A minimalist approach to training

Some jog some get off the bike

Some jog some get off the bike

Lack of time is the most overused reason for not exercising. This is deep-seated on the belief that no benefit can be achieved without a serious time commitment to exercise on daily basis, exactly the excuse we are looking for to stay on the couch.

‘Myths are beliefs that people adopt because they have an air of plausibility and are at least consistent with some pieces of evidence’.

Jogging and endless treadmill wanderings are thought as the way to go to stay healthy. Personally I can’t stand either.

Really we have to exercise for so long?

The answer lies in the nature of exercise itself, which is a stimulus that acts to generate an effect, just like a drug. As suggested by Dr Doug McGuff: ‘For exercise or a medicine to produce the desired effect there has to be an optimal concentration, dosage and dosing frequency’.

In exercise terms, concentration is the intensity, dosage the duration of exercise and dosing frequency represents the number of sessions per week. These parameters should be manipulated to induce a stimulus that triggers a training adaptation.

Also like drugs there is a ‘Narrow therapeutic window’ that represents the borders of the training stimulus. This means that a stimulus that lies within the interval of the window produces a positive adaptation while on the other hand crossing the border with too high or too low a stimulus may lead to undesired results, such as lack of progress or overtraining (and training more does not mean improving more, as I often try to persuade my friend..).

In a quest to minimise exercise dosage the group led by Gibala at McMaster University investigated the effects of repeated sprint intervals of very short duration on metabolism; they designed a training program consisting in 4/6 30s ‘all out’ sprints per session with 4.5 min of rest in between to be performed 3 times a week.

They found that only 6 sessions of this protocol were sufficient to improve endurance and promote an increased activity of the master regulator of mitochondrial biogenesis  PGC-1a meaning an increased skeletal muscle oxidative capacity.

These findings suggest that this minimal training program consisting of mainly anaerobic exercise produced an alteration of the metabolic state, in fact improved insulin sensitivity was also found. Similar studies found also significant decreases in blood pressure, increased resting fat oxidation and improved fitness VO2 max, probably the most comprehensive marker of health.

Could we do even less?

A recent study performed by Metcalfe et al at the University of Edinburgh paves the way for an even more minimalistic approach to training. This group designed their protocol considering that exercise benefits may be driven by the depletion of glycogen, one of the predominant energy stores in muscles utilised during exercise.

Glycogen breakdown is markedly reduced after the first 15s of the sprint and it tends to be inhibited in the following sprints. These observations suggested that the original repeated sprints protocol of Gibala et al exceeds the stimulus necessary to induce glycogen depletion, crossing the upper border of the ‘therapeutic window’. –So, exercise strain could have been reduced while maintaining potential for improving health.

The results:

Only 2 sprints per session lasting 10 to 20s for a total of 10 minutes of exercise including warm up and rest intervals performed 3 times a week were sufficient to produce an improvement in insulin resistance and VO2 max in sedentary but healthy subjects over a period of six weeks.

The other important feature of the study was the use of rate of perceived exertion (RPE), a scale used to understand exercise strain and the degree of fatigue experienced. Mean RPE found was 13, indicating an effort of ‘somewhat hard’ magnitude, equivalent of that found in prolonged cycling of intermediate intensity, suggesting that this workout is not even hard!

Could we do even fewer sessions per week?  Some of the effects of exercise on metabolism are acute, they depend on the last bout of exercise, for instance the exercise effect of reducing blood triglycerides lasts only about 24 hours after your workout, meaning that you could be even an Olympian but you need to be active often if you want to keep triglycerides low.

Reducing the sessions to less than 3 a week may not guarantee these benefits throughout the whole week. Only future research can tell if we could reduce the workouts to only twice (or once?).

There is increasing evidence that minimalist training can stimulate health benefits, especially by promoting metabolic adaptations, doing so with a total amount of 30 min a week (or less?) of exercise including breaks and warm up and with a moderate physical strain. This is evidently standing out when compared to the 150 min of moderate exercise per week advocated by present health guidelines. Would be at this point reasonable to change the guidelines towards a ‘time efficient’ model that takes into account the overwhelming time-consuming commitments that characterise our present society?

Lastly, this approach to exercise would have to defeat sceptical mind-sets among both the general population and the health experts before imposing itself as the new paradigm for well-being.




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6 Responses to A minimalist approach to training

  1. The guidelines are 150 minuntes per week of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise. However, as exercise is medicine, it should be more personalized and prescription should be developed more carefully by GPs and other health care professionals. We all have different physical activity, exercise and health needs and thus a change in these guidelines should be towards a more personalized model which can include a more “time efficient” facet depending on the person’s/patient’s time-consuming commitments and everyday life.
    I enjoyed reading your post 🙂 Well done!

  2. Andy says:

    Fabio, right? Good post with some great science. I periodically scan the web to see what others are doing in their minimalist approaches and found your post from your comment on Tim ferris’s blog. Have you thoughts or heard of research on minimalist approaches geared more towards athletic performance rather than general well being? I’ve just lowered my own weekly training to 1 hr a week,3 x 10 min sessions and one 30 minute session. But rather than general fitness, I hope to do some very hard races including ultramarathons, IM triathlon, and others. Current plan is 5 or 6 big events in 2013 starting with the arrowhead135 bike race in late January. I’ve got detailed training record going back 4 years or so, during which time I’ve kept at or below 3 hrs/week. In my estimation there is a much overlooked mental component for endurance performance. You can check out my writings if you are interested…www.threehoursaweek.blogspot.com

    Keep up the good work, andy

    • Thanks Andy!
      Actually the only performance oriented minimal approach I read about was not aimed at the kind of endurance events you are talking about (J Physiol 586.1 (2008) pp 151–160). Is there lots of material supporting the preparation to IM-like events with minimal training (even research studies)? I gave a look at your blog, like the style and passion. As I understand you are suggesting that minimal training is enough to give the body the necessary physiological adaptation for the event. That’s very interesting indeed. How do you prepare mentally?
      This topic is very cool, like to know more of minimalist ultraendurance-rs train

      • andy magness says:

        There is virtually no material (that i can find anyway) other than my and other n=1 experiments. My theory is that using HIIT methods like Tabata intervals, etc, one an achieve some reasonable level of ones fitness potential (and as you noted, there is ample evidence to support this in terms of VO2 max gains, time to exhaustion gains in trained cyclists, etc – and these studies have been done on both experienced and recreational athletes). Long endurance events are suffer fests anyway, and so i think (and have found personally) that the levels of fitness attainable on low volume/high intensity approaches are sufficient, given the proper mental confidence/ability to suffer to, to complete even super tough events.

        Lots of people are critical of these ideas because they think it’s a shortcut or something – i think anything but. I don’t perform at my absolute potential (but does anyone really?) and my workout schedule, even though low in volume, is very very tough mentally as required to get maximum ROI from my training. As for mentally? my path came through climbing and mountaineering – i have a history in these pursuits that often put me in dire situations where i had no easy way out (or way out at all). When you’re exhausted, out of food and water, and 10 miles of talus field hiking with an 75 pound pack away from your car on the 4th day of an expedition, you learn quickly how to over-ride that voice in your head that is telling you to stop immediately. And that serves me well on a 60 mile run or 4 day adventure race when i start hurting. But for people without this background that want to try a similar approach, i recommend just using the events/races themselves as a crucible for learning – get in the middle of your first ultra and deep in the pain cave, figure out what it feels like, and then try to make it out the other side. There are bound to be failures along the way, but over time (and many attempts), the mental lessons will be learned in this fashion just as they would be through massive and huge training days. And lets be honest, training days never completely prepare you for the pain of the event – you don’t run an IM to prepare for one, after all.

        Finally, not sure how many minimalist endurance folks there are – for most people minimalist for something like IM means 10 hours a week as compared to 20, or 25-30 miles a week for marathon training vs 40-50. compare this to my 1 hour of training with an average running week of only 3 miles (1.5 miles 2 weeks, then 6 miles the third week), on which i think i could run a 3:30 marathon and you get the picture. again, most people would think that this is due to natural ability or something – but it’s not. it’s (very) hard work for brief periods, lots of recovery, and the mindset to keep pushing when it is no longer any fun. Sorry for the long post – as you mentioned, i’m pretty passionate about the subject! here’s a cool post i wrote about a ‘RadioLab’ show on limits and the central governor theory of the mental side of things that you might find interesting – you can listen to the podcast – just fascinating: http://www.threehoursaweek.blogspot.com/2012/09/limits-radiolab-confirms-existence-of.html



  3. Pingback: BBC Horizon show support to minimalistic training | bodyhackonversation

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