Training really comes down to one thing: stress management. In the gym you add stress to try to push your body to a new level. Outside the gym, you do everything you can to alleviate the stress imposed in the gym.
When you achieve the right balance, you get what is called super-compensation, or training adaptation. When it’s wrong, you get over-reaching, which could make you too fatigued to train hard enough to stimulate change. If you go even further down the wrong track, you end up with over-training, which can lead to a near total system shut down.
Most people only look at the training performed in the gym or on the track when assessing levels of fatigue. However, the body doesn’t differentiate between mental, emotional, or physical stress. As far as the systems of the body are concerned, stress is stress..
That time your boss dropped a big pile of work on your desk that had to be done before you left the office was just as traumatic for your body as a max effort squat day. The last thing you should be doing if you’ve just had one of those days is head to the gym and max out. This seems counter-intuitive. When you have a bad day, it’s natural to want to take out that aggression in the gym and let off some steam. But when you do, you’ve essentially had what amounts to two max effort sessions in the same day, as far as your body is concerned.
There are two types of stress – specific and non-specific. Examples of specific stress are the volume or intensity of your workout, training frequency, and competition frequency. Non-specific stress includes all of the lifestyle factors such as financial stress, quality and quantity of sleep, travel, and family or work social functions.
Before we get to the actual stress-management solutions you can accomplish at home, let’s discuss some of the problems with most gym training models. Like it or not, anaerobic training produces the same type of energy seen in our fight-or-flight responses. It has to, because we need it to help us run away from predators for survival. But all that energy being produced so quickly has a damaging effect on your body. It is highly inflammatory, just like your stress-filled days at the office.
This is the main reason why people who do the Men’s and Women’s Challenges achieve such great results – we systematically work to reduce their stress levels so they can actually make fitness gains. Most people are so overstressed through poor diet, lack of sleep, being overweight, and then trying to train hard they can’t possibly recover. The Challenges meet them where they are and deliver an appropriate amount of stress, while clearing up all the underlying stressful factors in their lives.
This is where movement quality comes into the picture. Movement quality has both a physical and a mental component. The energy systems and connective tissue are the bodily components, but they are driven by the autonomic nervous system and motor control, which are managed by the brain. The role of the nervous system is to perceive threat through the use of all of your senses and is linked to motor output functions (such as speed and power), and these functions are linked to your motor control.
The sympathetic nervous system drives extension-based postures and activities, such as running and jumping, as well as most lifts. In other words, it is your fight-or-flight posture and supports higher force activities. However, as motor control is based on threat perception, an overuse of both this system and these postures results in negative changes in motor control. These changes to motor control lead to higher levels of fatigue. Those higher levels of fatigue lead to less movement variability – you become more robotic – and that leads to more injuries. In other words, spending too much time in your fight-or-flight postures performing high-force activities leads to greater likelihood of injury. What can you do to fix all this?
The body perceives new activities as a threat. This applies whether it is a new load, new exercise, or a new distance – they will all be viewed the same way by the body. That drives you straight into your fight-or-flight system and instantly turns what is meant to be an educational session into something that is perceived by the body to be a maximum effort. So we need to slowly introduce new stressors to training. This is precisely why you shouldn’t learn the barbell snatch on day one in a gym. There are just too many things that are new if you’re not familiar with barbells and weightlifting.
To counteract all that stress you need a training systems that soothe the body and allows your system to reset. For example, a day where you learn new moves should finish with an easy aerobic cool down to return the body to a suitable resting state that is responsive to training. Just as your warmup should prepare you for stress, your cool down should ready you to absorb the stress. And that is best done with a settled mind and body. The worst thing you can do for workout adaptation is to hit a max effort on a new lift and then walk out of the gym.
But all that could still change if you choose the wrong recovery format. I’ve known beach volleyballers who weren’t great swimmers choose to go swimming for recovery the day after a tournament. Unfortunately, their skill level at swimming meant that their bodies didn’t agree that it would be easy, so what should have been an easy session smashed them further. Walking in cool water would have been a good choice for them, but as poor swimmers there’s not much chance that swimming was going to be a good recovery session.
Remember, if your body perceives a threat then it will react as if under threat with that same fight-or flight-response. Next thing you know, you’ve turned your recovery session into another hard session and your system will be depressed even more.
Some activities lend themselves better to recovery than others. Here are three I recommend:
Flexion-Based Postures: The parasympathetic nervous system features flexion-based postures. Activities like cycling and rowing make for far better choices than running, as it is extension based (not to mention most people are poor runners so every run is a fight or flight activity). Yoga is also an excellent choice featuring many flexion based postures such as child’s pose, downward dog, and deep forward bends.
Breathing: The quickest, cheapest, and easiest way to influence the parasympathetic system is to focus on respiratory function. Methods such as FMS have had highly successful results from exercises as simple as crocodile breathing. I have had clients who have found huge improvements for shoulder pain after five minutes of targeted breathing practice, combined with education about how to recognize and manage signs of stress. When combined with flexion based postures such as downward dog it’s easy to begin understanding how yoga has such a good reputation for making people feel amazing thanks to its stress reducing properties.
Meditation: A friend of mine has done some interesting studies on using guided meditation to reduce stress among his Division 1 athletes. He and his colleagues found that following a daily guided meditation made up for poor sleep and dietary habits often seen in college athletes burning the candle at both ends. In my experience, the best time to perform this is before bed so that sleep quality is enhanced. There are plenty of free apps available that will run you through guided meditations if you don’t know where to start such as Omvana and Headspace.
Once you’ve got your recovery figured out, the final step is monitoring training intensity and frequency. Most forty-year old trainees can’t handle more than two or three hard sessions per week, and the days between should be filled with active recovery to stimulate the system, not further deplete or stress it. My clients are often surprised by how little intensity I program in for them, yet how good the results are. The results are all thanks to balancing training stress and recovery. With decreased recovery ability because of their age training stress also has to be decreased.
The goal of training is to improve the body, not test its limits. Focus on adding guided meditation and focused breathing work, as well as aerobic recoveries and cool downs, and you will be surprised at how much better your body feels.