Whether you’re a novice runner or a seasoned veteran, everyone wants to improve their endurance. Those looking for a performance boost are striving for faster speeds and improved race times. While those just starting out or running for fun want to run farther or just make the overall experience more enjoyable. Instead of looking for the next unproven gimmick (that will probably get disproven later) like Vibram shoes and compression tights, I want to share some proven tips that will increase your energy usage and recovery.
Something to add to your plan
I won’t be detailing a running program but rather something to incorporate around your own plan. If you’re looking for a training plan, I would recommend our Jeff Galloway series of apps. Jeff has taught hundreds of thousands of runners how to safely increase their speed and endurance through his run-walk-run method of high-intensity interval training. In fact, he was teaching this method decades before researchers started to understand the benefits of this type of training for long-distance endurance. But any type of training works, so if you have one you like, feel free to stick with it. The point of this article is to give some simple tips that you can add to your plan to improve your performance.
Fat usage and glucose sparing
Running is an aerobic exercise so we always focus on the oxygen part of the equation. We measure your fitness level with VO2 max to see not only how well your heart and lungs delivery oxygen to working muscles, but also how well those same muscles extract that oxygen to make ATP. Training improves your ability to use oxygen to make the fuel your cells need, but what exactly is being broken down into ATP? This is where conventional advice has led to a lot of confusion and bad habits.
Your body has three different energy systems it uses to fuel activity. Slower, less intense workouts allow time to utilize fat as the primary source of ATP, but faster, more explosive movements require glucose to quickly replenish spent fuel. Because of this, we always thought the body switches from one system to the next depending on what you’re doing. It’s why runners think carb-loading before a race is so vital. You can only store so many carbohydrates in the form of glycogen, and once you burn through all that, you “hit the wall.” Runners have also been told for years that you can’t really rely on fat for fuel. Since your body won’t be able to break down enough fat for ATP during your run, fasted training will hamper the quality of your training and ruin your progress. We’re now learning that this isn’t true at all.
The truth is that you’re always using all three energy systems. At higher intensities your body needs to rely more on glucose to keep up with your energy demands, but that doesn’t mean it stops burning fat for fuel. Actually one of the signs of improved fitness is that your muscles become more efficient at using fat for fuel instead of glucose. You also become more “metabolically flexible” as your fitness improves. This means your body becomes more efficient at switching between energy systems to utilize all available fuel sources effectively. Diabetics and many obese people are metabolically inflexible and have a difficult time switching fuel sources. This leads to insulin resistance, fat accumulation, and that post-carb crash so many experience.
Your body adapts to the stimuli you present it with. If you always provide it with a sugar-rich environment to power your runs, your body will never need to tap into fat stores. You need to train your body to utilize all three energy systems so that it can contribute more fat to the equation. This provides two huge benefits. For one, you can store far more fat than glycogen (to the dismay of many). Even lean athletes posses body fat percentages between 6 and 12 percent. The other benefit is that as long as your body is using fat or lactate (more on that below), then it can spare glucose for later. You’re not going to completely power your workouts with body fat, but you can provide a pretty significant energy boost.
Endurance Boosting Tips
I’m just going to quickly highlight the benefits. If you want to read more about why it works and the research behind it, you can follow the links to the original articles.
Only eat within a 9-hour window: People have heard of the concept that our bodies use circadian rhythms to manage our sleep and wake schedule. The other big part of circadian rhythms is managing our energy usage. Eating is one of the big triggers that starts our internal clock in the morning, but eating too far past when the clock says to stop causes disfunction to our energy usage systems. You process fuel and create metabolites that your muscles don’t want and aren’t willing to use. This trains energy inefficiency and leads to a host of problems. One of the biggest surprises from Dr. Satchidananda Panda’s research on the benefits of time restricted eating was that restricting your feeding window to 9 hours caused significant improvements to long-distance endurance (it nearly doubled), improved muscle mass, and increased mitochondrial biogenesis (the growing of new mitochondria).
Mix in fasted training: High intensity training does require carbohydrates to fuel proper results, but you shouldn’t do intense workouts everyday anyway. As I’ve said many times, your body adapts to what you do to it. It does this by turning genes on and off to meet the needs of the environment. Fasted training turns on fat burning genes which allows your body to provide additional fuel from stored body fat. This has even been shown to help athletes improve their [time to exhaustion during intense activities]((http://blog.lolofit.com/blog/posts/strategic-fasting-improves-race-times) by providing that extra burst of fuel. Move your slow runs or add slow cross training workouts to your mornings so you can benefit from a night of fasting to improve your fat utilization.
Eat unsaturated fats: Runners seem to understand that some dietary sugars work better than others but many don’t understand the same is true of the fats you eat. When you run, your body releases norepinephrine to mobilize fatty acids from your fat cells so they can be burned, and studies have found that your body can mobilize 50 percent more stored fat during exercise when your diet is composed primarily of unsaturated fats. Focus on healthy fats from plant sources like nuts, seeds, olive oil, flaxseed oil, and avocados, and also include healthy animal sources like fish (high in omega-3), grass-fed beef and dairy (high in CLA), and omega-3 enriched eggs. Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to help lessen post-exercise inflammation and soreness.
Lactic acid is your friend We’ve been wrong on lactic acid for years. It isn’t a metabolic waste product, it’s actually a fast-acting fuel source called lactate. It powers intense workouts, it also spares glucose for later, and it acts as a signaling molecule to trigger mitochondrial biogenesis. This is why speed sessions or intense cross training workouts like high intensity interval cycling improves your long distance endurance. Intense workouts increase your pool of mitochondria, which increases your ability to utilize oxygen for energy production. You can also improve your cardio performance and power by performing dynamic warm ups beforehand.. Instead of static stretches, these types of warm ups (like those found in our Performance Stretching app) use resistance exercises to prime your muscles with lactate before you start. This enables you to work harder, go longer, and trigger additional fat mobilization for even more energy. If you’re looking for a good sports drink to fuel your more intense workouts and events, I would suggest drinks that contain L-lactate like Cytomax to help you conserve glucose and feed your brain. Your brain uses a lot of energy when you workout and it will steal tons of glucose from your working muscles. However, your brain prefers lactate, so introducing it into your system before or during a workout will really stretch out your glucose reserves. Cytomax was created by Dr. George Brooks from UC Berkley, one of the leading experts in lactate metabolism.
Eat magnesium, make mitochondria: I’ve mentioned multiple ways to trigger mitochondrial biogenesis and grow more of these ATP power plants in your cells, but there’s a slight caveat; if you don’t eat enough magnesium each day, your body won’t actually grow new mitochondria or repair old mitochondria that become damaged due to oxidative stress. Your mitochondria use oxygen to create ATP but they also incur oxidative damage in the process which slows the creation of ATP during exercise. When you get enough magnesium, enzymes are activated that not only repair damaged mitochondria so they can keep cranking out ATP, but these enzymes also encourage the formation of new mitochondria. It’s not enough to do the work, you also need to provide your body with the building blocks it needs to rebuild and improve your body. It’s not just about repair, magnesium also enhances athletic performance as you work by improving insulin sensitivity and increasing available glucose and lactate during exercise. In addition, magnesium increases lactate clearance in the muscles during exercise which means the cells not only have more fuel available during exercise, but they are also able to use it more efficiently. The typical daily recommended amount of magnesium is about 400 mg for men and 310 mg for women, but the energy demands of athletes could call for an extra 10 to 20 percent per day. For those looking for supplements I would recommended magnesium citrate. I generally suggest going for the food sources first since too much magnesium in supplement form can have a laxative effect, but it can be hard to consume enough greens each day. If you’re looking to add it as an exercise supplement, definitely see how your body reacts to it first instead of experimenting with it right before a workout.
Safe performance boosters: When I talk about performance boosters, most people think about supplements anyway so I wanted to end with a few safe ones that really do work. I’m a fan of using supplements to boost your energy and improve your results, but there are a lot of garbage ones out there. If you’re looking for 3 excellent running boosters that are proven to be safe and effective, I would recommend caffeine, creatine, and nitrates found in foods like beet juice, arugula, spinach, celery, bok choy, lettuce, or radishes. I’ve written in detail about it here if you want the full breakdown of why they work and when to take them.