Health vs. Performance

by Mitch Davis

Do you want health or performance? Cause ya can’t have both.

“Why is it okay to ditch health for performance”, is a question I have received countless times after I’ve stated that we cannot have both health and performance simultaneously.

Ask yourself this: Why isn’t it? What makes it “bad” to be “unhealthy”? So, I’m being a bit silly here, but I hope this puts things in perspective. Many high-end athletes would put health aside if it meant winning. We can preach all day long about how their lifestyle is killing them, but they won’t care. Gold is the only thing they care about. Podium finish, even if it means death. I think once we start to comprehend why it is okay to “ditch” health, we start to see why some individuals just don’t care about eating vegetables. We know steroids are bad for your health, yet pros do it all the time. Why do we think that is? They care more about winning.

The second thing here is this: What is healthy versus unhealthy? I believe many of us think of these two items as a starting point of “unhealthy” and an endpoint of “healthy”. But where is that end point? Let’s be honest, getting in your car every day is inherently dangerous, but you do it anyway. Loading up under a barbell is inherently dangerous, but you do it anyway. We always weigh out these pros and cons. Well, the cons of getting under a barbell is I could really hurt myself, or, in a freak accident, I could die. But those cons are drastically outweighed by the pros. Stronger, fitter, faster, feeling of accomplishment. There are pros and cons to being healthier. Pros – well, I’m healthier. Cons, you can’t just eat whatever you want, you have to work at it constantly, there is always something “further along that continuum”.

Now, let’s go just a smidge further on that “health versus unhealthy”. We’ve sort of made up these ideas in our head as to what healthy versus unhealthy is, but that isn’t the case. Someone who doesn’t drink is healthier than someone who does, right? RIGHT?! Well, what if someone only drinks 1-2 glasses of wine on Saturday night, but is extremely healthy with their nutrition and exercise? Person B refuses to drink because of “health” but drinks 1-2 sodas a day. Well, we saw the word soda, they’re unhealthy! What about compared to person C who is so stressed that their resting HR is 80 BMP?

Ah, we’re starting to see that health is an extremely arbitrary term and there can be so many different interpretations of what is healthy and what isn’t. So, we aren’t ditching health, we’re just understanding that the term “health” we have defined is probably too rigid, or it is our interpretation of healthy, not some universal law.

Now, let’s talk about why you cannot be the perfect specimen of health and an elite performer. Because sugar is good for performance. Caffeine is good for performance. Steroids improve performance. Am I promoting steroids? No. But am I promoting sugar to my high school football studs? 100%. It is not my job to get them to be healthy if it means ruining their goals of being a State Champion. It is my job to understand they want that title so bad and that when they’re done being an athlete, they can focus 100% of “health” if that is what they want. Does sugar get bastardized? Yes. Do energy drinks get bastardized? Even more so. You can have a snickers bar after you workout. It absolutely will not make you any less healthy. Have 100 a day? Yeah, you’ll wind up being unhealthy.

I think I’ve sort of beaten this to death enough. You see how everything is on a spectrum. For those of us who are not championship-game-bound, we don’t really need that extra sugar if we don’t want it. We don’t need that extra boost of caffeine if we don’t want it. But they’re both there, and they both have benefits if we’d ever want to use them.

Keep in mind, when I say performance, I mean legitimate athletes. In high school and college, it means to win a certain championship or title. In the pros, it means they are getting paid to perform. So, they can do “less health” and have a valid reason for choosing to do so. People like you and me, well, we can do what we want, but let’s be honest, the cons outweigh the pros there. So, I wouldn’t necessarily say “ditch your health”, I’d just say, don’t be so rigid. Have some sour-patch kids during a really long workout. The sugar will help.

How does nutrition play a role in performance versus health?
“I want to perform at a higher level, but I don’t want to eat carbs as I’m afraid I’ll get fat”, is a 100% serious question I was asked a few years back from a lady ready to take her CrossFit journey to the competitive level. Below was my answer.

“Eat carbs”.

Everyone hates the answer, but carbs. I like 60-20-20 [C/P/F] ratio for some, 50-30-20 ratio for others. But, you need carbs to get stronger and bigger. You also need protein. Fill in fat where you see fit. I think we’ve gotten too hooked on protein to build muscle, and people forget the importance of carbs to keep us up and functioning.

This might sting, if you happen to love a lot of professional athletes who have been promoting such diets such as Paleo or Keto, who just so happen to be walking around with an 8-pack. I believe way more of them are completely juiced up than we believe. Why do I believe that? They are the pinnacle of performance and carrying around an 8-pack the entire year. You can’t cheat human physiology. You can’t cheat thermodynamics. You can’t cheat the basic understanding of how the human body operates and protects itself. We know that at lower levels of body fat, we expect to see more musculature. What many people don’t understand is having less than 10% body fat is not healthy. Bad for our organs, bad for mental clarity, leads to being sick easier, higher chance or risk of injury. So, here we have the pinnacle of performance, competing at both high volume and high intensity year-round, looking diced out of their minds? I don’t buy it. Now, this isn’t knocking their work ethic. If they are getting paid to be athletes, they’ll do whatever it takes. Steroids are not a cheat code, unless you actually put in the work to match it.

So, why did I bring this up? Because, it is extremely hard to have an 8-pack AND be the absolute top of your game. Do I expect my clients to be fat? No, everything has context. Am I saying that if you have an 8-pack you are not as fit as you could be? No. But also, maybe yes. We need a bit of body fat in order to function properly. Just like too much is a bad thing, so is too little. So, it comes down to what do we want more? Aesthetics [extreme aesthetics], or performance [extreme performance]? We can look really good naked, and be really fit. But we can’t be top of the line in both categories, without help, all year, year after year.

This blog can make your head spin. So let’s sum things up.

Remember, performance in the context I am saying is “to be the absolute best physical shape of your life means letting go of some health habits you hold near and dear, such as avoiding sugar at all costs”. Chances of some “cheating” going on from those individuals we admire are pretty likely, especially if they are absolutely diced year after year after year, with no fluctuation in weight during the off-season. Health is a continuum and it is very subjective. Figure out what health means to you and that is your definition. Own it. Performance is a continuum. Figure out how much you want to improve, adapt and adjust training, nutrition, and recovery as you feel the need.

Sugar isn’t bad for you, but a lot is. Training isn’t bad for you, but a lot is. Performance has never and will never mean health. They can have similar qualities, but they are not related.

This was a difficult blog to write because it is so subjective. It just tears apart our belief structures of what “is” and “isn’t” health, performance, and life. As long as you are doing what you feel best, and not prescribing to some zealot approach of “you HAVE to do it this way”, you’re doing it right. Remember, it is never the modality that is getting you better, it is you.


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Mitchell Davis is the Director of Remote Coaching at Power Train Sports & Fitness.  He is a PhD candidate at Liberty University where he is pursuing his doctorate in Health & Exercise Science.  He has been a coach and educator for 13 years, serving in roles such as collegiate strength and conditioning coach, high school strength and conditioning coach, adjunct professor, personal trainer, and fitness consultant.  

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