Take-it-easier strategy: Drink a large cup of coffee before exercising.
The evidence: According to research in Appetite, cyclists who consumed a caffeine supplement an hour before biking ranked their workout session as more pleasurable than did those in a noncaffeinated control group. The 90-minute workout also felt harder to the riders who didn’t take the supplements. Caffeine doses depended on the weight of the participants. A 154-pound person, for instance, consumed roughly 420 milligrams—about the amount in a 20-ounce cup of Starbucks coffee or in three large McDonald’s coffees.
The explanation: “Caffeine seems to lead to more positive feelings, less sense of exertion, less pain and better performance, meaning that you are able to exercise longer and harder,” says study author Stuart Biddle, PhD, professor of physical activity and health at Loughborough University in the United Kingdom.
Do it yourself: Although study participants downed the equivalent of several cups of coffee, researchers say one to two cups can yield the same feel-good effect.
Take-it-easier strategy: Watch yourself in a mirror while using cardio equipment.
The evidence: In an experiment reported in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, people who ran on a treadmill while facing a mirror expended less mental energy and moved with a more stable gait than they did while facing a static image such as a wall or a picture. Seeing themselves helped the runners exercise with less effort.
The explanation: “People have a tendency to synchronize their actions with the actions of people around them; for instance, they may adopt the same step pattern as their friends when walking together,” says study author Daniel L. Eaves, senior lecturer in motor behavior and sport psychology at Teesside University in the U.K. “In this case, being in sync with the visual image of themselves caused the study participants to unconsciously stabilize their movement pattern, which helped them run more efficiently.”
Do it yourself: Choose a workout machine in front of a mirror. Not a gym goer? You’ll achieve the same effort-lowering effect by running or walking in rhythmic time with a friend who’s moving at your pace, say the U.K. researchers.
Take-it-easier strategy: Stock up on beetroot juice (aka beet juice).
The evidence: Scientists at the University of Exeter in the U.K. discovered that when people swigged a half liter of beetroot juice two and a half hours before a workout, their bodies required less oxygen during exercise, which enabled them to run or bike 15 to 20 percent longer before tuckering out.
The explanation: Beetroot juice contains a high concentration of nitrate, which the body converts to nitric oxide, a compound that increases blood flow in the body. “Our research has shown that beetroot juice reduces the energy required to contract the muscles during exercise,” says study coauthor Stephen Bailey, PhD, lecturer in exercise physiology at the university. “This helps sustain the energy reserves, allowing people to train longer before fatiguing.”
Do it yourself: Beetroot juice is available at health food stores. If you don’t like the earthy taste, mix it with some apple juice (as the researchers did) or tart cherry juice, which has been shown to speed muscle recovery. Or don’t drink—eat. Veggies such as lettuce, radishes and spinach are nitrate rich. If you add more of these foods to your diet, even day-to-day activities may not feel as hard, says Bailey.
Take-it-easier strategy: In hot weather, cool down before you warm up.
The evidence: A variety of new studies indicate that taking a cold shower or a cold bath or ingesting an ice slurry (like eight ounces of a 7-Eleven Slurpee or a DIY frozen fruit drink) before exercising can make your workout feel easier, especially when temperatures are above 77 degrees. And cooling off can translate to performance benefits. In one study, men running in 93-degree heat were able to last 10 minutes longer after drinking an ice slurry than after downing a cold (but not frozen) beverage.
The explanation: When your core temperature increases, as it does if you exercise in the heat, your body directs more blood to your skin to cool you. That can negatively affect performance, because it lessens the amount of oxygen-rich blood being sent to the gut and other organs and conceivably your working muscles. “By precooling, you lower your core temperature and your skin temperature, which reduces blood flow to the skin, possibly sparing it for your working muscles,” says Gordon Sleivert, PhD, vice president of Canadian Sport Centre Pacific in Victoria, British Columbia.
Do it yourself: About 30 to 40 minutes before your workout, try one of the following strategies: Drink a mixture of crushed ice and water; take a cold shower for five minutes (or alternate between 30 seconds under cold water and 10 seconds out of the cold water); or soak in a cold bath (at a temperature between 60 and 70 degrees) for 10 to 15 minutes. Another possible tactic: After finishing your warm-up activity, immerse your hands in cold water for five to 10 minutes.
Take-it-easier strategy: Distract yourself.
The evidence: Many gym-goers scoff at the exercisers who pore over magazines or watch TV while they work out. But recent studies show that these multitaskers are on to something. Researchers from St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota, asked women to complete two 30-minute stationary bike workouts, one while reading and another while not. The women cycled more vigorously while perusing a magazine but had no idea that they were working harder. In a separate study, Brazilian researchers found that women who listened to music while walking on a treadmill for 30 minutes moved faster but rated their experience as more enjoyable than those who did a similar routine in silence. Counterintuitive as it seems, both studies indicate that having a distraction produces better results.
The explanation: “Distractions help people focus on something other than their workout, making a harder exercise session as pleasant as a lighter one,”notes Brazilian lead author Sergio G. DaSilva, PhD, professor of health and physical activity at the Federal University of Parana in Curitiba. “Although this strategy tends to work against elite athletes, who want to be in tune with their bodies, it helps average exercisers ignore the pain they’re feeling so they can go faster and harder,” says St. Catherine University study coauthor Mark Blegen, PhD, associate professor of exercise and sport science and codirector of the university’s Women’s Health Integrative Research Center. Over the course of a 30-minute workout, the right diversion could help you increase your intensity by five to 10 percent, upping your heart rate and helping you torch additional calories.
Do it yourself: Books, music, TV—the kind of diversion you choose doesn’t matter, as long as it’s engaging enough to keep your mind off the clock.
Take-it-easier strategy: Work out with a friend.
The evidence: When people team up with a training partner they exercise an average of 23 to 42 minutes longer than solo sweaters do, according to a study in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.
The explanation: “Exercising with other people is simply more entertaining than exercising alone,” says Genevieve Fridlund Dunton, PhD, MPH, assistant professor in the department of preventive medicine at the University of Southern California. “It can also put you in a more competitive mind-set. Both effects may motivate you to go longer.”
Do it yourself: Four-legged workout partners count, too. Research published in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health found that dog owners who exercise their furry friends are more physically active overall and log about 30 minutes more of walking each week than non–dog owners. Bringing your pooch along might even spur you to walk a little faster: 23 percent of study participants said their dogs make them move somewhat faster, while 9 percent said they go a lot faster with their dog than without.
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