Jess Stratton: How To Reach For Optimal Performance

Jessica Stratton - Old Saybrook (CT) High School, Class of 2019

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During my years as a competitive high school runner and Division I athlete, I spent countless hours pondering how to reach my potential.

What is the perfect way to train? The perfect way to eat? The perfect way to sleep? The perfect way to structure my life?

I wanted to get everything exactly right in order to perform at the highest level.

Throughout my career, I think I've uncovered the answers to these questions and unlocked the keys to reaching optimal performance. I want to share those with you, because there are many aspects of achieving our potential as athletes that are often misunderstood. 

I've done it the wrong way, let me tell you that. I've gone down the path of restricting my eating and trying to be the thinnest version of myself. I mistakenly thought that those factors were correlated with my speed.

But the most important lesson I have learned in making these mistakes is that ultimately you cannot take short cuts if you are aiming to reach your potential. In the world of running, it's almost inevitable that you will be surrounded by others who do this, and it's extremely tempting to follow in their footsteps.

They may be the fastest on the team for a period of time. But I guarantee you that this success is unsustainable.  

Take Anna Melin's research, for example. The Linnaeus University professor's work studying energy availability in sports has shown that low energy availability can actually increase performance for a very short period of time because your body rapidly loses weight but still is getting energy from your body's energy reserves (fat tissue and existing body proteins).

However, this can only fuel your body for so long, which is why this is a completely unsustainable way to build. You will inevitably crash and burn. 

1. The first key to optimal performance is to fuel for sustainability.

According to Melin, long distance runners need to prioritize "adequate energy and fuel availability throughout the year" in order to maximize training and performance.

This means that you have to consistently fuel well and eat enough to exceed the amount of energy you expend. Often times, the amount of energy you think you extend is underestimated.  Even a slight underestimate and under-fueling for a sustained period of time can cause you to deplete your energy availability, which is why I have learned to always err on the side of caution and eat more than I think I need.

This way, I know that I will always show up energized and able to gain the most fitness from each workout. The more energy you can put in, the more fitness you'll get out.  

          Ultimately, there are many paths to success and many ways to train and achieve greatness.

          However, I would argue that these particular points are foundational to achieving optimal performance and reaching your potential. I hope you're able to take in and process this knowledge, because as a young athlete I wish I built my foundation first. 

            2. The second key factor in reaching your optimal performance is to prioritize your health before your fitness.

            You cannot be optimally fit without your health. I've put my health in jeopardy while recovering from injuries to maintain or exceed fitness prior to injury, and I've seen so many others make this mistake as well. The fact is, I've only seen it continue a cycle of getting injured and never even being able to line up to race.

            In that case, what's the point of gaining all of this fitness and then not even being healthy enough to line up to race? Our goal is to get to the starting line and to be the best versions of ourselves. To start chipping away at goals, to set ourselves up for reaching our potential, to see the long term vision, the same philosophy applies to overtraining: Why over-train then burn out and be too tired and overtrained to even compete the way you want to?

            This can be a hard concept to grasp, because we often want things to come quickly, but mastering the philosophy of having a foundation of good, consistent health before you start to focus on gaining fitness will lead to massive success. Personally, I've lost so much potential and fitness over the years because I couldn't stay healthy and I kept getting injured which took me out of training. Prioritize health before fitness. 

              3. Building upon this, the third key to optimal performance is patience and consistency. 

              As I just said, we often want success quickly. We want to get as fit as possible as fast as possible. Gaining fitness is important, but you and I know it doesn't happen overnight. The reason we need to focus on being healthy and fueled before getting fit, is because the majority of fitness comes from consistency.  You can only get so fit in a short period of time, no matter how hard you work.  But staying healthy and consistently building fitness over a span of months and years is what leads to optimal performance. 

              4. The fourth and final key to reaching your potential is to focus on the things OUTSIDE of running.

              Most importantly, your happiness, sleep, and recovery. My coach used to tell us to imagine these as the building blocks that we're in charge of building to get to the top. You know you're going to show up to practice and do the work, but how well do you prioritize recovery, sleep, and fueling?

              Most athletes show up to practice everyday and work hard, but what drastically differentiates one from another is how well they prioritize various aspects of recovery. And even more importantly, are you prioritizing your joy and making sure that things outside of your sport make you happy?

              It may sound silly, but happiness is a huge part of performance. It determines the way we believe in ourselves, as well as our confidence, attitude, and perspective on race day. 


              Melin, Anna K., et al. "Energy Availability in Athletics: Health, Performance, and Physique." International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, vol. 29, no. 2, 2019, pp. 152-164,

              Jessica is a 2019 graduate of Old Saybrook (CT) High School and a senior at the University of Delaware. She was a multiple-time CIAC State Open and CIAC Class Class S Championship qualifier and placer, and held PRs of 2:22.78 in the 800m and 5:07.42 in the 1,600m. In the spring of 2023, she was named on the CAA's Commissioner's Honor Roll. This is a monthly series where Jessica writes about important and wide-ranging subjects involving young and developing runners.