The Seven Pillars of Athletic Performance:
Efficiency in Action

By Chris Kostman

Originally published in Ultra Cycling, July 1996, and Fitness Plus, November 1996

In 2009 I rewrote this article and published the more refined version in Endurance News. Click here to read that version instead, as well as download Pdf versions.

Note: I present a three-hour interactive workshop based on this system. Click for the info or for the workshop worksheet.

I live on the cutting edge of extreme and ultra-endurance sports and over the last fifteen years my journey has taken me around the planet and into many universes. 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. And it's not just races where I put myself on the line. I also scuba dive in underground caves and deep wrecks and have led or participated in many, many expeditions into terra incognita. Rarefied air is what I breathe, what quenches my thirst for life, and satiates my hunger for knowing the supposedly unknowable.

But I'm not superhuman. My secret, my tool for success no matter what the environment or activity, is EFFICIENCY.

Want to be a champion, win races, become more fit, or smile bigger when you lie in bed at night? Then hone yourself with my personal system for achieving efficiency in athletic performance. I developed this system over the years by always searching for the commonalties among the disparate athletic activities which I pursue. 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 spend eighty percent of 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.

This efficiency system involves the seven pillars of athletic performance and 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.

The seven pillars of athletic performance are, in no particular order:

  1. Breath
  2. Posture
  3. Heart Rate
  4. Intensity
  5. Effort
  6. Hydration
  7. Nutrition

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 diet, a good night's rest, and the like are preparation for athletics.

In the ideal athletic pursuit, you will be working all seven pillars at maximum efficiency in order to achieve the desired outcome, whatever that may be. But in the real world, you'll find that you will place your emphasis at any given moment on just a few of these pillars. Then, 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 more high performance athletic experience. Here's how it works:

1. Breath

Breath brings energy, in the form of oxygen, into your body. 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. Now, a byproduct of cardiovascular training is increased cardiovascular efficiency, but what I'm talking about is the use of breath to affect efficiency during the actual performance, not down the road when you've become more efficient overall.

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 (i.e., air containing less oxygen), and race conditions, the eight miles per hour I was riding was a good pace. But I knew I could do better by delivering more oxygen to my muscles. Having planned this in advance, 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, say, ten deep breaths (fully extending the abdomen, not the chest) will flood the bloodstream with oxygen, help muscles recover, and lower your heartrate 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), not feeling pain, and keeping the mind clear of distracting, counter-productive thoughts.

2. Posture

Postural integrity is perhaps the key component in the meaningful enjoyment of long-term health and fitness. But posture 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 in use. For example, removing unnecessary tension from the upper body allows more energy to be diverted to the lower body. Some sport-specific examples:

  • 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 moguls, and comfortable enough to put in dozens of runs in a day with no 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 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 one to minimize overall fatigue.

3. Heartrate

Heartrate is the body's barometer to indicate the totality of the athletic experience. This is the one pillar which is most quantifiablly affected by working with the other six pillars, because heartrate is expressed as a number. 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 heartrate (not a zone, but a specific heartrate) 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 would be to do as much work as possible (say, ride my bicycle 100 miles in well under five hours) with as little heartrate cost as possible (perhaps spending 90 percent of that time at a mere 110 bpm). By becoming familiar with my heart, I discovered heartrates that I could maintain for given amounts of time with, effectively, little or no overall cost. Then I would achieve that heartrate goal by working with the other six pillars, thus becoming truly efficient, almost a perpetual motion machine.

4. Intensity

Intensity is what you're working against, 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 can not 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're lifting, pushing, or pulling. You're totally in charge, so remember that more is not necessarily better.
  • Foot sports: Grade, surface texture, and headwind. You've got to run what you're given to run, whether it's mountains, snow, dirt, sand, pavement, uphill, downhill, or in a windstorm.

5. Effort

Effort is what you're putting out, what your actual work output is at any given moment, 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 rpms).
  • Indoor cycling: Leg turnover speed (pedaling rpms).
  • 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.

6. Hydration

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. But because almost everyone is 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, thinning the bloodstream to allow more efficient transport of oxygen to the muscles.

Almost every winter, I travel to Alaska to compete in the Iditasport 100 mile snowshoe race. Held each February, the temperatures average 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 (within fifteen minutes of not drinking anything) during the race, causing my hands and feet to start freezing up. The longer I go without drinking, the further this numbing and freezing will travel up my arms and legs. Yet, by taking three to five big gulps of liquid, and taking up to ten deep belly 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 fact, we can use intentional "extra" intake of fluids to directly and immediately affect our overall efficiency. So for example, when I'm working to attain a certain heart rate goal, I will consume extra water for a time in order to quickly affect my own physiology in action. This works fast and becomes increasingly more meaningful during longer duration and more extreme condition athletics.

7. Nutrition

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, most athletes believe that only carbohydrates play a role in energy production during cardiovascular exercise. However, recent 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 multiday races such as the Race Across America, 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: 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 foods that are more quickly bioavailable. Personally I use a liquid food source, a complete meal replacement drink called Endura Optimizer by Unipro, during all competitions and much of my training. Foods like these, whether "real" or "from the lab" are effective because they are a complete food source, rather than just a quick sugar fix.

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, 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!)