Your Personal Training Management System : Part 3: Recovery
“Lifting heavy weights will not make you strong. Lifting heavy weight and recovering will make you very strong.” : Dan John
Fitness is one of those areas of life where fantasy and wishful thinking can easily substitute for verified facts. Folksy anecdotes and logical sounding drivel are regularly articulated as THE TRUTH.
All of us who have been working out for a while recognize that “snake oil”, “mirrors and smoke” or “massive breakthrough too good to be true” are part of the landscape we must navigate.
While most of us have a well-developed BS sensor, there are some areas that seem to fly under the radar. Occasionally we can get in big trouble because we are unaware of serious problems, we may incur because of underappreciated factors in our training universe.
Working out is about being active. Most of our attention is focused on movement and action. The idea that being inactive or not doing something that may be critical to our success is an alien concept.
We all understand the basic principle of training. Recovery from working out is where all our gains are made. We all know that the workout breaks down our muscles and rest and recuperation builds them back stronger. Where we can inadvertently get into trouble is doing more work than our bodies can repair in the time we allow.
Thus, part 3 of your personal training management system will be keeping careful track of your recovery as well as your workouts and skills training.
IMHO one of the keys to having a LONG career lifting weights is to recognize that you are managing your energy and recovery. Managing these things is every bit as necessary as managing what you eat and what you lift.
Standard Operating Procedures
My observation of gym life over the past half century leads me to believe that the standard response to slowed progress is more work. Most lifters seem to operate on the principle that if they are not seeing the gains they want, it is because they are not working hard enough.
Working harder seems to be the normal response not just for weightlifters, but for other recreational athletes as well. In my days competing in running, I found that the standard response for anyone who was not increasing their speed was to put in more miles and more track work.
This can be very self-defeating.
One of the mantras that many of us heard as kids was that “hard work never killed anyone“. This was supposed to spur us to greater and greater efforts in school and sports, etc. If anyone did not put out maximum effort all the time it was because they were lazy!!!!!
Whatever the origin of this idea, it happens to be completely wrong. Excessive hard work without a break over even a few years can lead to rapid aging and premature death.
I found one of the most dramatic illustrations of the crushing impact of hard work over an extended period in Robert Caro’s description of life in the Texas hill country outside Austin in the decade before electric power came to the area.
The toll of daily drudgery just to survive left women old, grey, and stooped over…..by the age of 30! Men lived (or survived) into their 40’s but rarely much beyond.
In the real world, daily life on the over romanticized family farm was a constant struggle to survive. Nothing was ever easy. While living near Lincoln, Nebraska I went through photo records of life in rural Nebraska back in the 1930s and noted that people aged rapidly and looked ancient by the time they were 50. There were frequent statements about people being “all used up” by the hard life.
What does this have to do with us?
For those of us who hit the gym regularly, the thing to remember is that overworking for an extended period takes a gradual toll. If you recover 99% from your weekly workouts, at the end of the month you will be in a slightly degraded condition.
IMHO gradual degradation is a common result of overtraining. However, the condition is never dramatic enough to produce obvious signals that something is wrong. A lifter can be in a slightly degraded condition for months (perhaps years). They will struggle to stay even and will wonder why they cannot make any progress.
There is a much more dramatic consequence of over training for an extended period. This is called adrenal fatigue and was relatively common decades ago when many people did hard physical labor.
Whereas building up fatigue over time means you might feel tired a lot, adrenal fatigue symptoms mean you have a dramatic crash and suddenly have great difficulty doing even modest amounts of work.
I have seen a few instances of this during my sports career. One vivid example was a distance runner I knew who was training hard for his third marathon in six months. He wanted to run roughly 20 seconds faster for each mile than he had in his prior event. He trained hard each day and then on a bright sunny Tuesday he suddenly felt like he could hardly move his legs.
Here was a well-trained runner who easily ran 6:00 minute miles in long races. Suddenly he was struggling to run a single mile in 8 minutes! In running parlance he had “hit the wall”.
His doctor could find nothing wrong with him. (Doubt he went to see a Sports Med practitioner). So he kept trying to overcome this crash by working harder and harder. After two weeks of busting his butt just to get through his normal warmups, he could barely run a single mile in 9 minutes. The harder he worked, the worse his performance.
Eventually he had to take six months off from running. That is six months with ZERO running. It took him almost a year to recover. I do not know if he ever got back to his previous level of performance.
Is it possible to do the same amount of damage to yourself over training with weights? I believe it is, based on a few instances I have seen where some good lifters I know “hit the wall” in dramatic fashion.
One reason I think we do not see more lifters crash like the runner I described is that they suffer a serious injury before they have a chance to drastically overtrain. These are known as overuse injuries.
Despite all the fluffy gym posters that scream no pain, no gain, be aware that working out in a degraded state makes you much more susceptible to serious overuse injuries such as tendon ruptures, ligament tears, and of course muscle tears. Nasty and very painful!
Is there a bright side? Well, you get to enjoy time in the hospital, (the food sucks), being in physical therapy, walking on crutches (overrated) and maybe learning to eat with your non-dominant hand. The only clear benefit is that you use the electric cart in the grocery store and play bumper cars with the other disabled people.
If you push to hard for too long, the consequences can be dramatic and devastating.
Do not be that person! Remember you are managing your energy and recovery.
Bottom line: “No pain, no suffering”.
What do I track?
What you really want to know is whether you are recovering from your workouts. Tracking some recovery data can give you a good insight into whether you are either working too hard or need to focus more on recovery between your training sessions.
IMHO you should keep records of how you feel every day. This is the data you can use to see whether you are gradually working yourself into sub-par performance.
Your Fatigue Scale
Your personal fatigue scale is completely subjective, and it applies only to you. However, over time it will give you an indication of whether you need to devote attention to your recovery practices.
Your personal level of fatigue is something only you can assess. However, when you begin tracking your own fatigue level, be certain you record your feelings every day.
You can invent your own personal scale, but here is one that has worked well for me:
- Feel like “crap”: Could barely lift a slice of cold pizza
- Feel like “dirt” : I need to go back to bed for an hour or two
- Feel “ok”: I “sort of” want to work out
- Feel “good”: I want to work out
- Feel like “caged lion”: NOTHING can stop me from working out!
The operant word here is “feel”. These are the signals that your bod is sending that you are recovering or that you need more recovery.
You should consciously assess how fatigued you feel at three different times during the day:
- Getting up in the morning – (unless you are indisposed from soaking up micro-brew).
- Just before dinner
Write down the average of these three readings in your workout journal.
Before you go workout check your fatigue level and train accordingly.
If you feel like crap or just like dirt, time to skip the heavy work and take a sauna or a nap. This will keep you from screwing up your next workout. It will also help keep you from going in the tank long term.
Feel “ok”, go workout but don’t be too aggressive and above all don’t do any extra (aka. “junk”) work.
Feel “good”? Go for it! Work hard….just don’t waste energy on trivial moves.
As for the “caged lion” feeling? Kick ass and take names! You know your recovery program is working.
By far the most critical thing you need to track is your sleep. If you do not get enough good sleep almost nothing else matters.
Start with 8 hours as a goal. Everyone is a little different, but weightlifters should consider getting more sleep than the average person. As Pavel says, an extra hour of sleep can be a “magic bullet” for your lifting.
Fatigue can build up over weeks and months. If you are consistently not getting enough sleep for your body this can keep you on a performance plateau (or slight decline) indefinitely.
What to do
If you feel like crap or like dirt for more than a few days in a row, it is time to cut back on your training. Many lifters would sooner eat horse turds than cut back on their workouts. But you do not want to get into a chronic degraded condition.
You can either cut the intensity of your workouts, the volume of work, or the number of days each week that you train. Remember, you may find that “less is better”.
Recovery may take much longer than you like. Just remember that you can’t burn the candle at both ends as you may have done in your 20’s. Get a handle on what you need to do to come back strong and put it into practice.
There is more to tell
This article covers the basics about how most of us who like to lift heavy stuff can track our recovery from workouts and use this data to help us ensure that we recover fully.
In a future article I’ll discuss recent work on sleep and recovery research that pertains to strength athletes.