Competition prep do's and don'ts

Quick Tips for Competition Prep

There’s a ton of stuff that goes into having a great performance. Training, sport practice, diet, body weight, and psychological preparedness all have to culminate, the stars need to align, and hopefully Rich Froning, Kobe Bryant, or Eric Lilliebridge don’t also show up that day. World class competition aside, sometimes not getting even one of these things quite right can mean the difference between taking home the win, or completely bombing out of the competition.

The time period leading up to the competition phase is a critical make or break point for many athletes. We use the terms peaking/tapering to describe the weeks leading into the competition itself where the goals of each phase are nothing short of the potentiated perfection resulting from that training cycle. The athlete is strongest, fastest, and or most enduring they can possibly be for that training cycle (not necessarily for their entire career!). Here fatigue management and recovery-adaptive strategies, in combination with proper planning and execution allow the dormant fitness characteristics, which have been building and building for months, to now finally rise and ‘peak’ for that training phase.

So what are a few things we can do OR avoid doing to ensure that we are set up for success leading into a competition? Let’s break down some of the basic diet and training considerations for a successful peak:


Don’t cut all the way into your competition

One of the most common mistakes we see in sports is coaches encouraging their athletes to cut all the way through their prep and up to the competition itself to either make weight, achieve their ideal competition weight, or just because they are under the false assumption that ‘lighter is better’ . This leads to poor results for a number of different reasons:

  • Reduced calories directly inhibit the recovery-adaptive processes
  • Reduced calories directly reduces performance on the field and in training
  • Reduced calories leads to increases in fatigue, which can directly impair the athletes intrinsic ability to express technique, force-velocity relationships, and make good decisions

Long story short – cutting during your competition preps makes your training crappier, recovery crappier, and your performance crappier -but there is good news, even if you are in a weight class sport or have an ideal competition bodyweight we have some recommendations that will help you make weight easily without all the fuss of cutting into your comp.

First off if you are not within 10% of your goal weight within 3 months of the competition you are probably not in a favorable position to compete. This means you will have to do some substantial cutting in your specific preparatory phases, which is when you should be having phenomenally good and productive training and not suffering through a cut. If you find yourself with more than 10% of your bodyweight to lose in 3 months of less, strongly consider the following options:

  1. Reschedule to another competition date. This will allow you to keep training, make weight progressively over time, and not risk having a sub optimal performance.
  2. Compete in the next weight class up. Hey, it happens! Sometimes we maybe get a little sloppier than we should in the off season, BUT that doesn’t mean we need to overcompensate for bad behavior. If you’re still set on competing as planned, go in the next weight class, have a great and productive training cycle, and focus on having a great performance rather than being competitive.
  3. Don’t be overly serious. If you’re weight wasn’t on point than don’t fuss about winning or being at your all-time best. It’s a vicious cycle of being mad about not being prepared, then being mad about not performing well. Why go through all that when if you had more time you could have both? It’s not worth it, so don’t be fussy and just have fun.

We recommend that you are with +/- 2% of your competition body weight at least 1 month out from competing. This scenario allows you to still have a great peaking cycle of training without the stress of major body weight alterations. So whether you have a 24 hour weigh in, day of weigh in, or even mat-side weigh in having your body weight locked down that close over a month out will make it VERY simple to do any last minute weight alterations.

Don’t compete during phases when you are cutting or massing

This is another scenario that should be avoided as much as possible. Major body composition alterations are stressful! Cutting and massing are both unpleasant in their own ways and do in fact add physical and psychological stressors to the training cycle. Additionally many sport techniques and tactics can be significantly altered from gaining or losing a substantial amount of weight, thus losing their natural feel or efficacy under different bodyweight conditions. The body needs time to correct and adjust movements and techniques after weight loss or weight gain. This is sort of a re calibration period where the body learns to effectively move again under these new conditions through feedback and feed forward control.

This also works out because the training phases with the highest volume loads are also paired with dietary phases where high volumes of training are needed for muscle gain/retention and possibly creating an energy deficit. 
Imagine trying to hit a max effort squat, only your belt is 3 holes looser than before. Or how about trying to sprint downfield and make a tackle after gaining about 20lbs. These scenarios are feasible certainly, BUT probably not something you want to be figuring out on game day. Generally we recommend that after a significant bodyweight change the athlete be given about a month to adjust to their new size prior to competition. So essentially if you are considering periodizing your nutrition plan to match your training cycle it would look like this:

General Preparatory Phase Specific Preparatory Phase (peaking) Competition
Massing / Cutting

Another thing to think about is that major body composition alterations are generally in conflict with performance. All too often people assume that losing fat or gaining muscle will immediately improve performance, but if you are cutting or massing you better believe that during the time you are making those changes it’s going to negatively affect your performance. Conversely you better believe that eating to perform well will generally take you off track of your body composition goals. So it’s generally in your best interest to not mix and match here – when you are focused on body composition change don’t schedule any major competitions and focus your efforts on gaining muscle / losing fat. There will ALWAYS be more competitions, so why make the compromise?


Don’t grind all the way up to competing

Maybe because we grew up on Rocky or rousing football movies where the main characters go through an epic last minute training montage and win because of all the hard work they put in, we all assume that you need to be out working your opponents or going hard 100% of the time. Unfortunately for peaking that couldn’t be any further from the truth. Now don’t get me wrong, were not suggesting that training during peaking periods shouldn’t be hard , it absolutely should be hard, there just needs to be less training. So what does that mean? How do intensity and volume differ here?

It’s pretty simple: during these pre competition periods the training needs to be hard (intense), meaning people should be lifting heavy weights, moving as fast as they can, scrimmaging at game speed, and practicing their sport under super realistic conditions. The volume of training or as we like to say in science, the total work performed, must go down about 46-60% from all sources. Did you catch that? Roughly half as much as you were doing before! This means that the quality of work going in is super high, but the quantity of that work is going down. One of the easiest ways of doing that is simply by reducing the reps and sets, duration of training, and time spent doing general fitness training.

Think of it this way – remember that figure I showed you above with the training phases? No? Alright I’ll repost it …

General Preparatory Phase Specific Preparatory Phase (peaking) Competition
Massing / Cutting 

If you REALLY want to outwork your opponents it should be done in the
general and specific preparatory phases. This is where the real meat and potatoes of training should be occurring, NOT during peaking. If you try to grind through the weeks leading into your competition you will never get the chance to express all those fitness characteristics you’ve been building over time, they will continue to lie dormant due to constraints of fatigue. The weeks leading into your competition should be intense, but relatively easy going compared to your normal training cycles. Take the time to bring your volume down, alleviate that accumulated fatigue you’ve been carrying inside you for months, and let the magic (science) happen.

Don’t compete too frequently OR in competitions that don’t matter

One of the cool things about sports here in the US is that even for weird and obscure sports, there is almost never a shortage on competitions. I lived in Johnson City TN (yep the one from that song) and I refereed weightlifting meets on a regular basis, coached rugby, and even had to share our practice pitch with Quidditch , which is not really even a sport ? The point being even in the middle of nowhere it’s not overly difficult to find opportunities to compete. If you live in a major city or heavily populated region like the East Coast, this fact is bolstered further. Unfortunately this has led to a trend or desire to compete in some sports and activities as frequently as possible. While it’s fun to compete and recreate there are major limitations for the more serious athlete.

Competing too frequently or for competitions that are not impactful essentially starts creating a major conflict of interest for periodizing both training and nutrition. Probably the most obvious and glaring issue is that generally competitions require a peaking period for preparation. We already established that peaking was a good idea, BUT it also takes away valuable time that you could be training or getting bigger, faster, stronger, more enduring etc. This can be seen both on the training and nutritional sides of things, for example: if you compete in Crossfit once per month, when exactly are you supposed to try and lose weight, or get more muscular? Well it’s just going to happen along the way right? Wrong. These things need months of dedicated time and effort to achieve, and are confounded by time spent preparing for competitions.

So what is a reasonable expectation in terms of competing? Some might say competing one time or less per year barely makes you an athlete, but competing 6x per year might end up being a bit cumbersome for the aforementioned reasons. What we recommend is the following: compete for the things that matter to you. Nobody cares about your friend who is doing a powerlifting meet next month, it doesn’t mean you have to do it too. Compete in the competitions that hold significance to you. This can be for personal reasons, like if you want to be the king of South Philly triple ply bench specialists, or for others that will be impactful on your career – such as conference, regionals, nationals, worlds etc.

There is also something to be said about competing enough to maintain familiarity and feel for competing. This can include doing diets, water drops, figuring out your opening lifts, maintaining your pacing strategy, maintaining a feel for maximal efforts etc. So there is a balance of competing enough to stay competitive and further your athletic career, while not taking valuable training time away and stagnating your fitness. How much is correct? Hard to say , but when someone asks you hey wanna do this meet with me , or when is your next competition ask yourself the following:

  • Am I physically prepared to compete?
  • Is my weight on point?
  • Do I have other competitions scheduled that are more important to me?
  • Will this competition affect any of my standings or rankings?
  • Can I be more prepared to compete at a later date?
  • Am I willing to sacrifice time away from training to do this competition?
  • Will preparing for this competition significantly derail the progress on my diet?

So essentially some of the big keys to success in preparing for a competition are pretty simple:

  • Don’t try and change your bodyweight, keep it nice and stable into the competition
  • If you are not on weight leading in to the competition, don’t worry about it or overcompensate. Have a good competition and try to be more prepared for the next one
  • Have a reasonable expectation of how you are going to perform based on the amount of prep time you had
  • Don’t keep training the same way you were, make sure to do a proper peak by increasing the intensity and lowering the total training volume by roughly half
  • Don’t be spontaneous, pick and choose the competitions that will help you be better and spend the rest of your time training hard and preparing.

The common theme to success here is all in the planning and preparation. The more of these things you have planned out ahead of time, the more likely you will get the results you want.

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