Fitness: when less is more

Is it too good to be true? Can small but frequent doses of fitness training really give you as much benefit, if not more, than hours and hours of training?

Or is this like the magical diet that guarantees maximum weight loss with minimum effort? You know the one - where all you need to do is purchase the pill, the potion, the bottle or the lotion and bam, your unwanted kilos just melt away!

There are two reasons why I am interested in this topic.

1. My job. I am always looking for ways to help busy executives squeeze fitness training into their schedules.

2. Holt. Four months ago Shagger and I rode with another mate of ours, Holt, on a Sunday morning and, in technical terms, Shagger and I completely drilled him. Then, when we rode with Holt two months later, he ‘drilled’ us.

Keen to find out how he did it, I asked Holt what he’d been up to for the last few months. He shrugged and said that he wasn’t doing anything extra apart from riding the 25-minutes to and from work most days.  That’s the only change he made.

It got me wondering about what this 25-minute ride was actually doing to Holt’s physiology. Or was he also doing some ‘secret training’ on the side? In my quest to learn more about fitness micro-doses I spoke to two leading fitness experts and I did some of research of my own … Okay, admittedly I was also secretly trying to find out how to claw back some much needed time on Holt, and on Shagger too.

Expert 1: The Physiological Freak

First up on my fact-finding mission was a chat with Blair Martin, a physiotherapist and the owner of The Body Mechanic. Blair is a former world cross country representative, NSW road cycling champion and Australian triathlon champion. Yes, basically the man is a physiological freak!

Mining Blair’s wealth of knowledge, I asked him where he thought micro-doses fits into the exercise physiology landscape. “Micro-dosing exercise (a small amount of stress applied frequently, regularly and across a prolonged period of time) will allow the body to make gains without injuring tissue” Blair said. Blair is an active micro-doser himself. As a busy dad, husband and business owner he couldn’t afford to spend the over 20-hours each week he previously tallied as an elite athlete. He now micro-doses to keep fit and stay healthy. “My two training rides each week, the 16 minute commute to and from work each day plus a couple of short runs pushing my daughter in the pram allows me to maintain my fitness and forms the basis of my fitness regime”.

Expert 2: Mark Webber’s Physiologist

Next up, I chatted with Dr Simon Sostaric. Simon is a leading exercise physiologist and the founder of Melbourne Sports & Allied Health Clinic. He works with Olympic athletes, the Geelong AFL football club and is retained by Red Bull Formula One driver Mark Webber.

Simon revealed that he has been using micro-dosing, or low volume-high intensity interval training (HIIT), which is the technical term, with his clients for years.

“We are finding significant performance improvements in endurance runners and triathletes when training induced energy output is matched by reducing the training volume and increasing intensity. Marked cardiovascular, metabolic, skeletal muscle enzymes, hormonal and thermoregulatory adaptations have been well documented using this type of training with elite athletes” Simon said.

HIIT has been popularised during the past decade in non-athlete healthy and diseased populations. “In our clinic we encourage patients to focus on fitness rather than fatness. Strategically planned HIIT requires less time than traditional low-moderate intensity plans and we find our clients are more compliant with exercise long-term”.

“Less is more,” Simon confirms. “But it’s important to seek professional advice”.

Expert 3: My own research

A study by professor Martin Gibala from McMaster University in Canada highlighted “doing 10 x one-minute bursts of intense activity on an exercise bike, interspersed with one-minute rest periods, three times a week, works as well as many hours of conventional long-term biking performed at a less strenuous pace”. Professor Gibala concluded to achieve equivalent results using traditional endurance training would require more than 10-hours of moderate-intensity cycling over a two-week period.

I’ve worked out the maths for you – the micro session is 20-minutes in full duration, three times a week this is 60-minutes. Give or take 5 to 10-minutes for a warm up and warm down, let’s say this is still only 90+ minutes over one week, or three + hours over a fortnight. Total saving = 7 hours over a 2-week period.

There is still some argument as to why micro-dosing is so effective, but the message is loud and clear - the excuse of only having a small amount of time to exercise is no longer viable.

As for Holt, he assures me he is not doing any secret training. Just “smashing myself on the bike to and from work at least three or four days a week as well as a steady Sunday morning ride”.

Six tips to load up on fitness micro-doses

1. Build a base. Before trying high intensity interval training spend two to three months building a solid fitness base to avoid risk of injury and to condition your cardiovascular system

2. High intensity. Use the rate of perceived exertion scale (RPE) and grade your intensity to reach a 7-8 out of 10 for each session. In other words, go hard

3. Build it into your life. Like Blair and Holt, try to use fitness training as a way of travelling to work. Much better to have a 20-minute blast to and from work on your bike than getting stressed out sitting in the traffic

4. Work: rest ratios. To start with make the interval:recovery ratio 1:1. Meaning 1-minute hard, 1-minute recovery. As you get fitter you can make the intervals longer and the recoveries shorter

5. Get some friends. Doing high intensity sessions is much more fun (for want of a better word) when you do it with other people. Grab some colleagues at work or lock in some friends to dose up on high intensity fitness

6. Bonus tip for blokes with egos: try and find some friends who are ‘less fit’ than you. I think I might just have to pretend to miss all of Holt’s, Shagger’s, Gareth’s and Jared’s calls and texts asking me out on future rides. Sorry guys!

How do you use fitness micro doses to keep you fit and maximise your training time, or lack of?