After decades of studies, it’s now well established that caffeine helps sprint performance and improves endurance in activities lasting up to two hours. There’s also increasingly solid evidence that it helps resistance exercise like weightlifting.
If you prepare for a game or race in the same way that you prepare for your usual workouts, you won’t be well-rested enough to maximize your performance.
On the other hand, you shouldn’t try new foods, sleep habits, or training techniques right before a competition. By fine-tuning these elements and developing a familiar routine, you can give yourself an edge over your competitors when it counts and elevate your game (not practice).
If you’re looking for that extra edge that will allow you to lift one more rep or maintain your pace near the end of a tough workout, consider the latest research from psychologist Richard Stephens of Keele University in Britain. After hitting his thumb with a hammer, Stephens let loose with a string of expletives—a common enough occurrence, but one that left him wondering why humans have this nearly universal habit of “cathartic swearing.”
For decades, exercise physiology has struggled to pin down the limits of physical performance by studying the heart, lungs, and muscles of athletes. New experiments show that the brain plays a fundamental and often surprising role. And it also works the other way around: exercise shapes your brain, stimulates growth, and enhances memory and cognition—and some types of exercise are better than others.
One of the hottest controversies in current sports nutrition was sparked by an unusual Danish study published in 2005. Volunteers performed a 10-week training program in which they exercised one leg every day and exercised the other leg twice as much every second day. That meant that the leg trained every other day did half of its workouts in a highly fatigued state, having been depleted of glycogen by the first half of the workout. By the end of the study, this leg had developed significantly greater endurance, giving rise to a new concept that was soon dubbed “train low, compete high,” in which athletes seek to do part of their training when their energy stores are greatly depleted (“training low”) so that they’ll perform even better when they’re fully fueled (“competing high”).
Every year when cold and flu season hits, sales of orange juice soar as people seek the protection of vitamin C. Faith in the power of antioxidants is deeply entrenched. But over the past few years, a series of vast studies involving hundreds of thousands of subjects has failed to find any health benefits from antioxidant supplements. Now, another group of studies suggests that popping these pills may even block some of the benefits of exercise and slow down post-workout muscle recovery.
It’s the first lesson you learn about exercising in the heat: if you don’t drink enough, you’ll get dehydrated, and that will force you to slow down. By the time you feel thirsty, we’re told, it’s already too late.The goal was to drink as much water as possible without going to the bathroom, with the winner earning a Nintendo Wii. Strange’s death was blamed on a condition called hyponatremia, sometimes known as water intoxication.
It’s always nice when science tells you what you want to hear. That’s why several studies in the past few years touting low-fat chocolate milk as a perfect post-workout elixir have been greeted so enthusiastically. Chocolate milk is convenient, cheap, and tasty, so what’s not to like? But you have to be cautious when you take research done on competitive athletes and try to apply the results to casual exercisers.
There’s plenty of competing information on how to fuel up before and during exercise, how to refuel afterwards, and whether dehydration is really such a bad thing. No discussion of sports nutrition is complete without a look at some of the powders and pills that claim to (legally) enhance physical performance. Despite hundreds of scientific studies, there’s little evidence to back up the claims made by most supplements. But there is some interesting research emerging regarding supplements like vitamin D and probiotics, which makes them worthy of a closer look.
In recent years, scientists have identified a set of hormones that control eating behavior. A German study in 2008 showed that even a single night of shortened sleep raises levels of ghrelin, explaining why you often crave snacks when you’re tired. Similarly, just two nights of short sleep cause a drop in the fullness hormone, leptin. The same is true if you consistently get even an hour or two less sleep than you need. So it’s not surprising that studies have found a direct correlation between how many hours of sleep you get and how thin you are.