Recently, I had an hour-long Zoom conversation with Lacey Henderson. Lacey is a long jump Paralympic athlete for Team USA. From a young age, Lacey has been active in a wide array of sports, so health and fitness has always been a significant part of her life. I spoke to Lacey about her holistic approach to fitness, as well as her routines for training, recovery, and sleep.
I’ve been taking care of my health since a very young age, and I’ve always been an athlete and from a family of athletes. I was a competitive cheerleader in high school and college, and I kind of fell into the world of Paralympic sport when my career in cheer was ending. I’m back in Denver now, but my original training group in Phoenix hammered home the theory that basically you can only train as hard as you recover. The kind of athlete you're going to be is dependent upon your health. The athletics season is almost all year long, so you need to find a sustainable approach so that you can maintain your performance throughout the season. In order to keep maintaining your training regimen, you need to reduce the risks of injury and also recover to keep up your performance throughout the year.
My training takes more of a holistic approach. I focus not just on the performance aspect, but on the human aspect of wellness. As a Paralympian and a woman in my 30’s now, I want to make sure I am healthy for the rest of my life, and not just during my athletic career, so I am focused on a long-term and sustainable lifestyle. As athletes, so often we get so short-sighted, and then you realize this is still the same body that's going to have to carry you around when the lights turn off and everybody goes home.
For me, a good routine is sacred. My routine in and of itself helps my body regulate certain hormone cycles. Even with getting ready for bed, having a routine is very important to me. I don't have my phone in my bedroom at all. Besides my Eight Sleep Pod, I have zero electronics in there because we're not meant to always be plugged in, especially when we're going to sleep.
The Eight Sleep Pod has been a game changer for me in so many different ways. When the seasons change and my track season changes, my body temperature fluctuates. It's nice being able to change the temperature of the Pod while I’m sleeping and not have a constantly cold bed. At this point of the year, if my bed was cold, I would never sleep. I'd be way too cold.
I use NormaTec Leg Pulse 2.0 for recovery, and I use the Hyperice when traveling, as well. I also use the Rogue fitness Voodoo floss for compressive joint pumping. Being an amputee, I’ve got one good ankle left, and that's it. There's no more extras. I've rolled it. I've sprained it. I've kicked it recently a couple of times with my prosthetic blade, so it just gets a lot of stagnant fluid in it. I really like Voodoo flosses for pumping the joint and doing mobility exercises. Starting in 2016 with the Rio Paralympics, I’ve been much more intentional about my recovery regimen, and I try to find any way to maximize and optimize my performance.
Next, I use blue light lenses to protect my eyes while looking at screens. I make sure to use them every day now, because especially this year, I've had way more screen time than I've ever had. It affects you mentally, and you can just feel the dopamine released every time your phone lights up.
Hydration is also very important to me, and I use a low sugar hydration powder from Ultima Replenisher in water to keep me hydrated. On a big day, I’ll go through about three 32 ounce water bottles with hydration powder. As athletes, we constantly have some type of water bottle attached to us.
I track my food intake with the free version of myFitnessPal, which makes it easy to see your macros. I try to make sure that I stay within a certain range. It's funny, because since I’ve been tracking my macros, I've gotten to the point now where my body is so sensitive. I can tell very quickly if I've had a little bit too many pastries, because I just feel the inflammation when it happens.
I meditate with an app called Insight Timer. You can play a Tibetan bowl sound along with timed mediations. They’re very peaceful to me; I find guided meditations way too distracting.
I also used to have a Fitbit. I get my health data now mainly from my Eight Sleep app. I used to be fixated on my sleep and think that I couldn’t train because I didn’t maximize my sleep. I used to experience "paralysis by analysis;” if my Sleep Fitness Score was lower for the night, I used to feel overwhelmed and think I couldn’t train because I didn’t maximize my sleep. However, I discovered that over time, you have to go by how you feel and realize that you're going to be okay. Despite having a lower Sleep Fitness Score sometimes, I try to remember how resilient our body’s are and that I can go off of how my body feels everyday rather than focus on hard metrics alone.
What I like about Eight Sleep’s metrics is that they allow you to analyze sleep as a whole picture, not just time slept. When we were in our first training group, they were trying to get us to get an accumulation of around 70 to 80 hours of sleep a week but, that's really hard to do. Plus, there's also the difference between the amount of time you're sleeping, and the quality of sleep that you get. There have been plenty of times where anxiety or too much wine can make your sleep quality suffer. The Eight Sleep app helps me better understand what might be affecting my sleep.
I have a gratitude journal with prompts. I pretty much journal whatever, especially when I feel most anxious. I've worked really closely with a sports psychologist, and I've found that journaling in and of itself is like a form of therapy. It’s also a nice supplement to working out any type of psychological stuff you're going through.
For me, putting words on paper and giving them a place to live outside of me has cleared space so that I can focus on more important things for training and learning the technical aspects of what I'm doing. I like to journal in the morning or early afternoon, before noon or 1PM. I prefer to work through anything earlier in the day so that I don’t carry unneeded, distracting thoughts with me throughout the day.
For me, nutrition is about thirds. I eat about a third of my calories from protein, a third from healthy fats, and then a third from carbs. I would like to eat more leafy carbs, probably half and half. I try to always have some type of starch, some type of leafy carb, and some rice, bread, or pasta. Life is short, so I have some pasta, but I try to balance that with nutritious foods. It's taken a really long time to do that.
I worked with a nutritionist at USOPC and realized that I was really falling into a psychological trap with food. I used to think that there was one secret ingredient, but it’s really an accumulation of variables that help you perform and feel better. It just takes time, and is specific to what your body needs. I used to avoid fruit entirely because I thought fruit contained too much sugar, but now I realize that it’s not sustainable to constantly try to reduce all sugar intake, so I try to take a more balanced approach.
Our training group started encouraging athletes to do the ketogenic diet early 2014 before it blew up. However, we were navigating that without proper knowledge. I have hypothyroidism and a ketogenic diet is not great if you have a lazy thyroid like me. I instead try to use my “thirds” rule for my meals and also track what foods tend to disagree with me.
The only food I really try to avoid is quinoa. I don't know what it is about quinoa, but every time I eat it, regardless of how I prepare it, it seems to cause inflammation for me. It makes me feel like that girl who blew up in Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, so I try not to eat it.
I would love to have an at-home chiropractor. I get really tight when I'm training and with my prosthetic blade, and my sacrum can get really locked up. My mid-thoracic gets locked up, and I get really tight suboccipitals. I do a lot of self-treatment. Especially with my sacrum, I’ll work at home with a yoga block and try different things to loosen up. Sometimes getting an adjustment is the best solution, though.
My top hack is unquestionably sleep. Honestly, nobody talks about sleep enough. It is free, which is great, and it's literally the best recovery. With sleep, everything regenerates and can repair itself. It feels good, and your body needs it desperately. I can’t believe that people live their lives averaging four hours of sleep a day. That gives me such anxiety just thinking about it. When my friends who work full-time jobs tell me their sleep schedules and they sleep so little, I can’t even imagine it.
Our dogs wake us up at 7:00am and either my boyfriend or I will get up with them. Usually, my boyfriend gets up to feed the dogs and I sleep in until about 8:00-8:30am. Recently, my boyfriend and I started training more so we make sure to have a consistent sleep schedule, and get out of bed by 8:30am. As I train more now, I also need more sleep; they correlate with each other for me. Sleep is the best thing you can do for training.
I typically have a decent breakfast with basic nutritional value, go train, come back and have a little coffee and do some work in between my afternoon session. Morning sessions are on the track, and then I do my gym sessions in the afternoon. Since I’m back in the season now, I’m on the track six days a week, and in the gym four days a week. I used to do back to back track and gym sessions, but I’m worthless without a little coffee and snack before I go lift heavy, so now I always make sure to refuel midday.
I pretty much shut down screen time by 9:00pm. I usually put on a movie or something that’s not too stressful. I also avoid the news at night. Our dogs have a little routine, too. They're allowed in the bed, but they have to be wiped down first because I don’t want filthy animals in my beautiful bed. Then I read for a bit in bed and I fall asleep by 10:30pm.
If I have an extra hectic day or a really heavy training day, and I feel like my brain doesn't turn off, I take one GABA. That usually helps me. It's like a neurotransmitter, and it usually helps the brain quiet down.
When I'm not training, I average about 8 to 8.5 hours of sleep. When I'm training, I'll sometimes sleep up to 10 hours. Also, I'm a big proponent of naps. I think naps are great, and they’re a secret weapon for productivity. A little espresso, a nap right after, and you’ll wake up like Superman.
I make sure to nap in 30 minute increments to keep my circadian rhythm on track. You can still get enough sleep if you keep your naps shorter, otherwise, if you nap for too long, you’ll get into a deep REM cycle or two cycles, which at that point, is just sleep. I would love to nap daily, but it just depends on my schedule. Recently, I’ve been able to squeeze in naps about three days a week.
I think that especially in the United States, we have created this weird culture of constantly moving. Sometimes we just find ourselves being busy and spinning our wheels, but not really going anywhere. I used to have a harder time sleeping due to general anxiety, the state of the world, and things that I can't control. I try not to work late into the evening to let my brain unwind before bed. I also try not to have caffeine past 5:00pm since I have a busy brain. However, I think my routine is really what helps me quiet my mind now, and prime my body for sleep.
The next big event for me is Tokyo. The World Para Athletics just came out with the Grand Prix schedule, which is exciting. Dubai will be in February, Brazil and Switzerland in March, and the rest of the schedule is still open so far. This is the year that you just have to take everything with a grain of salt. Everybody has the best intentions and everybody's training, so we're all doing the best that we can. We'll just have to see what 2021 has in store for us.