Thursday, February 26, 2015

Neurological fatigue, stress, and high intensity training

I've had a very stressful few years.

I'm not looking for sympathy - far from it - but it's important context for what I'm writing about. I've gotten divorced, started new relationships, gotten engaged, switched careers, and been splitting my time between 2 or 3 locations with 4+ hours driving between them, switching at least every other week. I'm also getting a bit long in the tooth (44!)

Now I've never been particularly athletic in any way, but I've always been able and willing to work pretty hard in various athletic pursuits. That's what I love about martial arts - there is such a systematic and well developed skill set that hard work can achieve so much to level the playing field against better athletes (compare that to, for example, sprinting, where technique means a lot but the best technician who is predominantly slow twitch still won't run nearly as fast as an untrained but very athletic person).

So I'm the guy who's happy to go somewhere and work on something until I've soaked through all my clothes and hit a new pr in whatever I'm doing, five days a week, week in and week out. [Please note that I'm not claiming to be one of the hardest working people out there, just that I'm not below average.]

But over these last few years I've found my ability to push the envelope in my workouts is diminishing.

It's not that my work capacity has gone down or that my ability to push hard has gone down, but I find now that when I push really, really hard, especially if I do it repeatedly (as in, several times a week for several weeks), I get wrecked.

Not wrecked physically - wrecked psychologically.

I had all the signs of being overstressed - noticeably increased anxiety, difficulty focusing, irritability, etc. My workouts were short, but their impact on me was preventing me from living the rest of my life.

The solution?

I started to mail it in when I worked out. I didn't get this idea all by myself - Dan John has been a big influence - but it's the first time in my life I've deliberately taken it easy when exercising.

That sounds crazy, but it works better than you'd think. Suppose I could do 12 reps with an exercise - instead I'd stop at 6 or 7, but do many more sets, with plenty of rest in between. My rule was simple: if I had to get myself psyched up to do something, I didn't do it. I only attempted efforts that I could knock out with little to no real preparation, and nothing that left me shaken afterwards.

Four things:

First, 2 sets of 6 reps of an exercise is much, much less mental stress than 1 set of 12, assuming 12 is pretty close to a max effort for you.

Second, 2 sets of 6 reps (with a load you could handle 12 times) will do a lot more to maintain your strength and fitness than you think - and certainly much more than doing nothing.

Third, keeping all your reps sub-maximal in effort makes it a lot easier to concentrate on proper technique - none of the reps are ever sloppy.

Four, if you're overstressed by life and your workouts, your health and fitness will suffer. Reducing the stress might actually end up leaving you MORE fit than you were when you worked harder. This is doubly true if you're trying to lose bodyfat - being very stressed (high cortisol) can cripple that effort, while easing off some on your workout intensity might leave you leaner than when you were killing yourself in the gym.

I've long been a huge proponent of higher intensity training - and I still hold to that. I still think that you're better off doing light intervals (say, 10s work/ 20 s rest with with something that gets your heart rate nice and high) over a slow, steady jog for the same overall timespan (more on this in a future post).

But if you're in a position where those high intensity killer workouts are killing you, keep the same style of effort (peaks and valleys of effort) but back off on the intensity.

There are certainly days when I push it much harder than others - days when I go for 12 reps at once. But I don't even try to do that every day.

If my life gets any easier, I might go back to regular balls to the wall training. I enjoy doing that. If I do, I'll write about my experiences. But for now I'll be doing much more moderate work, more frequently, and seeing just how fit I can get using that modality.