There’s a type of training regimen out there that you may not have thought of using before. It’s called Blood Flow Restriction Training. I don’t know about you, but even the name kind of freaks me out a bit. I mean, cutting off my blood flow so that I can increase my performance? Are you crazy? But after delving into the research of it and having first-hand experience with it myself, it’s not as scary as it sounds, and it’s plenty effective.


How Does It Work?

Simply put, Blood Flow Restriction Training, or BFR for short, is a type of training in which you reduce the load and intensity of the exercise, while simultaneously restricting the blood flow to the working muscle.

But what does cutting off the blood flow actually do to the working muscle?

Well, there is still much debate on the topic, but many experts believe that cutting off the blood flow to the working muscle creates a metabolic overload that is usually seen in muscles that are performing higher intensity work, such as lifting very heavy weights or running at a very fast pace [1]. Not only this, but it also may be related to the decrease in myostatin that this type of training creates. Myostatin is a protein that actually inhibits the building of muscle and strength. Something that we do not want for sure. #gainsbro

What Does This Have To Do With Endurance Training?

Although much of the literature that exists on BFR revolves around resistance training, there is still plenty of evidence to show that it has benefits for endurance athletes as well.

One 2018 study illustrated that applying BFR to an 8 week cycling protocol was able to enhance quad strength and hypertrophy, as well as VO2 max more significantly compared to the group who performed the cycling protocol without the BFR [2]. What makes this very surprising is that this was achieved while producing less total volume than the non-BFR group. This could be a huge benefit from the time crunched athlete!

Implications for the Time Crunched Athlete

What we should also look into here is the greater opportunity for efficiency that BFR gives us as endurance athletes. If you’ve read my previous articles, you’ll know that it’s important to not only train for your particular activity but to also add in occasional strength training sessions throughout the week, as this is able to enhance your performance. However, the problem with this lies with the fact that it requires more total training time. This potentially takes away from other obligations you may have in your life, which can be quite inconvenient.

But with BFR, you’re able to simultaneously receive a strength training stimulus whilst also completing your regular endurance training activities. In the same study, an increase of 9% in strength was seen. While not as notable as a standard resistance training program would provide, it provides the endurance athlete with a “best of both worlds” scenario.

Interestingly enough, cross-sectional area was increased to the same level as resistance training would provide. Cross-sectional area is a measure used to quantify the size of the muscle and is most often utilized as a measure of hypertrophy. Though not the only factor associated with hypertrophy, evidence appears to be leading us to the fact that endurance training with BFR will be able to provide us with simultaneous strength and hypertrophy gains.

This isn’t just shown in a study in isolation either. What can be known as a benchmark in the BFR research world is a study by Ozaki and colleagues that showed us how 20 minutes of walking 4 days a week for 10 weeks was able to significantly increase the cross-sectional area of the thighs compared to walking without restriction [3].

Increased Variation & Possibilities

Probably the most remarkable aspect of BFR is the number of ways it allows you to vary up your training, while still providing you with the same amount, if not possibly more, of the training adaptations that you’re after.

Let’s look at injuries for example. When we’re pushing our bodies to the limit each and every day, they’re bound to happen at some point in our training career. With BFR, however, it allows us to train with much less load and intensity, which are two factors that would most certainly aggravate the injury further.

Another benefit that can be received from BFR during injury is the blood flow restriction aspect itself. One of the blood’s primary functions is to provide nutrients to organs and tissues throughout the body. What BFR does is keep the blood in the working muscle for longer periods of time. In essence, we are speeding up its recovery time as well, given that the working muscle is the one that is injured, or is associated with the injured tendon, ligament, or other neighboring tissue.

Another way to look at the possibilities with BFR is simply providing variation of to your training regime. The mind is probably our most important training tool. And if it begins to wander and won’t allow us to focus, then our training sessions are going to be half-assed and subpar at best. BFR provides a unique and non-traditional way to progress your training. Throwing this into your routine every so often and combining it with your standard training schedule will allow you to stave off boredom in your training. In this way, you’ll be able to stick to your training goals for the long haul… Remember, Fitness = Consistency over Time.

Simple BFR Protocol

  1. Choose a blood flow restriction device.

    This can be a compression band, wrap, or other tourniquet-like device.

  2. Wrap the material around your upper arm or upper thigh.

    DO NOT wrap your lower leg or lower arm. Doing so can result in nerve damage. ONLY wrap the UPPER portions!

  3. Choose your pressure.

    I suggest using a pressure of 4-5 / 10 for the upper body and 6-7 / 10 for the lower body.

  4. Do your workout.

    I’d suggest cutting the workload down by HALF. This can be accomplished by reducing reps, weight, or sets. Try it once a week to see how it affects your other training sessions.

BFR Example

Below is an example of an athlete utilizing BFR during a training ride. Notice he has the compressive force around the UPPER portion of his legs.

***You should consult your physician or other health care professional before starting this or any other fitness program to determine if it is right for your needs***

Conclusion

More and more research is being released each and every day regarding BFR, both in the realms of resistance training and endurance training. We’re really beginning to see how truly beneficial this type of training can be to stave off boredom, aid in rehabilitation from injuries, and even to help older individuals who may have limited functionality to train.


References

  1. Loenneke, J. P., Abe, T., Wilson, J. M., Ugrinowitsch, C., & Bemben, M. G. (2012). Blood Flow Restriction: How Does It Work? Frontiers in Physiology, 3. doi:10.3389/fphys.2012.00392
  2. Conceição, M. S., Junior, E. M., Telles, G. D., Libardi, C. A., Castro, A., Andrade, A. L., . . . Chacon-Mikahil, M. P. (2018). Augmented Anabolic Responses following 8-weeks Cycling with Blood Flow Restriction. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 1. doi:10.1249/mss.0000000000001755
  3. Ozaki H, Kakigi R, Kobayashi H, Loenneke JP, Abe T, Naito H. Effects of walking combined with restricted leg blood flow on mTOR and MAPK signalling in young men. Acta Physiol (Oxf). 2014;211(1):97–106.

Shayne Gaffney

About the Author Shayne Gaffney

Shayne holds a bachelors degree in Health Science in Professional Development and Advanced Patient Care, is a licensed physical therapy assistant in Massachusetts, a USA Cycling Level 1 (expert level) certified Coach, a USA Cycling Power Based Training certified Coach, Precision Nutrition Level 1 certified Coach, a US Military Endurance Sports (USMES) affiliated Coach, and USA Olympic Committee Safe Sport certified. He is the owner and head Coach of GC Coaching, Workout Content Editor at Zwift, the creator of P2 Coached Computraining, and the creator of Zwift’s “Build Me Up” Flexible Training Plan. He has been published in Bicycling Magazine, the TrainingPeaks blog, and Zwift Insider. He can be contacted directly via info@gaffneycyclingcoaching.com

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