As physical therapists, we love helping athletes return to training at their full potential. However, we also love to dabble in the performance side of things, as well.
For those looking for an edge, I commonly reference work completed by two of my favorite fitness specialists, Alex Hutchinson and Ben Greenfield.
In this post, I summarize the information from their articles but if performance training is an interest of yours, then I would recommend checking out their continued work. For example, Alex’s recent book
“Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance” is a great read.
Here are several ways to improve your training and performance:
It works. The traditional dose was 6 mg/kg of bodyweight, but recent studies suggest you can max out the benefits with 3 mg/kg. You can take it all at once about an hour before competition, or spread it out (e.g. with gels or flat cola). For cyclists and marathoners, getting at least part of your hit late in the race appears to be effective.
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.
It’s also recommended “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 for one week.
There are various ways you can buffer the rising acidity that occurs during intense exercise lasting a few minutes. Baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) is the classic, but many people have gastrointestinal issues when using it.
Sodium citrate is a comparable alternative. The best bet, in my view, is beta-alanine, which is taken over several weeks rather than just before the race, and buffers rising acidity within the muscle cells rather than in the blood stream (which is what baking soda does). A typical cycle might be 3-6 grams/day for four to eight weeks.
While buffering techniques are most effective for efforts lasting one to 10 minutes, there’s some evidence they can enhance finishing sprint even after a two-hour ride. For a bike race that includes high-intensity surges (e.g. hills), I’d say it’s worth trying.
The advantage of beta-alanine is that it has no major downsides, which is why I’d start with that. You can still add baking soda or sodium citrate if desired, but you have to be a lot more careful about GI distress.
I’ve written lots about beet juice, and I think the evidence is pretty solid for enhancing endurance. There are still questions about how effective it is for really elite athletes, but the truth is that almost any training intervention is going to produce marginal improvements at best in someone who’s already close to their limits. If I was an aspiring elite right now, I’d take beet juice shots. There’s more info on dose and timing here; in brief, I’d take a shot or two the night before and another 1-2 shots two or three hours before racing.
Creatine works for building muscle. It’s also been shown to have performance enhancing effects for endurance, and also has a cognitive boosting effect.
Start with using 5g of this creatine per day.
The evidence here is all over the map. There’s some debate about the possibility that too much “enhanced” recovery can attenuate the body’s adaptations to training, but for athletes doing elite-level training loads with multiple sessions a day, I think the need for recovery likely outweighs any hypothetical downsides.
That said, the principle I’d suggest here is using the “minimum effective dose” that allows you to achieve your training goals in the next workout.
Use enhanced recovery because you need it, but if your body can recover on its own, let it. When you get closer to big races (and certainly between stages of a multi-day race, for example), use as much recovery as you can get.
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.
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. An an example, 5 minute hot tub soaking and breath-hold practice to 5 minutes cold pool kettlebell swings. 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.
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.
Not to state the obvious, but sleep is probably the best thing you can do.
There’s some individual variation, but as a generalization, if you’re training at an elite level and not spending nine hours a night with the lights off, you’re not doing everything you can to get better. Depending on your daily schedule, a nap may help too. But one way or another, you need sleep. It may take time (and discipline) to develop a good sleep routine where you don’t lie awake and get to bed at a regular time, but it’s worth it.
In summary, there’s very little solid evidence about what works best for recovery, so I’d use what’s easily available and don’t stress about what’s not. C
Ice baths are easy to do at home; a good recipe is ~10 minute at ~15 C. More and/or colder isn’t necessarily better. Medical-grade compression tights/socks for about an hour immediately after a hard workout may help. Massage is nice if you can get it. The fancier versions of these things (cryosauna instead of ice bath, pneumatic legging instead of compression and massage) may have benefits like convenience, but I haven’t seen any evidence that they’re better than the plain vanilla versions.
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“.
Fruits and vegetables
One piece of advice I’m pretty comfortable giving is: whatever the amount of vegetable and fruit you’re eating, increase it.
High quantity and as much variety as possible. Emphasize leafy greens and berries, but it’s not about one magic food, it’s about balance and variety.
There’s an interesting debate about fat versus carbs as endurance fuel right now, but for any sport contested in the Olympics or that requires high-intensity surges (hills, finishing kick), I believe you need good carbohydrate intake.
That doesn’t mean you eat plain white pasta every night and drink only skim milk, which is a common straw man. One of my favorite examples of that is all the articles (e.g. this one) that talk about Simon Whitfield as an example of a high-fat endurance athlete.
If you ask what that actually means, though, his estimate is that his diet breaks down as 50 percent carbohydrate, 20 percent fat, and 30 percent protein – which is right 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.
An advanced nutritional technique that I would consider is “train low” sessions.
Overall carb intake remains high, but certain sessions are performed with low carbohydrate stores, either by training before breakfast or deliberately depleting carb stores. This can be risky, as it will compromise workout performance and raise injury risk, so it needs to be approached cautiously and gradually. Here’s some more background on this technique.
You can simply save all your 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 your afternoon workout, 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.
You can apply similar logic to dehydration, though in this case it’s not a question of deliberately dehydrating yourself – rather, you allow yourself to become dehydrated during some training sessions (which will generally happen naturally if you just drink to thirst).
There’s some evidence that dehydration is a trigger that induces increases in plasma volume, which in turn boosts endurance performance.
However, it’s common to experience 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.
The simplest advice: one change I’d make if I could do my career over again is see a sports psychologist. Sports psychology – mental imagery, self talk, etc. – make be a relatively blunt instrument, but I think it’s probably the best tool we’ve got at the moment.
Brain endurance training (Samuele Marcora of the University of Kent) is both fascinating and tremendously promising, but I don’t think it’s ready for prime time yet. I’d wait until there has been at least one study with well-trained athletes.
For now, the key message I’d take from Marcora’s research is the importance of avoiding mental fatigue before competitions.
Do anything you can to keep life simple and unstressful in the days leading up to competition. That doesn’t mean just lying on the hotel bed thinking about the race – find ways to distract yourself. But don’t do your taxes the day before a big race just because you have some extra free time.
Two things to get right are your taper and your warm-up. The general rule for taper is gradually drop volume starting two weeks before the race, with about 50 percent of normal volume in the last week, while maintaining intensity (so you don’t lose fitness).
There’s lots of individual (and event-to-event) variation, though, so experiment. In particular, one idea I like is planning the taper minimum three or four days before the race, then doing a medium hard workout a couple of days before the race.
There’s even more variation in the right warm-up, with very little needed before long events. For shorter efforts where you need to be ready to put out a good effort right from the gun, there’s increasing evidence that a relatively hard “priming” effort can help make sure your VO2 is firing on all cylinders right from the start. A common protocol in cycling is a moderately hard six-minute effort finishing 10 minutes before starting. For running, I like two ~60-second efforts a little quicker than threshold pace.
I won’t get into altitude training here. I think it’s likely helpful if you have access to it, either through a trip to high elevation or an altitude tent/house, but getting it right is tricky. Consult with someone who knows what they’re doing before embarking on it.
Another option, though, is heat training. It’s fairly standard for athletes preparing for a race in a warm climate to spend a week or two acclimating to heat prior to the race. More recently, there’s been evidence that heat acclimation training can also boost performance even in cool conditions. It may be related to dehydration-induced increases in blood plasma volume (as mentioned above), though there may be additional factors at work. You can get a decent effect in 5 to 7 days, doing sessions in 25 to 35 C heat – it’s something you might do a few weeks before a race.
That seems like a strategy that could easily backfire if you’re not doing it under close supervision. A more reasonable option might be the emerging evidence that taking a sauna after workouts can achieve similar plasma boosts. There have been a few studies of this effect; the most recent found a large increase in plasma volume after just four sauna sessions of 30 minutes at ~30 C (87 F). If you try this, make sure to rehydrate and recover immediately after the saunas.
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.
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
Okay, that’s a lot to digest. Whatever you do, don’t try everything there all at once! Pick and choose some ideas that seem to fit best with your current situation and goals, and perhaps address current weaknesses. Make changes to your routine one at a time, and monitor how your body (and mind) react. And remember that all of this stuff just is the cherry on top of the icing on top of the cake – it won’t get you far if there’s no cake underneath.