I want to outline and explain a few things that dramatically improved my performance in training and ultimately in competition at the 2017 World’s Strongest Man u90kg competition. These changes were lifestyle and diet based, and for their relatively minor investments they could be considered force multipliers with how much of an impact they had. To take full advantage of these tips, I am going to assume you are already training hard a few times a week, eating enough calories to support your training goals, and getting between seven to eight hours of sleep most nights. There is no sense in looking for the magic pill or a cool tip or trick if those basic training, diet, and sleep needs aren’t being met. Nothing will give you a greater return on investment than properly balancing training, diet, and sleep. With that being said, these are the three changes I made that allowed me to improve my performance and place top three at WSM U90kg last December.
1) Eating for gut health.
Eating for gut health will improve digestive health, strengthen the immune system, promotes better cognitive function, and improves hormonal balance. Eating to support a healthy gut is a lot simpler than most people think. First and foremost, eat a diverse array of foods that provide fiber and a lot of micronutrients, such as kale, spinach, broccoli, carrots, peppers, oranges, and berries. The gut biome thrives with a more diverse diet because there are between 500 and 1000 species of bacteria living in the human gut and they each have different micronutrients and types of fiber that they need to survive. Second to eating a wide variety of foods that provide fiber, incorporate foods with live probiotic cultures, such as kefir, certain types of yogurt, kombucha, and kimchi, and foods with prebiotic enzymes, like apple cider vinegar. Consuming live probiotic cultures will help the gut bacteria maintain a better balance between the “good” bacteria and the “bad” bacteria in the gut. Diets high in processed sugar and low in fiber have been shown to dramatically increase the amount of “bad” bacteria in the gut. The “good” bacteria are responsible for all the positive benefits attributed to eating for better gut health, so trying to keep the amount of “good” bacteria as high as possible while limiting the “bad” bacteria’s growth will yield the greatest improvements in health.
I implemented some very basic changes to my diet that contributed to improved digestion, improved energy and memory, and a better overall mood. I added a little apple cider vinegar to a glass of water in the morning, ate one to two servings of in-season fruit each day, drank a cup of Kombucha before dinner, ate Greek yogurt two to three times a week, and I ate as many green, leafy vegetables as my appetite allowed. I worked the Greek yogurt and fruit into my kcal allotment for the day based on energy needs, but other than that there was no significant impact on daily caloric intake. For example, a cup of Kombucha has only 30 calories, spinach and broccoli aren’t exactly known for their abundance of energy, and apple cider vinegar has no calories. I ate at or below typical maintenance kcals for my body weight the last nine or ten weeks before WSM U90kg, and I had to bring them down even lower than I normally would to lose weight. I believe that was either totally, or at least in part, due to actively eating for a more robust gut biome. For a practical example of the applicability to performance this could have, think about the gut for a moment. This is the area of the human body that nutrient absorption from your food takes place. If your gut bacteria are out of balance and unhealthy, how much of the energy, amino acids, vitamins, and minerals from your diet are you really going to be getting? You might be getting most of what you put into your body…but if you could get even a few percent more from the foods you are already eating by adding a relatively insignificant amount of calories to your daily intake (remember, Kombucha has a whopping 30 kcals per cup), would you consider making the dietary change? I was breaking down and utilizing more of the macronutrients and micronutrients that I was getting from the same foods and amounts of said foods due to the improved gut bacteria. I also had less bloating and stomach distention after a meal within three weeks of actively eating for gut health.
2) Only using stimulants before training.
This one was the single best change for improved training performance and simultaneously the worst for quality of life outside the gym. I, like many people, have become addicted to daily caffeine use via coffee consumption. It took a period of ten days to wean myself from using 300mg+ of caffeine from coffee daily. A taper was used to prevent headaches and moodiness that I have personally experienced in the past when drastically limiting my caffeine abruptly. I gradually lowered my coffee consumption over five days and switched to black tea before limiting my caffeine intake to only pre-training. By pre-training I mean strength work explicitly, which I only did three times a week from eight weeks out of the competition. I did two or three moderate to hard conditioning sessions each week to maintain work capacity, but I did not use caffeine before these workouts.
To make this work, I had to switch to drinking decaffeinated coffee on days I didn’t train. I love the taste of coffee too much to go without it entirely. Finding a good decaf blend was no easy feat, but Costco came through perfectly with their decaf house blend. I used 400-600mg of caffeine pre-training and I found it to be way more effective due to my drastically lowered tolerance from abstaining on days I didn’t lift. While this lifestyle change wasn’t easy, it resulted in a string of the most consistently good training sessions I’ve ever had when I needed training to be perfect. Admittedly, after WSM U90kg I reverted back to my old ways of drinking caffeinated coffee daily.
3) Setting a routine that prioritizes good sleep hygiene.
This took some discipline to implement, but not nearly as much as tapering off caffeine. I was getting between six to eight hours of sleep most nights before making these changes. I knew by the numbers I was getting enough sleep, but I still felt there were nights that I would toss and turn or mornings I would wake up and feel tired and sluggish. Once I made getting optimal sleep a higher priority, my recovery between training sessions and the progress I was making in training drastically improved.
Think of good sleep hygiene as healthy habits around bedtime and during sleep hours. To positively affect your performance, your daily habits before going to sleep and the environment you are in during sleep hours must be optimal. Let’s start with pre-sleep routines. The most important habits you can start setting to influence a better night’s sleep are turning off or dimming the lights an hour to two hours before going to bed, limiting screen time (cell phone, tablet, or television etc.) to no later than an hour to ninety minutes before bed, and going to bed at roughly the same time every night. Dimming the lights, or limiting the light source in the room, and limiting screen time before bed will naturally improve melatonin levels around bedtime. Melatonin is a hormone that is produced by the pineal gland to help regulate sleep and wakefulness. When melatonin is high, you can expect to be tired and naturally fall asleep much easier. When melatonin is low, you will notice you are less tired and will experience a longer time between lying down for bed and falling asleep. Going to bed at roughly the same time each night will support a more regular circadian rhythm by taking advantage of the increase in melatonin.
Now that you are settling down at a decent time, and you’ve limited screen use before bed, let’s set the environment for a good night’s sleep. Keeping the bedroom dark and cool are paramount for supporting deeper sleep. If you don’t have blackout curtains and you can’t afford to run the air conditioner at 65 degrees all night, don’t worry. I have affordable solutions. You can purchase a sleep mask from Amazon for less than $10, run a ceiling or box fan all night, and use just a top sheet instead of sheets and a heavy blanket to keep your body temperature down without running the A/C all night. The darker and cooler you keep your bedroom, the longer and deeper your sleep will be.
Finally, let’s go over a few things you can do during your wakeful hours to set yourself up for another optimal night of rest and recovery. First, try waking up at roughly the same time each day. This is easy for most people during the weekdays because of work schedules, but just about everyone I know likes to throw a wrench in their sleep routine on the weekends by sleeping in an extra hour or more. This isn’t a huge issue if you aren’t pushing back your bedtime on the weekends along with sleeping in. Natural circadian rhythms can fluctuate a little to the left or right but try not to drastically change your weekly routine from your weekend routine. This can be hard for some people because of social events on the weekends and going out with friends etc. I get that, but there is a time and a place for going out and building relationships with friends and prioritizing that before major competitions will not yield the results you want. Think back to any weekend where you threw your weekly sleep pattern off by a few hours. How long did it take for you to get back into a normal routine and finally feel well rested again after the weekend? Tuesday? Wednesday maybe? The constant back and forth between weekday sleep habits and weekend changes makes it very hard to support a regular circadian rhythm. Be cognizant of how you are spending your time on the weekends and the potential negative impact it could be having on your sleep and recovery from training.
Another daytime life hack for getting optimal sleep is to limit caffeine or stimulant use to no closer than five hours before sleep. This can be hard to do if you are taking my advice from the second tip and you train in the evenings due to time constraints. I have a simple solution if this applies to you: take your caffeine a few hours before your evening training session and try to line up the half life of the amount of caffeine to be no greater than 100mg before bedtime. The half-life of caffeine is between five and seven hours for most people. For example, if you are training at 7:30pm and you plan to be in bed by 11:30pm, take your normal 300mg of caffeine at 4:30pm. The 300mg would be metabolized to 150mg by 9:30pm, and down to around 100mg or less by 11:30pm. Taking caffeine a few hours before training will still allow you to reap the stimulant benefits of the supplement during training while giving the body enough time to metabolize it before bedtime. On the “good, better, best” scale, this would be a good option for most people who train in the evenings. Another supplement to add to your pre-training routine, if you are nocturnal lifter, is Alpha-GPC. This supplement is a choline precursor that research has shown can improve memory and power output. Anecdotally, I have taken Alpha-GPC and can attest to its unique ability to improve focus and mental drive similarly to caffeine, without the negative effects of taking a stimulant too close to bedtime. The Alpha-GPC product I used was $17 on Amazon, so again, not really an unaffordable option for most people who need a little bump before training. You can also use Alpha-GPC with caffeine and get away with using around half the amount of caffeine. The mental focus would be roughly the same as your normal dose of caffeine, in my experience.
We often confuse simple with easy. While these changes are relatively simple and affordable, making a lifestyle change is never easy. The good news is that the hardest part with making any of these changes is initially taking action and starting. Each day will become easier and smoother, requiring less and less attention, until the new actions become daily habits.