Conventional wisdom about improving physical performance and maintaining good physical health has rested on the twin pillars of volume and intensity (along with diet). While those are no doubt vital, there are a number of equally important, but completely ignored, ”fitness levers” you can pull to improve health and performance.
In fact, there’s MUCH more you can do beyond what traditional workouts offer while REDUCING the amount of time you exercise.
You don’t have to put in hours of training a week to build endurance, strength, or speed. You also don’t have to commit to an extreme amount of hours of exercise a week to improve body composition (muscle and fat) and health.
In fact, focusing on just volume and intensity can actually have the reverse effect and lead to over-training, burnout and injury.
In this article, I’m going to discuss how you can improve your endurance. I focus on endurance because most people believe you have to put in hours of training to build endurance, when this is not the case. The fact is, these levers are not only applicable to endurance athletes — anyone that is looking to get fit, improve performance and look good naked can use these to reduce the time spent achieving your desired goals.
One of the more appealing aspects of the what I call “fitness hacking" is the ability to get maximum results with a minimal effective dose of effort.
A LITTLE HISTORY (n=1)
I stumbled upon this rabbit hole when I was training for my first Spartan race (an 8.1 mile race with 25 obstacles). I placed 25 out of almost 3000…
and felt great throughout the entire race.
My time was limited so my training was minimal. Starting in January and leading up the race in April, I worked out at my local LA Fitness, performing CrossFit-style workouts about three days a week and running once a week, but no more than three miles at a time.
But there was one thing that I think contributed to my success.
But I didn’t use sauna like most people at the gym – sitting in it for 5-10 minutes after a workout and getting out as soon as it became uncomfortable.
I approached it differently.
I incorporated sauna THROUGHOUT my workout. I would strength train for 15-30 minutes then do a high-intensity interval session breaking up the intervals with 5-10 minutes of sauna. An example without would look like this:
15 barbell thrusters
5 minutes of sauna doing active recovery/prehab movements like the Cossack squat
Repeat 2 more times
What did the 5 minutes of sauna do for me? It gave my muscles a chance to recovery while keeping my heart rate up. It also gave me time to focus on the often-neglected prehab movements (which reduces the chance of injury).
This taught me how powerful using heat can be for building endurance.
Fitness hacking is essentially the practice of manipulating one’s biology and surrounding environment through science and self-experimentation with the goal of improving one’s fitness without adjusting (or reducing) intensity or volume. It’s a broad definition, but that’s also because the idea of “fitness hacking” is constantly evolving. It can be as simple as implementing lifestyle and dietary changes that improve the performance of your body. It can be as simple as skipping breakfast. Or it can be as extreme as purchasing an at home sauna to perform heated workouts.
The possibilities are endless, but they are all rooted in the idea that we can change our bodies and our brains, and that by doing so we can ultimately become stronger, faster and better as human beings.
We can optimize human performance by training smarter.
Most (if not all) of these levers fly under the radar of traditional training and some aren’t even considered when developing a training plan.
You can use one lever or stack these levers to exponentially multiply their effectiveness and maximize the time you’re training.
THE EIGHT ANTIFRAGILE FITNESS LEVERS
There are eight ANTIFRAGILE Fit Levers to hack your fitness:
1. Mindset – Push yourself and step out of your comfort zone -- once in a while. Building a resilient mindset is one of the most powerful things you can do to optimize your performance. Do a difficult workout every now and then, one that pushes you past your comfort zone. But you don’t have to do this multiple times a week. In fact, even a 2-3 hour “grinder” once a month will do. This means rather than just “going for a run” at the same pace as usual, crank it up a lot.
Also, approaching a difficult situation such as having to run in the rain, as an opportunity to train in a less than ideal situation. This can give you a new perspective and better prepare you for competition. I also highly recommend visualization which is a great way to mentally go through what your about to do before you even do it.
2. Technique – Spend at least one day a week strictly focused on HOW you move. So many athletes focus on “getting the miles in” but fail to have proper technique. A day or two a week should be focused on proper technique which will make you more efficient, improving your performance and significantly reduce the risk of injury. BTW, most runners have poor technique.
3. Breathing / Hypoxia – Focus on your breath during a workout. During a recent 12k race, I noticed many of the runners I past within the first mile were panting through their mouth. This is not only an inefficient way of breathing, it also activates the “fight or flight” portion of your nervous system. It also creates poor oxygen utilization and an increase in carbon dioxide. I would recommend focusing on proper breathing patterns (which is a whole article in itself) while experimenting with different breathing techniques when you train.
One technique is hypoxia and breath holds. By making breathing harder, it trains the inspiratory-expiratory muscles and the diaphragm while increasing your tolerance to low amounts of oxygen and the build-up of CO2. If you’re trying to improve mental tolerance and stress resilience, breath holds are a great way to achieve this.
Another benefit of breath holds/hypoxia include increased heart stroke volume, which is an increased amount of blood circulated with each heart pump. This results in more oxygen available for your muscles to extract as they work. This type of training is extremely efficient at improving your ventilatory capacity and VO2 max, increasing aerobic and/or anaerobic performance.
“We often attribute lacking the energy to continue to “bonking” – a depletion of glucose. And yet in reality, many such incidents are either caused by or contributed to dysfunctional mouth breathing. If your muscles aren’t getting sufficient oxygen and cycling out enough CO2, you will not have enough energy – let’s not forget that breath is the other way that we fuel performance at the cellular level.” — PJ Nestler, Director of Performance at XPT
4. Feeding Window – Be conscious of when you eat and how it aligns with training. Eating in a 8-10 hour feeding window has been shown (in mice) to improve endurance and motor coordination. Additionally, there are benefits to exercising fasted. Exercising while fasted induces adaptations to mitochondria (powerhouses of cells) in muscle and adipose tissue, making them more efficient at using fat for energy. These adaptations were blunted by pre-exercise feeding.
Exercising in a fasted state has also been shown to increase the release of fatty acids stored in adipose tissue and the use of them for energy in muscle and adipose tissue (ie. fat burning). It also increases the use of intramuscular triglycerides (fat) over glycogen (sugar) in muscle tissue. Pre-exercise feeding did enhance performance in long-duration aerobic exercise (> 60 minutes) but had no effect on aerobic training shorter than 60 minutes. Pre-exercise feeding also slightly enhanced anaerobic exercise (ie. run until exhaustion) but had no effect on high-intensity interval training.
Basically, exercising in a fasted stated can help you become “fat-adapted” which is particularly important for endurance athletes. This occurs by freeing up fatty acids from your fat stores, so you can burn them immediately as fuel. Preserving sugar stores in muscle this way is the secret to going faster and farther in endurance sports.
5. Environment – Change up the environment you train in. Dubbed by journalist, anthropologist (and overall cool dude), Scott Carney and his book, “What Doesn’t Kill Us.", Environmental Conditioning. Carney argues that focusing on diet and exercise is not enough and that cooler environments can exercise our physiologies in ways that exercise just can’t. He researched and participated in all sorts of methods that use environmental conditioning. Workouts in or exposing the body intermittently to various elements such as heat, cold, or rain not only builds mental resilience and helps your body adapt to less than ideal situations, it also is a great way to stack fitness levers. As I mentioned about, sauna can be one of the most powerful tools to incorporate into your fitness routine. Here are several science-backed benefits to using sauna/heat:
A 2007 study done on male distance runners showed that regular sauna bathing increased time to exhaustion by 32%, and that plasma and red blood cell volumes increased.
Hyperthermic (heat) therapy can reduce glycogen use by 40-50% and lactic acid build up can decrease with heat acclimation.
Sauna use synergistically combined with high intensity exercise, and intermittent fasting can naturally increase human growth hormone production and release. It is also important to note that when hyperthermia and exercise are combined, they induce a synergistic increase in growth hormone (which is why I do at least one exercise session a week in the sauna).
Spending time in the sauna can help us improve our tolerance to heat. This means we’ll be better able to handle the natural increase in body temperature that comes with prolonged physical efforts and exposure to heat while competing or performing.
Hyperthermia therapy can help reduce muscle breakdown and increase muscle building. It has been shown to increase the production of “heat shock proteins” which repair damaged proteins in our bodies. They also protect us against oxidative damage and improve muscle growth.
Another 2007 study showed exposure to heat can increase insulin sensitivity and therefore help you build and maintain lean body mass and regulate sugar.
Enhance cardiovascular conditioning even more when you combined sauna with alternating sessions of cold (cool shower, a quick dip into a cold pool or lake). Each time you rapidly change temperature (from hot to cool or vice-versa), your heart rate increases by as much as 60%, which is very comparable to the heart rate increase experienced during moderate exercise
6. Light – Do some exercise outside in the early morning. Recently, scientists have begun studying the effects of light waves—specifically red and near infrared (NIR) wavelengths—for the purposes of muscle recovery and athletic performance. These types of light frequencies penetrate the skin and trigger chemical and physiological actions deep inside the body.
Researchers are now beginning to realize how important these mechanisms can be in promoting good health—and specifically for the repair of damaged tissues. In fact, a large number of clinical studies have found that both red and near-infrared light can also help repair muscle tissue in athletes, fuel muscle tissue, prevent muscle fatigue, enhance muscle growth, and help them compete more effectively.[REFERENCES 1-12 below] Morning runs can expose your body to infrared light which isn’t as intense the rest of the day. Or, if you have access to an infrared sauna, use that. It can have very similar if not better benefits as morning sun exposure,
Muscle recovery & physical performance: Red light not only helps you recover, but it stimulates muscle growth too. One study—from the European Journal of Applied Physiology—compared muscle growth and strength between two groups of athletes—one using light therapy combined with exercise, the other using exercise alone. Researchers demonstrated that muscle thickness and strength were significantly improved (by over 50%!) in those who used light therapy.
Joint pain & inflammation: In 2000, a systematic review in The Journal of Rheumatology set out to see just how effective light therapy could be for arthritis. This review found significant results across thirteen randomized controlled trials. The best results were demonstrated in people suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, with light therapy reducing participants’ pain by 70 percent compared to the placebo.
7. Supplements –
Consuming bone broth or collagen powder (with a little vitamin C to aid the effect) right before a workout can improve the adaptations of our connective tissue to the training by increasing collagen deposition in the tendons, ligaments, and cartilage.
Coffee (30-45 minutes pre-workout can be one of the best-tested ergogenic aids and is known to help athletes train harder and longer. Many dietary supplements are unproven, but caffeine just consistently, repeatedly works. Keep it black and you won’t break a fast. You can learn all about using coffee to improve performance by clicking here.
Last, consider taking cordyceps mushrooms which has been shown to promote exercise endurance capacity (in rats) and improve tolerance to high intensity exercise (in humans). This is the brand I use and recommend.
8. Timing – Be conscious of WHEN you train. Similar to your feeding window, exercising timing is also important. If you are exercising for sports performance and want to be able to achieve the highest possible intensities during your routine, then the optimal time to exercise is in the afternoon (around 4-5PM) when your body temperature, aerobic capacity, strength output, protein synthesis, and sprint capabilities are at their highest (but only by 4-5%).
If you’re trying to lose weight or burn fat, a morning exercise session might be more effective. This will jumpstart your metabolism and increase your core temperature early in the day, increasing post-exercise oxygen deficit and calorie-burning rate throughout the remainder of the day. Additionally as mentioned above, fasted aerobic exercise can help deplete glycogen which will make you better at burning fat for fuel. It will also make the workout more difficult, making competition easier when you’re properly fueled.
Now what do you do with you the extra free time you’ll have? RECOVER MORE! Enjoy time with friends and family. Another HUGE portion of my training is my focus on recovery and all those levers. If you’re interested in learning more about the Antifragile Recovery Levers, click here.
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