Training for endurance sports can, at times, feel like a never-ending arms race. Though many (rightly) focus on achieving big performance gains by training harder and smarter, those improvements become smaller and more difficult to obtain after a while. Since your fellow competitors are likely running similar intervals and lifting similar weights, maximizing endurance performance can often come down to scrutinizing the details.
Gwen Jorgensen, recent winner of the United States’s first triathlon gold at the Rio Olympics, believes that many of these small gains are found outside of aerobic training. “Triathlon is challenging because you are always balancing three different disciplines. I have learned to search for marginal gains, and always adapt to changing situations,” she says.
The theory: to compete at the highest level, every aspect of performance should be examined in microscopic detail for possible improvement. The collective performance benefits of the slight changes to training, nutrition, and recovery can give an athlete a small but significant edge over the competition—especially at the elite level.
“If it has the potential to impact performance in either a positive or negative fashion, then we try to take care of it,” says Jonathan Hall, high performance director for Triathlon Canada. “Attention to detail has certainly become a topic of interest and every good organization is looking to innovate and identify and implement any item that may increase performance or the likelihood of achieving an outcome."
Here are some small changes that you can make in your life whose sum could make a real difference in performance.
The pre-exercise commandment taught to you in gym class needs an update. It turns out the traditional stretch-and-hold movement known as static stretching decreases both muscular power and efficiency, notably in one’s vertical jump and sprint speed. One study found that static stretching before cycling decreased time-to-exhaustion by 26 percent and increased average oxygen consumption by four percent, meaning the subjects reached fatigue faster and had to work harder to maintain the same speed. Static stretching also seems to have little effect on the risk of injury.
Research suggests that dynamic stretching, or stretching while moving (e.g. wide walking lunges or leg swings), does not have the same pre-performance downside and can actually augment a warm-up.
For general health and well-being, the National Sleep Foundation recommends that adults get seven-to-nine hours of sleep a night. But in a 2011 study of Stanford basketball players, researcher Cheri Mah found that five-to-seven weeks of sleep extension—that is, going to bed earlier and/or getting up later—resulted in improved basketball performance, reaction time, and running speed. The researchers concluded, “Extended sleep beyond one's habitual nightly sleep likely contributes to improved athletic performance.”
As it’s often easier to alter your bedtime than wake-up time, to get more sleep, try gradually going to bed earlier—15 to 30 minutes earlier is a good starting point. (Of course, for many adults, sleep extension may be an unrealistic luxury—in its place, simply try to sleep better.)
An Advil a Day Keeps Peak Performance Away
Endurance athletes are notorious for popping Advil and Tylenol like monochromatic M&M’s. However, studies have suggested that anti-inflammatory medicines taken immediately after exercise blunt the body’s natural response to physical stress, which is necessary for positive adaptations to occur. This suggests that even if taking an anti-inflammatory gets you past the aches and pains of training and racing, it may be doing damage to your fitness. In fact, in a 2007 study following several groups of Western States ultrarunners, researchers found that those using anti-inflammatories following the race experienced higher levels of post-race inflammation and were just as sore in the week following the race as those who didn’t take any.
Dial Up the Compression
First used as a medical intervention to promote blood flow to the heart, compression garments have been adopted by the endurance community over the last decade as a recovery device. Though compression seems to have no effect on actual speed, research suggests that the garments elicit a small positive response on exercise time to exhaustion, running economy, perceived exertion, clearance of blood lactate, and markers of muscle damage and inflammation.
Use the Chocolate Milk Recovery Principle
Replacing proteins and carbohydrates during the first hours after exercise is a critical component of the recovery process. And combining them in a three-to-one ratio—similar to that found in chocolate milk—seems to be ideal. In a recent study, cyclists who followed up several hours of exhaustive exercise with a three-to-one carb-to-protein recovery drink performed better in the next day’s time trial than those that recovered with only carbs.
Blow Off Some Steam (and Run Faster)
Many enjoy the therapeutic effects of a steam shower after a hard workout, but it may actually offer more than just relaxation. While sauna time can have a variety of positive influences on the body—notably improved lung function and an increased resistance to the common cold—its greatest effect on performance may be its ability to boost the volume of one’s plasma, or the fluid that surrounds the red blood cells and is key in heat adaptation. One study, published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, found that an increase in plasma volume after the use of a sauna was responsible for a 32 percent increase in run time to exhaustion and a two percent enhancement in a 15-minute endurance time trial performed in the heat. While sport scientists aren’t clear about what the ideal sauna protocol looks like, successful research protocols have consisted of a 30 minute post-training steam four days a week for three weeks.
Time Your Carbs Right
Scientists have long known that reducing carbohydrate intake can train the body to more optimally use and store carbs. Unfortunately, training on a low-carb diet often feels like one giant bonk. In order to better understand how one can strategically use carbs while adapting their body to fat, researchers from France and Australia had a group of runners follow a protocol that had them fuel up on carbs immediately before high intensity workout sessions and then restrict their carbs for the rest of the day. The study, which was published in April in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, then had the runners start the next day with a low carb breakfast and a moderate intensity workout (requiring less carbs). They repeated this seven-day cycle three times. Over the course of this three week intervention, researchers found that these runners not only increased their running economy, but they were also able to improve their 10K time by an average of 73 seconds. The researchers hypothesize that the high carb availability sessions gave the runners fuel for high quality workouts, while the low carb availability at night led the body to begin using fat as fuel.
A Little Mist Goes a Long Way
Science has validated the use of cold-water immersion to minimize heat stress before exercise in a hot environment, but it isn’t always convenient (or comfortable) to plunk into a cold bath minutes before a race. Recent research may have come up with a more palatable alternative—spritzing oneself in the face with cool water. In a study comparing cold-water immersion and cooling facial spray on 5K running performance in the heat, both cooling strategies improved runner’s times by approximately 30 seconds. Importantly, both cold water immersion and the spray reduced the sensation of the hot environment. A similar effect—without the need to carry a personal face mister—could likely be achieved by using a water bottle.
For Recovery, Try a Little Tart Cherry
The after effects of intense exercise can mimic that of illness or more serious cardiac events, including muscle damage, inflammation, and stress. The use of anti-oxidants after exercise has been somewhat successful in reducing this stress and more recent research has focused on foods containing the natural anti-oxidant polyphenol, particularly the skins of tart cherries. Runners that used a tart cherry supplement in the seven days leading up to a half-marathon time trial averaged 13 percent faster race finish times when compared to a group that took a rice flour placebo. Additionally, the supplement seemed to enhance measures of recovery, including reduced immune and inflammatory stress. Inflammatory markers—assessed using blood tests after the race—were almost 50 percent less in the tart cherry group of runners.
Track Your Way to Recovery
When it comes to training, there’s a fine line between too much and not enough. A recent study determined that measuring one’s heart rate variability allowed a group of runners to better individualize the timing of their high-intensity training runs, leading to greater improvements in performance. After assessing HRV prior to exercise sessions, the athletes would only perform high-intensity workouts if HRV-values were in a narrow, ideal window. Using this individualized training, the HRV group improved performance in a 3,000 meter time trial by three percent compared to a group that followed a standardized pre-determined training program. Interestingly, the greater improvement in running performance found in the HRV group was achieved with a lower number of moderate and high-intensity training sessions, and a higher number of low-intensity workouts, reinforcing that harder is not always better.
A developing theory, supported by a growing number of research studies, suggests that fatigue may be as much psychological as it is physiological. The theory holds that the brain, using input from the body, decides when enough is enough. If this is true, convincing your brain that it’s okay to go harder and longer can be an important skill for those looking to improve performance. In a 2013 study, published in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, researchers evaluated the effectiveness of positive self-talk on feelings and performance. After the two-week study period, the group that used positive self-talk training was able to cycle 18 percent longer (almost two minutes) during an exercise test to exhaustion than a group that simply prepared with a standard exercise program.