Amplifying gains through training hacks isn’t necessarily a bad thing—if you know exactly what you’re doing
There have been a lot of training hacks out there that claim to somehow amplify our gains—from nutrition to training, and even recovery.
We all want to get the most out of our training. The time and effort we put in never seems enough to satisfy our desires. Yet, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Such a mindset keeps us driven, hungry, and focused. With that in mind, it’s normal to find ways where we can somehow amplify our gains. There have been a lot of “hacks” out there, but did you know that there are a few popular ones that might just negate your gains?
Before we proceed, let me clarify that I only included legal and safe hacks on this list. Obviously, doping and other illicit practices are not included and should never be tolerated to begin with.
1. Antioxidant supplements
We’ve all heard how antioxidants are important for health and immunity. The rationale is that antioxidants neutralize free radicals, which are byproducts of activities such as metabolic processes, exposure to external sources (like pollution and radiation), and even exhaustive exercise.
These substances, as often portrayed in marketing and media, can be harmful to our bodies. Following this logic, antioxidants should be an important part of one’s recovery regimen, right? Well, it’s not that simple.
First of all, let me point out the age-old adage: too much of a good thing is bad. Yes, an excess build-up of free radicals can be harmful as it can damage our DNA, proteins, and lipids. However, these free radicals also help fight off pathogens and can also help signal physiological adaptations—the same adaptations that training and exercise produce.
In fact, exercise performance was observed in relation to antioxidant supplementation in a 2020 study led by Madalyn Riley Higgins. Based on the group’s research, high amounts of vitamin C and E supplementation blunts skeletal muscle adaptation to endurance training. On top of this, they pointed out that chronic supplementation with vitamin E is not recommended for athletes as it is shown to impair athletic performance.
However, let me point out that this doesn’t mean antioxidants are bad. There is also a 2018 study pointing out that diets rich in natural antioxidants from food do not impair adaptive responses from training. The hypothesis is that antioxidants and other substances from natural food sources are somehow able to work together better as opposed to megadosing on a particular antioxidant.
2. Ice baths
We’ve seen the pros do it in training and we enjoy this after races, but should we really be doing this icy hack? Once again, the answer might not be as straightforward as you think.
First things first, ice baths are meant to curtail inflammation brought about by exercise-induced muscle damage. By reducing inflammation, we can somehow mitigate soreness and weakness, allowing us to perform better sooner. However, there have been a few studies pointing out that ice baths might blunt our body’s training response.
We should first accept that our bodies have complex mechanisms. Stimuli and corresponding biological markers and signals act on a web of interactions that somehow affect various parts or our physiology. Such is the case with training. In a nutshell, training is a stressor that when done properly results in an adaptive response from our body. Overdo it, and our body fights back. Thus, stress in itself is not bad; it’s necessary.
But here is where the problem starts. People often think of pain and inflammation negatively. This is understandable as we are programmed instinctively to veer away from anything that can potentially harm us. However, as mentioned, a certain amount of pain and inflammation is actually desirable. Now let me point out that I am not a proponent of the “no pain, no gain” mentality. Pain does not equate to training success; rather, it can sometimes be an unavoidable consequence.
By submerging our bodies in ice cold water, our blood vessels constrict and reduce blood flow and thus reduce inflammation. However, in doing so, certain adaptation signals might also be reduced. This possibly results in fresher legs and faster recovery, but according to some research, it might also stunt chronic adaptations to training.
Does this mean we should skip the ice? Not necessarily. There are still loads of benefits to doing this recovery modality. For example, ice has been shown to be beneficial for acute injuries. Ice baths can be utilized in competition especially when there are multiple games or intense sessions within a certain timeframe. The reduced inflammation will help you perform better sooner. However, ice baths, if done regularly in training, might not be such a smart idea.
3. High-carb supplements
Let me start off by saying that I’m not going to be the guy telling you to go on a keto diet. While there have been certain athletes benefiting immensely from it, I still advocate a well-balanced diet, especially for athletes. But just what is a well-balanced diet? This definition, of course, will differ depending on your background, goals, and even genetics.
In general, our body has two main sources of fuel: carbohydrates and fats. Carbohydrates are generally used in intense efforts (anaerobic) while both carbs and fats can be used in lower intensity steady-state efforts (aerobic). Since our bodies can utilize both carbs and fats in aerobic exercise, we can actually “program” it to prefer one over the other. Our diet and the type of training we do (i.e. Zone 2 or the fat-burning zone) can greatly influence this.
Now this is where the problem happens. Mass marketing and “common knowledge” emphasize the importance of carbohydrate supplementation in training and competition. I have no qualms with this and even agree with such a concept. However, the problem arises when we ask the question “How much is too much?”
I’m lucky enough to work with hundreds of athletes in answering this question. In the lab, I’m able to perform metabolic testing on athletes. This allows me to measure the amount of carbohydrates and fats they burn across different intensities. From there, we can see how many gels, sports drinks or bars an athlete needs to finish comfortably. It also tells me whether an athlete has been too reliant on sugary, high carbohydrate meals and supplements in training.
When an athlete always loads up on sports drinks, gels, and bars, they have a tendency to be carb-dependent. If someone is too reliant on carbohydrates, they need a higher amount of carbohydrates in races. This can be a huge problem since these athletes usually burn significantly more carbohydrates than they can absorb.
On top of this, it could also lead to chronic problems such as insulin insensitivity and even diabetes. The solution lies in both training and dietary adjustments; oftentimes, you would need to cut back on high-carb supplements or at least be more prudent with it. Just remember, more is not always better.
In closing, let me emphasize that the points I brought up are not meant as black flags for the hacks mentioned above. These, when used correctly, can certainly aid us in our pursuit of new PRs. However, let us be more discerning and look deeper into how certain hacks can help or harm.
Oftentimes, answers aren’t so straightforward, we just need to do a little bit more reading.
Have some training questions, feedback or suggestions for future articles? Drop a note in the comments section below or on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. You can also get in touch with Don directly here.