On any given morning, after I've finished my quintessential morning routine, I preview a good 40-50 health, fitness and nutrition articles and studies (I like to use a service called “Feedly” for this), and read the nitty-gritty details on at least 10 of them.
One of the authors and blogs I follow is Alex Hutchinson at RunnersWorld.com. I’ll admit that Alex and I have never met, but I like his level-headed approach to fitness and our mutual background in the geeky realm of endurance performance.
So when I saw that Alex had written an article entitled “Advice To A Young Athlete”, I gave it a thorough read. In the article, Alex delves into supplements, recovery, nutrition, mental training, and race prep for a young elite cyclist who had written to him asking for performance advice. And while you may not be young, elite or a cyclist, there are still some very helpful gems in the article. In this article, I’ve give you my thoughts and commentary on a few such gems.
When it comes to supplements, Alex highlights the proven performance enhancing effects of caffeine, the lactic acid buffering and muscle-burn reducing effect of baking soda (or beta-alanine) and the endurance enhancing effects of beet juice.
I agree with Alex about the effects of each of these supplements, but with a few caveats.
For example, when it comes to caffeine, many athletes who are overtrained tend to use coffee and energy drinks to mask fatigue, and often dig themselves into an adrenal fatigue, injury or illness hole that can be very difficult to climb out of. So I recommend that when using caffeine for it’s performance enhancing effects, you use the minimum recommended dosage, which is close to 3mg/kg (for an 80kg person, that's 240mg of caffeine, or about 2 pretty big cups of coffee). Even 3mg/kg can be a hefty dose of caffeine, so this wouldn’t be prudent to use before a daily workout, but only in times when you need significant performance enhancing effects, such as a high priority race like a marathon or triathlon.
I also recommend “deloading” from caffeine every few weeks to ensure you don’t build tolerance to caffeine and so that you don’t build so many receptors (called “adenosine receptors”) for caffeine to bind to that you wind up disrupting your sleep. This can be accomplished by switching every four weeks from caffeinated coffee to a good, tasty decaffeinated coffee (I use organic Swiss water process decaf) for one week.
One of the most proven performance enhancing supplements on the face of the planet is creatine, and I personally use 5g of this creatine per day. Creatine was left out of Alex’s article, but in fairness, his article was targeted to an endurance athlete who will probably benefit less from creatine compared to a strength or power athlete. Nonetheless, creatine has been shown to have performance enhancing effects for endurance, and also has a cognitive boosting effect.
Finally, we live in an era in which an athlete can affordably undergo blood, saliva and stool testing to identify specific hormone, neurotransmitter, micronutrient, bacterial and enzyme excess or deficiencies. Because of this, it is possible to create a customized exercise supplementation protocol based on your specific needs. For example, common deficiencies among athletes include red blood cell magnesium, Vitamin D, ferritin, thyroid hormone and testosterone. Once you identify deficiences like this, you can then use supplementation (along with lifestyle, exercise and diet modifications) to fill in the gaps – vs. a “shotgun” approach of using something just because a competitor or someone else on your team or in your gym is using it.
Of course, speaking of filling in the gaps, here’s what I think is the most important consideration for supplements: I was recently speaking on a “supplement panel” at PaleoFX, and highlighted the fact that you can’t out-supplement poor lifestyle, exercise and diet choices, and that for everything from muscle gain to performance to fat loss, supplementation might give you the extra edge of 1% to a maximum of perhaps 10% (that’s why it’s called a “supplement”, not a “staple”). Just remember that before you decide to cut your workout short so that you can have time to go prepare your giant creatine, beta-alanine, perfectly formulated maltodextrin and whey protein infused smoothie.
For recovery, Alex highlights the importance on not spending too much time on recovery methods such as ice baths, since you don't want to attenuate the body’s adaptations to training. This is probably prudent if you’re the type of exerciser who is observed in studies that show things like ice baths don't work: an exerciser who exercising 20-60 minutes 5-7 days per week and is not necessarily doing a Crossfit WOD every day, throwing down 2-3 hour runs on the weekends and working out 60-90 minutes on multiple days per week. It's probably also worth mentioning that there are “biohacks” such as compression gear that can making ice baths more effective.
However, many of the exercise enthusiasts I know definitely fall into the camp of folks who probably need more recovery, not less, and who are probably building up such a high amount of free radical and oxidation damage to the body from exercise that they need higher doses of recovery than what might be recommended to the average lab rat or person doing “minimal” exercise doses in a study.
Anyways, in his article Alex highlights the potential recovery enhancing benefits of ice baths, compression socks, massage, and sleep. But I’d throw in a few others that I’ve found to be practically effective, including:
1. Hot-Cold Contrast
This can include sitting in a warm sauna for 20-45 minutes on a recovery day, then finishing up with a cold shower, or alternating an ice bath dip followed by a hot tub soak or dry sauna several times through, or even simply switching the shower from warm water to cold water for a few cycles. Just before writing this article, I did 5 minute hot tub soaking and breath-hold practice to 5 minutes cold pool kettlebell swings. So obviously, the sky's the limit for your creativity on this one.
Using an electrostimulation (EMS) unit to drive blood flow and to contract muscles when you’re unable to move (such as a long airplane or car ride) or when a joint is injured. EMS units are now relatively affordable, and don’t necessarily require you to visit a physical therapist’s office and shell out a co-pay every time you want access to recovery technology. I discuss EMS's efficacy in more detail in this podcast.
Just like compression, inversion can help move blood out of areas of the body where blood has pooled or where inflammatory fluids from metabolism and exercise have accumulated. From yoga inversion poses to inversion tables to hanging from ropes or pull-up bars, getting your recovering appendages higher than your heart can be easy and effective, and has the added advantage of “traction” – the pulling-apart of joints that can increase synovial fluid and lubrication moving in and out of joints such as knees, hips and shoulders.
That recovery list is my no means exhaustive, but includes just a few of my favorites. You can read more about my thoughts on a variety of recovery tools in my article “26 Ways To Recover With Lightning Speed“.
When it comes to nutrition, the first piece of advice given by Alex is to increase whatever amount of vegetable and fruit you're currently eating, with as much quantity and variety as possible. While I’m certainly fan of eating plants, I do have an issue with the “lumping” of fruits and vegetables into the same category.
In fact, fruits and vegetables are two entirely different food groups. Fruit is “nature’s dessert”, and while a great source of nutrients and fiber, is also relatively high in fructose sugar and calories compared to vegetables. For example, I personally eat what probably comes close to 20-25 servings of vegetables each day (yes, each day!), but only about one serving of fruit, max.
In addition, a diet of around 50 percent carbohydrate, 20 percent fat and 30 percent protein is recommended in the article. While this is indeed a macronutrient ratio that falls in line with conventional sports nutrition guidelines, it’s important to realize that conventional sports nutrition guidelines don’t necessarily take into account the fact that athletes and individuals who have been eating a slightly higher amount of healthy fats and lower amount of carbohydrates may actually have developed glycogen (storage carbohydrate) conservation and fat burning mechanisms that allow for lower carbohydrate intake, a concept which I delve into in great detail in my article about a high-fat diet and exercise study called “FASTER”, which I personally participated in.
Alex also recommends an advanced nutritional technique called “train low”, in which overall carb intake remains high, but certain workouts are performed with low carbohydrate stores, either by training before breakfast or by depleting carb stores with periods of low carb intake. This is actually a nutrition technique that I endorse and that I actually use nearly every day, and it’s very easy to implement: I simply save all my day’s carbohydrate intake for the very end of the day.
Up until that point eat almost zero carbohydrate, and instead opt for a high amount of healthy fat and a moderate amount of protein. Then, within 2-3 hours after my afternoon workout, I eat anywhere from 100-200g of carbohydrates from sources such as red wine, dark chocolate, sweet potato, yam, rice, etc. This is actually a technique known as carb backloading, popularized by my friend John Kiefer, and you can read more about this approach here.
Finally, Alex cites some evidence that dehydration is a trigger that induces increases in plasma volume, which in turn boosts endurance performance, and that you may be able to take advantage of this by doing some of your training sessions in a slightly dehydrated state. While this may be a useful “biohack”, I’ve personally found that when doing a workout with a dry mouth or when feeling dehydrated, I’ve definitely experienced a dip in motivation and ability to reach a high rating of exertion, so this would be a strategy I’d reserve primarily for easier aerobic workouts, and not tough training sessions, since I suspect the cons outweigh the pros.
Alex give two pieces of advice in his section on mental training – 1) see a sports psychologist and 2) avoid mental fatigue before competitions. If you’re a serious competitor or athlete with a paycheck on the line, I’d definitely agree with the former.
When it comes to the latter, it is certainly true that replying to a boatload of emails or engaging in highly cognitively demanding work can detract from subsequent physical performance – but this is mostly something to worry about prior to a key “big” workout or race, and not necessarily an issue before a typical day at the gym.
There are a few other tricks you may want to bear in mind when it comes to mental training and motivation – specifically 1) affirmation; 2) visualization; and 3) box breathing.
What you dwell on each morning helps to shape you as a person and drives your personality, motivation level and priorities the rest of day. You can use this to your advantage by forming your own daily mantra, which can chance from day to day, or be the same all year long. For example, one of my daily affirmations of late (which I actually write down using a handy tool called a “5 Minute Journal”) is…
…“Every little win counts.”
This reminds me that no matter how stressed I am or how much there is to do, that every little thing I do counts just a little bit towards my productivity or towards making me better – including replying to just one email, writing just one page of a book, or squeezing in just 5 minutes of a workout.
To understand the power of having some kind of daily purpose or affirmation like this, just look at this statement from Buster Douglas, who upset fighter Mike Tyson back when Tyson was a feared world champion:
“My sole purpose in life these last six months was to beat Tyson. That’s all I thought about. He was the first thing on my mind when I would wake up in the morning and the last thing on my mind when I went to bed. When I’d fall asleep, I would dream about beating him. If there was anything else going on in the world the last six months I didn’t know about it, because my mind had just one thing on it… beating Tyson.”
That's powerful stuff.
So just stop for a moment and ask yourself: what is your personal “Tyson”? Is it those extra 20 pounds? That triathlon you signed up for? Your blood pressure? Begin to dwell on it and use affirmations in the process, such as “Every day, I’m getting just a little lighter…” or “I love to swim, to bike and to run….” or, “I am calm in the face of stress…”
When she was 16 years old, gymnast Mary Lou Retton won the gold medal in the 1984 Olympics. But just six weeks before, she had suffered a major knee injury that required surgery. The surgery was minimally invasive, and allowed her to walk immediately and begin training again a week later, and by the time she was to go off to the Olympics, Mary had fully recovered, was stronger than ever, and attributed much of her success to her ability to visualize her gold medal…
“In the weeks before the Olympics, Mary Lou often lay in her bed with her eyes closed and let her imagination romp. She would visualize herself on each piece of equipment, performing her best routines and hitting every move perfectly…Retton even went as far as to imagine receiving the gold medal, while hearing the “Star Spangle Banner” booming in the background. Her creative visualization would prove to be prophetic.”
Michael Phelps is another perfect example of visualization.
“…each night before falling asleep and each morning after waking up, Phelps would imagine himself jumping off the blocks and, in slow motion, swimming flawlessly. He would imagine the wake behind his body, the water dripping off his lips as his mouth cleared the surface, what it would feel like to rip off his cap at the end. He would lie in bed with his eyes shut and watch the entire competition, the smallest details, again and again, until he knew each second by heart. During practices, when Bowman ordered Phelps to swim at race speed, he would shout, “Put in the videotape!” and Phelps would push himself, as hard as he could. He had done this so many times in his head that, by now, it felt rote. But it worked. He got faster and faster…”
How about you? Can you see yourself at the gym conquering that weight you’ve always struggled underneath during a barbell squat? Can you see yourself hitting the perfect tennis serve during a clutch point in the match, or running on the trail and feeling as though you’re flying through the air with feet as light as a feather? Can you see each individual drop of sweat coming off your nose? If so, then you’ve tapped into the power of visualization.
3. Box Breathing.
Box breathing, which I first mentioned in my series on SEALFit training, something I sit down and do for 3-5 minutes before intimidating workouts that I know are going to crush me, before stressful tennis matches, and even with my 7 year old twin boys when they’re nervous about something like a soccer game or they simply need a few minutes to calm down.
The breathing pattern is simply a “box” of four different section of a breath. You inhale to a count of 2 (or all the way up to 8 for a more advanced method), hold for a count of 2-8, exhale to the same count and hold again for the same count. You can start at 2 if you find 4, 6 or 8 to be difficult, or you can take it up a notch if 2 is too easy. How do you know how long to make each section of the box? You should be uncomfortable on the exhale hold, and be forced to fill the entirely of your lung capacity on the inhale hold.
The benefits of box breathing include reduction of performance anxiety, control of the arousal response, increased brain elasticity (through enhanced blood flow and reduced stressful mental stimulation), enhanced learning and skill development, and increased capacity for focused attention and long term concentration. That’s worth a try, huh?
Want even more powerful “jedi mind-tricks” you can use for workouts, races or life in general? Some of my favorite resources include the books Psychocybernetics by Dr. Maxwell Maltz, Psych by Dr. Judd Biasiatoo, and Unbeatable Mind by Navy SEAL Commander Mark Divine.
Alex gives a wealth of advice in the section on race prep – and whether you’re prepping for a 5K or an Ironman triathlon, these are tips that really do work, including a taper, warm-up and heat training:
The article recommends to gradually drop your exercise volume starting two weeks before your big event, with about 50 percent of normal volume in the last week, while maintaining intensity. I certainly agree with this concept, but with the caveat that I’ll often taper for just 4-5 days before many races, and only do an elongated multi-week taper before a very important event, like world championships. This is because multiple multi-week tapers spread out the year before multiple events can significantly detract from your fitness (this is why making every race a “high-priority” race that you perfectly taper for isn't a great idea).
A hard effort prior to a short, intense race or competition increase your VO2 max during the event, and Alex recommends, for example, a moderately hard six-minute effort finishing 10 minutes before starting a cycling race, or two 60-second efforts a little quicker than tempo pace prior to starting a running race. I’m completely on board with this recommendation, and would also emphasize that for a warm-up, I’ve also found a great deal of benefit from both visualization and Wim Hof-style yperoxygenation “fire-breathing”.
3. Heat Training.
Alex recommends heat acclimation training (such as dry sauna) to boost performance, even in cool conditions. This can certainly be a good way to increase heat tolerance and also blood plasma volume, and I get into the science of heat acclimation in my interview with Dr. Rhonda Patrick. But in addition to heat training, I’d also emphasize the importance of cold training and cold thermogenesis for increasing cardiovascular efficiency and stress resilience, and for any given week, I typically do at least a couple 10-30 minute cold water immersion sessions and 30-45 minute dry sauna sessions (the latter of which, incidentally, is most effective post-workout to boost EPO levels).
While there are plenty more performance enhancing tips and tricks I could delve into, the takeaway message is this: by including just a few of the simple pieces of advice you’ve discovered in this article, you can experience a bigger boost in performance than you’d get by just “training hard”. And a big thanks to Alex Hutchinson and Runner’s World for the original article that inspired me to write this.
If you have questions, comments or feedback, simply leave your thoughts below.
Also published on Medium.