Training for a marathon takes as much mental strength as physical ability, and anyone who has ever attempted the infamous 26.2 miles knows it takes numerous strategies to make it to the end. So why not try biohacking?
Biohacking is a broad strategy for improving physical and mental performance through the use of supplements, meditation, superfoods and other approaches like fasting or exposure to cold that are designed to enhance our body's natural abilities. In that way, we're "hacking" our own biology in an effort to make us mentally and physically superior. And the fact is, we all use biohacks—even if it's just grabbing a cup of coffee in the morning to get focused. Sport-specific biohacking, then, could be the breakthrough you need to get past that marathon training plateau, boost your times and transform your race.
Fast for Focus
If you're curious about biohacking, the easiest way to test its efficacy is to start with familiar tools. As mentioned above, coffee can help drive focus, but since it's a diuretic, it's not ideal for training. A better focus hack for runners might be intermittent fasting (IF).
IF actually has two main benefits for marathon runners: improved cognitive function and decreased inflammation. But how are you supposed to run if you're not eating? IF puts the emphasis on the intermittent aspect, meaning you aren't fasting for long periods of time. In fact, scientists have shown even leaving 14 hours between one night's dinner and the next morning's breakfast (for example, dining at 7 p.m. one night then forgoing food until a 9 a.m. breakfast the next day) a few times a week is enough to modulate hormone production, stabilize insulin levels and improve cell repair. IF is a simple approach for more focused, more body-friendly training.
Nootropics is the term given to a range of substances, both natural and pharmaceutical, that improve performance. The category includes everything from caffeine and Ritalin to L-theanine and opioids, but many of them are banned in professional sports. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), for example, bans common stimulants like Adderall and Ritalin, as well as modafinil, a drug used to treat narcolepsy. Many of the most popular nootropics, though, are natural and entirely permissible.
Creatine is an excellent natural nootropic for runners because it facilitates the production of ATP, recycling energy consumed into new ATP molecules. Paired with choline, another natural substance found in everything from eggs to spinach and many beans, you'll also experience less muscle fatigue during your runs. These nutrients provide an ideal, natural biohack.
Cross-Train for Tolerance
Cross-training should be part of everyone's marathon prep, but if you want to get the most out of your alternate activities, a few simple twists can turn them into biohacks.
Take the pool as an example. In a cold-water setting, preferably a cold outdoor pool, hold a light weight at your chest while swimming a lap underwater. Then tread water with the weight between your thighs. With repetition, this can help your body maximize oxygen use and improve lactic acid tolerance.
Another way to improve respiratory capacity and efficiency is by hiking while wearing a weighted vest. The vest creates resistance to diaphragm movement, strengthening the muscles around your lungs.
Consider the Cold
Cold temperatures are known to help with post-workout recovery; that's why taking a short ice bath post-training can reduce muscle pain and leave you ready for your next workout. But cold temperatures are having a moment right now in the fitness world. Cryotherapy, a process in which the body is submerged in a cold air chamber, can not only aid in muscle recovery—like an ice bath, but can also improve blood oxygenation and enhance mood and focus. Some gyms even offer cryotherapy, if you're interested in seeing how it affects your marathon training.
Is Biohacking Right for You?
All athletes rely on simple, natural biohacks, but right now there's a huge marketplace for nootropics and other performance boosts, so it's important to consider where biohacking fits in your training regimen.
Some athletes see themselves on the cutting edge—they're the ones testing out products like HVMN, a drinkable ketone product premised on the popularity of the ketogenic diet. HVMN contains the compound beta-hydroxybutyrate, which is typically produced during starvation or when fasting. Its efficacy is still debatable, but since fasting is a known performance enhancer, some of those who already use this biohack have given HVMN a try.
At the far end of the biohacking world are those athletes who want to chemically simulate "runner's high" – but these radical hackers have a long way to go. Their problem? It takes drugs like opioids and stimulants to achieve this state naturally. Unfortunately, it can be excessively expensive to put natural products through the comprehensive clinical testing necessary to prove their effects.
Biohacking can be as complicated or as simple as you want, but it's definitely worth considering when pushing your way toward that marathon finish line. Maybe a product like HVMN is more effective than your typical energy gel, or cold water workouts could give you the push for the final sprint. It's your body—if you want to crack open the system and experiment with newer methods, it's your decision. While these methods should never stray into realms of real danger or illegality, they might just be your key to higher performance.
Photo Credit: Pavel1964/iStock
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