Simple but Powerful Ways to Boost Athletic Performance
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16 min read

Simple but Powerful Ways to Boost Athletic Performance

Simple but Powerful Ways to Boost Athletic Performance

James DiNicolantonio, PharmD, (my coauthor for “ Superfuel ”) and Siim Land have written three books together, “ The Immunity Fix ,” “ The Mineral Fix ” and, now, “ WIN: Achieve Peak Athletic Performance, Optimize Recovery and Become a Champion ,” which is the topic of today's discussion. “WIN” is a great reference, loaded with simple

but powerful exercise strategies. It's also one of the best books ever written on hydration. I've often warned that unless you're engaging in regular exercise, especially after you hit 40 or 50, you're headed for an eventual metabolic and structural catastrophe. The only sure thing about your future is that you'll become frail, which is a miserable way to die. There's no magic pill for frailty. To avoid frailty you simply must engage in regular movement and exercise. When and what you eat, and how you hydrate, can make a big difference in your performance though, and can affect your payoff in terms of the amount of muscle you can build.

Should You Eat Before Exercising?

Many fitness experts believe that you should have carbs and protein before you work out, because you'll be able to work out stronger. However, I believe far greater benefits can be had by exercising in a fasted state, as this will allow you to maximize autophagy. Land addresses this in his brilliant book, “Metabolic Autophagy.” DiNicolantonio says:

“I think it's important to train both in a fasted state, as well as loading withcomplex carbs about an hour before vigorous exercise. The reason is becauseyou want metabolic adaptations for both systems — utilizing fat for fuel in afasted state, and also the ability to utilize glucose.Essentially, if you're exercising in a fasted state, your body's going to be betterat utilizing fat for fuel, and it's going to help spare glycogen, which is importantfor anaerobic performance. So, training in a fasted state ... will help morevigorous exercise performance [by] sparing of glycogen, because you're able toutilize the fat for fuel better, and you're probably going to burn fat better in afasted state as well.But the data is very clear that if you are performing at a vigorous pace,essentially 70% VO2 max or higher, preloading with about 50 grams of complexcarbs is absolutely going to help preserve muscle glycogen levels and improveperformance, both from an endurance and a peak power output standpoint.”

Land agrees, stating that the choice of exercising in a fasted state or not depends on your goal. If you're a professional athlete, he believes it makes more sense to have some carbs and food in your system, because it will optimize performance. And, if you're competing, you'll need to train at near-peak performance most if not all the time, so training in a fasted state may be counterproductive.

“Of course, there is some merit to training periodically in a fasting state or alow-glycogen state, to build up this metabolic fiexibility and adaptation. Butfrom a progressive overload perspective, which means that you actually getbetter over time, you get stronger or faster, whatever the sport is, then you willneed to have some calories to help you to push yourself further,”

Land says. For the average person, however, especially older people, optimizing autophagy is likely a far more important health goal. Nothing depletes glycogen from your muscles more effectively than exercising in a fasting state, which will maximally upregulate autophagy. So, for many, it's a really powerful strategy. That said, it's not black-and-white. As noted by Land:

“Always exercising in a fasting state can also lead to a muscle catabolism, andthat can also be harmful for the elderly. So even for the elderly, it can be goodto, periodically at least, have some calories in their system, especially aminoacids, during the exercise to help to prevent this muscle catabolism.”

Should You Take HMB?

One of the things you want to achieve with your exercise is the activation of mTOR, and one way to do that is to make sure your body has plenty of branched-chain amino acids, especially leucine, isoleucine and valine. One of the metabolic byproducts of leucine is hydroxymethylbutyrate (HMB). Some fitness experts recommend taking HMB either before or after your workout. According to DiNicolantonio, there's evidence that HMB is beneficial, particularly in catabolic states, but the jury's still out. Some studies show dramatic improvements in muscle gains when using HMB, but it's still fairly controversial. “Personally, I can't necessary recommend it outside of really low-caloric intake states to help preserve muscle mass,” he says. Land agrees, saying he believes HMB would be most appropriate for people with sarcopenia, or people who are on low-calorie or low-protein diets. “If you're getting enough protein in your diet, then you probably don't need it,” he says.

How Proper Hydration Can Optimize Your Workout

My favorite part of “WIN” is the section on hydration. There's far more to proper hydration and hydrating for fitness performance than meets the eye. Most will simply drink water or, worse, sports drinks chockfull of sugar in addition to the electrolytes, and call it done. But as explained by DiNicolantonio:

“If you're a highly competitive athlete, training three months out beforecompetition ... then you want to practice something called dehydrationacclimation. Multiple sessions of mild dehydration will lead to adaptationswhere you will get expansion of baseline blood volume and all these otheradaptations, where you're actually performing better later on.Your training may suffer a little bit performing dehydration acclimation [but] youget those metabolic adaptations. Then, before competition, you do salt loadingwith high doses of salt and fiuids about 90 minutes prior. That's going todramatically boost blood volume and increase performance. But you don'talways want to use high doses of salt, because you want adaptations to beingin a dehydrated state.So, there's really three ways to hydrate. If you don't feel like you have a lot ofenergy before a training camp, you want to take 1,000 to 2,000 milligrams ofsodium [one-half to 1 full teaspoon of salt] and 10 to 20 ounces of fiuid,respectively, to get a blood volume expansion of about 3% to 4%, so that youcan train fairly well.The goal then is to actually lose about 1.5 to 2.5% of your body weight throughsweat, which will induce mild dehydration. When you do that multiple times, youget dehydration acclimation ...The top benefits are when you start hitting 3,000 to 4,300 milligrams of sodium,which is essentially 1.5 to 2 teaspoons of salt per liter of fiuid. When you hitthose higher amounts (consumed with 26 to 33.8 oz. of fiuid, respectively), youcan get 8% to 10% increases in blood volume and dramatic improvements inperformance ...If you want to acutely boost performance dramatically, you want an 8% to 10%increase in blood volume, because the blood volume drops within five minutesof vigorous exercise by 8% to 10% as blood fiows away from the heart towardsworking skeletal muscle.This relative drop of blood volume feeding the heart ... is really the mainlinchpin for decreasing athletic performance. So, if you ... take appropriate saltsolutions prior to performance, you can prevent the drop in blood volume anddramatically improve performance.When I say dramatically improve performance, there's nothing better. Nothingeven comes close to preloading with salt and fiuids. I'll give you an example.Beta-alanine can increase the time you can perform vigorous exercise by aboutone minute. However, taking salt solutions can increase exercise time byanywhere from typically 10 to over 20 minutes, so it's 10 to 20 times moreeffective than the best preworkout [supplement] on the market.”

The Importance of Carnosine

That said, beta-alanine is also very important. It's the rate-limiting amino acid for the formation of carnosine, which slows the aging of cells and protects against mitochondrial dysfunction. It's especially important if you're prediabetic, which a majority of Americans are. Another way to boost your carnosine level is with magnesium orotate. Orotate (orotic acid, a mineral) converts into beta-alanine, and then into carnosine in your liver. So, it basically acts like a delayed-release beta-alanine. There are also carnosine supplements available, but they're not as cost-effective. As noted by DiNicolantonio, taking a precursor is typically better than taking the actual substance that you're trying to increase.

Hydration Is More Than Merely Drinking Water

A common misconception is that hydration is all about water intake. DiNicolantonio and Land turn that myth on its head in their book. Merely hydrating with plain water can actually have negative effects on performance, both vigorous exercise performance and endurance exercise. DiNicolantonio explains:

“To give you an example, if you consume just 5 ounces of water in 15 minutes,that exceeds gastric emptying. And, when you're vigorous exercising, gastricemptying dramatically goes down. So, if you drink too much water, you're goingto bloat the system.Water is just going to sit in the stomach, and you can actually decreasevigorous exercise performance by 2.5% just drinking water, which is what mostpeople think is going to help them.So, that's the problem in vigorous exercise. In endurance exercise, drinking toomuch plain water dramatically increases hyponatremia or low sodium levels inthe blood, which can kill you ... Drinking plain water has also been shown toincrease the susceptibility of skeletal muscle to electrically-induced musclecramps. So again, salt and electrolytes play key roles here at reducing musclecramps, especially in performance in the heat ...
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If you get the salt solution dosing correct, it can decrease your heart rate bynine to 10 beats per minute. It can increase exercise duration by 20 to 21minutes, which is essentially anywhere from 25% to 50% increase in how longyou can exercise vigorously, which is crazy when you think about it.And, it can decrease core body temperature by three-quarters of a degreeFahrenheit, because we lose water from our blood volume to dissipate heatthrough sweat. And so, if you have more fiuid, you can cool off better. You'llhave better sweat rates, and that can evaporate and cool you down quicker. So,you can keep your core body temperature lower simply by drinking saltsolutions before exercise.”

Hydration and Other Benefits of Glycine

To do the hydration protocol reviewed above, you'd start drinking the salt solutions around 90 minutes before your exercise, finishing it off over the course of about 30 minutes. It's important to not include any kind of glucose in the solution, as glucose will increase diuresis and cause dehydration. To your salt solution you could, however, add glycine, an amino acid with a mildly sweet taste. Glycine helps increase the absorption of sodium in the intestine and decrease core body temperature. Glycine is also an inhibitory neurotransmitter and may help reduce muscle cramps. Glycine is thought to be the reason for why pickle juice is so effective at rapidly aborting muscle cramps.

“There's been two studies showing that pickle juice, at about 2.5 ounces, canabort a muscle cramp within 30 to 90 seconds,”

DiNicolantonio says.

“It can't bedue to volume expansion and interstitial fiuid expansion. It would never happenthat quick. It's the acetic acid in the pickle juice, we think, that releases glycine,and that basically aborts a muscle cramp.”

My favorite hydration strategy is to drink a quart of water about one hour before my workout and sauna, in which I have added two packets of our new electrolyte powder and one-half teaspoon of glycine powder (about 3 grams).

Summary of the Dehydration Acclimation Protocol

So, to summarize the dehydration acclimation protocol discussed above: 90 minutes before exercise, start drinking a solution of 0.5 to 1 teaspoon salt with 10 to 20 ounces of fiuid to get a blood volume expansion of 3% to 4%, or 1.5 to 2 teaspoons of salt with 26 ounces to a full liter of fiuid, respectively, for an 8% to 10% increase in blood volume for maximum improvement in performance. Optional: Add 4 o 6 grams of glycine to improve sodium absorption and decrease core body temperature. Next, your goal is to lose 1.5% to 2.5% of your body weight through sweat, which will induce mild dehydration. Rehydrate using a formula of one-half teaspoon of sodium per liter of fiuid lost during your training. As you do that multiple times, you become acclimated to dehydration and get all the benefits of that — better baseline blood volume, better sweat rates, improved ability to cool off.

Raising Your Alkalinity Can Boost Performance

There's a common misconception that delayed-onset muscle soreness is due to lactate or lactic acid. As explained by DiNicolantonio, lactate is actually the beneficial molecule that pulls the acid — hydrogen ions — out of your cells. Your body actually uses lactate as fuel during exercise. However, lactate correlates with high acid in your cells, so there's this myth that lactate is bad for you, even though it's not. When you vigorously exercise, you produce loads of hydrogen ions because ATP demand exceeds supply. When that happens, you automatically retain acid. You can get ahead of the problem by boosting your bicarbonate level to hit peak alkalosis. This will increase your pH, reducing the acidity in your blood, and this too can dramatically improve performance. The reason for this is because many mitochondrial enzymes are pH-sensitive. As the cell becomes more acidic, it shuts down those enzymes and reduces ATP production. Eventually, the muscle ceases to work.

“A lot of people don't believe that you can make the body more alkaline,”

DiNicolantonio says.

“Well, it's clear you can, because you can boostbicarbonate levels using things like sodium bicarbonate or sodium citrate.A lot of people also don't believe that diet has anything to do with the acid/basebalance in the body, but it does. Because, from a physiological perspective, thekidneys can only get rid of 40 to 70 milliequivalents of acid before it startsretaining 1 milliequivalent of acid for every 2.5 milliequivalents above thatthreshold. To get rid of that retained acid, you have to breathe it out, but tobreathe out acid, you have to deplete one molecule of bicarbonate.So yes, you can breathe out acid, but it's not a free lunch. You will deplete yourbicarbonate levels. This is why you do need a balance if you're on an animal-based diet or a carnivore diet. You need to be consuming some type ofbicarbonate-forming substance, whether it be sodium citrate or sodiumbicarbonate, to offset the acid load of the diet.”

I agree that this is likely a crucial point. If you're on a high-meat or carnivore diet, you need to address this because you can get far too acidic and it best to neutralize this excessive acidity with bicarbonate and/or citrate. I personally use both, as citrate has the added advantage of binding to oxalates in your foods.

Testing for and Correcting High Acidity

The good news is you can easily measure the pH of your body fiuids with a litmus test. According to DiNicolantonio, the best time to test is four hours after a meal. If your urine pH is less than 6.8, you're likely retaining acid. Ideally, you want to be around 7.4. If you're too acidic, you can take either sodium citrate or sodium bicarbonate to lower it. DiNicolantonio's preference is sodium citrate, as it does not increase the pH of your stomach the way sodium bicarbonate does. He explains:

“Essentially, when you are consuming bicarbonate, it's making the stomach pHincrease and you're diluting the acid of your stomach. You need acid in order todigest food and absorb nutrients. It's super important. So, if you start messingwith the pH of your stomach, that's not good because you might not be able todigest food well.That's how we kill pathogens, too, so the risk of food-borne illness will go up aswell. And chloride is important to form hydrochloric acid in the stomach acid.The reason why I like sodium citrate is because you're not dumping bicarbonateinto the gut, and you're not decreasing the acidity of the stomach.The key here though is that most studies have inappropriately dosed sodiumcitrate much too close to exercise to show benefits. It takes longer to formbicarbonate in the body when you take citrate versus taking bicarbonate. So,you actually should be dosing sodium citrate about four hours beforeperformance to get to a peak alkalosis state.What's great about citrate too is, if it doesn't get converted to bicarbonate,citrate is actually better than bicarbonate in regards to improving alkalinity.Because one molecule of citrate can bind three hydrogen ions, whereas it's aone-to-one binding of bicarbonate to hydrogen. So, citrate really is just anamazing way to alkalinize your body ...But here's what's really important. You don't want to drink it in solution, becauseit's tough on the gut. It's really something you want to take with food, at least 20to 25 grams of carbs. You take it four hours before performance, which is reallywhen you should be having your protein meal. So, it's nice that you can dose thecitrate with food, so you can tolerate it better ...Five grams of sodium citrate inhibits 60 milliequivalents of acid. An averagecarnivore is going to produce 150 to 200 milliequivalents of acid. So, in order toneutralize that, you would need anywhere from 5 grams of sodium citrate, aboutthree times a day.You really want to be at a net acid excretion of zero, because even if your bodyis able to excrete acid, it's still damaging on the kidneys to do that, so you wantto try to get it to a neutral acid excretion.”

The Importance of Getting Your Protein Dosage Right

“WIN” also delves into the issue of protein, which is really important. In the past, I got overzealous about not activating mTOR and went on a low-protein diet (0.6 to 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram). It was a terrible mistake. Once I realized it and doubled my protein intake to 1.5 grams per kg (140 to 150 grams) per day. This helped me put on over 25 pounds of muscle mass and I now weigh 200 pounds for the first time in my life and my body fat is around 10%. Land expounds on this important topic:

“In animal studies, mTOR activation can be linked to accelerated aging andsome cancers. But there's no human studies, and at least when it comes toexercise performance, mTOR is still quite central to things like muscle proteinsynthesis and muscle growth.We also know that muscle use is very important for longevity and anti-aging, soI think the worries about [mTOR] can be a bit overblown. I mean, protein isn't theonly thing that activates mTOR. It's also carbs and insulin, so you're screwedeither way if you're wanting to restrict mTOR.But there's a limit to how much mTOR you're going to activate in one sitting.Because the amount of protein synthesis is also limited, and that threshold isaround 20 to 40 grams of protein in one sitting, you're not going to activatemore muscle protein synthesis by consuming more protein. So, it doesn't matterif you eat 100 grams of protein or 20 grams of protein in one sitting. You're stillgoing to activate the same amount of mTOR ...If you eat six times a day, then you're still going to turn on mTOR even if you eatvery few calories. Even if you eat like 100 calories or 10 grams of protein. You'reon a low-protein diet, you're eating 10 grams of protein, but you're eating sixtimes a day then it's still spiking your mTOR several times, compared to eatingtwo times a day or once a day.But even if you are eating 200 grams of protein, for example, in one sitting,you're not going to activate more mTOR because it's going to be capped off.That's why athletes and bodybuilders are eating six times a day, to basicallyhave their protein synthesis elevated frequently so that they will build moremuscle and recover faster.So, that's why the athlete would be eating more frequently whereas the averageperson [shouldn't]. And it doesn't matter how much protein they're eating. Ifyou're eating in a confined eating window, then the eating frequency basicallymatters in terms of how much mTOR you're going to activate over the course of24 hours, not the actual amount of protein in grams.”

How Much Protein Do You Need for Muscle Building?

So, just how much protein do you need? The recommended daily allowance (RDA) for protein is quite low, only 0.4 grams per pound of body weight. But the research shows that, at least for elderly people, higher protein intake is better for maintaining muscle mass and bone density and reducing frailty. For the elderly, Land recommends 0.7 to 1.0 grams of protein per pound of body weight (double that amount for grams per kg). So, the RDA is considered inadequate even for regular people.

For athletes, the evidence is pretty clear that youwant about 30 grams of protein four times a day as aminimum. If you do a whole-body workout, youactually want to increase that to about 40 grams ofprotein to maximize muscle protein synthesis. ~James DiNicolantonio

When it comes to sports and fitness, protein demands increase exponentially as well. According to Land, the optimal peak seems to be around 1.6 grams per kilogram of body weight, or 0.8 to 1 grams per pound of body weight. You're not going to be building more muscle if you eat more protein than that. Higher amounts will help burn more fat though, or will result in less weight gain if you're in a calorie surplus. DiNicolantonio chimes in:

“For athletes, the evidence is pretty clear that you want about 30 grams ofprotein four times a day as a minimum. If you do a whole-body workout, youactually want to increase that to about 40 grams of protein to maximize muscleprotein synthesis. The data is pretty clear too, that taking 30 to 40 grams ofcasein, which is a long-acting protein, about 30 minutes before bedtime, willhelp maximize muscle protein synthesis.”

How to Cool Down More Effectively

Another important topic covered really well in “WIN” is how to lower your core body temperature. Most people make the mistake of simply cooling the back of their neck or their chest when they get hot. But to rapidly and effectively lower your body temperature, you need to focus on your glabrous skin, which is enervated with special blood vessels that can dilate and bring in cold directly from the venous supply right into the arterial supply, bypassing the capillaries. Your glabrous skin is found on: The palms of your hands Your ears Your face, particularly the forehead and cheeks The bottoms of your feet

How Cooling Your Body Can Improve Performance

DiNicolantonio explains:

“Studies show that cooling the glabrous skin is twice as effective as cooling thechest or the back. In really hot situations, the glabrous skin can dump five timesas much heat as compared to non-glabrous skin. The best way to cool thoseskin surfaces down is using water, because water conducts heat/cold two tofour times better.So simply putting your palms and the bottoms of your feet in cold water, you dothat for 30 minutes and you're going to drop your body temperature. The goalfor precooling the body is to drop core body temperature by 0.5 degreesFahrenheit, which is about 0.3 degrees Celsius.You see the dramatic improvements in performance because you have a largertank to soak up all the heat before you hit a critical core body temperature[where you start to sweat and lose electrolytes] ...If you're precooling the body, you want to avoid water temperatures of 59Fahrenheit or less, because that can actually inhibit performance. Ideally, youwant to be between that 64 and 84 degrees Fahrenheit, which is consideredcool water.You can start at 84 and slowly notch your way down. What the studies show isthat if you're using 84 Fahrenheit water, it's probably going to take you an hourto drop half a degree Fahrenheit. But if you're using 64, it'll probably only takeyou 20 to 30 minutes, depending on how much surface area you're cooling.You don't even have to do precooling. You can do this during training. It's beenshown if you cool glabrous skin, like cooling both of the palms during the restperiods, you can increase bench reps and pull-ups by 40-140%. So, you getreally good benefits from cooling the body.”

To learn more, be sure to pick up a copy of “ WIN: Achieve Peak Athletic Performance, Optimize Recovery and Become a Champion .”

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