If you are or have ever been enthusiastic about physical culture like myself, then chances are that at some point in your sport or exercise regime you have had to deal with plateaus, fatigue and injury.
Many athletes hit plateaus and then desperately endeavour to train harder and harder to improve, grinding through nagging strains and fatigue, embracing the pain to earn the gain, but instead end up with such things as injury, overtraining and adrenal fatigue.
Proper training is simply about seeing results and the prevention and mitigation of injury. Whether you are training to lose body fat, gain muscle or win an Olympic gold medal the principals for being healthy and making progress are the same.
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t actually get stronger or fitter from your workout. In fact a hard workout has a lot of negative effects on your body, it literally breaks you down. A hard workout raises your blood pressure, leaves you physically weaker, lowers your immune system-- leaving you more inclined to get sick, creates inflammation in your body and suppresses levels of important hormones.
However, the human body has an innate ability to heal itself, our bodies are resilient things and it is in their nature to adapt to the hard work out so that it won’t break us down as badly next time.
This adaptation and recovery happens if we allow our bodies to get sufficient rest after hard training. So you aren’t actually getting better, stronger, fitter or faster in training but rather in the time spent resting and recovering from training.
Training is a catabolic process that breaks down our muscles, but provides the stimulus for the anabolic process of recovery. This process of recovery is hard work for our bodies and requires long deep sleep and proper nourishment, without both together we won’t recover.
If hard workouts are enthusiastically followed up with more hard workouts, this recovery process is not being allowed to happen and the body keeps tearing itself down more and more. This is outwardly manifested by getting more tired, noticeably weaker, and slower. It should not be about what you can do in training, but rather what you can recover from and keep doing.
In sports where we often train way more than is necessary to burn fat and maintain good health with the intention of forcing our bodies to continually adapt so that we can be successful in competition.
How do we know if we have crossed that very fine line between doing the perfect amount of training and doing too much? An excellent way of answering this question is to ask your body. I ask my body how much hard training it can take almost every morning when I wake up by taking my resting heart rate.
To make this easier I have an app on my smartphone called “Instant Heart Rate” that tells me my heart rate when I put my finger over the camera lens. To do this I recommend you take your heart rate every day for a normal, healthy week or so to give you an idea of its usual range.
Now if you find that on one morning your heart rate has jumped up by more than six beats per minute, that’s your body telling you to back off and take a rest to allow it to get the extra test that it needs to recover fully and not break you down further.
This elevation in the resting heart rate is due to a “flight or flight” response from the sympathetic branch or our nervous system because our body is over-stressed and is switching over into survival mode.
This is the opposite of the “rest and digest” response from the parasympathetic nervous system early that should be running things early in the morning. When this happens and it will, it doesn’t mean that you need to take a day off training, but rather think about it as recommending you work in instead of work out.
“Working In” is a term I like to use to describe my recovery workouts. A couple days a week I have designated recovery days, that fall predictably when my body will need some extra rest. The goal is to accelerate recovery and actually to cultivate energy by doing some light exercise that leaves me feeling energised and won’t make me tired the following day.
I am sure that on these days despite not training hard, I am still improving. On my recovery days I keep my heart rate below 120 bpm because it is scientifically proven that light aerobic work has actually been shown to help recovery by accelerating the healing process and the excretion of waste from the cells.
This effect can be obtained from even a good walk. In these low intensity work in days I focus obsessively on perfecting my technique through slow deliberate movements and drills. I often still go to the gym but instead of lifting weights I focus solely on improving my flexibility and mobility.
The fitter and stronger you are, the more emphasis you should place on your recovery because the great extent of your fitness and strength allows you to train at a higher intensity which tears you body down more in a single workout than a person of normal fitness and strength can.
Ultimately it is our ability to recover that dictates how hard we can train and our rate of improvement. Unfortunately this speed at which we can recover is set at a cellular level and is due to the luck of the draw from genetics. We have no control over it and it diminishes in our old age.
I have swum with many teammates that could recover exceptionally quickly, and it took me years to stop comparing myself to them in regards to this aspect and to listen to my own body. To sustain improvement
I try to build in enough rest in my programme’s work to rest ratio to attain an improvement of 1-3 per cent every time I hit the gym, because if I haven’t recovered and rebuilt by body what is the point of tearing it down more just to get more tired.
To conclude I want to leave you with a visual image that reiterates the principles that I been discussing. Visualise a yin yang sign. Yang represents the concept of expelling energy and yin is its opposite of drawing energy in.
Since yin means to draw energy in, it is manifested as rest, and when rested, down at the bottom of yin, that dot of yang down there becomes the seed of the training that follows.
This training which is yang, expels energy, leading to tiredness and the desire for rest which is represented by the dot of yin in the thickest yang portion of the circle. This dot of yin in the hang becomes the seed of the yin recovery phase that follows.
Training flows into rest, and rest into training, like this the cycle continues around the circle. The harder you train, the more you need to recover, and the more recovered you are, the harder you can train.
Training and recovery, though opposites are mutually dependent on each other and go together like yin and yang. Train hard, rest hard physical culturalists!