Alternative Training Methods to Burn Fat & Enhance Endurance

Education, July 23, 2021

Burning fat is much more than just zone 2 training and what you eat. Let's look at more holistic habits that help improve your metabolic efficiency

The main way to train our system to utilise fat during activity is to move at a steady state with our aerobic engine not venturing out of 2nd or 3rd gear. In athletic circles it is described as ‘Zone 2’ with the heart rate in the aerobic zone.  For a longer session or a race, fueling increases in importance. If we go longer and harder, we increase the risk of running out of our premium fuel - carbohydrate (stored as glycogen). When we are tapped out of carbohydrate the power output decreases by 50%. Carbs and fat both work together to "stoke the furnace" during endurance training. Having the ability to increase the proportion of fat in the fuel mix improves endurance performance. 

 We store glucose as glycogen in our muscles and liver. We hold around 2000kcal when our leg musculature is fully loaded and 400-500kcal in the liver (liver glycogen gets drained first as it is the carb source for the brain). The more intense or quick we move the greater the % of carbohydrate in the carb/fat mixture is required. The more we train the more efficient we become and can conserve our precious carbohydrate by having more fat in the mix improving cardiovascular efficiency. We can only store around 2000kcal of carbohydrate and process up to 60grms of carbohydrate per hour on the move (The circulating glucose at any one time is small, and availability can lessen with gut distress, as fatigue and general stress increases with endurance racing). If we walk easy then we are fuelled mostly by fat circulating in the blood stream. As we speed up more carbs are added to the blend until the proportions are flipped when we are working towards max requiring more carbohydrates. 

 Improving our bodies ability to be more efficient and burn a higher percentage of fat compared to carbohydrate can be achieved in several ways. The most conventional is consistent cardiovascular training. Mostly at an easy to steady intensity and some at a hard intensity (this will vary depending on the individual, and the phase of training). Simply eating a higher fat diet does not necessarily ensure improved fat burning potential but can tilt your fat fuel mix up. Training consistently in that Zone 2 zone stimulates the body to burn fuel efficiently with the specific movement patterns that are required for your sport. I want to explore alternative daily habits that could theoretically enhance fat burning and endurance – Cold, Fasting, and Meditation.

 A less well-known method for improving fat burning and therefore more efficient fuelling is getting cold in a controlled, graduated fashion promoting thermogenesis. Thermogenesis is the systems way of rewarming from the inside out. To achieve warming (before the stage of the muscles going into a shiver to promote heat) the body must utilise fat burning pathways. This type of cold therapy has been practised for hundreds of years for health and healing reasons. Cold water was used by a Bavarian Priest Sebastian Kneipp in the late 1800's to cure all manner of ailments that were not responding to the medical regime at that time (check out my book review "My Water Cure" by Sebastian Kneipp and most recently Wim Hof- adventurer, endurance athlete, Dutch philosopher, and wellness practitioner; has stunned the world with himself using cold water (along with breathing exercises, meditation, and yoga) to treat a large array of diseases from autoimmune disorders to anxiety. I have been experimenting with cold water for over 5 years. I have a cold shower every morning, and swim in the ocean (or lakes) at least weekly during the winter to make use of the cold effects. My reasons for this are not only the overall health benefits. I enjoy the feeling alive feeling that is gained immediately after the shower or the sea dip, I save water and reduce power bills, and I love the idea of living more simply. From an athletic enhancing standpoint, I believe the more habits we can add to our days that help our body tap into using fat over carbohydrate as a fuel, (and create a little discomfort) the more we can enhance our endurance performance. 

 Another method that appeals to me to help drive fat burning is fasting. Going without food for 16hrs plus allows the system to strengthen up the fat burning pathways. Again, the most publicised reasons for fasting have nothing to do with endurance performance. Fasting is undertaken by many for the various health aspects. One of the main benefits is autophagy. When your body is not having to commit resources to the gut during the digestion process it is able to scan other cells and effectively "clean house" - getting rid of cellular debris, and malfunctioning cells. This helps with longevity and general wellbeing. One massive overriding similarity of some of the longest living humans ever recorded is restricting calorie intake. Dr. C. De lacy Evans wrote a book "How to Prolong Life - An inquiry into the cause of old age and natural death showing the diet and agents best adapted for a lengthened prolongation of human life on earth." I found it fascinating (My book review link is here ). Within the book were many case studies of people living from 80 to well over 100 years old (the book was published over 100 years ago, and the records were from people in the late 1700's to the 1900's). The one common trait that was uncovered by all those that lived the longest was calorie restriction. I now fast for 16-22hrs once a week for the autophagy benefits, and to give my digestive system a well-earned break. Fasting also gives you the chance to get hungry giving you more empathy for our fellow brothers and sisters around the world that do not have enough to eat. The possible endurance enhancement is a secondary benefit and of course needs further research to confirm (please seek further advice if wanting to put fasting into your routine).

 Meditation is a formal way to train mindfulness. Sitting in quiet contemplation, focusing on your breath, letting thoughts come and go with no agenda is greatly beneficial to step out of the busyness of life. The background busy gradually ramps up the sympathetic system - the Fight, Flight, or Freeze. This system keeps us on edge, like a coiled spring. The fuel of choice while in this phase is carbohydrate so we can charge into action quickly. We need to have a greater proportion of carbs in the fuel mix in an anxious state.  The slower burning, more abundant fuel fat becomes less readily burned compared to carbohydrate the more stressed we become. The power of being present in the moment helps distil focus to the movement you are in - you are not wasting energy on mistakes that occurred in the past or anxious about moments that have yet to occur. This allows energy efficiency – especially when floating over the trails in our magnificent natural world. I started meditation using Andy Puddicombe's app HEADSPACE over 6 years ago. I started with over 420 days in a row and noticed increased calmness, flow between tasks, and better sleep. These associated benefits will all benefit endurance performance. Investing in meditation is an excellent way to ensure your system is running more efficiently. What is beneficial for the mind, also benefits the body. Check out my meditation journey and more information on this article I wrote earlier - 

 As a coach my overriding goal is to promote expansive wellness habits. These are daily behaviours that not only improve an athlete’s endurance but also make people better human beings while in turn saving our planet. When we are feeling better, and living a little more simply we look outwards, we are more expansive; more able to care for others and our natural world. So, to run faster and further on the trails why not add some cold, fasting, and meditation to your training programme. 


Brad Dixon is a sports physio, coach, and wellness evangelist based at EVERFIT Physio & Coaching. His passion is promoting enhancing daily habits that nudge people towards potential and save the planet. His book ‘Holistic Human’ is available at Amazon. The power is in our daily habits! Connect with Brad at, Facebook, Strava, and Instagram (@everfitcoach)


Finishing the Tarawera 60km in 2018 -  Photos4sale