Excel at Your Sport (and Life) by Training Less

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.

10+ hours…Do you agree? (BTW, I averaged about 5 hrs per week and ranked top 5% in my last 14 mile Spartan Beast)

10+ hours…Do you agree? (BTW, I averaged about 5 hrs per week and ranked top 5% in my last 14 mile Spartan Beast)

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.

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But there was one thing that I think contributed to my success.

Sauna.

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

  • 15 pull-ups

  • 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

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

  2. Technique

  3. Breathing

  4. Feeding Window

  5. Environment

  6. Light

  7. Supplements

  8. Timing

THE DETAILS

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:

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,

7. Supplements –

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.

Our 24-hour biological rhythms are called our    Circadian Rhythm

Our 24-hour biological rhythms are called our Circadian Rhythm

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.

REFERENCES

[1] S. Tami Wong, B.A. Leon Hsu, M.D. Wilson Liao. Phototherapy in Psoriasis: A Review of Mechanisms of Action. J Cutan Med Surg. 2013. Jan-Feb;17(1):6–12.

[2] Terman, M. and Terman, J.S. (2005) ‘Light Therapy for Seasonal and Nonseasonal Depression: Efficacy, Protocol, Safety, and Side Effects.’ CNS Spectrums. 10(8), pp. 647–663.

[3] de Almeida P1, Lopes-Martins RA, De Marchi T, et al. Red (660 nm) and infrared (830 nm) low-level laser therapy in skeletal muscle fatigue in humans: what is better? Lasers Med Sci. 2012 Mar;27(2):453-8.

[4] Avni D, Levkovitz S, Maltz L, Oron U. Protection of skeletal muscles from ischemic injury: low-level laser therapy increases antioxidant activity. Photomed Laser Surg. 2005;23:273–277.

[5] Rizzi CF, Mauriz JL, Freitas Correa DS, et al. Effects of low-level laser therapy (LLLT) on the nuclear factor (NF)-kappaB signaling pathway in traumatized muscle. Lasers Surg Med. 2006;38:704–713.

[6] Bjordal JM, Lopes-Martins RA, Iversen VV. A randomised, placebo controlled trial of low level laser therapy for activated achilles tendinitis with microdialysis measurement of peritendinous prostaglandin E2 concentrations. Br J Sports Med. 2006;40:76–80.

[7] Aimbire F, Albertini R, Pacheco MT, et al. Low-level laser therapy induces dose-dependent reduction of TNF alpha levels in acute inflammation. Photomed Laser Surg. 2006;24:33–37.

[8] Hemvani N, Chitnis DS, George M, Chammania S. In vitro effect of nitrogen and He-Ne laser on the apoptosis of human polymorphonuclear cells from burn cases and healthy volunteers. Photomed Laser Surg. 2005;23:476–479.

[9] Tullberg M, Alstergren PJ, Ernberg MM. Effects of low-power laser exposure on masseter muscle pain and microcirculation. Pain. 2003;105:89–96.

[10] Halliwell B, Gutteridge JC. Free radicals in biology and medicine. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2000.

[11] Ferraresi C, Bertucci D, Schiavinato J, et al. Effects of Light-Emitting Diode Therapy on Muscle Hypertrophy, Gene Expression, Performance, Damage, and Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness: Case-control Study with a Pair of Identical Twins. Am J Phys Med Rehabil. 2016 Oct;95(10):746-57.

[12] Baroni BM1, Rodrigues R, Freire BB, et al. Effect of low-level laser therapy on muscle adaptation to knee extensor eccentric training. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2015 Mar;115(3):639-47.

[13] Ferraresi C, Hamblin M, and Parizotto N. “Low-level laser (light) therapy (LLLT) on muscle tissue: performance, fatigue and repair benefited by the power of light.” Photonics Lasers Med. 2012 November 1; 1(4): 267–286. doi:10.1515/plm-2012-0032.