Four rules for microdosing training

With the exceptions of professional athletes and some students, most sportspeople are time poor. Travel, work, study,  family and competing, take up time in strangely inconvenient blocks that mess up your meticulous training routine. If the plan says, “90 minutes”, then it is easy to become disheartened when you only have 60 available. Or, for the ultra-committed, you become sleep-deprived as sleep is what “gives” in order to “make-it.” This is a short-term solution that comes back to kick you in the backside as you underperform in your sport or life.

Micro-dosing is a simple method of re-framing your perception of time that allows you to work within frequent, smaller periods. It solves some of the problems and may enhance certain aspects of your training. In this article I shall outline some rules you can follow to get the most out of micro-dosing, as well as practical ideas for structuring training.

» Learn more about microdosing and mini workouts for physical education in the upcoming GAIN Post-Pandemic PE Workshop with James Marshall and Andy Stone.

Finding the appropriate goals

Before we look at what we can do in a short amount of time, it is helpful to make sure you have goals that match the time of training you have available. On the one hand, history has shown us that you can accomplish a lot in a little time. But we need to recognize that some pursuits don’t allow shortcuts.

For example, if Roger Bannister can break a 4-minute mile training only an hour a day during his medical studies, then surely we can achieve our more modest goals within 60 minutes? But, at the same time, Bannister was training for the mile not the marathon.

In the marathon, you need to accumulate big mileage every week. Running 80 miles a week takes a lot of time . . . that’s only possible to do in 60 minutes per day if you average 5:26 per mile. Even then it leaves you too mentally and physically tired to do much else. There seems little desire amongst recreational runners to run a quality mile time, but that might be a more realistic goal for many. If you are genuinely time-poor then the first thing to do is set a goal that matches the time you have available.  This reduces anxiety and you are more likely to achieve your new goal.

Rule 1 of microdosing: find your essentials

Dan John has described how he simplifies the essential parts of his workouts into “prison workouts.”  In some prisons, the inmates only have 15 minutes to train in the yard. Because they don’t have time to mess about with extras, they focus only on the essentials. John uses the examples of the big lifts: cleans, squats, dead lifts and presses. There is no time for ‘activating the multifidus.’  You can simply warm up by doing lighter loads in these lifts.

So write down what you need-to- do compared to what is nice-to-do.  Imagine you only had 15 minutes a day, what would you do?  I use 15-minutes because it focuses your mind on what matters. Note, if you write down foam-roller, try again.

» Related content: In our latest GAIN video, Bill Knowles explains his essentials and demonstrates a 10-minute workout for the Philadelphia Union.

I lived this reality when I had two children under three years old. I had to throw away my old training routines and just get something done. My brain was too befuggled to think beyond, ‘move and lift.’  One thing a day was manageable.

I remember once when we had visitors, I had six minutes to spare, I went into the garage, rowed on the Concept II for two minutes to warm up, then did a set of Tabata intervals (20 seconds very hard, 10 seconds rest for 8 sets). I crawled back inside. ‘You couldn’t have done much, that is how long my warm-up takes,’ visitor said from the couch, nursing his beer.

Once you have this, ‘need-to-do’ you can expand from there. It might be that you have a couple of 15- minute chunks a day rather than a 30-minute block and so you might do snatch in the morning and squats in the afternoon. This is simply a matter of changing your mindset from, ‘I need an hour to train,’ to ‘what can I get done?’ This is more easily written then implemented.

Rule 2 of microdosing: always be prepared

How do you get the most out of limited time? Prepare. Part of the preparation is the mental side such as doing the planning mentioned in the last section. Another part of preparation is the physical side.

Office working and student runners beware of high speed running in a short workout. I have seen many people get calf injuries after spending a morning sat at a desk with their legs tucked behind them and then trying to run fast. If you can, move around your office or sit in a different position before running. You might try starting with walk to jog to run rather than straight into running. These little steps of physical preparation will make sure you can get more the most out of the 15 minutes you have.

Rule 3 of microdosing: make the long sessions as efficient as the short sessions

It is unlikely that 15 minutes a day will lead you to improved performance. Therefore, at some point, you will need more time. This might be at the weekends or on an alternate days. You might be able to find this time, or you might need to make it. The important point is to not squander that time with fluff. Just because it is a longer workout, doesn’t mean it should be less essential or efficient. And use the longer sessions for what they are best for: things that can’t fit into a short workout. Therefore the longer sessions are best for your maximum lifts, your long runs, or the speed session where you need long rest intervals or a longer warm up.

Rule 4 of microdosing: finding motivation

The last element of micro-dosing is the ‘homework’ aspect of training for the recreational athlete. Many sportspeople train twice a week with the club, and play a match at the weekend. The coach is limited for time in practice and so devotes 95% of this time to technical and tactical work. Fitness and individual skills are often left out. It is then up to the athlete to do them.

I have used many variations of micro-dosing to help such athletes work on what is left out in training, but they all come back to the individual: do they want to train? The athletic side might only take a few supplemental sessions a week, but it is up to the athlete to find the motivation to do them. And to me as the coach: how can I make it accessible and interesting? I am still working on the latter.

Practical ideas for structuring training

As mentioned in the last rule, it is often up to the athlete to do this work. As coaches we might not be there for the micro-dosing sessions, so it is important that we at least help them find structure and direction. Here are a few approaches I have used to do that:

  • Five by five – I once designed a poster that had five days of five different exercises. Each exercise was supposed to be done for one minute. We printed them up and laminated them on A3 paper. I would change the choice of exercises now, but the size of the poster and the simplicity meant that the compliance was great. It also helps people start the habit of looking after their bodies. When working with England Golf, I gave the teenage golfers this poster as a starting point. One of the girls said that she didn’t have enough time. I asked how much she did have. ‘Four minutes,’ she replied. Four minutes of exercises it was then.
  • Structural integrity exercises – As my knowledge of exercises has improved alongside the improvement in technology, filming short exercise clips and sharing them, has become a lot easier. I still recommend 5-10 minutes a day and give a list of exercises to complete each week. I don’t like the, ‘Monday; lunges, Tuesday: Heel slides, . . .’ prescriptive approach because every athlete has a different schedule and life throws curve balls that often scupper Monday’s plan. Adaptability is an essential life-lesson too. If I give 6 ‘micro-sessions’ to complete, then the athlete can do one-a-day, or two for three days.
  • Choose your own buffet – I haven’t done this, but one of the rugby players I coach was given a pdf which had different sections on strength, flexibility, fitness and so on. Each section had a 8-12 exercises, each with a video demonstration, and a rough guide to choose 1-2 from each. Whilst the pdf looked fantastic (note to self to improve mine), the laissez-faire approach was overwhelming for a 14-year-old boy. He was ‘spoilt for choice’. For example, there was no distinction between the benefits of a static  calf stretch and a single leg squat, so he could do 4 weeks of calf stretches and another player could do 4 weeks of single leg squats and both be following the program. There would be a disparity in fitness at the end.

My best guess is to give some structure to athletes that allows room for adapting to their individual schedules. They must be coached through the exercises and be familiar with them. Barriers and obstacles to ‘getting it done’ should be discussed. I always get the athletes to give me when and where, and describe how they are going to do it.

Most people fail on the how, not the what. Remember, the point is not to impress our peers with what we do, but to help our athletes improve. A hand written note with a stick man drawing, that the athlete does diligently, is better than the 20 page document that gathers virtual dust.