The Seven Pillars of Athletic Performance:
Efficiency in Action (2009 edition)
By Chris Kostman
Originally published as a two-part series in Endurance News, #63, May 2009 and Endurance News #64, July 2009. Download EN#63 here (52 pages; 2.3MB) and download EN#64 (56 pages; 2.6MB) here.
View this article on the Hammer Nutrition website: Part One | Part Two.
An earlier version of this article was published in Ultra Cycling, July 1996, and Fitness Plus, November 1996. Click here for that version.
*Note: I present a three-hour interactive indoor cycling workshop based on this system. Click for the workshop info or here for the workshop worksheet.
Life on the endurance path has taken me around the planet and into many universes over the last 27 years. Competing in 3,000 mile cross-country bicycle races, 100 mile snowshoe races through the Alaskan wilderness, France's 48 hour Triple Ironman triathlon, I've covered a lot of ground. I also scuba dive in underground caves and deep wrecks and have led or participated in many, many expeditions into terra incognita.
The primary assets I’ve used on my quest over all these years are DESIRE and EFFICIENCY.
If you have the desire to live on the endurance path, this article will teach you efficiency, a character trait and process which should be your primary focus. With desire and efficiency in your metaphorical quiver, the world is yours.
My emphasis on the universal principles which transcend the barriers between "different" sports and between sport and "real life" has enabled me to become efficient and proficient at a multiplicity of pursuits. I may have spent eighty percent of my training time on a bicycle, but when I venture into other athletic worlds, I become an outdoor athlete and multisport savant because of this approach. You can, too.
This system, the Seven Pillars of Athletic Performance, is applicable to essentially every form of athletic discipline, whether in training or during competition. In this article I demonstrate its usage in many of the most common sporting endeavours: cycling, indoor cycling (also known as Spinning), skiing, swimming, martial arts, strength training, and the foot sports, running, snowshoeing, and hiking.
Here are the seven pillars of athletic performance:
- Heart Rate
Think of these pillars as the seven core components of athleticism in action. These components are what you're actually doing during your athletic experience, rather than as you prepare for athletics. In other words, what I discuss here is athletics, whereas visualization, massage therapy, a healthy day-to-day diet, a good night's rest, and the like are preparation for athletics.
In the ideal athletic pursuit, you will maintain all seven pillars at maximum efficiency in order to achieve the desired outcome, whatever that may be. In the real world, however, you'll find that you will place your emphasis on just a few of these pillars at any given moment. In so doing, your focus on the specific few pillars will "pick up the slack" for the other pillars. The net result is increased efficiency, which equals a faster, stronger, better, and higher performance athletic experience. Here's how it works:
Postural integrity is perhaps the key component in the meaningful enjoyment of long-term health and fitness, but postural awareness is also a tool for increasing efficiency during athletics. Attention to proper posture can aid in delivering more meaningful and useful performances or allow variety in the way muscles are used. This, in turn, extends endurance, builds more muscles, or otherwise increases efficiency. Additionally, attention to posture allows one to reduce undue stress in parts of the body which are not specifically or primarily in use at that moment. For example, removing unnecessary tension from the upper body allows more energy to be diverted to the lower body. Here are some sport-specific examples which highlight the importance of posture and the benefits to be gained from particular attention to posture:
- Cycling: This is the most biomechanical sport of all, so posture is key to properly harnessing the necessary muscles, avoiding cramps and tightness, and staying fluid and smooth on the bike. Proper posture is also critical for aerodynamic slipperiness.
- Indoor cycling: Indoors, posture can also allow the upper body, back, arms, and abdomen to be cultivated during the workout, making the experience much more of an all-body workout than its outdoor cousin.
- Skiing: Posture keeps you upright on the boards, more aerodynamic, loose enough to soak up the bumps, and comfortable enough to put in dozens of runs in a day without pain or debilitating fatigue.
- Swimming: Hydrodynamic slipperiness is "free speed," so proper posture is key to fast and efficient swimming with no additional energy cost.
- Martial arts: Delivering and receiving powerful movements is rooted, literally, in proper stance, core integrity, and kinesthetic awareness of your body and how it's working.
- Strength training: Posture is critical, of course, to safe strength training, but is also useful for developing subtle variations on different movements in order to tweak the most gains from the workout.
- Foot sports: Postural awareness keeps your feet light on the ground with as little impact on the body as possible and preserves joints, muscles, and bones over the miles. Posture can also improve traction and footing, and help to minimize overall fatigue.
Breath brings energy, in the form of oxygen, into your body (not to mention prana, but that’s another article). Efficient transport of oxygen to your muscles requires an excellent and consistent supply of the oxygen. The more oxygen you can deliver to your muscles, the more work you will be able to perform with those muscles. A byproduct of cardiovascular training is increased cardiovascular efficiency, but what I'm talking about is the use of specific breathing techniques - or attention to breath - in order to immediately affect efficiency during the actual performance.
One of the most startling physiological experiences of my life took place during the Race Across America in 1988. I was climbing Berthoud Pass (elevation 11,307 feet) in Colorado on day four of the race. Considering the grade, high altitude thin air, and race conditions, the eight miles per hour I was riding seemed to be a good pace. But I knew I could do better by delivering more oxygen to my muscles. Having planned for this before the race, I had my support vehicle pull along aside me while I was riding and hand me an oxygen mask attached to a large tank of pure oxygen carried in the van. The flow of pure oxygen into my lungs and out to my muscles was like a shot of electricity; instantly, my speed jumped from eight to fifteen miles an hour, all the way up the mountain!
The lesson learned is that breathing efficiency is paramount to athletic performance. You may not have a tank of pure oxygen at your disposal, but taking ten deep breaths (fully extending the entire chest cavity, not just the upper chest) will flood the bloodstream with oxygen, help muscles recover, and lower your heart rate quickly. Use this whenever you need a supercharge.
Breath is also a calming and centering mechanism. Attention to breath can be very powerful for focusing energy, reducing tension in the body, developing explosive power (as in strength training or sprinting), not feeling pain, and keeping the mind clear of distracting, counter-productive thoughts.
Intensity is what you are working against, what is “holding you back,” what your effort is actually directed towards. How you interact with, or modify, that intensity can vary widely. In controlled athletic situations, such as strength training or indoor cycling, you can dictate what intensity you will work against at any given moment. In real world athletics, you often cannot change the intensity, so that intensity becomes the focus of your efficiency equation. Since the intensity is fixed and unchangeable, you work with the other six pillars to find the optimal method for challenging that intensity. Following are some sport-specific examples of intensity.
- Cycling: Headwind (the faster you go, the greater the effort is directed towards overcoming aerodynamic drag), grade, gear choice, and rolling resistance. Only gear choice is within your control.
- Indoor cycling: The amount of resistance you set on the bike.
- Skiing: Density of the snow and grade. Steeper grades require less effort to go fast, while softer snow requires more effort to traverse efficiently.
- Swimming: Water current, temperature, and water buoyancy (salt water is more buoyant than fresh water, thus helping support the swimmer’s body in a more streamlined position). You pick where you swim, but once you're in it, there's no way to change it.
- Martial arts: Density of the surface area that you are contacting. Picking a softer sparring partner or wearing gloves is the only way to minimize the intensity of what you are contacting!
- Strength training: Amount of weight you are lifting, pushing, or pulling. You are totally in charge, so remember that more is not necessarily better.
- Foot sports: Grade, surface texture, and headwind. In a race, you have to run what you are given to run, whether it's mountains, snow, dirt, sand, pavement, uphill, downhill, or in a windstorm. In training, it’s up to you,
Effort is what you’re putting out, what your actual work output is at any given moment (“against” the intensity), which is totally within your control. Since efficiency is the point here, the goal is to put out as little effort as possible while still achieving the desired result. This is what I call "minimal investment for maximal return." "Waste not, want not" is another way of looking at it. The bottom line is, the efficient athlete finds ways (by working with the other six pillars) to make as little effort as possible and, when it is made, makes that effort as effective as possible. Here are some sport-specific examples of effort:
- Cycling: Leg turnover speed (pedaling cadence), part of the measure of power.
- Indoor cycling: Leg turnover speed (pedaling cadence), part of the measure of power.
- Skiing: Working and carving the snow athletically.
- Swimming: Arm turnover speed and, to a lesser extent, kicking speed.
- Martial arts: Velocity and power of kicks, blocks, and punches, plus depth and strength of stance and posture.
- Strength training: How hard one gracefully moves the weight or works against the resistance.
- Foot sports: Leg turnover speed, stride length, strength of push-off, and knee height.
The hydration pillar becomes a relevant factor in athletic sessions involving greater endurance (90 minutes or more) and in more extreme conditions, such as high heat or severe cold, where water intake quickly and demonstrably affects blood thickness and flow. However, as many people are chronically dehydrated, hydration can become a meaningful pillar even during short duration athletic workouts.
Hydration serves many functions during athletics, including aiding in the cooling or warming of the body, speeding digestion, and, most importantly for our purposes, thinning the bloodstream to allow more efficient transport of oxygen to the muscles.
Seven different winters, I traveled to Alaska to compete in the Iditasport 100-mile snowshoe race or 200-mile mountain bike race on the snow-laden Iditarod Trail. Held each February, the temperatures averaged 15 above to 20 below zero. In extreme temperatures such as these, hydration becomes crucial to staving off hypothermia and frostbite. Like my oxygen blast during the Race Across America, my firsthand experience of the quick and decisive role of hydration during the Iditasport has forever impacted my understanding of physiological efficiency. In Alaska I've become aware of how quickly my blood will thicken during the race - literally within fifteen minutes of not drinking anything - causing my hands and feet to start freezing up, feeling cold, going numb. The longer I would go without drinking, the further this numbing and freezing would travel up my arms and legs. Yet, I learned that by taking three to five big gulps of liquid, and taking up to ten deep, full breaths (as described above), I can push that freezing right out of my limbs within minutes!
The lesson learned is that we are often, if not always, dehydrated to some degree, which in turns thickens our blood and slows the delivery of oxygen to the muscles. By bringing our awareness to this, we can use intentional "extra" intake of fluids to directly and immediately affect our overall efficiency (keeping mind that we can also over-hydrate, which must also be avoided). So for example, when I'm working to attain a certain heart rate goal, I will make sure to hydrate properly in order to quickly affect my own physiology in action. This works fast and becomes increasingly more meaningful during longer duration and more extreme conditions.
This pillar, in terms of immediate application during the actual athletic session (as compared to general, day-to-day nutrition), becomes an issue in athletic sessions of approximately one hour or longer. As with hydration, the longer and more intense the session, the more this pillar becomes critical.
For example, many athletes believe that only carbohydrates play a role in energy production during cardiovascular exercise. However, studies have shown that during ultra-endurance activities, protein becomes increasingly utilized during the activity as an energy source. The body's muscles must be able to replenish and reconstruct themselves during the actual athletic activity. During multi-day races such as Furnace Creek 508, Primal Quest, Badwater Ultramarathon, or Marathon des Sables, the body eventually utilizes protein for fifteen percent or more of its energy production. Awareness of this allowed me to actually gain muscle mass during the Race Across America: I dropped from eleven to seven percent body fat and lost only four pounds of total weight, thus actually increasing my muscle mass during eleven days of nearly non-stop cycling.
The lesson here is that during any athletic activity of an hour or longer, significant gains can be made in overall efficiency and performance through carefully consuming the proper nutrition. This may seem obvious, but in my experience most athletes I know consistently malnourish and improperly fuel themselves. This can be avoided by emphasizing quality over quantity and eating (or drinking) foods that are more quickly bio-available, such as Perpetuem from Hammer Nutrition. Foods like these, whether "real" or "from the lab" are effective because they are a more complete food source, rather than just a quick sugar fix.
Heart rate is the body's barometer to indicate the totality of the athletic experience. In other words, your heart rate at any given moment is THE RESULT of what you are doing with the other six pillars at that moment: Combine Posture with Breath with Intensity with Effort with Hydration with Nutrition and the sum of those parts is your heart rate!
Thus heart rate is the one pillar which is most quantifiably affected by working with the other six pillars, because heart rate is expressed as a number and literally exists within the moment. It was, in fact, my quest to consistently perform at a high workload (heart rate) that led me to the specific development of this efficiency system. Essentially, I would discover a specific heart rate (not a zone, but a specific heart rate) that I could maintain almost indefinitely, depending on the activity, then I would work with the other six pillars to achieve that "heart rate goal." My goal might be to do as much work as possible (say, ride my bicycle 100 miles as fast as possible) with as little heart rate “cost” as possible (perhaps spending 90 percent of that time at a mere 110 bpm). By becoming familiar with all seven pillars under various circumstances, I discovered heart rates that I could maintain for given amounts of time with very little overall cost. Then I would achieve that heart rate goal by working with the other six pillars, thus becoming truly efficient, almost a perpetual motion machine.
So there you have it, the Seven Pillars of the Kostman Efficiency System for Athletic Performance. Focus your energy and spend time on developing the seven pillars of your athletic experience and you will surely realize gains in overall performance and enjoyment, regardless of what your athletic expression of choice may be. The system works beautifully and I wish you the best of luck on your athletic journey. (However, please don't use my system to beat me in my next race!)
Chris Kostman has lived on the endurance path since 1982. Besides competing in races as diverse as the Race Across America, the Triple Ironman, and the 100-mile Iditasport Snowshoe Race, he also organizes endurance events such as the Badwater Ultramarathon and Furnace Creek 508 and a series of five day cycling and yoga camps in Death Valley and Mt. Shasta. Published as a two-part series, this represents his eighth and ninth articles for Endurance News.
Photos: Top: The author at the finish line of the 1987 Race Across Ameria (age 20). Middle: The author at the start line of the 1993 Iditasport 100-mile snowshoe race in Alaska (age 26).