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.
In part 2, we went over 4 more strategies for achieving superhuman endurance.
And in this final part, we’re going to look at 5 final strategies for maximizing your endurance.
You’ve no doubt seen it before: the cheesy As-Seen-On-TV ad for the special electrodes you attach to your abs to magically and effortlessly get a six pack.
Known as neuromuscular electrical stimulation (NMES), electrical stimulation (EMS) or electromyostimulation devices, these contraptions elicit a muscle contraction using electrical impulses that directly stimulate your motor neurons (as opposed to a “TENS” unit, which is good for managing pain and a common low back pain treatment, but only stimulates surface nerve endings, not motor neurons).
The first few times you use an EMS device, it feels as though an outside invader has somehow taken control of your muscles and caused them to contract without the control of your brain. These contractions can be quick and rapid, quick with longer pauses between contractions, or even contractions that are held for seconds and sometimes minutes at a time.
The reason EMS feels strange is because it reproduces your body’s natural process of voluntary muscular contractions. Normally, your body fires muscles by sending electrical impulses from your brain through your central nervous system (CNS) to your muscles. But EMS allows you to engage in deep, intense and complete muscular contractions without actually taxing your CNS (or your joints and tendons).
In other words, your body doesn’t know the difference between a voluntary contraction or an electrically induced one, it only recognizes that there’s a stimulus.
To use EMS, you place pads on your skin at each end of the skeletal muscle to be stimulated. An EMS device usually has four channels with lead wires, and each wire is connected to two pads. Very small amounts of current run from one pad to the next and complete a circuit – using your muscle tissue as a conduit. The current runs at specific frequencies (Hz) and pulse durations (microseconds), and the motor neurons within this circuit are stimulated. The muscle fibers innervated by the motor neurons then contract.
And voila – you start twitching.
The muscle fibers that you’re able to stimulate with EMS are completely dependent on the type of frequency you use. Basically, there are three ranges of frequencies that stimulate three different muscle fiber types. A slow twitch muscle fiber will contract at one set of frequencies, an intermediate fast twitch muscle fiber will contract at a different set of frequencies, and a fast twitch muscle fiber will contract at the highest frequencies.
I personally own and use a Compex Sport Elite device, and although for several years I only used it for recovery, I now perform strength and explosive strength training electrical sessions for my quads and hamstrings (while at the same time practicing deep diaphragmatic breathing). Interestingly, I’ve been able to get myself into a dripping wet full body sweat with these sessions, and when performed prior to a bike ride or run, found it much easier to produce both higher cadences and speeds. Multiple clinical studies back this up, and websites such as Hammer Nutrition have entire content libraries devoted to research and proper use of EMS for endurance sports.
And while an EMS device certainly isn’t going to burn significant calories or fat to give you an amazing six-pack, it can indeed result in a significant boost in cardiovascular and musculoskeletal fitness. For more tips on how to implement EMS into a training season, visit that Hammer website I just referenced, or read my blog post “How To Use Electrical Muscle Stimulation to Enhance Performance, Build Power and VO2 Max.”
Finally, you may want to upgrade to a very expensive and relatively teeth-gritting intense form of electrical muscle stimulation that can leave your muscles in a state of maximum contraction for literally minutes at a time. The following suggestions will also give you faster results than any other EMS device out there. Look into the ARPWave and EVOAthlete program operated by Jay Schroeder, the guy I mentioned earlier.
Jay uses an electrical stimulation device called the ARPwave, which possesses characteristics not found in any conventional therapeutic neuromuscular electrical stimulator (specifically something called interferential, microcurrent, galvanic, Russian stim, or iontophoresis). This specific wave is supposedly more harmonious with the body and significantly reduces skin and fatty tissue impedance, which allows much deeper penetration of the direct current without the side effects of nasty stuff like skin burning.
Think of this as electrostimulation on steroids.
By combining movement patterns with the use of ARPwave, Jay is able to achieve extremely fast injury healing time. If you can combine this type of electrostimulation training with heavy lifting or “extreme isometrics” you can get extremely significant performance results in a very short period of time.
I can’t remember the last time I went to a triathlon or marathon and didn’t see brightly colored compression socks nearly everywhere. Compression gear can enhance circulation and help to speed muscle recovery post-exercise.
But despite extremely widespread use of compression gear by endurance athletes, studies supporting its performance enhancing abilities are sparse and relatively inconclusive. Some research indicates that wearing compression tights while performing impact-based exercise such as running may help to decrease muscle vibrations (which could potentially cause muscle fatigue). Whether that results in improved performance remains to be proven.
Most compression gear companies, however, don’t dwell on the anti-vibratory effect of compression gear as much as the improvement in blood flow. But this improvement in blood flow doesn’t seem to significantly improve running endurance, and the one small study that found compression gear to improve circulation and running economy had a sample size of just six runners, with the actual results being self-reported by the subjects themselves. Unfortunately, self-reported studies present a significantly high likelihood of a placebo effect.
So why am I including compression gear as an underground training tactic?
One big part of finding the balance between health and performance is treating your daily routine as an opportunity for physical activity. Remember that the entire reason behind this is to build endurance while you’re working, rather than sitting all day and then destroying your body with a monster exercise session.
If you’re following this recommendation, you’re going to be standing. A lot.
For example, you might:
In following my own advice, I find myself standing for nearly 8 hours of every day. Since I tend to do my workouts in the afternoon or early evening, my legs can feel extremely heavy and sluggish without the use of compression gear to assist with venous blood flow as I spend all that time in the standing position. Just try it sometime and you’ll see what I mean.
So the compression gear that I personally wear (and demonstrate in the video “Does Compression Gear Really Help Recovery & Performance, Or Is It All Just A Silly Ploy To Get Us To Dress Up In Stretchy Pants?”) is not something I wear because I believe it directly helps me during the workout, but rather something I wear so that by the time I get to my actual workout I’m able to push harder and feel better because my legs are less sluggish and less swollen with blood (as a result of me being on my feet all day).
That’s why I consider regularly sporting compression gear to be a training tactic to enhance endurance. With its possible recovery implications, you should add this to your protocol. I personally use a brand called “110% Play Harder” because it allows me to insert ice sleeves into the compression gear and thus combine two of my underground training tactics: compression and ice.
Yes, that’s right: a mouthpiece.
I’ll admit that I’ve caught some flak for mentioning strange devices like this before, but I wouldn’t bring up the mouthpiece if it wasn’t included among the gear that I’ve found to be helpful for endurance training, especially if you’re utilizing the HIIT and gritting your teeth or clenching your jaw during workouts (and if you’re going hard enough, you probably are).
I first introduced the concept of using a fitness mouthpiece in a podcast episode about how a mouthpiece could help you exercise better, based on some interesting research in the Journal of the American Dental Association. I have to admit that I was a bit skeptical at first about putting something in your mouth that you clamp down on it when you’re exercising to somehow make a workout easier.
But a study conducted by Dr. Dena Garner, Head of the Department of Heath, Exercise and Sports Science at The Citadel, (who I interview in the podcast episode ”Can You Get A Better Workout By Chomping Down On A Leather Strap Like An Ancient Viking Warrior?“) showed that participants wearing a mouthpiece during exercise experienced improvements in their ability to breathe – specifically taking in 29% more oxygen, while expelling 21% more carbon dioxide than the subjects not wearing the mouthpiece. It also appeared that the mouthpiece could help to lower cortisol levels.
To see what a fitness mouthpiece look like, check out the video from another mouthpiece company called “TrainWicked.”
It works like this: whenever you train or compete, your natural reaction is to clench your jaw, which is part of the fight or flight hard-wiring in your brain. By shoving a mouthpiece (or a leather strap) into your mouth, you maintain spacing between your teeth and counteract the negative effects of clenching.
CAT scans have displayed a dramatic increase in the airway opening with the use of a mouthpiece, which results in improved respiration. In addition, according to a study published in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research (October 2011), a mouthpiece can significantly lower your cortisol levels after one hour of intense exercise.
When I first discovered the concept of using a mouthpiece, I had to go through the long process of visiting a dentist, getting painstakingly long and chemical-filled mold of my mouth and then waiting several weeks for my custom-fitted mouthpiece to arrive.
Since that time, things have gotten quite a bit easier, and you can now simply grab a training mouthpiece off of a site like Amazon.
I do not recommend wearing the mouthpiece while swimming, or even during any race for which eating and drinking quickly is paramount. But it can really come in handy during high-intensity interval training or resistance training.
The Bulletproof Vibe, plain Jane with no bells and whistles, but it does the job.
During a conference I attended a few years ago, I hopped on a “Bulletproof Vibe“ vibration platform.
Within a few minutes, another conference attendee walked up and got me to go into a single leg standing yoga balance pose while on the vibration.
This massively worked my nervous system within just a couple minutes and I felt like my brain had an intense buzz after focusing, posing and vibrating at the same time.
Later that year, while exercising at a gym that had a vibration platform, I attempted several 30-60 second isometric squats on the vibration platform, followed by 2-3 minute cycling intervals on a nearby stationary bike. And the next week, I repeated the same protocol, but with treadmill running instead.
After both sessions, I not only experienced the same “brain buzz”, but was able to push myself much harder during the actual cycling and running intervals.
So how does this vibration thing work?
Whole Body Vibration (WBV) therapy (basically, standing or moving on a vibration platform) is used in universities, professional sports teams, and medical facilities around the United States. WBV was invented by Russian cosmonauts in 1960s and can:
WBV therapy can stimulate your hormonal, cardiovascular, lymphatic, and nervous systems simultaneously. You can use it to get the lymphatic and circulatory benefits of hours of walking, or you can perform exercise on it, or use it prior to more complex weight training exercises or intervals.
A vibration platform’s benefits include decreased time to fatigue, increased strength compared to resistance training alone, higher hormonal response to exercise, and much more. Of course, beyond just standing on a vibration platform, which quickly becomes easy (and frankly, boring), you can do squats, pushups and of course, any number of balance poses and yoga moves.
But can vibration training affect endurance performance?There are a number of studies that have used vibration therapy for improving anaerobic performance, longevity, recovery and injury resistance in endurance athletes.
A 2012 study investigated the effects of whole body vibration training on aerobic and anaerobic cycling performance in 9 road cyclists over a 10-week intervention period. The researchers tested lean body mass, cycling aerobic peak powe, 4mM lactate concentration (OBLA), VO2-max and Wingate anaerobic peak and mean power output. The researchers divided the subjects into two groups, one that added in vibration training and one that continued as before. The researchers had difficulty with the study participants as the vibration-training group reduced their cycling training volume independently of the study design, which led to reductions in VO2-max and other variables. However, the vibration-training group maintained cycling aerobic peak power and increased Wingate peak power by 6% and Wingate mean power increased by 2% without increasing lean body mass.
Another 2012 study investigated the effects of 8 weeks of whole-body vibration training on running economy and power performance in 24 male collegiate athletes. The researchers divided the subjects into two groups, one of which performed vibration training in a half-squat position while the others performed only the half-squat position without the vibrations. The researchers tested isometric maximal isometric force and rate of force development (RFD) before and after the intervention as well as running economy at different velocities. They reported that maximal isometric plantar flexion force, maximal isometric dorsiflexion force, RFD of 0-200 milliseconds during plantar flexion and running economy were significantly increased in the vibration-training group after training.
Yet another recent study investigated the effects of 10 weeks of whole body vibration training on the bone density of 15 well-trained road cyclists. The cyclists were divided into two groups, one that performed vibration training in addition to their normal cycling training and a control group that continued with their normal cycling training. After the 10 weeks, the vibration-training group displayed a significantly greater increase in hip bone mineral density while the control group displayed no change.
And a search of PubMed for whole body vibration will yield dozens more studies on effects of vibration on hormones, strength and power.
Vibration platforms such as the Bulletproof Vibe are designed to transfer vibration energy you, and not to the floor – and although a unit like this doesn’t quite give the enormous amplitude and frequency I’ve experienced on the big commercial units in biomechanical labs and some fancy gyms, it is comparatively more quiet, it stays in place without moving around the room, and at $1495 it won’t set you back $6000 to $8000 compared to a big commercial vibration platform unit.
Here are some practical ways you can use a vibration platform if you get one:
So if you’ve got some cash to burn and want to get the lymph and blood flowing every morning, or pre-prime your nervous system prior to cycling or running intervals, add a vibration platform into the mix.
The man responsible for coining the phrase “Grease the Groove” is Pavel Tsatsouline, one of the world’s top strength and conditioning coaches and former trainer of the Russian special forces. I first encountered his unconventional training methods in the book “The Naked Warrior,” which I read when I decided I was “through” with bodybuilding and wanted to find a more natural, holistic approach to keeping my body strong.
What is “Greasing the Groove?”
It’s all based around a simple equation designed by Pavel:
Specificity + Frequent Practice = Success
When I was a bodybuilder, the prevailing belief was that strength was derived by simply getting bigger muscles. As you’ve already learned in this chapter, that’s not the case. A big part of strength (and power) is your ability to maximally recruit the muscle fibers you already have. So Pavel’s Grease the Groove philosophy is that strength is not just size, but strength is also skill.
Just like any other skill, the skill of strength can be practiced.
For example, take the pull-up – a fantastic movement for improving posture in cyclists and runners and shoulder alignment in swimmers. I can personally do 25 perfect body weight pull-ups without an incredible amount of effort. But I rarely, if ever, actually do pull-ups when I’m at the gym or during a workout.
Instead, I simply have a pull-up bar installed in the door of my office, and every time I walk under that bar, I do three to five pull-ups. With perfect form. I’m not training to failure, and I’m not beating up my shoulders with excessive repetitions done all at once. I’m simply doing an extremely submaximal number of pull-ups (and yes, I started with just one pull-up).
So I “Grease the Groove” daily with pull-ups, and by the end of the day, I would usually have performed 30-50 pull-ups.
This concept works because by performing a movement frequently, your neuromuscular system becomes more proficient at allowing your body, your nerves and your muscles to work in sync to perform that movement more efficiently, and over time the movement becomes more natural and more economical for your body to perform. When that happens, you’re able to maintain better form and do more repetitions.
I use a similar strategy throughout the day with:
Hopefully, you’re now beginning to understand why I included the Greasing the Groove concept as an endurance training strategy. It’s not because having the capability to perform 25 consecutive pull-ups is going to somehow make you ride a bicycle faster (although it may keep your shoulders from getting injured after long periods of time in an aero position). It’s not as though sprinkling push-ups or squats throughout the day is going to make you a faster runner per se.
But when you incorporate these concepts, and you arrive at the end of the day, you’ll discover that you’ve actually been engaged in low-level, endurance-building physical activity the entire day, without actually stepping foot into a gym or performing a structured workout.
By Greasing the Groove in this way, you are indeed replicating the “Ancestral Athlete” approach of moving constantly throughout the entire day – with brief spurts of intense physical activity. And when you combine this approach with high intensity interval training workouts and small doses of longer aerobic efforts, along with the underground training tactics you’ve learned, you’ll find that you build both endurance and speed at a rapid pace.
And you stay healthy too.
I’ll admit that was a lot of information to digest. From overspeed, underspeed, EMS, cold thermogenesis and heat to isometrics, superslow training, mouthpieces, compression gear, music, sounds, frequencies and greasing the groove, you now have many valuable tools in your endurance training toolbox.
And remember: all of this information is focused on enhancing your time and efficiency. For example, you can do the superslow training routine I described and get the cardiovascular training effects of a 1 hour run within just 12 minutes of weight training. But it’s obviously not going to make you a more skilled runner.
In other words, you still do need to swim, bike, run and train for whatever other skill you’re training in, and then use these tactics I’ve described to enhance your results. You simply can’t neglect sport-specificity, and I in no way condone ignoring training for your sport because you’re convinced all you need to do is isometrics while wearing a mouthpiece.
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.