I often hear, see and read about the concept of “more” as it relates to fitness. It’s like an obsession. More cardio. More deadlifts. More burpees. More calorie restriction. The problem is that “more” can lead to over training, injury, and illness, if you don’t balance your training.
So often, people get really excited about a new exercise program or a new diet and they have a tendency to throw everything — energy, money, time — at their new health goals because they feel invigorated and energized. This full throttle approach can work for a little while…..until suddenly…
- One morning it’s hard to get out of bed
- Another morning, your shoulders and knees ache a bit
- Yet, another day, you have a bit of a cough or feel run down
Then, a week later, something truly dreadful happens….you miss an easy lift. What do you do? Grab an ice pack, train through some discomfort. And then the week after that, it’s a call to the chiropractor or doctor. Or you’re lying on the couch with spasms and back pain. Where did it all go wrong? Is the problem the exercise? Is it the intensity? Truthfully, it’s neither.
Balance Exercise Stress with Proper Recovery
Rather, the problem is that you didn’t balance your exercise stress with proper recovery.
Exercise is a stressor. It’s a good stressor, but like any type of stress on the body, it absolutely requires a recovery period. According to Precision Nutrition, “ If you exercise intensely and often, you add stress to a body that may already be stressed from other life stuff like work, relationships, travel, late nights, etc. In terms of a physical demand, we still need to help our bodies recover from all the stress we experience.”
Dr. John Berardi preaches “The right amount of exercise, at the right intensity, and the right time.” When training and recovery are balanced, we learn, we get healthier, and we get stronger. When we don’t recover properly, we strain, we stress, we shut down, and finally, we break down. And break downs (i.e. injuries) are no fun at all.
How does our body shut down? We all have 2 systems that play a role:
- The CNS (central nervous system) acts like a car engine regulator. If the engine on a car revs too high for too long, it shuts down. Similarly, if we exercise too much, our brain tries to protect our muscles by reducing the rate of nerve impulses so we can’t (or don’t want to) move as much. And we certainly can’t work as hard.
- Local fatigue, the result of energy system depletion and/or metabolic byproduct accumulation (lactic acid), makes your muscles feel really tired, lethargic, and weak. Using our car analogy, this is sort of like running out of gas.
So, if you train too often and too intensely, without proper recovery, your stresses never have a chance to subside. And this is what happens to our bodies internally:
- Our connective tissues get creaky and frayed, because they cannot lubricate well.
- Inflammation continues to accumulate.
- Reduction in “feel-good brain chemicals” and anabolic hormones.
- Catabolism increases through a build-up of cortisone. This is where your muscles break-down by feeding on themselves (really bad.)
When these things happen, then you being to experience:
- Blood sugar gets out of control.
- Depression, anxiety, and/or racing thoughts.
- Trouble sleeping or early wakeups.
- Food cravings, maybe even trouble controlling your eating.
- Lower metabolism due to decreased thyroid hormone output.
- Disrupted sex hormones (which means less mojo overall, and in women, irregular or missing menstrual cycles).
What you need to realize, and this is an extremely important point, is that you don’t get to decide if you need recovery or not. Your body decides for you. If you don’t build recovery into your plan, your body will eventually force it. So, logically speaking, the more extreme your “over” training, the more you’ll “pay” via illness, injury, or exhaustion.
A real life story about a female runner.
“I ran 7 marathons over the course of about 10 years, each time hoping that this training round would be the one that got me thinner. But the harder I worked, the more frustrated I got, and I used this to propel myself harder, over more miles.
However, the more I trained, the hungrier I was. It was a massive battle against appetite, all day long. I never got thinner. Sometimes I gained. I got stressed out, cold after cold after random infection, and increasingly unhappy with myself.
For me, what I needed to finally drop those last 5-10 pounds wasn’t exercise for 1-2 hours a day, it was to go harder for shorter periods of time, and give myself enough downtime to recover. It became so much easier to achieve a slight energy deficit when my body felt more at-ease, less pushed to the limits all the time. Muscles stayed and got stronger and fat shrunk away.”
The moral of the story……sometimes less is more. Putting in a consistent good effort over the long term is much more sustainable than cycles of “crash and burn. Exercise should make us feel, look, perform and live better… not crush us. Movement should help us function freely… not incapacitate us.
The body can actually handle a tremendous amount of work… if you recover properly and fully from that work. With that in mind, your stress-recovery pattern should look like waves on the ocean – for every up, there’s a down. For every intense workout, there’s an equally intense focus on activities that help your body repair and rebuild.
Coach Christian Thibaudeau says talks about creating a different mindset, where you think of your training days as “stimulation days” and your recovery days as “growth days.” This is because you actually do most of your growing when recovering.
Personally, I am a huge proponent of active recovery, meaning that rather than sitting on the couch eating donuts, I use my “growth” days to do yoga, soft tissue work, mobility drills, walk, etc… Other ideas include:
- Teaching your kids how to fly a kite
- Shoveling snow, raking leaves, or planting a garden
- Go for a walk, preferably in a natural, outdoor setting. Put away your phone. Observe what’s around you.
- Meditate. It’s easier than you might think.
- Go for a swim. Finish it off with a relaxing sauna.
- Chill out in the park. Lie back on the grass and stare at the clouds.
- Get a massage. Give the body a little help de-stressing.
In conclusion, there’s time for tough workouts and time for taking it easy. There’s a time for long runs, and there’s a time for throwing a frisbee around. Don’t do the same thing over and over and over. Mix up your exercises, and the intensity. And balance it with recovery and growth.