Speed isn't just made in the gym. Shift your mindset, nutrition, recovery and sleep habits into high gear so you can get fast ... fast.
There's a thrill that comes with speed. It gets your heart thumping and adrenaline pumping. But getting faster—whether that's in the gym, on your weekly runs or during a casual basketball or football game—also has real physical and psychological benefits.
First and foremost, picking up the pace increases the intensity of whatever you're doing. And the more intense whatever "it" is, the harder your lungs and muscles have to work, which is a sure-fire way to boost your cardiovascular and muscular fitness. But the mental effects could be even more significant. "When you always go at the same pace, whatever you're doing can get stale really fast, which makes you more likely to stop doing it", says Angie Fifer, PhD, a certified mental-performance consultant for Breakthrough Performance Consulting in Philadelphia. "But when you push yourself to go faster, and you do, you see what you're capable of, and that can make you want to do it again and again".
"When you always go at the same pace, whatever you're doing can get stale really fast, which makes you more likely to stop doing it".
PhD, Certified Mental-Performance Consultant for Breakthrough Performance Consulting in Philadelphia
If you feel a need for speed, training can make you faster, of course. But there's a lot you can do outside the gym to fuel your forward progress too. Here's where experts say to start.
Target Your Mind
When you're slogging away on a long bike ride, run or swim, it's easy to let your attention drift. But for workouts that require getting from point A to point B, narrowing your attention to a focal point could get you there quicker. People who zeroed in on the finishing line instead of looking around moved 23 percent faster, according to research published in the journal "Motivation and Emotion". Focusing also lowered their rate of perceived exertion (RPE), or how hard they thought they were working, which can make flooring it feel less exhausting.
Your focal point doesn't have to be an actual finishing line, says Fifer. You could pick a street sign or tree to run to, then do that over and over again. You could even apply the practice to HIIT intervals, focusing on, say, a unique pattern in the wood floor in front of you during mountain climbers. Either way, a visual target can bring your attention back to what you're doing in the moment and remind you to be intentional instead of spacing out, explains Fifer. This mindset can help you keep your figurative foot on the accelerator pedal.
Strategise Your Snack
There's no magic food that can make you faster (bummer, we know). But eating a combo of protein and carbs, like a hard-boiled egg and a piece of fruit, within the hour before your run, workout or game packs a one-two performance punch. "The protein helps stabilise your blood sugar levels and prevent unwanted muscle damage, while the carbs provide easily accessible fuel, so you aren't running on empty or on yesterday's glycogen stores, which aren't as efficient", says Ryan Maciel, RD, the head performance-nutrition coach for Precision Nutrition. The pair can help you feel more energised to turbo-charge your speed and better equipped to maintain it.
Drinks can be equally vital. Take coffee or tea: "Caffeine stimulates your brain, so you're more mentally alert and can run faster. And some studies show that caffeine causes a reduction in your RPE", says Maciel. In fact, consuming caffeine helped well-trained recreational runners run 1 percent faster during a 5K time trial, found a study published in the "Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport". That's no small thing in a sport where every second counts. Maciel recommends sipping 1.5 milligrams per pound of bodyweight an hour before you head out (for a 68kg athlete, that would translate to 225 milligrams of caffeine, or around two cups of coffee).
Not a caffeine fiend? Try a shot of beetroot juice: Runners who did so cut 1.5 percent off their 5K race times, found one study, and another small study suggests that drinking beetroot juice for seven days straight pre-race could lead to faster sprint times. Beetroot juice is rich in nitrates, explains Maciel, which "research shows can increase blood flow, improve lung function and strengthen muscle contractions", all of which are crucial elements for speed.
Fire Up Your Recovery
Here's a case where doing nearly nothing can boost your performance. Immersing yourself in 39-degree water for 30 minutes three days a week after moderate-intensity workouts can improve your VO2 max, according to a new study from researchers at Western Colorado University. (For reference, the water coming out of the average home tap should reach about 49 to 60 degrees if you turn the knob all the way to the left.) That increase would make it easier for the body to transport and use oxygen during exercise, allowing you to work harder with less effort.
The reason: Heat increases the mass of red blood cells, which carry oxygen, explains Chris Minson, PhD, a professor of human physiology at the University of Oregon. Heat also causes your body to activate heat shock proteins, which ultimately make it easier for that oxygen to hit your muscles so you can get hauling.
Schedule Your Sleep
Last but far from least: sleep. Without a good night's rest, everything else you do at the gym doesn't have a leg to stand on, says W. Chris Winter, MD, a sleep specialist and the author of "The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep Is Broken and How to Fix It". That's because crappy or skimpy sleep significantly affects metabolism, particularly the type that helps build your muscles.
As an athlete, though, you might need more sleep than the recommended seven to nine hours. After basketball players extended their total sleep time to a minimum of 10 hours each night for five to seven weeks, they saw faster sprints, according to a small study published in "Sleep". It may be worth experimenting with a consistently earlier bedtime for two to three weeks to see whether your time improves. If you have trouble tucking in early, Winter recommends setting a bedtime alarm, just like you set a morning one.
Putting It All Together
By focusing on just one of these elements on a regular basis, you can set yourself up for a speedier performance. But work on all of them together along with your focused training sessions? You'll fly.