Performance, Is it worth being broken?
If you’ve read any of my previous articles you’ll know that I typically discuss the technical aspects of program design, training theory, and the subsequent application of said topics. Rather than discussing theoretical constructs this article will be an open discussion. Specifically about longevity and how far we are willing to go, as well as what we’re willing to sacrifice, in the name of performance. I don’t have an answer as to what the perfect balance is between health and longevity for athletes, but it’s important that this topic be discussed and approached on a case by case basis with each individual client. Some athletes (the younger, twenty five year old professional) may tolerate more aggressive loading schemes, while others (the thirty seven year old weekend warrior with multiple children) may need to err closer to the conservative side of the spectrum. Additionally, some athletes will be educated enough to understand the costs the physiological adaptation, and the consequences of their actions, and others will be athletes for whom you need to make that judgement call. With knowledge comes responsibility. We make those choices knowing an athlete may resent us for holding them back, but they may also thank us in the future because they can still move, run, and play with their kids in their late 40’s. Being willfully ignorant and doing everything in the name of winning without regard for the human being who is listening to your advice is, in my opinion, morally bankrupt.
I’ve heard one of the most respected coaches in the sport of Crossfit™ state, "those without adrenal dysfunction aren’t training hard enough". Bold statement, and if you believe correlation equals causation then I can see how you’d make that argument. I’ve seen blood work from some elite Crossfit™ athletes that looks normal, and I’ve seen others that are far from it. I have a ton of respect for the individuals who can get up every day and train for hours on end with internal systems that look like that; and it’s certainly a testament to the power of will and the mind’s ability to push the body beyond it’s limits. But, what is the cost, and how will these athletes feel about their choices when their priorities and perspective shift later in life? As coaches it’s our responsibility to educate our athletes, provide them with objective feedback, and help them make better decisions. Conversely, it is the athlete’s responsibility to subjectively monitor their health and make choices that support it. If an athlete’s health is slowing deteriorating, and they perceive it as their new normal, it’s our responsibility to put methods in place to prevent this from happening. This can mean programmed detraining blocks, auto-regulating training intensity, re-feeds, breaks from training, long periods of downtime and so on.
It is our job as coaches to take an objective standpoint and analyze what’s best for the athlete. Not just in terms of performance, but also in terms of health. Sure, I can quickly improve an athlete's capacity. Too much of any stimulus and we’ll elicit an adaptation, but bioenergetics aren’t quite that simple and adaptation is a process, not the prize. Many athletes are willing to throw everything but the kitchen sink into their training. Whether they are self coached, or their coaches select that mode of training, it’s based on a survivorship model. Aggressive training systems can in fact produce champions, but not all champions come from those systems, and many others are broken in the process of trying to keep up with those programs. If you are healthy, thriving, and continuously progressing in training, while concurrently training every quality, then nothing is wrong and you may not need to change a thing. But, what we don’t see among the plethora of 15 second Instagram clips, where athletes are hitting PR’s, are the long term consequences that others face. I can’t tell you how many clients I’ve picked up who were left burnt out, hormonally disrupted, and injured as a consequence of following these types of programs. The most devious part is that they’re often addicted to the surge of stress hormones from beating their head against a wall day in and day out. In most instances it isn’t until they’re forced to take a step back after injury, or poor performances in the Opens that they begin to prioritize stress management, and train within set volume/ intensity parameters that they begin to see progress. That is, if they make it that far. Some are unwilling to believe that the way to move forward is to take a step back. It is difficult for these athletes to comprehend that they might not need to be “in shape” to hit a Fran PR at any given time if they want to be involved in this sport for years to come. It would probably be a better short term business model to give these athletes what they want, but I’m not willing to peak a client early in the offseason just to prove I’m a good coach. Those who make consistent, sustainable, progress while maintaining their mental, emotional, and physical health are a testament to that. I’m not personally willing to sacrifice someone’s longevity even if it means they’ll achieve their goal on a shorter time scale. After all, regionals may be the most important thing in the world to them right now, at the age of twenty six, but is it worth it if they can’t play with their kids in ten years?
As cliché as it sounds you really do need to love yourself as an athlete. Not in a “woo woo”, “spiritual” or egotistical way, but as it relates to treating your body well, respecting its biological rhythms, and paying attention to signs of fatigue. Ask yourself questions like, is this level of pain I’m dealing with on a day to day basis heathy and normal? Are the movement patterns that I’m defaulting to going to allow me to continue and progress for years to come? Are my energy levels and libido high and is my digestive system functioning as it should? If all of a sudden the sport of Crossfit™ ceased to exist and I have no need for this capacity, strength, and set of skills would I want to feel like I feel at this moment on a day to day basis? These are some of the questions you can ask yourself, or your athletes, to ensure that you are finding the right balance between health and longevity. There is no guarantee you won’t get injured, and there are always sacrifices that need to be made for extraordinary performances, but just because you can win a workout doesn’t mean you’re faring well on a long scale progress curve. Or, just because a coach knows bigger words that you, like anaerobic glycolysis, and can blast you with a wave of jargon doesn’t mean they have the right answers. Fatigue is a means to an end and you shouldn’t wake up feeling like you got curb stomped by a jacked, bald, Ed Norton every day. If a coach feeds you some bullshit like about how adrenal dysfunction is part of the game then call them out on it and see what happens. Chances are they don’t have your best interest in mind.