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Athletic performance enhancement through ...science?
March 30, 2014 7:19 PM   Subscribe

What are some peer reviewed, field tested (and legal) methods of improving performance in the gym and on the field, that do not involve transfusing blood or hiring Lance Armstrong's support team?

I just recently (2 months ago) got back into doing Crossfit. I realize that I am in horrible shape and can't match my performance from a couple years ago. Most of this comes from gaining almost 45 pounds from a desk job and stress. Now, I have a lot more time and I am excited to be back lifting and getting stronger. I want to get stronger and faster and I want to do it quickly!

I was at my local Crossfit box on Friday and saw people do the 14.5 open workout to try and qualify for the Reebok Crossfit games for 2014. The workout was as follows:
21-18-15-12-9-6-3 reps for time of:
95-lb. thrusters
Burpees

A respectable time I've been told is around the 20 minute mark. It would probably take me twice as long given my physical condition :(

On the other hand, the people who end up at the games are pulling sub 10 minute times for such a workout. That baffles my mind. Given the work that is required for such a workout, how can the body put out so much energy in such a short period of time? How can you not be in pain or kill yourself? ( I know about Rhabdomyolysis but let's not get there in this post).

Are these athletes taking any supplements that the general public isn't aware of? Do they have a strict training regimen that involves spending hours in the gym? How do you get that good?

_rant begin

One of the issues I think I have with the Crossfit philosophy is this: If you don't know what you are going to be tested on (say the workouts for the qualifying rounds of the games), how do you get good at it? There is no way anyone can prepare for the 14.5 workout if you haven't trained for it.

How do you train to get better at the WOD's at Crossfit?

Should I supplement my WOD's with a strength training program such as StrongLifts 5x5?

_rant end

That being said I am interested in reading some peer reviewed papers or scientific studies that show extreme athletic improvement through (legal) supplements or a specific training regimen. It could be anything - say from specific dosing schedule for creatine, to supplementing with baking soda to counteract lactic acid. I just want to read articles that have been scientifically validated - I am not interested in bro-science for the lack of a better word.

I am also looking for book or article/paper recommendations about people who weren't really athletic but through application of either a legal supplement or specific training method started competing professionally and are now at the top of their sports. Once again - it could be either marathon running or crossfit or olympic lifting. The sport is less relevant than the degree of change affected through the supplementation or specific training method.

Links to blogs are also welcome - I know of Alan Aragon and Lyle McDonald. Who are the others I should be reading?

Also, what are some of the newer supplements that are the popular with the crossfit crowd these days?

As a guide, my goals for this year are (in no particular order):

1) complete a tough mudder
2) run a marathon (I've never run one before), and run one good enough to qualify for the boston marathon
3) hit the intermediate strength standards (@165 pounds for a male)

Help me achieve those as quickly and efficiently as possible.
posted by rippersid to Health & Fitness (13 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
 
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posted by bq at 7:56 PM on March 30 [1 favorite]


I want to do it quickly!

This isn't exactly what you asked but a long time exercising compels me to tell you that this desire - unless carefully managed - is a guaranteed recipe for injury - injury that can stop you exercising for months, sometimes forever.

Believe me, OP, I well know that impulse and desire to increase quickly as possible, but as I get older I come more and more to appreciate how this impatience can hurt you, long term.

That all said, you will greatly enjoy the sports blog, Sweat Science. Alex specialises in breaking down the latest research and contextualising it for the kind of exercise mortals like us do.
posted by smoke at 8:00 PM on March 30 [3 favorites]


I find Crossfit kind of suspicious because they seem to have a kind of weird "train for the thing by doing the thing" philosophy, when you can train for explosive motion (like the squat thrust part of a burpee) and agility and endurance in a more effective way by breaking down the skills/movements you need and then training them. That's what true athletic training (vs "personal training") is, and that's what I would look for if I wanted to get really good at something like Crossfit. It involves a lot of jumping on boxes and agility ladders for the sports I like, don't know about yours.

Also, there's a lot of difference between 10 minutes, 20 minutes, and 40 minutes. The 10 minute people probably have at least some natural athletic ability or several years of better training. Ie, they are either the best Crossfit athlete in three counties, or they're you five years from now if you decide to make Crossfit your part-time job. Or both.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 8:16 PM on March 30


There are a bunch of questions wound up into this... I'll answer a few

#1 "On the other hand, the people who end up at the games are pulling sub 10 minute times for such a workout. That baffles my mind." - everyone who is going sub-10 have a couple of things in common: they have been CrossFitting for four or five years now; they own or coach full time at an affiliate and are sponsored (basically they are pro athletes); and they were successful college athletes who couldn't quite go pro in their chosen sport. Since Reebok waded in, there is now a bunch of money in CrossFit (compared to say, strongman or powerlifting) and people can make a living at it. This year, there were 209,000+ people who registered for the open; only 30 men and 30 women are going to end up at the CrossFit games.

#2 "If you don't know what you are going to be tested on (say the workouts for the qualifying rounds of the games), how do you get good at it?" - actually, the open is now almost totally predictable. Here is what was being predicted before the open; if you compare that with what actually happened, the movements that didn't show up were pull-ups and jerks, the the "new" movement was rowing. My gym takes the open/regionals/games pretty seriously and has been programming workouts based off of these same assumptions since last August.

#3 "How do you train to get better at the WOD's at Crossfit?" - if you haven't been doing this for more than two years, I would say "just do CrossFit." The CrossFit template includes some strength work. I wouldn't worry about trying to supplement with additional strength workouts until you are just crushing whatever your gym is programming.

#4 "Should I supplement my WOD's with a strength training program such as StrongLifts 5x5?" - see my answer to #3. You'll be too tired to supplement. I'll also point out that, other than the DL/box jump WOD in the open, everything was "light" by Crossfit standards; 135 pound cleans was the heaviest thing you had to do. Any of this stuff could have shown up in 2008 and not raised any eyebrows.

#5 "As a guide, my goals for this year are (in no particular order):" - goals #1 and #2 don't match up very well with CrossFit. If those are important goals, come back and ask another question about them; there are plenty of serious runners on Ask.Me who will answer, since your question mostly starts out asking about CrossFit, they are probably not going to see this. Also: the best way to prep for a marathon is *not* going to be CrossFit. A Tough Mudder is closer, but you probably don't want to do it on a diet of just CrossFit.
posted by kovacs at 8:17 PM on March 30 [1 favorite]


The American College of Sports Medicine (pdf) says 3-9mg of caffeine per kg of body weight (equivalent of 2-6 cups of coffee) one hour prior to exercise increased endurance running and cycling performance in the laboratory. Caffeine does not appear to enhance performance during sprinting lasting less than 90 seconds.
posted by furtive at 8:50 PM on March 30


I'll answer the running questions.

First of all, running and Crossfit or other heavy lifting programs or strength training...I don't want to say they're not compatible, because I know people that do both (myself included, though I do Starting Strength/stripped 5X5), but serious runners just run, a lot. At the very top end, they may work in some HIIT and hill/tempo work to cut down their running times, but distance running is mainly going to be running a lot until you get to the point where you can worry about your time.

Here's a sample running plan for training for Boston, but please, please, please don't start with that. (And I don't know how well Higdon's plans are in a scientific sense, but I know they're widely used and referenced). Start here if you don't have any running experience but can run a mile or two. Start here if you can't run a mile.

I don't want to be a dick about it, but training for running isn't just about distance, it's getting your body and knees used to the pounding you're gonna take. I pushed too hard and spent 3 months rehabbing my knee and I theoretically know what I'm doing. The 10 Percent Rule is worth following. Most running injuries are overuse from enthusiastic people wanting to push and push to get to the next level before their bodies adjust. Mine included, much as it pains me to admit.

I haven't done a Tough Mudder but I've done some obstacle course races. What's useful there isn't so much Crossfit/heavy-style lifts as much as quick bursts of heavy cardio activity. See their sample training plans here for an idea. You have to be able to run for 10 minutes, then do something like haul yourself over a wall, then run for 10 more minutes and climb a cargo net, then run for 10 minutes and low-crawl under electrified wires.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 9:12 PM on March 30


The author of Sweat Science also has a book that I enjoyed: Which comes first, cardio or weights (ignore the title, the subtitle Fitness Myths, Training Truths, and Other Surprising Discoveries from the Science of Exercise describes the book well).

Also, there is a lot (and I do mean lot) of misunderstanding about lactic acid. See, for example this article (but if you search online about lactic acid myths you'll find many more).

As for supplements, besides caffeine beet juice seems promising too, for endurance exercise. The research is not as convincing as that for caffeine, but current evidence suggests that it is helpful for relatively untrained people, which is you, so that is good. You should drink it 2/3 hours before starting exercise, and not chew gum or use mouthwash after it because they kill the bacteria in the mouth that are necessary for its effect.
posted by blub at 2:15 AM on March 31


Cryogenic chamber therapy. There is one down the street from me, and there are about 80 olympians/olympic hopefuls that use it in my town.
posted by ill3 at 2:51 AM on March 31


The site Examine.com has some impressively detailed (and apparently unbiased) information about supplements and what scientific research shows about their efficacy and risks. That said, I have to agree with other responses that caution about trying to "do it quickly." Slow and steady wins the race when it comes to athletic conditioning.
posted by maxim0512 at 5:14 AM on March 31 [1 favorite]


How do you train to get better at the WOD's at Crossfit?

Get on an intelligent, periodized training progression, include strength, conditioning, and skill work in sensible proportions, and don't get injured. If your gym isn't giving this to you then you should find a new gym or save your personal training money and invest some time into researching for yourself. Also keep in mind that the CrossFit Games Open WODs, like all of the WODs posted to crossfit.com, exist almost entirely for marketing purposes, and are in no way sensible workouts or tests of "fitness."

And yes, the idea of "training for the unknown and the unknowable" is just marketing fluff. If you don't buy into it, maybe stop spending your money on CrossFit and just work out.

Should I supplement my WOD's with a strength training program such as StrongLifts 5x5?

If you're not hitting the intermediate numbers on the exrx charts (which are pretty low-balled), then yes, some kind of specific strength work will undoubtedly be useful.

That being said I am interested in reading some peer reviewed papers or scientific studies that show extreme athletic improvement through (legal) supplements or a specific training regimen.

2nding examine.com for this sort of thing, but don't expect to find any amazing hidden gems. The two most substantiated ergogenic aids are probably creatine and caffeine, neither of which are realistically going to give you "extreme athletic improvement." There is no secret dosing schedule for creatine. It's 5g/day. Vitamin D can also have beneficial effects on performance in deficient individuals, and deficiencies are very common.

I am also looking for book or article/paper recommendations about people who weren't really athletic but through application of either a legal supplement or specific training method started competing professionally and are now at the top of their sports.

There are none.

Also, what are some of the newer supplements that are the popular with the crossfit crowd these days?

None that aren't a waste of money. There is no (legal) magic bullet.

1) complete a tough mudder
2) run a marathon (I've never run one before), and run one good enough to qualify for the boston marathon
3) hit the intermediate strength standards (@165 pounds for a male)


These are all doable and good goals but you should think about the fact that training strength, training for WODs, training for a tough mudder, and training for a marathon, all lie at different points on a spectrum. You fundamentally can't achieve all of those things at once and also do all of them as efficiently as possible. A wise man once said: you want to sit in many chairs, but you've only got one ass.
posted by ludwig_van at 6:35 AM on March 31 [4 favorites]


Top secret performance enhancement:
posted by entropone at 7:34 AM on March 31 [2 favorites]


Entropone has it.

Consistency in training


QFT.

Like many hack-influenced people,your obsession with optimality is miscalbrated. You are not an olympian or national level competitor? You are not a CEO whose every minute is worth millions of dollars? Then you will find that if you do 80-90% efficient training/nutrition program continually and consistently, and NOT GET INJURED BY RUSHING THINGS, you will do much better than the tim-ferris-esque "7 dimensional supplement-fest, 26 different 6 minute workouts approach per month" applied inconsistently or in unsafe ways.

To achieve the changes you list in a sustainable manner, takes many months and likely years. Develop a good habit where you work out thrice weekly without fail*, eat well without fail*, and don't worry about that last 10-20% of efficiency.

*Minimal fails anyway
posted by lalochezia at 11:42 AM on March 31 [1 favorite]


ludwig_van nailed it as usual.

As a CrossFit coach, a sports conditioning specialist and a sports science teacher, I sometimes have mixed feelings about what to recommend.

CrossFit is problematic in that it's a big tent. There are some very smart and talented CrossFit coaches and there are some astoundingly bad CrossFit coaches out there. This is true with personal trainers and maybe even true with strength and conditioning coaches.

CrossFit has honestly done a lot of good for fitness and peoples' health in general. Like it or not, the fitness industry has moved in the direction of CrossFit over the last 5-6 years and not the opposite.

Here's what CrossFit, as practiced in a good affiliate does well:
Motivates people.
Builds a strong community.
Teachers people how to push themselves.
Teaches people the kernels of sound exercise methods.
Gives people a sense of empowerment in their own training.
Exposes people to some of the best minds in health, fitness, conditioning etc.
Gets people in phenomenal shape.

Here's what CrossFit, as practiced in either a bad affiliate or done over-zealously does poorly:
Instills, a stupid, elitist attitude.
De-emphasizes proper rest.
Glorifies "toughness".
Stunts strength gains.
Leads to either acute or chronic injuries.
Pushes clients too far, too quickly.

The issue is that CrossFit moves and improves quickly. The quality of CrossFit now, compared with 5 years ago is a whole different world. The quality of coaches and athletes isn't even in the same ballpark. People will generally make fun of CrossFit as practiced in 2008 not realizing that some of the best olympic lifting coaches, physical therapists, strength athletes and generally brilliant coaches work with CrossFit in some capacity.

Any good affiliate is running periodized strength programs, utilizing proper skill progressions, planning workouts around multiple energy systems, enforcing good technique, incorporating proper rest into the programming etc.

Unfortunately the CrossFit level 1 coaching standards are broken at this point and the barriers to opening a new affiliate are shockingly low. Luckily the boom time of opening new affiliates seems to have stabilized and the better gyms will float to the top.

Regarding your questions, almost any client, below middle age, without serious injuries, movement issues or serious obesity issues who is of a roughly average adult size/build should be able to get to the point of doing 14.5 below 20 minutes within a year of smart training.

14.5 was a very simple WOD to train for for several reasons:
The movements were inevitable. Anyone who has followed CrossFit since the beginning of the Open system knew burpees and thrusters would be a part of any open.

The weights were light. Anyone following a simple linear progression that include front squats and overhead press would have found the weights (95 lbs for men.) easy to move quickly and with good form.

Thrusters can be trained directly and treated as an Olympic or power movement very effectively. There's no reason why a normal adult male could train his thrusters up to 135 lbs for multiple reps.
Burpees are low skill and really just measure your conditioning.

A sub 20 minute workout should be a good box's bread and butter time frame. Very few good boxes run many WOD about 20 minutes on a regular basis. Most of your time should be spent on strength.

Regarding supplements? Between examine, suppversity, ISSN, there's really no magic bullet. As said above: creatine, caffeine, possibly protein shakes depending on your needs/goals/diet. If there was something that worked, people would use it. Steroids work very well for professional athletes, which is one of the major reasons they're banned.

And yes, the good athletes do spend hours a day training. And yes, the good athletes are in incredible pain/discomfort when they do the WODs.

As for additional resources, you should probably be following:
Juggernaut Strength and Conditioning
About 10% of the articles on breaking muscle.
About 5% of the articles on T-nation. Especially the ones from a few years ago.
Read anything you can by Dan John.
Eric Cressey still puts out a lot of good stuff.
Read Mike Robertson's Stuff.
Catalyst Strength and Conditioning puts out some good articles.
Read the papers that come out from the NSCA.

Any of the above advice that told you to train consistently, don't do anything that injures you and just put in the hard time over a few years is the advice to listen to. There is no quick work around.
posted by Telf at 12:08 PM on April 3


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