Coaching and Training Secrets – Edition #1 of 10,000
Ok…maybe there won’t be 10,000 of these posts, but there is lot of material in this category for sure. I really enjoy working with clients in pursuit of their health and performance goals, and there are a lot of strategies and tools we utilize to get results. In this week’s podcast, PK and I go over several pearls of fitness wisdom, in addition to the one which we’ll dive into with today’s brief article.
Got hormesis? What’s that…you say? Remember the old “Got Milk?” ads? Having a slab of chocolate cake (or a Paleo almond flour cacao macadamia torte) without a big glass of milk (whole full-fat dairy, goat, or coconut) is indeed a travesty, and pursuing health, fitness, and excellence without a little hormesis is exactly the same disadvantaged situation.
What in the heck is hormesis? As in gettin’ your hormesis on…and I love me some hormesis! Hormesis is the condition of being exposed to a hormetic stimulus. This is a mild shock to the system that upregulates the production of certain hormones, and can have a very positive effect on metabolism, mental clarity, and physical capacity, to name a few of its benefits. Plus it’s a badass-sounding word, you have to admit. You can think of a hormetic stressor as something that, in a small dose, has a very positive effect, but in very large doses, could potentially have more negative consequences. Things like cold, heat, exercise, and even food intake can provide hormetic benefits in many cases. Let’s take a look at each of those interventions and briefly describe how they can be leveraged for health and performance.
Cold exposure can have powerful effects. Spend a few minutes in a tank, tub, or lake of cold water. Hit your local cryotherapy center. Or just go outside in the subzero temperatures and take a snow bath, as I sometimes do in the winter. While the cold is bracing, refreshing, and quite invigorating, it has been proven to upregulate the immune system, and stimulate us to burn more fat. This fat-burning happens through several mechanisms. First, cold exposure stimulates humans (although this varies according to one’s specific genetics) to convert more of their fat stores to a specialized type of fat known as brown adipose tissue (BAT). This BAT contains mitochondria (energy producing organelles) that help us to keep warm by combusting the triglycerides from our stored body fat. Think of millions of little fat-burning furnaces. Also, the act of getting just a bit cold (only to the point of mild shivering), and then allowing the body to warm up naturally, creates a condition known as cold-induced thermogenesis. The cold drives our bodies to rev up metabolism and reheat ourselves, and we burn up a little more body fat in the process. I’ve seen a lot of clients use cold showers or some of the methods mentioned above to drop weight without ever changing their diet or exercise patterns. It’s amazing.
Those benefits are great, but I think the real performance enhancer in cold hormesis is in the facilitation of the neuromuscular system. We all recognize that magnificent exhilaration we get from a cold splash. This process is actually facilitating our neuromuscular system…speeding up reactions, improving recruitment efficiency, and increasing force production potential. This electrifying effect can be used pre-workout when high output such as heavy lifting, fast sprinting (by definition all sprinting should be fast) and even greater fatigue resistance (endurance) is desired.
One thing to add about cold exposure. This one seems to be a bit easier when performed in group fashion. Sure, you can discipline yourself to go solo, and the results will be outstanding. But try doing a group workout that revolves around a little hormesis dunk. You’ll see your fun, fellowship, bravery to face the conditions, and all-around performance escalate. Every summer I lead a local training group (tribe) and we make sure to hit a few “hormesis hikes” or other types of workouts. The most popular one to date has been a short hike that involves rock lifting, interval running, and icy mountain stream plunging. Try setting up your own workout group and adding a cold homesis component. You’ll love it.
Heat has many benefits as well. Using a sauna, steam room, or hot tub can improve circulation, detoxification, aerobic fitness, and inflammation management. Heat exposure causes the release of cell-signaling molecules known as heat shock proteins that drive these desirable responses. Heat can also be very relaxing and regular sauna use in particular has been shown to correlate with decreased cardiovascular disease risk and increased longevity.
Exercise is a stimulus. I think we all knew that. But brief intense exercise, such as heavy lifting, sprinting (true sprinting can only be done for seconds, not minutes), or high-intensity interval training that uses brief bouts of effort with long rest intervals, causes a pulsatile release of growth hormone and testosterone. Low-intensity exercise, such as easy cardio or mobility work, can have a calming hormetic effect in which we increase serotonin and oxytocin (both associated with states of serenity and happiness) at the same time it tends to lower overall cortisol and noradrenaline levels that are linked to more stressful states.
You might not readily think of food as being a potential hormetic stressor. However, many people find that eating small amounts of foods to which they are sensitive (like plants rich in lectins) can increase their tolerance to said foods, as long as dosing is controlled to be small and well-spaced. I’m personally not too crazy about that strategy but it does work for some and it uses a quasi-vaccination philosophy. Honestly, I just prefer to eat foods I love and that agree with my gut. That stated, though, not eating, or in other words fasting…pre-workout, can be a great tool to use in certain circumstances. This would be particularly true in the case of a person who was going to be doing some low-intensity aerobic exercise, was interesting in enhancing fat metabolism, or even supporting a ketogenic state. The mild stress of not having a bolus of glucose hitting the bloodstream from a carbohydrate-rich meal will in most cases upregulate enzymatic pathways to burn fat. Hormonal signals will unlock bodyfat stores and fatty acid will fuel the energy demands, all the while producing less free radicals and inflammation as compared to a carbohydrate-dependent metabolism.
These are just a few examples of hormetic stressors. When used appropriately, they can help you to improve health, well-being, performance, and in all probability — lifespan. Get your hormesis on. Or when somebody asks “Got hormesis?” you’ll say hell yes!
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