Can you improve fitness by injecting frequent small doses of activity into your training regime?
I am going to steal the term “microdosing” from the drug culture and apply it to training.
Microdosing training is the concept of improving fitness gradually by employing small but frequent bouts of activity that do not tear the body down enough to require large amounts of rest and recovery. Yet the microdosed training sessions provide just enough exercise stimulus to produce adaption and gains in fitness.
The term microdosing (Micro Dosing) is more typically associated with the unethical (usually illegal) practice of taking small amounts of drugs to improve performance.
- Ivy League Law School students using amphetamines like Adderall to support long study hours and improve cognitive abilities.
- Silicon Valley Executives using small amounts of Psychedelics like LSD or Psilocybin to improve work performance.
- Athletes taking banned substances like EPO in small undetectable doses to skirt drug testing but sufficient enough to still get a performance boost.
The concept of microdosing training or utilizing the minimum effective dose of exercise to obtain a desired training result without causing adverse side effects is not new, but the concept is rarely utilized in practice. This Blog’s most popular post is a minimum effective dose approach to training for a 3 hour marathon. To my knowledge, no one has used the term “microdosing” when applied to training.
Seek Adaption to Training over Recovery from Training
The goal of training is to condition the body to perform better in subsequent training sessions and future competitions. Unfortunately, sometimes we overdo a training session and end up so sore and broken down that we require an extended period of time to recover and just get back to where we were before the hard training session.
A common meme parroted by athletes, even professionals that ought to know better, is: “there is no such thing as over training just under recovery.”
The thoughts behind this misguided phrase are twofold. First: to motivate to train harder. Second: to emphasize the importance of rest and recovery. The reality is you can overdue training to the point that you can’t train anymore and are forced to take some extended time off and recover. In fact, it is possible to overdue just a single training session to the point of muscle breakdown (even Rhabdomyolysis) resulting in a severe case of DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness)
The concept of needing to “Rest and Recover” implies in itself that you are broken and have overdone it. Recovery also implies getting back to where you were. It does not imply adaption and progress. Getting sore from a training session and being forced to take time off to recover is counterproductive.
By overdoing training sessions, it is possible to get trapped in a cycle of repeated breakdowns and forced recovery. The result is that you do not adapt and make much progress.
Break the Cycle of “Breakdown and Recovery”
Instead seek Adaptation and Incremental Improvement
To escape the rut of breakdown and recovery, avoid training to the point where you end up with soreness (DOMS). Seek to end training sessions energized; feeling like you could do a little bit more. Avoid DOMS. Avoid getting sore. Also space training sessions often enough, that your body does not detrain and loose fitness in the down time between training sessions.
Conditioning the Quadriceps Muscles – a Useful Example of Using Microdosed Training
Just how does one employ microdosing of training to maximize adaption and minimize delays due to needed recovery?
Training the quads for the steep downhill rigors of the Ridge Run is an illustrative example of how to employ microdosing to maximize adaptation without setbacks from soreness.
Every year as I start training and preparing for the Ridge Run, I face the task of conditioning my quads to make them impervious to soreness from all the downhill running on the Ridge Run course. Trail runners sometimes affectionately refer to this process as “seasoning” the quads.
Downhill running put the quadriceps into eccentric loading. Unless properly conditioned, training sessions that incorporate eccentric loading will lead to soreness (DOMS) forcing one to take days off to recover before further training can commence.
There is lots of opinion on how often to add downhill running session to your training to keep your quads conditioned and immune to soreness. Some say as little as one downhill session every two weeks is all it takes. In my experience, I need at least two and better three steep downhill running/hiking sessions per week! If I take more than two days in a row off from downhill training, I will end up getting sore from the next downhill session – putting me back in the breakdown/recovery trap.
In my opinion, doing downhill sessions with two days break in between (every 3 days) would be the minimum. This does not fit well into a weekly schedule, so I personally have adopted a three session a week routine of doing at least some downhill running every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Frequent short training sessions that leave you energized are better for adaption than occasional long sessions that leave you sore and broken.
In years past, I have gotten trapped in the Breakdown Recovery trap by overdoing the first downhill running sessions of the season. After going up and down the M trail, my quads would be sore for days after the workout. The soreness would prevent me from doing any training for a few days as I recovered. After the soreness went away, I would do another session but the same thing would happen. I would get sore again and be forced to take time off to recover.
After years of trial and error, I have learned that I need to start with shorter sessions and avoid blowing out my quads and the getting sore part of training. My first couple steep sessions of the season are just hiking up to the top of the M and back down. I think that is about 800 feet of elevation gain over about ¾ mile. As the weeks go by, I will increase the duration of workouts. A common workout is to go up the M trail to a point above the trailhead reached in 40 minutes and then run back down to the bottom in 20 minutes for a total workout time of one hour. Eventually, I will be able to go up from the M trailhead to the top of Mount Baldy (4000 feet elevation gain over 4 miles) a couple times a week without getting sore.
Microdosing also Means doing Little Bits of Activity Every Day – Even on Rest and Recovery Days
Think: Active Recovery.
Do not erase your workout gains with passive rest.
Avoid being totally sedentary on your recovery days.
Being sedentary is the scourge of adaptation to training. You can erase the potential gains of a training session by sitting around all day on your rest days. Instead, make sure you get up and actively move several times throughout the day. If you have a desk job, get up every hour and walk for a few minutes. Better yet, do some jumping jacks, burpees, skip rope or run in place for a few minutes. Activity keeps reinforcing the signal to your body to adapt to physical stress and training. Sitting around for a day or more quickly turns off the adaptation process.
For more ideas on the theory of injecting frequent small doses of activity into your training plans and rest days, check this podcast out.
- End your workouts before you damage your muscles resulting in post training soreness (DOMS) needing extended rest and recovery.
- Keep Moving. Inject frequent bouts of activity into your day; even on recovery days.