Sam Kavarsky’s Approach to Performance in 4 Phases

In the previous post in this series, we shared how Momentous Performance Engineer Sam Kavarsky developed an innovative approach to athlete education, communication, and trust-building during his three seasons as Director of Performance Nutrition for UCLA football. Now let’s move from the past into the present, and explore how Sam is using what he learned in the cauldron of elite college sports to inform his current venture, Science Over Tradition.

In this installment, you’ll hear from Sam about each of the four performance phases in his unique system, the surprising similarities between high-level athletes and the general population, and the “big rock” priorities that he pursues with everyone he coaches. Sam also shares why he’s studying to become a licensed chiropractor and how this builds upon his expertise in other areas of human performance.

 

You’ve developed expertise in strength and conditioning and nutrition and are now in chiropractic school. How do these disciplines complement each other?

I think you have to look at the human body as one piece, and it's influenced by a number of things. Number one is the stimulus that you provide: the training component. Then there’s the nutrition factor – the fueling – where you look at what you're putting into the body and what it’s actually absorbing, and that can get divided into multiple different areas. And then finally, the recovery process. It’s a matter of how we put the athletes in the best position to recover, whether that be adjustments from a chiropractic perspective, active relief techniques, acupuncture, or any number of other things. I'm looking to get much more in depth when it comes to musculoskeletal systems, and identify different ways to enhance joint and tissue quality. And then it’s a question of how, as a coach, I can combine all these things to optimize the physical preparation process.

Do you view the relationship between nutrition and movement as a two-way street?

Absolutely. The research shows that when you have a better body composition, you have a decreased risk of injury. And that's directly correlated to the movement quality and force production capabilities of the athlete. So, those with a better body composition are going to get that partly based on their genetics and also through their nutrition. So, we're looking to optimize each athlete’s composition not only through their physical programming, but also with what they eat and when. So, if someone has 10% body fat, and we can get them down to 5%, that will be great for them. It will increase force production and also reduce their risk of injury. I also have to find new ways to continue to provide a stimulus from a nutrition perspective – as well as from a training standpoint – that will continue to enhance recovery. And being able to do that consistently over time will yield some really amazing results.

Can you compare and contrast working with elite athletes and the general population?

More often than not, there are more parallels between athletes at any level and the general population than most people think. Elite athletes are not doing anything drastically different than what the general population should be doing, in my opinion. If they can be healthier, and if we can use health as a foundation, then they're probably going to improve their sports performance.

In college athletics, what I found was that in general our athletes weren't very healthy. So, if we were able to focus on general health as a foundation, they saw major improvements in body composition, in how they felt, how they thought, and how they were able to move on the field. A chiropractor named Dr. Bob Rakowski came up with some simple keys to health that he called “magnificent steps.” He talked about eating right, drinking right, thinking right, moving right, talking right, sleeping right, and pooping right. So if you can do all those things as an athlete and get the basics right, you'll be in really good standing. If you can do those things as a general population person who just wants to be healthier, that will lead to some tremendous payoffs. You're not going to be visiting your doctor with all these ailments anymore and will feel better on a daily basis.

On your website for Science Over Tradition, you outline four performance phases. Can you take us through them?

Sure. The first phase – human performance analysis – is absolutely critical. Everybody's different and while it might seem easier initially, often when a coach takes a cookie cutter approach it results in them and their athletes running in circles. So what I've tried to do is identify the specific needs of the individual, whether it be from a biomechanical or physiological perspective, or just finding out what their food allergies and intolerances are. That will make a huge difference. Also, looking at body composition for the general population is going be just as important as it is for athletes because it's a direct reflection of overall health. We always look at blood test and movement screen results, as well as biomechanical symmetry. Everyone has unique characteristics that need to be taken into account in order for me to put together a really solid program for them.

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What about phase two, which focuses on training?

This is where we start to introduce stressors. For the general population person, there's no game day, so we're looking at breaking up the year into four different quarters just as you would do in business. Each quarter is 13 weeks long, with the final week dedicated to recovery. The preceding 12 weeks are broken up into three different training phases. If you’re able to give someone great work capacity, that's going to also correlate to their body composition, which is always where we want to start. Once we have that, we can build general strength, which in turn sets the foundation for physical qualities we’ll develop later, including explosive strength, elasticity, reactive strength, speed, and so on.

How does phase three come into play?

This is the fueling component. We go back to the first stage to see where somebody is at right now and where they want to be. Our lab blood testing does a tremendous job of identifying foods that are going to be pro-inflammatory for that individual. They look at food in the raw and cooked forms, which provides a little better insight than traditional testing of how the person reacts to certain things. For example, I shouldn’t eat raw salmon, but my test showed I’m fine when it’s cooked. There are 250 to 300 foods on that panel, and the test shows those things your body can absorb and those it can’t, which is just as important as what you consume. All these things help us tailor a fueling plan to the individual. While these small details are informative, we also need to look at the bigger picture. I’ve found that telling high school athletes to eat protein and vegetables at every meal and avoid processed foods when possible makes a significant difference. Then we make adjustments as we move through the process, which is where the art of coaching comes in.

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That takes us on to phase 4…

Yes, recovery. This is a critical component. You can train right, fuel right, but if you don't sleep enough, your cortisol levels will go through the roof, you'll accumulate body fat, and you won’t achieve the level of output that your potential can provide. So from a recovery standpoint, we're looking at off days as a secondary factor and sleep as a primary factor. If we can combine these thoughtfully, our athletes will be able to train more consistently, while limiting the amount of days they have to skip because they’re worn down or aren’t feeling well. Nailing the recovery side of things enhances immune function and helps people make continual progress, which delivers more buy-in.

There are different supplements that we utilize to get people to sleep and prevent them from waking too much during the night. We also utilize various foods that are consumed prior to bed to enhance the recovery process. And then there is a specific off-day recovery protocol that involves mobility work and stress-relief, and different ways to increase blood flow to the muscles so that they are not inhibiting the central nervous system from working at a high level on their upcoming training days. I’m also identifying the best way to use chiropractic medicine in this recovery process.

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