Let’s talk about performance.
Many of our previous posts have been focusing on injuries and recovery. Now we want to talk about the higher end of the spectrum: performance. It is probably best to define what performance is first before we go further. When most people think about performance, they think about sports performance - like lifting 250kg, sprinting 200m, running a marathon etc. We’d like to have a broader definition of performance to include more people. Performance as the word implies, would include the ability to “perform” tasks. This can be as complex as playing rugby once a week, or as simple as pouring hot water from a kettle to a cup three times a day. All these tasks have one thing in common: they are physical tasks that have physical demands, and it may be important for the person, or a goal that the person has identified they want to do or continue doing. We will mainly touch on physical factors (both internal and external) in this discussion. As we are primarily talking about performance, pain is not a factor here. However, pain can be a reason for reduced performance (e.g. it is painful to lift the arm up, so it becomes difficult to lift the kettle full of hot water).
The first factor to performance: capacity. Capacity usually refers to tissue capacity related to the task. This can mean increased muscle size(hypertrophy) to improve strength - hence lift heavier objects, increased blood flow to improve endurance - hence walk/run/swim for a longer duration, changes in muscle quality to produce more power and sprint faster. Tissue capacity is typically the factor that can be trained in a gym, with weights, machines, sets, reps, speed etc. Depending on the performance task that you want to achieve, you may need different tissue capacity, endurance for the marathon runners, and power for the sprinters. Even for tasks that’s seemingly “simpler” such as posture, you do need enough tissue capacity to perform your task. For example, to be able to maintain a good posture while sitting at a desk for 4hours, you need enough strength and endurance in your postural muscles to last4 hours - no matter how good your postural awareness is, and how perfectly setup your desk is, if you don’t have the muscles to last 4 hours, you won’t last4 hours.
Tissue capacity can usually be trained with exercise, but tissue adaptation takes time; usually in a matter of weeks, similar to going to the gym, don’t expect instant results, and if you do get results in 1-2 days, it is unlikely because you got stronger in 1-2 days. Common types of exercises to increase tissue capacity are: resistance (band/weights) with 3 sets of 8-12 reps, running endurance for 30 minutes, interval sprints for power/speed. Tissue capacity is usually tested in a quantifiable manner: Can you lift 50kg? Can you jump over 2meters? Can you run for 1 hour?
The second factor to performance: skill. Skill is the opposite of tissue capacity, they are usually referring to the quality of the movement task being performed, not the quantity. Quality of the movement or task usually results in better efficiency or smoothness of movement which would result in better performance (e.g. running technique makes you run faster, throwing technique makes you throw quicker, lifting technique makes you lift heavier). However, similar to capacity, skill can help simple tasks as well, like how to pick up a pen from the floor or reaching for a cup on a high shelf. Skill looks at the quality of movement, not quantity. To have a good skill, for example a throwing technique, you do not usually need a lot of strength or capacity, you just need to do it once. Being able to do it once - but well, means you have the skill, the capacity is then what allows you to do it more than once (e.g. 5000 steps in a run), or faster/stronger (do a good throw, but with more strength, you can throw faster balls). It is the skill or movement quality that allows you to convert your capacity into performance. It is the capacity that allows you to demonstrate your skill at a higher level. If you have high capacity (e.g. strength), but you have poor movement quality, you won’t be able to perform as well. For example, no matter how strong your muscles are, it does not mean you can throw well. Similarly, to reach for the cup on the top shelf, you need to use various shoulder and upper trunk muscles together to perform quality movement, strength may help, but if you don’t have the movement quality to use that strength, then you won’t be reaching for that cup very well.
What gives rise to skill or movement quality then? As a general rule, you need quality movement, which means you need enough mobility and enough motor control. Mobility shows how much your tissues can move (muscles, nerves, joints, fascia) and motor control checks if you can utilise those tissues well enough to produce a good quality movement. Coaching is one way to improve the skill or the quality of the movement as a given task. This can be self-coaching, sports-coaching ,exercise-coaching, or a therapist-coaching to improve the quality of the movement and acquire a skill. Repeating the same movement over and over again the same way, will unlikely to change the quality of movement, hence will not give you the skill. The movement itself has to change, that’s why doing the same thing 1000 times the same way, is unlikely to change it. We will discuss this concept further in part 2 of the Performance series.
In summary, two factors for performance that we discussed were capacity and skill. Capacity is normally quantifiable and improved with exercises and amount. Skill refers to the quality of movement with a given task, not directly trainable with quantity-based exercises but rather quality-based exercises. There are many other factors to performance such as environment (weather, temperature, equipment, ergonomics) and sleep, mental preparedness, but these two are often physical aspects of performance that people work to improve on. This discussion simply points out that there are at least two aspects to performance: quantity and quality, and they are both required for performance at a high-level(sports) or low-level (daily life).