The Essentials: My Personal Rules

Over the years, I’ve gone from runner to mixed-sport athlete to cyclist to limited time cyclist. I’ve learned a lot from reading and researching, as well as from personal experience. I’ve done everything from running 5 hours a week, riding 20-plus hours a week, I’ve gone to the gym, and I’ve mixed them all together at the same time. From all of those last 20-years of sports activities, I think there are a few things that I’d say have become pretty core ideas that I follow and routines that I try to do on a regular basis regardless of how much time I spend training. I do these things in order to stay fit and fast, try to maximize health and longevity. They follow in no particular order. And, it’s worth noting that I say in my title that these are “rules,” but I really mean “rules of thumb.” Our bodies react well to a lot of things, and a little bit goes a long way in making ourselves fitter or healthier. Doing everything “right” all of the time will likely get you a little bit better results, but stressing over trivial details is probably not necessary for all of us just trying to stay healthy and fit. If you’re trying to set records and win championships, then you should pay attention to all of the details you can, but for the rest of us, much of that is just noise. If you can get some of the key stuff down 90% of the time, you’ll probably get 99% of the benefits.

Train for endurance by getting glycogen depleted on a regular basis. One of the best things you can do to enhance endurance is to deplete your glycogen stores in training. This shifts your metabolism more and more towards fat-burning and glycogen sparing. It forces your body to cope with the perceived stress of having a lack of glucose available, and it responds by producing more fat-burning enzymes. The more enzymes you have, the more fuel you can burn. If you always consume a lot of carbohydrates in your diet and during training sessions, then your body may be able to avoid ever being really stressed from a fuel-availability standpoint. Some researchers have seen high-level endurance athletes capable of burning 50 or 60 grams of fat per hour, whereas even trained athletes with little fat-burning capacity, may only burn 30-40 grams per hour. This may be half or less of the amount of work you want to do on your bike. Fat takes more oxygen to burn than carbohydrate, but most people could theoretically burn much more fat than they do if they really needed to and their body produced more fat burning enzymes to do so. The best way to do this is to ride to the point of bonking. Or, if you’re like me and you don’t necessarily bonk so much as you just ache more and get slower, then go for that. You can even hasten the process by limiting carbohydrate intake in your diet some or all of the time. You can skip breakfast before your weekend long ride, or you could avoid having carbohydrate for breakfast so that your body has to burn more fat right off the bat. I’ve found that a 5 hour ride with food may leave me even less depleted to a 3 hour ride without. If you’re trying to increase endurance and metabolic efficiency, then it’s worth considering dietary changes, or doing back-to-back medium-to-longer rides. Both techniques will preemptively reduce your glycogen stores and will increase your fat-dependency during and after the training session.

Train for endurance by stressing your strength endurance. The metabolic component of endurance is very important, but it’s only a part of what makes a strong rider. As you get fitter, you can probably maintain a low level of power more or less indefinitely. For a moderately fit rider, the difference between riding 3 hours and 6 hours is more just a difference of how long you’re out there and how much you eat and drink, and a lot less about your average power or your average pace for that ride. But, for anyone that is concerned about racing or finishing a ride strong, it’s not just a matter of how much you can keep moving for your weekend 5 hour ride, road race, or endurance mountain bike event, it’s also a matter of whether or not you can cope with short bursts of speed and power getting over hills or making big changes in pace along the way.

To put it in perspective, we could do a thought experiment. How long is the longest ride that you think you could do and still finish without feeling totally cracked? Maybe for you that’s going to be a 3 hour ride, maybe 5 hours, or maybe 8 hours. Anyway, just imagine riding for that amount of time at a pretty steady pace on flat to rolling terrain. You would never really let your power or HR drop much, but you’re also never pushing the pace above, say, 3/4 of your threshold power/intensity. At the end of that ride, imagine doing a time-trial as hard as you can go up your favorite 10 minute climb. You’d probably be pretty slow, right? Maybe it will take you 13 minutes instead of 10. Maybe it’ll take you 15 minutes. The more fit you are, the less you will slow down when you’re fatigued.

Now in that scenario, you would probably have a lot of neuromuscular fatigue and you would probably be pretty low on glycogen. Now imagine two other scenarios. Let’s say after doing this long ride that finishes with a time trial, you take a few days to recover and you do the same time trial again. But, instead of riding for 5 hours beforehand, you go warm up for 30 minutes on the bike, and then go to the gym. You spend the next 45 minutes doing as many squats, lunges, leg-presses, dead-lifts, quad extensions, and other leg exercises that you can. During this workout you focus on doing about 75% of your max lift for a few dozen sets of 12-20 reps, and almost every set after the first few is done to failure or one rep short of failure. After 20 minutes, you might only be doing 5 or 6 reps, because you’re getting tired. Now, get on your bike and go do a time trial on that same climb. Imagine your gym is 5 minutes’ ride away from the climb. You aren’t going to be glycogen depleted, and even if you had drink mix or gels during your workout, you’ll still be well off your best time up that climb.

Or, imagine a very different scenario where you eat less than 50 grams of carbohydrate per day for a week straight. You could still be riding and training, but you’d be taking it pretty easy. Then, after a good 45 minute warm-up, you go out and do that same hill-climb time-trial. How fast do you think you’re going to go? Not very fast. But, this is because you’re glycogen depleted from dietary restriction.

In each scenario you’re seeing diminished performance, but for different reasons.You can see your power drop because of a lot of different things. Glycogen depletion and neuromuscular fatigue are the two biggest limiters, and those are two of the main things to focus on in training to improve endurance performance. Just be aware that they are not the same thing and that they are trained differently. Often, good training will train both, but sometimes you may focus on one or the other.

 Train the neuromuscular system to be strong, powerful, and durable. It’s a skill to be able to pedal your bike at high power levels. You need to practice it. Even if you aren’t trying to be in peak shape, and you’re just building strength early in the season, you can still work on improving strength and power. You don’t want to create too much stress by doing multiple sets of all-out intervals lasting 30s to 2m long, but you can still do a lot of time at those high power levels and high levels of torque without creating huge amounts of stress. Include drills in your training to work on peak power and sustained power for short periods of time. E.g. 6-10s sprints, 15-20s big-gear sprints, 30s seated accelerations at about your 2m peak power at 85-90 rpm, long 2-5m intervals at tempo or threshold power but at 75-85 rpm. Over the course of a 2 hour training session, you could do a few dozen 20s seated accelerations at your 1m peak power and it will create a lot of muscular fatigue and will help you improve your efficiency and power, but since the efforts are so short, it won’t create nearly as much metabolic and hormonal stress as it would if you did, say, an 8x1m interval workout as hard as you can.

Train high-end aerobic power every week. It doesn’t take a lot of stress on your body to maintain a lot of your fitness. Every week, after you’re warmed up and feel ready to push the pace a little bit, I would be sure to push the pace up a few climbs or along a stretch of road where you can keep pushing the pace a bit. You don’t need to set any PRs or turn yourself inside out, but if you do a 2 hour easy ride after work and you find that you’re feeling pretty good, then maybe in the second hour you can ease into a pretty stiff pace over a few of the climbs. If you feel really good, then feel free to let it go and do a full-gas effort up a favorite climb. Don’t do that every week, and definitely don’t do that every ride, but once or twice a month is good for you.

Train anaerobically at least a little every few weeks. If you want to be faster, want to sprint better, want to be a better racer, or faster on group rides and race rides, then you should practice sprinting and doing anaerobic intervals. Even if you aren’t a sprinter, or a bike racer, or care at all about anything but endurance, then you should do sprints and anaerobic intervals sometime. It boosts your fitness both for sprinting and endurance, it’s good for your hormones, it’s good for your strength and coordination, and will help you be a more complete rider and athlete. You can have fun with it and just sprint over little rollers on your normal routes sometimes. You can do group rides that have sprint points or race rides that involve a lot of hard accelerations way above your threshold power. Or, you can just go out and do short 15s or 30s intervals. If you’re just trying to stay fit, then I would recommend adding short efforts for fun a few times a week at random, or include a couple of simple workouts a month. Just go out and do 2 sets of 5 sprints 10-30s long every 60-90s. Don’t overthink it or worry about doing it right or what power or heart-rate you should shoot for, just have fun and do it. If you’re trying to be a successful racer, then you probably need to be more careful about adding in 1 or 2 workouts each week. You probably need to think about whether you should be doing these intervals climbing or seated, fresh or back-to-back with short recovery. These workouts can be very taxing or only moderately so, so you need to pay attention to what kinds of races you’re going to be doing and how much this kind of fitness is necessary. You should pay attention to what races you’re doing and whether you can reduce your anaerobic training because you’re racing this weekend. Just pay attention and be sure not to overdo it. The more intense the workouts are, the more easily you can get to a point of fatigue and diminishing returns or reduced performance. If you are just trying to be healthy and fit and enjoy riding, then it’s not a big deal to just take an extra few days or weeks off or easy. If you’re gearing up for a big race, then you should be careful and listen to your body. Don’t be afraid to push workouts up when you’re ready for them, or delay or modify them if they are too much at that point in time. Sometimes just pushing back a workout by 1 day, or doing 2 sets of intervals instead of 3 may be the difference between continued progress and a feeling of stalled progress.

Sleep as much as you can get away with. This one is simple. Sleep more than you do right now. I’m actually writing this past the time that I would normally want to be in bed. I fully understand and appreciate the challenges of having a lot of work, family, school, and friend obligations. It’s easy to get carried away and put off sleep until late at night or drop hours of sleep because you’re trying to add hours of other things to your schedule. Sometimes there is more to do than we think we have time for. But, when it comes down to it, sleep is one of the best things we can do for our health and our athletic and mental performance. There are plenty of high level athletes who are known for sleeping upwards of 10 hours a night. We’re evolved to sleep about 1/3 of every day. Try to have good sleep hygiene to ensure sleep quality is at it’s best. Sleep at the same time window every day. Anything that can be done at 11pm, can probably also be done at 8am. Sometimes you just need to call it quits and retire for the evening. It shouldn’t be a luxury to get 7 hours or 8 hours of sleep every night any more than it should be a luxury to eat fresh vegetables. They’re both integral to good health and high performance.

Train your weaknesses, especially if you’re trying to be competitive. Many bike racers don’t actively win races, they just don’t lose them. Or rather, a lot of people have the potential to win races or be on the podium, but they do things in training that don’t give them the fitness they need to get there, or they do things tactically in races that sabotage their chances of success. When it comes to training, just look at the races you want to do well at, and consider what your challenges would be. Does the race have big climbs? Will it finish in a sprint? Do you need to work on your ability to climb for 5 or 10 or 20 minutes at a time? Do you need to work on sprinting at the end of several minutes of hard, race-pace riding while fighting for position? Are there things that can help you win the race? Can you outclimb or outsprint people for the win? You should make sure you don’t have big holes in your fitness that will prevent you from winning and make sure that if you need certain tools to get in the podium, that you have them. Then, in races, you need to make sure you’re not wasting energy when you can save it, and you need to make sure you’re not out of position when you need to be. A lot of the time, people go into a race fully capable of a good result, but they squander their energy following early race moves that are doomed to failure, or they miss out on a split in a crosswind that could have been foreseen. Just think about where the challenges will be and think about how you can get through those. If you can get through the tough parts and spend less energy doing it than other riders, then you’re more likely to be in a position to do well at the finish line.  If you don’t see things coming, and have to ride unnecessarily hard to close a gap, get through a crosswind, or bridge across to another group after splits occur, then you’re missing out on energy savings that could have helped you at the end.

Eat lots of vegetables. Eat as few processed foods as possible. Nuts and fruits are totally fine in moderation. Meat is probably fine in modest quantities. Eat carbs in proportion to your high-intensity exercise. Generally avoid processed carbohydrates unless you’re training hard or racing. Avoid dairy (except for cream in coffee).

I’m pretty sure that most people want to be healthy, live longer, reduce their chances of having a whole class of lifestyle diseases, etc. If all you ever did was avoid processed foods, eat mostly vegetables, and exercise moderately on a regular basis and intensely some of the time, you’d be doing yourself a bigger favor than any drug or supplement or set of genes could ever do for you. Not everyone has the genes and epigenetics to get them to the Olympics, but almost all of us has a body that will take care of them 99% of the time if we take care of ourselves.

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Activities, Foods, and Hormones

Just recently I posted an article suggesting that it’s good to think of the things we do and eat as all having a direct influence on our hormones and what driving forces are at work in our bodies. This is a large part of what makes you get stronger or weaker, healthier or less so. What follows are some summary items about various things we do that have big consequences, telling our bodies to burn fat or store it, build protein or recycle it, etc. etc.

exercise

  • just keeping a steady routine of easy to moderate exercise most days will do a lot to help keep your body operating smoothly, help a little with insulin sensitivity, lower stress, and help keep you ready for higher intensity exercise
  • intense exercise can be a huge stress on your body and if you’re healthy then you’ll adapt by becoming more capable of dealing with a similar stress in the future (endurance exercise builds endurance, intensity builds high-end fitness, etc.)
  • if you’re short on time, then prioritize intensity, because it’s the best and only way to get the most fitness building stress on your body in a short time
  • a short intense workout drives insulin sensitivity and testosterone production, and the food you eat drives positive fitness changes rather than being stored for future use… basically, working out hard (sprints, VO2 intervals, lifting weights, hard endurance days) makes it hard for your body not to make use of your food to make you fitter for the first several hours after the workout

sleep

  • your body knows what it’s doing, don’t mess it up!
  • sleep enough (7-9h) at regular times every day (e.g. go to bed at 10 or 11 pm every night, weekends included)
  • try to minimize exposure to bright, blue (read computer/phone) lights as you get ready to sleep
  • if you can’t turn off your phone, computer, or TV, then consider getting f.lux to take the blue light out of your computer monitor when it’s nighttime so your body gets a stronger signal that it’s time to get ready to sleep
  • the production of growth hormone happens largely at night (while you’re sleeping and fasting)
  • regular sleep patterns help you sleep better and establish stronger circadian rhythms. irregular sleep patterns tend to disrupt rhythmic hormone production (e.g. melatonin) and make it more challenging to sleep well and get the rest you need

eating

  • eating fruits and vegetables is key to general health on every level, with vegetables not really having a huge direct influence on the major hormones in question, but fruit can drive insulin production (but less so than most grain products)
  • eating plenty of calories with some protein and carbohydrate immediately after hard exercise is the best thing you can do for recovery and basically the safest time to eat a large quantity (it drives insulin and IGF-1 production, while providing the carbohydrate needed to restock glycogen stores and the protein needed to build new enzymes to get fitter)
  • eat carbohydrate in proportion to the volume of high-intensity training that you’re doing so you have fuel for the hard efforts (if you’re not working out hard, then you probably don’t need high-octane fuel)
  • feel free to eat high-glycemic carbohydrate after hard workouts, but otherwise, I think it’s best for general health, steady energy, and insulin sensitivity to stick mostly to low-glycemic carbohydrates (vegetables, sweet potatoes, oatmeal, maybe fruit, but a bit less bread, pasta, rice, etc. unless you’re doing a lot of heavy training or doing a stage race)

not-eating

  • there is increasing interest in the benefit of short-term, long-term, and intermittent fasting for public health and athletic performance
  • fasting for more than a few hours between meals (i.e. for 12-16h or more) increases growth hormone, insulin sensitivity, and changes your body’s protein turnover dynamics (causing more recycling and apoptosis)
  • like exercise, fasting is a stress on your body that facilitates changes in your hormones and fuel metabolism which appear to be all positive (it’s an expansive topic and I’ll leave it at that for now, but if you’re interested just do some online searching for “intermittent fasting” and look around at a few studies and academics looking into it)
  • consider occasionally fasting before low and medium intensity workouts and endurance sessions, the hormonal state created by fasting makes lower intensity training more effective (increased fat-burning, increased endurance, increased aerobic enzyme production)

eating carbohydrate

  • carbohydrate is probably the most studied performance enhancing substance out there, and quickly digested carbohydrate during exercise is one of the most certain ways to increase aerobic exercise performance for the session in which it is used
  • consuming carbohydrate in quantities of 100-300 kcal/hr or even more will increase speed/power production during training sessions or races, increasing race-day performance or workout intensity
  • consuming carbohydrate before exercise reduces fat burning and increases reliance on carbohydrate during the subsequent exercise session (this is undesirable for endurance training, but may be desirable for high-intensity sessions)
  • consuming carbohydrate immediately following moderate to high-intensity workouts helps regenerate lost glycogen and fuels the next workout. this is the time your body is going to restore lost glycogen the fastest, and lengthens the time your body is sensitive to those calories
  • at all times, carbohydrate is anabolic (“building”) and helps your body store carbohydrate, fat and build protein, so after workouts, that’s good (you want to store glycogen and build proteins/enzymes), the rest of the time, it’s open for debate depending on what else is going on
  • excessive carbohydrate leads to excessive insulin and leads to insulin resistance and increased adiposity, when not preceded by hard workouts or periods of fasting, and some researchers believe greatly increases your risk for certain cancers (because of chronically elevated insulin and IGF-1 levels)

eating fat

  • eating fat has minimal impact on many of your hormones, but does increase satiety hormones and may increase testosterone
  • fat is usually slowly digested (some fats excepted, like coconut oil and other medium-chain fatty acids), so large quantities of fat soon before training is generally undesirable because it directs blood towards your digestive system and away from your working muscles
  • fat is nice because it has very little impact on your hormones and fuel metabolism
  • fat is good because consuming it doesn’t encourage fat storage (as is the case with carbohydrate), and doesn’t shift fuel metabolism away from fat burning towards carbohydrate burning (as with carbohydrate)
  • fat is perhaps not so good because it’s very calorie dense, so it’s easier to overconsume calories with fatty foods (e.g. nuts and nut butters, cream you might put in your coffee, oil  or dressing you may put in your salad, etc.)

eating protein

  • protein is essential for building muscle and other tissues, and usually more importantly, for building new enzymes for anything and everything under the sun (e.g. burning carbohydrate, burning fat, and all of the requisite reactions along the way)
  • protein doesn’t on it’s own make a huge impact on your insulin levels, but when consumed with carbohydrate drives insulin levels and IGF-1 levels higher in a synergesic manner (hence the often cited 4-to-1 ratio of carbohydrate to protein for recovery)
  • generally speaking, it’s hard in the developed world to be remotely deficient in protein intake, so for the most part, there’s probably no reason to be concerned about getting more protein in your diet unless you’re a strict vegan and don’t seek out beans and legumes for protein
  • it may be worth seeking out easy to digest protein immediately after harder workouts some of the time (e.g. eggs on some toast or protein powder in a fruit smoothie) to make the most of your body’s insulin and IGF-1 production immediately following a hard workout
  • some people find that consuming protein in the morning helps keep their energy and appetite more steady, and may help with maintaining a healthy weight… definitely worth trying for a period if you always skip breakfast or worse yet, just have refined carbohydrates for breakfast (bagels, processed cereals, toast, pastries, etc.)

Hopefully some of this is interesting to you and may prove useful on one or two points. I definitely don’t presume to think that I know all that much about human physiology compared to some people or compared to what I’d like to know, but it’s something that I’ve been passionate about for years and find that I often remember little things that seem relevant to me or to athletes generally and draw on them when I’m trying to make my day to day plans. Often what happens in a given day is more contingent on circumstance than plans, but still trying to tweak things here and there can make big differences.

So, what kind of stuff do I personally try to do from day to day? Well, that has changed over the years as I have learned more, as my body has changed, and as my goals have changed. I’ll go over a few different routines that I’ve used that try to take into account these features of how our bodies work in the next article…

You’re on Drugs, whether you know it or not

Did you stay up late last night? What did you have for breakfast today? Pancakes and coffee? Bacon and eggs? Do you do lots of long-steady endurance sessions? Do you do a lot of high-intensity intervals? Do you do heavy weight training? Like it or not, realize it or not… Just about everything that you do or don’t do will directly or indirectly influence your health and fitness by influencing the huge array of hormones that make our bodies what they are.

Have a tall stack of pancakes for breakfast? A huge shot of insulin. Go out and do a bunch of sprints or heavy strength training? A small shot of testosterone. Losing sleep on a regular basis? A steady drip of cortisol and increased insulin resistance. A big meal after a hard workout with carbohydrate and protein? A huge shot of insulin and IGF-1, which will help you recover and won’t increase insulin resistance, but only because it was immediately preceded by the hard workout.

On the one hand, if you think about it this should be pretty clear. Your body is always trying to maintain a state of homeostasis and adapt to its environment. So, what and when you eat and drink, how and when you exercise, sleep, and do basically everything else will influence your hormones. This has huge implications for your health and fitness over time. Clearly the title of this article is intended to be attention grabbing, but the principle it represents is important and I find it to be a useful way of thinking. This idea represents a key feature of understanding your body and is especially useful when thinking in regards to health, athletic training, and performance… The basic idea: Everything you do or don’t do, when and how you do it, acts like a drug to your body because it affects the cascade of hormones constantly changing in your internal environment.

Keep in mind, your body is very smart and is generally very good at keeping itself running smoothly and efficiently. To optimize its operation, the right stresses at the right times can make it better, whereas the wrong stresses will throw things out of alignment, and a lack of stress altogether will leave your body weak and sick in the long run. And, of course, I’m operating always on the assumption that the best way to do things is to work with your body using its own natural systems (i.e. nothing I’m writing has any interest in or relevance to anything synthetic or supplemental, except perhaps melatonin in the right circumstances).

In any case, let’s look at a handful of key hormones (testosterone, growth hormone, insulin, cortisol, IGF-1, melatonin) briefly and see how they react or can be manipulated for our benefit…

testosterone

  • directly drives muscle growth, positive athletic adaptations
  • indirectly increases fat-burning
  • increases with high-intensity exercise, high-fat diet
  • decreases with high stress levels, low-fat diet

growth hormone

  • directly drives fat-burning, indirectly drives positive athletic adaptations
  • increases with exercise, fasting
  • decreases with high-carbohydrate diet

insulin

  • shuttles carbohydrate from the blood to muscles, liver
  • increases fat storage, protein synthesis
  • decreases fat burning, protein breakdown
  • increases with consumption of carbohydrates, especially high-glycemic load carbohydrates
  • decreases with exercise, fasting
  • pathology: too much insulin leads to insulin resistance, diabetes, increased hunger, increased adiposity

cortisol

  • increases fat burning, appetite, protein breakdown
  • increases with exercise, lost sleep, fasting, mental/emotional stress
  • decreases with sleep, feeding, moderate exercise (e.g. walking), and basically anything relaxing
  • pathology: high-stress, low-exercise, l0w-sleep lifestyle results in chronically elevated cortisol and increased risk for most “lifestyle” diseases

IGF-1

  • increases protein synthesis
  • produced with feeding, i.e. carbohydrate and protein
  • increased production after a post-workout meal
  • pathology: increasingly of interest for possible/probable links to cancer when found in excess

melatonin

  • helps you sleep, helps establish circadian rhythms
  • daily cycles of melatonin, circadian rhythms are sensitive to light, disruption and irregularity of sleeping patterns
  • synthetic melatonin is generally considered safe as a means of encouraging sleep and re-establishment of normal circadian rhythms

Coming up next: things we do to affect our hormones.