I’ve been fascinated with the study of endurance for years. I am always amazed at people who are able to endure and outlast more than anyone else.
In the case of endurance, the best study is through direct personal experience. In my own experiences of pushing my edge – whether through racing Ironman Triathlons, cycling 200+ miles in a day or swimming across Puget Sound – I’ve discovered more about my self than through anything else.
By enduring, I’ve also stumbled across a few techniques that anyone – regardless of physical ability – can apply to significantly increase endurance.
One word of warning though: the tips I’m going to provide are incredibly simple, but applying them will consistently in your life will not come easy, at least not at first.Yes, they are easy to grasp and put in practice, but tough to stick with. However, at the end of the day, I think you will find that the benefits will come once you push through the initial difficulties.
So what are the 5 simple tips for superhuman endurance? Here they are:
- Breath through your nose
- Adopt a slower carb diet
- Slow down
- Reduce stimulants
- Cultivate presence
1. Breath Through Your Nose
The single daily practice of nasal breathing has had a greater impact on my overall well-being than any other single technique. The ancient yogis have known this for years, and have developed an entire study to the science of pranayama to gain mastery over the breath.
It is also the most simple thing to do, and unless you have a severely blocked nasal passage, it open to anyone to apply right away. Mastering the full technique of nasal breathing while training, however, takes much more practice.
Babies are natural nose breathers. While eating, playing and sleeping they go about their businesses breathing effortlessly through their nose That means you were at one time as well! Chances are though, that you now spend much of your waking (and perhaps sleeping) hours sucking in air through your mouth and not using your lungs effectively.
Why is this so critical? Consider a few facts. First of all, the body was built to nose breath. The nasal passages act as turbines, that not only cleans and moisten air (important for healthy immune support) but also create a vortex as you breath that helps air to travel down further into the lungs. While most of us limit our breathing to the upper portions of our lungs, it is the bottom of our lungs that contain the most capillaries for exchange of oxygen into the blood and waste out of the blood. More oxygen and less waste = a cleaner body that is able to do more aerobic work.
Furthermore, mouth breathing is linked to the fight or flight response system of the body. When you breath through your mouth, you are engaging the nervous system in a manner that stimulates more stress and heart activity (raising of heart rate), whether you are being chases by a lion or not! On the other hand, nasal breathing has a cooling and calming effect on the body. While nose breathing and exercising (after you have conditioned yourself to do so) you will be able to train at a similar intensity but at a significantly lower heart rate.
The more oxygen you can get into your bloodstream, the more toxins you can remove and the more calm you keep your nerves – this will all help you to endure more, with less effort.
Many other benefits exist, as I have written about in my previous post on nasal breathing. Take a look, and start making it a point to breath through your nose NOW. Start applying the technique throughout your day – especially in light exercise like walking around or up stairs – and eventually start applying it to your exercise routine as well.
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2. Adopt a Slower Carb Diet
Note that I did not say “Low Carb Diet,” as a vegan and endurance athlete, that would be incredibly unwise. Furthermore, there is plenty of research that indicates a moderate amount of carbs are actually beneficial for health.
By Slower Carb I am referring to a diet that is structured around plenty of whole grains and fresh vegetables and a reasonable amount of fruits. The important is to eliminate completely any white starches or sugars from your diet. This includes white rice (go for wild or brown rice instead), white bread (stick to whole grain bread), pastas, sodas, juices and any other refined carbohydrate source.
Typically, “Slow Carb” diets also limit fruit intake, but this is not something condone. I think fruits (in moderation) are superb foods and important for overall health. Slow Carb dieters are also fans of animal proteins, which of course I am strongly against……for many reasons. Overall however, the point is to eat foods that are low-glycemic (i.e. don’t cause a big spike in your blood sugar) and in their natural/whole food state where possible. This is the key.
Perhaps the greatest abusers of refined carb sources are endurance athletes! Eating lots of rice, pastas and energy drinks while training a lot might be OK for a while, but ultimately (especially in the off-season or when you are done racing) your body will revolt. The pounds will pack on and in some cases you might be left with lingering health issues (especially in old age).
I remember a dramatic example from my high school cross-country team, where one of our star runners was famous for drinking at least 1 x 3 liter of Coca Cola every day (sometimes 2 x 3 liters on the weekends)! Half-way through our junior year, he hit a wall. He was running in a race and had to stop…he could barely finish. He went from the rising star of the team to almost not finishing the 3.1 mile race. What happened? The overload of sugar eventually caused his body to force him to stop running. He had chronic fatigue that lasted for weeks. Eventually…he got of the Coke and was able to run again. It was a hard and slow slog.
By sticking to slower-burning sources of fuel – primarily from whole grains and veggies – you’ll avoid the ups and downs that come with eating processed foods. While training, you’ll find that your energy will be more stable, and your recovery will also improve. I just finished reading a great book, Ultra-Marathon Man by Dean Karnazes….where he is a proponent of Slow Carbs. Dean frequently runs 100+ mile ultras and has run >200 miles at one time on several occasions….I think he knows a thing or two about endurance 🙂 . Check out his book, especially the epilogue where he discusses the details of his dietary habits.
3. Slow Down
We always like to move so fast. Rush to work, rush home. Work out quickly so we work up and sweat and can go rush back home to quickly eat dinner and then crash on the sofa. Training quickly is good if it is done deliberately quickly for a specific purpose. The problem is that when we rush we also run the risk of burning our selves out before we reach our true potential.
I experienced this first hand in high school, with races (be it running or swimming, both sports I competed in) limited to fairly modest distances. I really struggled to be competitive. I saw my peers running or swimming circles around me, even though I put in a good effort. It wasn’t until I moved on to college and started training for longer distance triathlons (with swims over 1 mile, and runs 10K and longer) that I started to see more potential. It wasn’t just the distance that was the issue, my training was done way to fast. Most workouts I would be pushing my body at 80% of my max heart rate….day after day. I wasn’t training my aerobic endurance engine by training in this way.
Every body is built differently, but I believe that we all would be well-served to take more time to train our selves to operate at a lower intensity for longer periods of time. This applies to any sport, be it running, swimming, tennis, hiking, skiing…or even yoga (yes I know…yoga is not a sport, but you know what I mean!). For running, try running at 30 seconds to even a minute slower than normal but go 20% longer than normal. Try to keep your heart rate relatively low (at most 60% of your max, if you track that), even if that means slowing down. If you are up for an extra challenge, try nose breathing while running!
It also applies to weights….next time you are in the gym, use less weight that you normally would use and slow down each rep to a minimum of 4 seconds down and 4 seconds up. See how you feel about that!
Over time, you’ll notice your endurance engine tuning in and you’ll bound to be going longer and feeling better – even as you continue to do carry on with your other/shorter/higher-intensity workouts.
4. Reduce Stimulants
When you borrow money from a bank, you not only need to pay the money back, you also owe interest. When you borrow energy….through coffee, Red Bull, colas or your other stimulant of choice…you have to pay back….in forms that are not pleasant. There is no free lunch. Sorry.
I am not saying that drinking coffee or other forms of caffeine and sugar is bad, I am just saying that when you borrow energy and stimulate yourself through artificial means, it takes its toll. Own up to that, it is a fact.
When you jack yourself up on sugar, for example, you have an inevitable crash. We’ve all experienced that, and those of you with kids can witness this effect first hand! The same thing happens when we drink that Venti Latte first thing in the morning. We can plow through the stack of papers and power meetings, but at the end of the day we’ll feel worse for wear….which is why we often recharge with more stimulants in the afternoon.
Real endurance comes from within. Detoxing from caffeine and sugar addiction is not easy, but there are plenty of tools and tips on the net to help you wean yourself (I’ll post more about these resources in another post). Even if you have no intention of completely going off stimulants, it is worthwhile to trim down your intake and witness the results. After an initial (albeit painful) detoxing period, I think you’ll find a new-found energy that lasts longer and brings with it deeper clarity and insight. Remember, life is a marathon not a sprint.
5. Cultivate Presence
During some of the most difficult feats of endurance in my life, I’ve entered into a space where I was completely aware of the present moment. I wasn’t thinking about how many miles left to run, the heat radiating off of the pavement, or the choppy seas. In fact, I wasn’t thinking at all, I was just being.
Athletes frequently talk about “the zone,” that experience of being totally and completely engrossed in an activity. In fact, during Michael Phelps epic quest for 8 gold medals in swimming this summer, he stated that the most important thing for him was to maintain his focus on the race at hand. Thinking about the days of head would just be a distraction…and overwhelming. His intense focus was the real key to his success.
Athletes, business-people, moms, students and people from all walks of life can apply present moment awareness to improve the quality of their lives. Relating to endurance, when you are completely present, you stop telling yourself excuses about why you should stop running, riding or doing what you are doing.
Instead, you see situations for what they are – and the inevitable result is a sense of peace with what is rather than a revulsion to it. For me, cultivating present moment awareness during my yoga practice helps me to practice longer and hold even the most challenging postures without much strain.
A great way to bring this practice into your own life, is to find a comfortable seat and for a set amount of time every day (say 10 minutes – 20 minutes is even better), close your eyes and focus on your breathing (through your nose please!). If thoughts come, just let them pass like clouds overhead, and come back to your breath. This simple meditation can then be applied to any activity you might be doing – physical or otherwise.
If you want to learn more about this topic, I highly recommend reading The Power of Now by Eckhardt Tolle.
Next time you are out exercises or playing a sport, try to just focus on your breath instead of getting wrapped up in your thoughts. Over time, you’ll notice an ability to endure longer – without getting caught up in the drama of fatigue or boredom.
So there you have it. Five super simple tips for superhuman endurance! I didn’t say they would be easy to apply, but they absolutely are simple and can be put into practice by almost anybody, regardless of physical ability.
So I urge you to now take on one (or maybe all five) of these tips and apply them to your life for the next 10 days (30 days would be even better!). Just do it and see what happens. With consistent and sincere application of even one of these tips, you’re bound to see your endurance skyrocket.
p.s. if you have endurance tips of your own to share, please leave a note in the comments!