The Natural Way To Be A Natural: The Gut, The Brain & The Elite Athlete
“The broad truth is that nature and nurture are so interlaced in any realm of athletic performance that the answer is always: both”
-David Epstein, The Sports Gene
The skills that make up a great athlete are commonly referred to as a “gift” or the “it factor”. These intangible traits of athleticism combined with diligent training of the bodily systems is the perfect recipe to create a peak performer. Essentially, nature (the innate ability one is born with) and nurture (the environmental influences one grows from) apply to athleticism directly. But what if I told you there were ways to improve the relationship between both nature and nurture, to take even the most elite athlete to the next level?
Two of the most under utilized resources for improving athletic performance are nutrition and mental training. Now, let’s get specific here… most athletes eat a “healthy” diet with the typical parameters of high protein, moderate carbs and low fat. These guidelines, although they will build muscle, are not truly the best ratios of macro nutrients for an athletic body or any body for that matter. In addition to nutrition, you can ask any athlete about the importance of their mental game. The quest for “the zone”, another intangible aspect of athleticism, is always being sought after by athletes. Being in “the zone” is ideal but often difficult to reproduce consistently.
Our bodies are machines, operating specific functions that require fuel and maintenance to do so effectively. So although physically training an athlete is essential to the success of that athlete, the quality of the training is dictated by the functions of the internal machine. Many different facets of the body are connected and if they aren’t all working together harmoniously, the body is not at optimal performance. To put it simply, a car can get from point A to B on the bare minimum but when fueled with premium gas, oil and fluids it’s going operate at a top notch level.
The connection between the gut and the brain is very significant when talking about improving performance both physically and mentally. The neurotransmitters our brain uses are first created in the gut and then sent to the brain to be utilized… so we ARE quite literally WHAT we eat! Athletes can improve their physical and mental performance by adjusting their diet to truly FEED the brain with quality fats, plenty of water as well as reducing inflammatory foods such as gluten, dairy, soy and other potentially harmful foods. Elimination of toxic or inflammatory foods can be done with blood work to get a personalized look into what foods should be eliminated from the diet. Supplementation through vitamins can also be added to a nutrition plan to help saturate the body’s bloodstream with the most beneficial, natural performance enhancers… essential nutrients.
The brain can also be fine tuned with the help of Neurofeedback, a therapy that regulates imbalances in the brain such as focus, mental chatter, motivation, decision making, anxiety, stress, hand-eye coordination, agility and reaction time. Just like a workout for your body, Neurofeedback is a workout for your cognitive functions, strengthening and improving the areas of the brain that need to be adjusted. Concussion and TBI have been heavily addressed in many sports with very little to offer when it comes to assessment and post concussion syndrome. Neurofeedback can offer athletes a way to identify specific areas impacted by a concussion and a therapeutic way to manage and improve the symptoms of a concussion.
When the gut and the brain are operating optimally, access to “the zone” becomes more consistent and more readily available, thus creating a bodily environment more apt to receive training, conditioning and performance. Although nature & nurture will always play a 50/50 role in all of life’s developments, the elite status of athletic performance is no longer reserved for those who just happened to get genetically lucky. Continued growth in performance is possible at any level of athleticism.