario, stretching into pain is likely to cause your muscles to stiffen as a protective reflex, worst case you may end up with a muscle tear
- Try not to get into a situation where you are rushed or flustered before a competition. Perform a good warm up, and take deep breaths to calm the nerves
- Keep well hydrated on competition day
- Visualise success. There is evidence to show that imagining yourself performing a perfect routine in the weeks, days, and minutes before a competition is likely to lead to better performance. Back yourself. You’ve got this!
Enjoy your competitions. Win or lose, they are your opportunity to push yourself to perform at your physical best. Following the above guidelines will help to ensure you get through the competition season safely.
Keep competing safely!