By Michael Krueger
This time, I’m addressing all of you who don’t tend to miss a workout–the ones who schedule their life around training rather than the other way around; those who, when asked if they “…have to work out today” reply “No, I get to work out today.”
If you can pull out tattered and sweat-stained log books dating from the first day you worked out, then I’m talking to you. If your internal monolog while training sounds like a motivational poster, then we think alike. If you weigh every meal against what nutrition value it contains and every night out against how it’s going to cut into your sleep and recovery, then this column is for you.
But, I have a question I haven’t been able to fully answer: What’s the matter with us?
I’ll use myself here since I know myself as well as anyone.
Let me describe my average workout week: I row on Sunday, lift on Monday, row on Tuesday, lift on Wednesday, off on Thursday, row on Friday, off on Saturday, and then start the whole thing over again. The schedule recently shifted because of client demands, but the volume has stayed the same–just the days have changed. Rowing and lifting four consecutive days is tough. Only having one day between lifts isn’t optimal either, but that’s the way it has to be for now.
When I took a close look at this schedule, taking into account performance and recovery factors, I realized I could probably add a lift on Saturday. I saw that I was still progressing nicely and, aside from occasionally waking up at night needing to take some Ibuprofen, I seemed to be recovering adequately.
Of course, you saw what I missed at first–the “needing to take some Ibuprofen at night” part. That should’ve been a big red flag, but admittedly I more or less ignored it. I noted it and filed somewhere in the back of my mind. Obviously, I didn’t assign it any importance, or I never would’ve considered adding yet another workout to my program.
There is a rule of thumb in program design that says, “Volume, intensity, frequency, pick two.” As a rule, I go with intensity and frequency; it seems to suit me, particularly the intensity part. I don’t care to work out for long periods in the gym or while doing cardio. The only exception was because I was training for a marathon and I’ve only done that a few times (remember, you get what you train for). Now I only put in about 21½ minutes of very intense rowing, and that suffices.
I don’t like to spend a lot of time lifting either. My lifts rarely exceed 46 minutes, but these lifts are very intense as well. Failure sets are common, and my muscles burn and quiver. I usually have to wait before walking up the stairs because my legs are wobbly, and I do occasionally drop my water bottle because my hands and arms just say no to holding it.
As for frequency, that is where I can mess up my program. In the above example, I considered adding a lift just because I thought the schedule would support it, not because it would improve my training.
I enjoy training. I like the effort and discomfort that come with pushing myself harder than I did the previous session. Even when my performance comes up short, I always know that I gave it everything I had. I like the feeling of total exhaustion after I’m done too. If I get off the rower and I’m not gasping for air and my arms and legs aren’t jiggling like Jell-O, I feel like I cheated myself.
I’m especially fond of the feeling of having given all I could and then being able to recover quickly. To go from being toast to being fine in a matter of minutes is the best thing ever. Because of this, I know that everything I’m doing is effective; it’s making me stronger and more efficient. That’s an incredible feeling to me and re-enforces the desire in me to do more and do it better next time.
OK, what is the problem? Most of the time I don’t see any. Sometimes, though, there is a little nagging voice that suggests that perhaps I’m pushing and striving just to be pushing and striving. I forget that while I can push myself through a workout, I can’t push myself through recovery, and that is a problem.
I’m a process-over-outcome person. I feel that if I put in the proper effort, I will get the appropriate results just as a matter of course; and if those results are sub-par, it’s because my process was flawed. So if the process has a problem, I assume it’s because I’m not working hard enough, or smart enough, or long enough, or not eating well enough, or sleeping, or… well, you get the picture. The process is more important than the outcome, but I can only judge the process by examining the outcome; and when I examine the outcome, it takes me back to the process… and I bet you can see the looping problem there too.
I’ve been at this long enough to know that at that point I must take a step back and leave “Crazy Mike” in the other room and take a reasonable and realistic look at what’s going on and ask myself a few questions. What I usually find is happening is that I’m doing really well. My progress is good, and I’m really enjoying myself; and this is a problem? It is because I’ve also gotten so caught up in the rush I get from feeling fit and strong; and is that such a bad thing? It is because I’m like a junky flush with cash. I want more of that feeling of being physically powerful, and the only way to get it is to do more and more and go harder and harder.
For me, physical training is the only thing that has a direct effort to reward feedback loop. The harder I work, the more I like it; the more I like it, the harder I work. Unfortunately, it then becomes totally obsessive, I get stupid, and everything comes crashing down in an overtrained heap of injury and despair.
There is a newly identified medical condition that revolves around the individual having to eat well all the time, exercising exactly the right amount, sleeping not too much but not little either. It’s like bulimia or anorexia, except that it’s not going to kill those afflicted. In fact, these people are extraordinarily fit and healthy–except for in their heads. It’s an obsessive behavioral disorder because it has a negative impact on their career, their relationships, and their life in general. They function in the very narrow world of “Eat, train, sleep, and repeat” and ignore everything else. For many of these people, it’s an endless loop that makes them and everyone around them crazy.
The solution is actually quite simple: Cut yourself a little slack for a change. Staying out late now and then isn’t going to cut into your gains. Eating multiple plates of Chinese food with good friends once in a while isn’t going to get you a spot on “My 600-lb Life”; so just relax, it will be OK.
So, while I still sometimes push too hard for my own good, I know why. I enjoy it, and I like what it does for me, up to a point. When it threatens to becomes as destructive as any other obsession, I back off a bit.
So, kick back and enjoy being a slug occasionally; binge watch something on Netflix or have a couple beers with friends. In the long run, your body won’t mind and your head will be so much better for the break. Besides, tomorrow is leg day!
Michael Krueger is an NSCA-certified personal trainer. He got his start in fitness training while serving in the United States Coast Guard. He works with firefighters and others in and around Madison, Wisconsin. He is available to fire departments, civic organizations, and athletic teams for training, consulting, and speaking engagements. He has published numerous articles on fitness, health, and the mind-body connection and was a featured speaker at the IAFC’s FRI 2009 Health Day in Dallas, Texas. E-mail him at MKPTLLC@gmail.