8 Ways to Make Your Training Session More Effective

Pete Ross

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There’s a big difference between a training session and just exercising. If you’re just getting a workout in you find some time in the day, throw your gym clothes on and get your heart rate up. You probably don’t even think about it until you’re getting changed. A training session is different and requires more attention— there is a focus, there are goals and you need to have your head in the game long before you start warming up. After all, your training sessions are steps to the ultimate goal of success in competition, whereas exercising is the goal in and of itself.

That’s just the start though. There are a bunch of high performance habits you should implement if you want to get the very best out of every training session. High performance habits, when applied correctly, provide outsized results down the line. What these tactics are designed to do is ensure your body and mind are running at their optimal levels when you train, so the gains you make are greater than if you hadn’t put the thought into it. I’ve used these tactics myself over the last 10 years of competition at national level in two different sports, so I know they can work for you.

Fueling and caffeine.

Having your body in the optimal state to train begins with food and caffeine intake. Preparation is key, because we lead busy lives and you don’t want to find yourself unfed before you train. If you’re training late in the afternoon, for example, you need to be thinking about that session the night before. “Ok, tomorrow is deadlift/sparring/Murph/tackling day at training — what do I need to eat for breakfast, lunch and snacks to ensure that I’m firing on all cylinders when I arrive? When should I drink my coffee to make sure it’s kicking in when I need it to? Ok, tomorrow is going to be really humid, so I need to make sure I’ve consumed enough salt to replaced what I’ve lost sweating.” These are just some of the considerations you’ll be making up to 24 hours before you even walk into your facility, which will ensure you can put in the maximum effort in your session.

Training at a set time every day is crucial, because you can’t fuel appropriately if you’re always training at a different time. You need to be eating around 1–2 hours before you train, depending on how simple your food is (a protein shake and banana is going to digest very quickly, a bigger meal, not so much). Focus on foods with quick energy — that means nothing dense in fibre or fat. You want to be satisfied but not full or hungry. Caffeine is best consumed an hour beforehand, which means that as you’re moving through your warm up, it’s entering your bloodstream and providing you with a boost.

Planning

This goes along with fuelling, but is focused more on what you want to get out of the session. Regardless of whether you’re a weightlifter or a boxer, you’ve got something that you should be aiming for each session, which is reflected in your programming. You don’t want your first thought of that day’s program to be when you’ve already walked in and warmed up. You should have reviewed it the night or morning before. Apart from knowing ahead of walking into training what you’re doing, it allows you to start getting your head in the game early. You’ll start thinking through what you want to focus on and achieve in that session and be setting further micro goals in your head.

If it’s one of your big sessions for the week, getting your head in the game early makes your training much more effective. Instead of getting changed an hour before and thinking “damn, I have to deadlift today”, if you’ve had it in your head since the morning, you’re going to be thinking about it off and on during the day. In the couple of hours before, you’re going to be getting more and more in the zone, and your pre-training ritual will then have your arousal levels peaking for maximum performance.

Pre-training ritual

Rituals are a huge part of life as a human and surround us daily in our lives. Why not turn that power to your training? In the movies, you always see characters suiting up for battle — they are almost always in a meditative like state, and as they put more and more of their armour on, their demeanour becomes more serious until they are primed for battle. So before your training sessions, what can you do to make sure you’re mentally and physically primed? Here’s some of what I’ve done in the past:

  • Wear a specific outfit. When I was training in strength sports, I’d have a specific outfit depending on which day it was. Captain America was for deadlift day. I loved that outfit because it made me feel like a boss. Don’t ever discount the psychological impact of these things — why just wear anything when you can wear something that puts you in the right frame of mind?
  • Listen to music or a motivational compilation that puts me in the right head space
  • Have my pre-session coffee
  • Look over my notes and program again
  • Thinking through how the session is going to go
  • Getting my game face on

The best thing about this is that even when you’re not feeling it, when you run through the same ritual every time it’s as though you’ve flicked a switch in your mind and your body automatically knows that it’s training time.

Get warmed up properly

Gen-Pop stuff like Men’s Fitness etc always say very generic stuff like “get your heart rate up, and break a sweat.” Sure, that’s true, but if we’re talking about training, it needs to be a bit more specific. A general minute or two warm up to get you warm and loose is great, but after that, you want your warm up to be specific to what you’re doing. You’re looking to prevent injury and to prime your body for what you’re training, so your warm up should never look the same from one session to the next, because you’re going to be working different things.

For example, if I’m doing a squat session, I’m not going to do arm curls or bench press in my warm up. I’m going to start with a few minutes on the assault bike to get the blood flowing. Then I might do some light isolation work, such as walking lunches and squat jumps to get my legs primed for the activity. By the time I’m ready to squat, the warm up sets feel like a breeze and when I get to my working sets, everything is firing.

Don’t stop moving

Never, ever stop moving during a training session. Whether you’re on the judo mats in between drills or you’re in the gym in between sets, the time between work should be spent walking around or moving in some capacity. Going from activity to complete rest means fluid pools in your limbs and you start to feel lethargic, which means when you start again you have to try and ramp your intensity up from a lower level. Having to do that multiple times in a session means you’re wasting a lot of potential, because for every new drill or set, you have to get back into the groove first.

Movement between activity means that your blood keeps moving around and you stay warm. You stay alert and focused on what you want to achieve because your mind hasn’t started wandering as a result of sitting down. It also ensures you don’t get injured, because when you sit for too long — especially in winter, it can have nasty consequences.

Stick to the program

It’s so easy when you’re feeling a bit down to leave a set out, or when you’re feeling awesome to go at a higher intensity and really push it. Doing either of these means you’re negating the benefits of your programming. The entire reason for a program is to ensure you are improving in your chosen sport while preventing you from overdoing it and burning out. So don’t mess around with your program just because you feel like going for it today, because tomorrow you’ll likely feel like crap and blow that session completely. Trust the process and stick to your program.

Keep your phone in your pocket

This goes with the piece of advice to keep moving. Nothing ruins your training like scrolling social media in between sets. For combat athletes and those that don’t have pockets in their uniforms, that’s not such a big deal because your phone isn’t on you to just pull out and look at anytime you feel the urge. Go to any weight room though, whether it’s Crossfit, powerlifting or strongman and you’ll see everyone on their phone at some point in between sets. First of all, people generally sit down when they’re doing it, which I already spoke about above. Secondly, it pulls your focus away from what you should be doing — keep your head in the game! Being able to focus with intensity is one of the things that is absolutely essential when the day of the competition arrives, so if you’re allowing yourself to be constantly distracted during training, how do you think you’re going to go when it really counts? We don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training, so if your training is scattered, it will show with sub-par results on the big day.

Finally, the loss of focus often means that a rest period becomes double or triple what it should be, so now you’re compromising your body by getting too cooled down when you should be keeping it warm. That also means that your training sessions end up going longer than they need to.

If you can’t help yourself, get an iPod or some other MP3 player for your music during training and leave your phone in a locker or your car.

Proper recovery

We’re talking about far more than a cool-down here. Of course, after your session, you want to go through an appropriate cool down specific to what you’ve done which will maximise your recovery. This should be paired with the appropriate meals and other aids to ensure you recover in minimal time and don’t compromise your training the next day. Here are a couple of really specific routines I’ve had previously to give you an idea:

Judo sparring session — This involves a brutal amount of falling, contact and sore hands/fingers from all the gripping.

  • Light movement: jogging around the mats, moving all the joints around and stretching the muscles and back out.
  • Protein shake and banana.
  • Hang out and chat for a few minutes — allows the mind to ease down from the intensity of the session.
  • Hot bath at home 45 minutes later. Soothes all the bumps, aches and pains and moves everything through the system, preventing too much soreness the next day.
  • Dinner.

Squat day — This puts enormous load on the legs and the nervous system.

  • A few minutes of walking around.
  • Lie with legs raised against the wall for 5 minutes —moves all the blood that has pooled in the legs out.
  • Foam rolling to loosen up the lower back musculature.
  • Lacrosse ball on the buttocks to loosen up the area.
  • Gravity boots to decompress the spine.
  • Protein shake + creatine and a banana before leaving the gym.
  • Hot bath at home.
  • Dinner.

As you can see, there are commonalities to both, but there are also very specific cool downs to ensure maximum recovery. Whatever your sport, you likely have a good idea what you need to do in order to maximise your recovery. Don’t just do the generic things — that’s for the general population.

Remember that the main aim here isn’t to get too caught up in the minutia of exactly what you’re doing at every step. Just like a morning routine, spending a heap of time obsessing over every detail is counter productive because a perfect routine isn’t the goal — performance on the day of your competition is. That’s what this is about. These are high performance habits that will ensure maximum benefit from each session and the best performance on the big day. Work out what is going to be best for you, and put it in place. Tweak a few things here and there until you’re happy with the results, then put it on autopilot and move on to the next part of your routine that needs looking at.

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I write about career, performance, psychology, self development and business humour. I'm an author, former national competitor in judo and strongman and a former military instructor.

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