4×4: Four athletic benefits of training in four harsh environments

The world is a varied place and you’re not always going to be asked to perform at an athletic level in the best conditions. Sure, you can deadlift 500 lbs in the gym (with your back brace, knee sleeves, special shoes & flat-ground), but what can you do out in the middle of nowhere without any of that stuff? A 20 mile run on a treadmill is different from a 20 mile run outside in the cold. The harsh environment can hurt your performance, but training in them can improve it!

1. Water

From water aerobics to swimming, training in the water includes any activity where you are mostly (or totally) submerged. The benefits of training in water include…

  • Low impact – since water supports so much of your body weight (about 90%), the stress to your joints and connective tissues is much less than exercising in air
  • Built in Resistance – water is a pretty awesome substance that resists your movement proportional to effort put in. You can add anywhere from 2 to 42 times the resistance than in air by moving faster or slower.
  • More Efficient Blood Flow –  since water presses evenly on the whole body, the return of blood to the heart is helped by outside pressure, allowing your heart rate to stay lower and more efficient compared to out of the water, even at similar workout intensity.
  • Quicker Return to Exercise – sometimes you get injured, and water exercise lets you get back to working out sooner. The lessened joint stress and easily modified resistance helps you work at an appropriate intensity to your rate of healing.

2. Heat

Humans tend to adapt to the heat very quickly and pretty efficiently, probably owing to the fact that we don’t have many natural environmental ways of cooling off past a certain point. For training at higher heats, you need to workout around 100 degrees Farenheit to see a reasonable increase in core body temperature. What can you expect?

  • Improves Heat Tolerance – simply put, when you workout in the heat you get better at surviving in the heat
  • Increase Blood Volume – to help with cooling and oxygenation, your body starts to naturally increase the volume of blood in your body
  • Increase Vasculature – your body actually begins to open more capillaries and improve overall blood flow, improving your ability to cool your body and circulate blood
  • Increase in Heat Shock Protein – When you exercise and increase body temperature, your body produces more heat shock proteins, which are families of proteins that do things like preventing other proteins from damage by infection, ultraviolet light, starvation, heat, cold, and other harsh conditions.

3. Cold

A quick note here: the human body doesn’t adapt as well to the cold as it does to the heat. You need to be exceedingly careful when training in the cold to not push yourself too hard or with inappropriate clothing. Cold training starts below a temperature of about 40 degrees Farenheit. The benefits of cold training are…

  • Better Temperature Regulation – in the cold, your body can regulate its temperature a little better, meaning you can often exercise farther or longer, so you can burn more calories.
  • Higher Resting Metabolism – you burn more calories in the cold than in higher temperatures, but this benefit is only slight overall.
  • Stronger Circulatory System – cold helps make your heart, lungs and circulatory system stronger since other metabolic processes that require blood and oxygen are also working harder.
  • Be Less SAD – working out in the winter can help fight Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which impacts 10-20% of people as the colder months hit. Exercise helps fight this tendency in most sufferers.

4. High Altitude

Training at higher altitudes has some benefits, but only to a point. The typical altitudes used are around 2,000 to 2,500 meters. This reduces the risk of some of the unhelpful effects of altitude exposure.

  • Increase in Red Blood Cell Volume – to compensate for the decrease in oxygen, one of the body’s hormones, erythropoietin (EPO), triggers the production of more red blood cells to aid in oxygen delivery to the muscles.
  • Oxygen Efficiency Improvement – since your body isn’t getting as much oxygen as normal, it gets better at using what it does have available.
  • Cardiac Output Increased – one of the ways the body adapts to decreased oxygen availability, is by increasing the total blood volume being moved every time the heart pumps.
  • Sympathetic Nervous System Stimulation – an increase in resting metabolic rate, a shift away from glycogen toward free fatty acids as primary energy sources, and bone marrow stimulation to increase red cell production.