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5 Ways to Reach Your Fitness Goals Faster
You hit the gym hard—you deserve to see results. These simple strategies to maximize your workout will give you an extra edge and help you get fit fast.
You squat, you lunge, you run, you pedal. You’re seeing results—but not nearly fast enough. Before you double down on effort, hear this: Training harder isn’t always the answer. “Little lifestyle changes, from what you eat to how you sleep, are key practices that can make a big difference in the quality of your workout, helping you make greater strides in fitness gains,” says Michele Olson, Ph.D., a senior clinical professor of sports science at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama.
Instead of adding yet another Body Burn class to your routine, check out these science-backed strategies for boosting your fitness gains—no extra reps required.
Get ready for an intense workout with dynamic stretching, foam rolling or body activations. “These activities increase the oxygen supply to the muscles and heart in a slow and progressive manner to prepare the body for more intense movement,” says Olson. Skipping this crucial first step means your muscles and tendons are stiffer than they should be during your workout, and makes it feel harder to breathe. As little as 5 minutes of warming up—whether that’s marching in place, doing arm circles or skipping rope—can sufficiently prepare your body for the workout ahead.
Play Mind Games
When it comes to getting fit faster, the brain holds the real power. According to mental performance coach Nicole Detling, Ph.D., owner of HeadStrong Consulting in Salt Lake City, the more you engage your mind during a workout (thinking about which muscles are being activated and how the body is performing), the better the workout results. A European Journal of Sports Science study confirms the mind-muscle connection, finding that focusing intently on a specific muscle as it contracts actually helps it grow bigger, faster.
As much as the right mindset can boost workout gains, negative thoughts can have the opposite effect. Self-criticism is detrimental to progress because it zaps motivation to try harder. “It's not the actual words you say,” explains Detling. “It's how those words ultimately impact your behavior, thoughts and intentions.”
The research is clear: A lack of sleep does serious damage to your health. It also raises the body’s cortisol levels—naturally occurring stress hormones that influence energy and fuel consumption. High cortisol interferes with the body’s ability to optimally burn carbs and fats during a workout, says Olson. Aim to get the recommended seven to nine hours of rest each night. During sleep, the body’s growth hormone is naturally released, which allows muscles to recover from a tough workout.
Legs feel like lead. Fatigue starts five minutes into cardio class. If you’ve experienced either of these things during exercise, you might have thought you needed a break. But what you might have needed was water. “Dehydration decreases blood flow, which will slow down the ability for your body to deliver energy and nutrients to working muscles,” says Vishal Patel, chief nutritionist at the sports supplement company Nuun, who has helped elite athletes like Annie Thorisdottir fine-tune her fueling strategy. Prioritizing hydration is key for workout success. Patel’s recommendation: Drink 12 to 16 ounces of fluid an hour before exercise, and 8 to 12 ounces immediately following. Sweating longer than an hour? Add in electrolytes, which “is essential in helping the body properly absorb water,” says Patel.
Watch What You Eat
Experts agree: Poor nutrition will tank an athlete’s performance. “The food you eat literally provides the fuel to power through workouts and repair the body after exercise,” says Cynthia Sass, R.D., an LA-based sports and performance nutritionist. Think healthy, not heavy: Big meals before workouts divert blood flow toward the gut and away from muscles, which can leave you feeling zapped of energy even though you just ate.
To get the most out of a run or weight training session, load up on nutrient-rich, easy-to-digest carbohydrates, such as a banana, oatmeal made with water or a baked sweet potato 30 to 60 minutes before exercising. Post-workout, have another snack like a smoothie made with a large handful of leafy greens, plant protein powder, almond or cashew butter, fresh or frozen fruit and anti-inflammatory herbs or spices, like fresh ginger root, turmeric and black pepper.
Let’s be clear: Following these five strategies won’t turn you into an Olympic champ overnight (or, OK, probably ever), but any pro athlete will tell you it’s the little things that add up to major fitness gains. Keep track of your sleep and nutrition with a fitness journal, and carry a water bottle with you for easy on-the-go hydration. Be consistent with these habits and you’ll start to see big leaps, sooner, in your journey to being your fittest self.