There are a variety of little-known, “underground” tactics you can implement to enhance your training effectiveness and efficiency – endurance training strategies that tend to fly under the radar, but can give you lots of bang for your buck if you implement them into your program. These tactics come in handy especially if:
a) time management is important to you;
b) you want to figure out ways to strengthen your cardiovascular, musculoskeletal and nervous system without significant damage to your joints, health, or metabolism.
In part 1 of this article series, I gave 3 little-known strategies to turn you into an endurance beast. In this part, we’re going to look at 4 more strategies.
Pick up a straw. Breathe in and out through the straw. That’s resisted breathing. Consider it to be weight training for your lungs.
Now go for a swim. Experience what happens when you breathe every 5 or 7 strokes instead of every 1 or 2 strokes. That’s restricted breathing, which sends a clear message to your body that oxygen molecules are few and far between.
Finally, go climb a mountain or crawl into an altitude tent. That’s hypoxic training, in which the air is truly thinner and you’re actually pulling less oxygen into your body.
Resisted breathing enhances your endurance by strengthening your inspiratory and expiratory muscles, which increases your ventilatory capacity (your lung size). Hypoxic training not only strengthens those same respiratory muscles, but also results in:
Restricted breathing actually gives you a bit of the benefits of both resisted and hypoxic training.
Before I give you some practical recommendations to implement resisted breathing, restricted breathing and hypoxic training, let’s get something straight: many resisted breathing devices are marketed as hypoxic training devices, but are not simulating altitude at all and do not result in any hypoxic adaptations.
Take, for example, altitude training masks, which seem to have become rather popular of late.
Most of these masks, which look like a Swat team gas mask or the Batman villain Bane, cannot (despite some manufacturer claims) actually change the atmospheric pressure that you’re training in. They must be designed as Intermittent Hypoxic Training (IHT) devices to accomplish this, and most are not. Fact is, when you’re charging down the treadmill sporting your scary-looking altitude training mask, you’re still breathing air that is approximately 21% oxygen, with the same partial pressure of oxygen as whatever altitude you happen to be at. Most masks are simply restricting your breathing by covering up your mouth and nose. These masks can certainly be effective for improving ventilatory capacity, but don’t result in the same physiological adaptations as true hypoxic training.
In contrast, true altitude training would require driving your car to the top of a high mountain, getting out, and going for a run; sleeping in an altitude training tent from a company such as Hypoxico; using Intermittent Hypoxic Training (IHT) sessions to expose the body to periods of hypoxia (9-14% oxygen) inhaled through a mask; or moving to live and train in a place like Colorado.
It is in these true altitude situations that your body doesn’t get as much oxygen, makes more hemoglobin to shuttle oxygen to your muscles, and experiences many of the other favorable hormonal and immune system adaptations to hypoxia. Of course, simulating altitude or training at true altitude can be a logistical nightmare that turns into a time-suck if you don’t actually live up in the mountains or have a spouse or significant who finds an altitude tent a romantic bedtime setting. Probably the most practical and implementable method currently on the market is the type of true altitude mask I mentioned earlier, which you can find in a home model through Hypoxico.
So from a practical perspective, most of us are limited to resisted breathing or restricted breathing – both of which can have significant training benefits with relatively less stress than altitude training. Here are some practical ways you can utilize these methods:
Swim Restricted Breathing Sets: Instead of breathing every 1 or 2 strokes, breathe every 3, 5, or 7 strokes. Another favorite method of mine is to finish a swim workout by swimming 10×25 “no breather” sets, from one end of the pool to the other without breathing.
Swim Resisted Breathing Sets: Get a front-mounted Swim Snorkel, and then add a CardioCap to restrict the amount of air you get through the snorkel opening. You can wear this during both long interval sets and short sprints.
Wear an “altitude training mask” (really a “resisted breathing device”) during an interval run or cycling session.
Keep a Powerlung resisted breathing device in your car or at home and use it frequently throughout the week.
When combined with proper breathing patterns throughout your work day and a habitual deep diaphragmatic breathing pattern, these methods can be extremely efficient at improving your ventilatory capacity and efficiency of oxygen utilization.
I first discovered cold thermogenesis (CT) through Ray Cronise, a NASA Materials Engineer who appeared on my podcast along with Tim Ferriss in the episode “How To Manipulate Your Body’s Temperature To Burn More Fat.“
Later, after experimenting extensively and successfully myself with CT, I interviewed neurosurgeon Jack Kruse, who specializes in the use of CT for weight loss, hormone stabilization, and performance, in the podcast episode “How You Can Use Cold Thermogenesis To Perform Like Lance Armstrong And Michael Phelps.“
In short, there are a multitude of performance benefits derived from frequent exposure to cold temperature, cold water immersion, cold showers, cold-hot contrast showers, or use of body cooling gear such as the Cool Fat Burner vest or 110% Compression Gear, including:
Brown adipose tissue, or BAT, is primarily found around your collar bones, sternum, neck, and upper back. It is a unique kind of fat that can generate heat by burning the regular white fat (adipose tissue) found on your stomach, butt, hips, and legs.
In most cases, you’d need to exercise or engage in caloric restriction to first burn glucose (blood sugar) and then move on to glycogen (stored liver and muscle sugar) before finally beginning to utilize fat as fuel source. But BAT can immediately and directly burn white fat to generate heat.
Although BAT is found in all mammals, babies or individuals exposed to frequent bouts of cold temperature tend to have higher levels of brown fat to generate heat and help to keep them warm. While exercise and fasting can also both increase BAT, they don’t hold a candle to CT.
To get your BAT churning away storage fat, you can use something like the Cool Fat Burner vest while you’re at the office or home to keep your primary BAT areas on your collarbones and upper back activated.
Enhanced Immune System
CT has been proven to enhance the immune system, primarily by increase levels of immune system cells that help fight disease and infection.
Specifically, CT – likely due to its ability to stimulate norepinephrine release – can induce leukocytosis and granulocytosis, an increase in natural killer cell count and activity, and a rise in circulating levels of interleukin-6, all of which can significantly improve your immune system integrity.
Increased Cell Longevity
mTOR is a protein found in humans. Perhaps you’ve heard that worms, fruit flies and mice live longer when exposed to caloric restriction, or that regular fasting periods may help to extend lifespan, and it is hypothesized that this is caused by downregulation of this mTOR pathway. Inhibition of the mTOR pathway can also bring about cell autophagy, which is basically how your body cleans out metabolic “junk” within the cells – and this is the method via which cells may live longer and healthier lives.
CT has an effect on cellular longevity by similar mTOR pathways as caloric restriction and intermittent fasting. Basically, you can think of it as a combination of simultaneously increasing your cell’s hardiness and health.
Endothelial Nitric Oxide Upregulation
Endothelial nitric oxide is found in the lining of blood vessels. Nitric oxide aids in tissue recovery and regeneration, enhances blood flow, dissolves plaques, and dilates blood vessels – resulting in enhanced cardiovascular efficiency and blood delivery to tissue, which is very convenient for enhancing endurance performance.
An inadequate endothelial nitric oxide system and subsequent poor blood flow can rob the muscles and the brain of blood, oxygen and nutrients. So both physical and mental function can be enhanced when nitric oxide is upregulated. Poor blood flow to the digestive tract is one cause of leaky gut and poor gut function, and high levels of nitric oxide can also enhance gut function.
Two activities can significantly elevate endothelial nitric oxide: exercise and CT.
Higher Metabolism & Lower Blood Sugar
CT can cause your blood glucose to be burned rapidly as fuel to assist in heating the body or stored in muscles to enhance recovery or performance – before that blood sugar can potentially be converted to fat via the liver. While I’m not trying to give you an excuse to cheat on your diet and then use CT, it can also come in handy should you slip up and eat too much ice cream (or too many sweet potatoes).
When the metabolism of human BAT is studied using a combination of positron emission tomography (PET) combined with computed tomography (CT), glucose uptake has been observed to increase 12-fold in BAT by exposure to cold temperatures, along with a significant increase in metabolism and energy expenditure.
In addition, cold thermogenesis results in adinopectin activation. Adinopectin is a hormone released during cold exposure that breaks down fat and shuttles glucose into muscles (which can lower blood sugar). This not only has an anabolic, muscle repair effect, but can also enhance recovery. Interestingly, low adiponectin levels have been associated with obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
This all means that cold thermogenesis can not only help keep you at a lean racing weight, but also improve your cardiovascular efficiency, your immune system strength, your health and longevity, and assist you with metabolic efficiency, thus enhancing your potential for higher amounts of fat utilization during endurance workouts or races.
Read to start shivering? Here are some practical methods you can use to begin implementing cold thermogenesis:
When the boiler at my local YMCA broke last year and I was stuck swimming in about 55 degree water for 2 weeks, I could eat nearly anything in sight for those couple weeks and was still losing fat at an unparalleled pace
In the same way that cold thermogenesis can cause positive cardiovascular adaptations, heat exposure can not only result in enhanced blood flow distribution, but also better ability to tolerate extremes of heat during workouts and races.
Gradual exposure to repetitive exercise and non-exercise heat stress produces several beneficial physiological adaptations, including improved heat transfer from core to skin, more efficient cardiovascular function, decreased heart rate during hot exercise, decreased skin and body temperature during hot exercise, increased blood volume and less electrolyte loss via kidney filtration.
There are two methods you can use to implement heat in your training: passive and active heat training.
Because it is relatively less uncomfortable, I am personally a bigger fan of passive heat training. Passive heat training involves sitting or standing in dry heat saunas or steam rooms to simulate heat, and induces the same cardiovascular and sweat changes as active heat training, but without the recovery implications or discomfort that accompanies active exercise in the heat – like setting up your bike trainer or treadmill inside a sauna.
So should you use a dry sauna or a wet steam room for this type of passive heat acclimation? Sweat evaporation and cooling efficiency appears to occur most favorably with hot-wet conditions like a steam room, but either a sauna or a steam room will achieve favorable results, so you can choose.
Positive adaptations can occur with as few as 10 days of passive heat training. If you’re doing passive heat training for race preparation, then for optimum results you should begin 4-8 weeks prior to your event. Begin with 10-15 minutes of passive heat training, and gradually work up to 45-50 minute sessions every 1-3 days.
In contrast to passive heat training, active heat training is crucial for experiencing the physiological and psychological responses to hot weather racing, and although more uncomfortable, results in faster results than passive heat training. Active heat training, as the name implies, involves exercising in hot conditions.
This can be accomplished via treadmill or cycling sessions in a dry heat sauna, or in a small room with a heater or humidifier under the bike or treadmill. You can use a steady-state exercise protocol or interval training. If you begin to get too hot to exercise comfortably, you’ll still get results if you stop exercising (or remove the heat) allow your body to cool, and then progress back into the exercise when you are ready (the fancy name for this start-stop method is “controlled hyperthermia”).
During active heat training, the elevation of both core and skin temperature is necessary for complete heat adaptation, but wearing too many extra layers of clothing during these sessions could actually be detrimental. Clothing is semi-permeable to water, so the climate developed under your clothing can create a water vapor pressure that prevents sweat evaporation and rapidly elevates your discomfort and dehydration. So avoid the temptation to wear a few layers of cotton shirts or jogging pants during your heat acclimation sessions, despite what Rocky Balboa does.
One recent study published in the European Journal of Applied Physics put elite rowers through a protocol of rowing at five days of heat exposure, at 90 minutes per day. The rowers were in a room at 104 degrees and 60% humidity, and their rowing wasn’t too hard – but hard enough to overheat them slightly. The result was a significant 1.5% increase in 2,000m rowing performance. This was attributed to a variety of reasons, including higher blood volume (which is actually hard to do the more “elite” of an athlete you are, so impressive in this study, in which plasma volume increased by 4.5%) and an enhanced ability to mentally handle slight dehydration. Ultimately, it tells us that heat stress, like cold stress, is beneficial.
If you’re using active heat training to prepare for a race, the benefits of active heat training require 45 to 60 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise in the heat for 7-10 consecutive days, or four to five times a week for two to three weeks. So you adapt more quickly compared to passive heat training, but of course, it’s far less comfortable.
Here are some practical ways to implement passive and active heat training:
Finally, you can lose the positive benefits of heat training in as few as 7 days, so if you’re using heat specifically to acclimate for a race, continue to engage in either active or passive heat training until just 4-6 days before the event. Then at that point you should begin staying out of the sun and the heat.
In 2010, British researchers had 12 men ride a bike while listening to music. During each 25 minute bicycling session, the researchers adjusted the tempo of the music to go 10% faster or 10% slower (26). They found that speeding up the music program increased how far the participants rode and how hard and how fast they pedaled, and slowing down the music had just the opposite effect.
Interestingly, the study participants actually reported liking the music more when it was played at a faster tempo. A 2008 study that was also performed on cyclists found that it was far easier for the cyclists to pedal when they were following the tempo, or beat, of the music.
Furthermore, another 2009 study found that basketball players could shoot better free throws when they listened to catchy, upbeat music. Researchers have suggested that the same positive distraction that helped those basketball players shoot better can also distract us from fatigue or pain experienced during exercise.
Finally, in 2003, researchers observed that people who listened to music during exercise actually improved their mood, the speed of their decision-making processes, and even their verbal fluency. That means you’ll not only be able to exercise harder when you listen to music, but you may actually get smarter too, or perhaps have better focus.
So how does music motivate you to exercise?
The mechanisms of how music motivates you to exercise harder are actually not entirely clear. However, it is known that there are two elements at play:
a) “Psychological effect” – the ability of music to distract your attention on pain and fatigue
b) “Physiological effect” – the ability of music to increase heart rate and breathing
Together, the psychological and physiological effect of music makes you exercise harder and hurt less. So how can you take advantage of the power of music to enhance your endurance training?
Do music intervals
Since I’m a techno-geek, I’ll often load free Tiesto podcast or Planet Perfect podcast onto my .mp3 player. These are hour long tracks with about 4-7 minutes per track. I’ll then perform intervals that simply alternate hard-easy from one song to the next, or even play a song during my hard interval, then switch to a podcast or silence during my recovery.
Use music sparingly
The tricky thing about music is that just like caffeine, you can become desensitized to it if you use it too much to get motivated. For this reason, I don’t recommend you train with music all the time. For example, you can grab a podcast and listen to it for most of your workout and then, when the going gets tough or during those last few minutes of the workout, play your music and finish up with a hard effort.
Use music for the warm-up
Imagine you’re driving home from work and you know you’re supposed to hit the gym or hop on the bike. But sitting down on the couch with a glass of wine seems so much more appealing. Try this: turn on your favorite motivational workout music and then pump up the volume. This can cause just enough psychological and physiological effect to make you veer off-course and head for the gym!
In my podcast episode “How You Can Use Sound And Music To Change Your Brain Waves With Laser Accuracy And Achieve Huge Focus And Performance Gains,“ I interviewed Dr. Jeffrey Thompson from Neuroacoustics.com.
During the interview, Dr. Thompson explained how our brain is made up of billions of brain cells called neurons, and how your neurons (just like the rest of your body) use electricity to communicate with each other. As you can probably imagine, these millions of neurons sending signals all at once produces an enormous amount of electrical activity in your brain, and this can actually be detected using medical equipment like an electroencephalography (EEG), which measures electricity levels over areas of your scalp.
When you graph the electrical activity of your brain using EEG, you generate what is called a brainwave pattern, which is called a “wave” pattern because of its cyclic, wave-like nature.
The brainwave patterns are generally categorized like this:
Beta (14-30 Hz) – concentration, arousal, alertness, cognition, higher levels associated with anxiety, disease, feelings of separation, fight or flight
Alpha (8-13.9 Hz) – relaxation, superlearning, relaxed focus, light trance, increased serotonin production, pre-sleep, pre-waking drowsiness, meditation, beginning of access to unconscious mind
Theta (4-7.9 Hz) – dreaming sleep (REM sleep), increased production of catecholamines (vital for learning and memory), increased creativity, integrative emotional experiences, potential change in behavior, increased retention of learned material, hypnagogic imagery, trance, deep meditation, access to unconscious mind
Delta (.1-3.9 Hz) – dreamless sleep, human growth hormone released, deep trance-like non-physical state, loss of body awareness, access to unconscious and “collective unconscious” mind, greatest “push” to brain when induced with Holosync
Most of us live the majority of our lives in a state of primarily beta brain waves – aroused, alert, concentrated, but also somewhat stressed. This is not a brain wave state you want to be exercising or racing in. It is too high a state of stress to allow for optimum focus.
When you lower the brain wave frequency to an alpha state, you can put yourself in an ideal condition to focus better, learn new information, perform more elaborate tasks, learn languages, analyze complex situations and even be in what sports psychologists call “The Zone,” which is a state of improved focus and performance in athletic competitions or exercise. Part of this is because being the slightly decreased electrical activity in the brain can lead to significant increases in feel-good brain chemicals like endorphins, noroepinephrine and dopamine.
So, for example, when you meditate, you are focusing on something, whether it’s a candle flame or your breath going in or out, or a mantra or a prayer. When you focus like that, the electrical patterns in your brain slow down and relax, and the amplitude of your brain-waves generally stabilizes in the alpha wave range.
But it turns out that you don’t need to be a trained monk or meditate for weeks on end to be able to achieve this state of alpha brain wave relaxation.
Instead, you can use a concept called “brainwave entrainment” to get the same effect.
Brainwave entrainment is considered to be any method that causes your brainwave frequencies to fall into step with a specific frequency. It’s based on the concept that the human brain has a tendency to change its dominant EEG frequency towards the frequency of a dominant external stimulus (such as music, or sound, or frequencies).
The type of sound frequencies that are typically used in brainwave entrainment are called “binaural” beats. The way that these work is that two tones close in frequency generate a beat frequency at the difference of the frequencies.
I know this sounds complicated, but it’s pretty simple to understand when you think about it. For example, a 495 Hz audio tone and 505 Hz audio tone (whether overlaid in music or in a sound frequency) will produce a 10 Hz beat, roughly in the middle of the alpha brain wave range, like this:
Finally a 2010 study showed when it comes to enhancing electroencephalographic activity in the brain, 3 Hz is the “money zone”:
“Results of this study give reason to speculate that a strong relationship exists between intrinsic and extrinsic oscillation patterns during exercise. A frequency of approximately 3 Hz seems to be dominant in different physiological systems and seems to be rated as pleasurable when choosing the appropriate music for exercising. This is in line with previous research showing that an adequate choice of music during exercise enhances performance output and mood.”
3 Hz = 3 beats per second, and this translates to 180 beats per minute – so if you really want to choose the right track for something like a run or bike ride, head over to iTunes and find one of those 180 BPM soundtracks. If you’d like to dig into the details of the effect of sound and frequency a bit more, I’d recommend you read the articles “Methods for Stimulation of Brainwave Function Using Sound” and “Binaural Auditory Beats Affect Vigilance Performance and Mood.”
OK, so now we get to the cool, practical applications of using sound and music to enhance your brain and change your brain wave frequencies for enhancing endurance.
a) Check out Dr. Thompson’s CDs, which include tracks that train you for deep sleep, enhanced mental focus, or better athletic performance. You can play these prior to a workout, or to enhance sleep or recovery.
b) Check out the Entrainer Acoustics, which are downloadable .mp3 audio tracks I personally helped design to accompany a wristband that emits specific frequencies that amplify alpha brain wave production.
c) If you’re a true sound and frequency geek, you can consider utilizing audio–visual entrainment, which takes the concept of sound one step further, combines it with visual stimulation, and uses flashes of lights and pulses of tones to guide the brain into various states of brainwave activity. There’s an interesting device called the MindAlive Light Therapy Device that does this.
There are certainly other ways that sound can affect the human body, such as by amplifying the frequency of your heart’s electrical signals.
Ben Greenfield is an ex-bodybuilder, Ironman triathlete, Spartan racer, coach, speaker and author of the New York Times Bestseller “Beyond Training: Mastering Endurance, Health and Life” (http://www.BeyondTrainingBook.com).
In 2008, Ben was voted as NSCA’s Personal Trainer of the year and in 2013 was named by Greatist as one of the top 100 Most Influential People In Health And Fitness. Ben blogs and podcasts at http://www.BenGreenfieldFitness.com, and resides in Spokane, WA with his wife and twin boys.