The Paradox of Our Intense Training Culture
There is a battle occurring in the world of fitness between two extremes. Factions have developed that form around principles on the ends of the spectrum ranging from ‘easy’ to ‘intense.’ On one end are long, slow, distance style endurance work, yoga, hiking, etc (yes, I know you can also turn those ‘easier’ workouts into difficult ones with proper progressions, but it’s irrelevant to the point of the article). The other end of that spectrum being comprised of combat sports, CrossFit, and HIIT style methodologies. Some people will self select the culture that is more comfortable to them and what fits their emotional/psychological needs at that time. For example, a stressed, A-type doctor with poor sleep, heavy work hours, kids, and monetary issues would be more likely to stay healthy and achieve longevity in a well prescribed Yoga/movement type culture. A 20 something librarian with no family, lower work traffic, no financial issues, and great sleep habits might thrive in (and be subconsciously seeking) a more exciting high stress training culture. What I’ve seen observing people in fitness for long enough is that people generally do not select the proper training method for their needs. This leads to unhappiness, non-progression, and decline of interest in the community with which they originally fell in love. Because many of the people I coach and my readership falls largely on the more intense training culture side of the spectrum, I am going to explain why emotional state can be destroyed after an initial honeymoon state of training, why you must use rest to improve your results in an intense sport, and how you can think your way to a greater adaptation capacity in training.
When people first walk into a high intensity program the common narrative is that they got smashed by the workout and ‘were hooked right away.’ That ‘being hooked’ process is controlled largely by the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The peripheral nervous syste is split into two branches, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The sympathetic branch is commonly called the “fight or flight” system and provides rapid responses to the external world. It is the system that gives you high levels of immediate energy and provides a tight engagement of your mental processes to the external world. The parasympathetic branch is commonly referred to as the ‘rest and digest’ system and dampens the SNS, opens the blood vessels leading to the gut, engorges the genitals, and aids in your biological recovery. If your ANS works in harmony, these two systems work in tandem to take you in and out of stressful situations and strike a balance of stress and recovery that allows you to progress as an athlete. If a stress is ‘moderate’ (in our individual perceptions/bodies) then the body produces dopamine in the pleasure center of the brain and we feel happy. This is why many people in training talk about the ‘runner’s high’ or why people who first try a really hard breathing workout (P90X, certain CF workouts, etc) fall in love immediately with the training. Often what they are falling in love with is the ‘feeling’ provided at the end of the workout. This can be a wonderful place to enjoy the pleasures of physical work, but unfortunately this process is a double edge sword and can backfire on people pretty quickly.
If the ANS is working properly, the process of stress and recovery becomes a really pleasurable experience. It is probably one of the major reasons why people ‘fall in love’ with the fitness world, sometimes change their profession, and attempt to give back to people and help them experience the same happiness they felt. Sometimes though, our good intentions can cause harm. The problem arises when we experience prolonged exposure to SNS activation. “…Prolonged exposure to glucocorticoids (read SNS hormones to non scientific readers) flattens dopamine production. Then, as the classic criterion for depression says, there is a loss of enjoyment in the activities once found pleasurable.” What happens with most people at this point is they try to figure out what is ‘wrong.’ They experience burn out, look for a new coach, try new supplements, go get their blood work taken, say they are no longer having fun, no longer make training progress, beginning to feel chronic joint irritation, and begin experiencing something that was one of their favorite activities as one of their biggest nightmares. Because people’s identities are often (in fitness) tied with the positive praise of improving, looking lean, professional expectations, etc they are trapped in a negative cycle and can’t find the way back to enjoyment. However, there is hope, and there are ways to get yourself back to a competitive (or even consistent) state of aggressive training if you or one of your athletes falls into this rapidly growing category of people.
The first way to fix this is the most simple: REST! There is no shame in sleeping a couple extra hours a week, taking a prolonged break from training, putting a couple extra pounds of body-fat on, taking a vacation, or temporarily avoiding high intensity work to get healthy. Almost every sport has an off season where people are allowed to get themselves back into ANS balance to take the stress off before the upcoming season. So, thinking of your training as a cyclical thing wouldn’t be the heresy that most people think it to be when they ‘lose fitness.’ The leaders of our training culture train at enormous levels of volume and are constantly trying to teach others how to follow suit. The problem with most leaders in the physical fitness world is that they are genetically physical freaks (or on lots of synthetic hormones).
"…a rat will be less likely to develop an ulcer in response to a series of electric shocks if it can gnaw on a bar of wood throughout, because it has an outlet for it’s frustration. A baboon will secrete fewer stress hormones in response to frequent fighting if the aggression results in a rise, rather than a fall, in the dominance hierarchy; he has a perception that life is improving. A person will become less hypertensive when exposed to a painfully loud noise if she believes she can press a button at any time to lower the volume; she has a sense of control.”
–Robert Spolsky (Scientific American 8/10/03)
The high level athletes’ bodies likely don’t perceive hard physical work as that stressful because of two major reasons. The first is their biological superiority: they have higher than normal VO2 maxes, extremely efficient hormonal recovery systems, and natural coordination of nervous system processes. The second is that the physical stress for them results in an ‘increase in the dominance hierarchy, i.e they get more business, they become better athletes than other people, they get more attention, etc. As a result, what is fun to them is what ‘lesser’ physical bodies think needs to be done to progress, but is in fact a recipe for non-progression. It is way too much and way too intense for people who aren’t on the far right end of the physical bell curve. If you aren’t one of these ‘freaks,’ and you are experiencing a lack of enjoyment in your training, it may be time to back off of your training intensity. If you love being in the gym, this could mean going into a cycle that is long slow distance endurance based, movement quality/technique based, and learning new skills. If you are comfortable ‘letting yourself go’ for a couple months (or YEARS if you have done a severe enough amount of damage and aren’t resilient enough to bounce back) then step away and focus on getting yourself back to a psychological state of health (which will generally be reflected with a solid ANS balance). Then get yourself back into a properly designed training program that cycles intensity in and out of the design to levels YOU as an individual can adapt. This happens on the elite athlete level as well, and the people who are at the top think they need to feel beat up. They often remain dedicated perpetually through miserable emotional states and walk around with it as a badge of honor. This is just a misconception of high-level athletic development. MORE and HARDER is not always the best recipe for development. The addition of more volume and hard volume at the right time for the right athlete can be a recipe for a world class performance, but it could also mean the emotional breakdown that causes retirement, or a series of persistent injuries that keep someone from reaching their potential or a year of wasted training not getting better at their sport. So, the understanding of the importance of rest and commitment to resting as intensely as you train is imperative for long-term success at any level.
The CrossFit Games Opens are exposing a lot of people who aren’t able to cope with the emotional stress of the competition. They start to lose their enjoyment of training, they hate not measuring up, and ultimately they end up underperforming because they can’t cope with the amount of stressful excitement that competition brings. Based on the quote above, this can be countered to some extent by putting everything into a proper mental context for performance. I’ve found the best way to perform at something is to not care about how you perform. The ironic joke of the human body that it’s optimal state of performance is found when you stay 100% focused on what it is doing versus HOW it is doing relative to others. Thinking about the open (or any big competition) as a learning experience ensures that the stress of doing it provides you with the path to climbing the dominance hierarchy. Even if you lose, if you KNOW that the loss is going to make you better and you will take something away from it, you will be more likely to recover from the stress/sadness/frustration of the loss than if you focus solely on how much it sucks to be a loser. Now, the mental component to thinking your way to success definitely has limitations, but I have found that almost every elite athlete I’ve ever spoken to that has longevity in any sport thinks like this. They will bounce back from injuries, losses, bad training days, deaths in the family, etc much faster than the rest of their competition and stay dedicated to the PATH OF SUCCESS. Rarely do they focus on where they are on that path currently (unless they’re already on top). Thinking your way to physical success is an easy way to beat out some of your competition who may be unwilling (or unable) to use their intellect and the help of others to improve. You should use that to your advantage.
The fitness culture of the world is turning into a series of flashy, high stress, ‘look at me’ style programs/leaders/organizations. We are attracted to stress, drama, novelty, change, and we crave our sympathetic nervous systems to be activated. We talk often about wanting to ‘feel alive’ to justify our choices to take risks, train hard, and do the unconventional. This intensity and vigor is great and necessary, but next time you think about skipping your rest day, remember that the
"…parasympathetic nervous system is wall paper, sky, taken for granted, un-dramatic, in the background. Human culture, and definitely the modern media of television and movies are largely about the SNS. Action, conflict, sex, million dollar moments, death, crisis, fairy-tale endings, etc. are different and dramatic. It’s therefore easy to start thinking that chronic stress and living awash in the SNS are what’s really natural, the bedrock of existence. But in reality, cooperation, relaxation, and equilibrium are the hub of the great wheel of life.”
- Relaxed and Contented by Dr Rick Hanson