Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Working hard and resting easy

This point seems to be coming up again and again for me in different situations, and I hope I'm starting to internalize it.

Before, back in my undergrad days when I first caught the exercise bug, I thought working out meant getting on the elliptical for an hour a day, day in and day out. It didn't matter what what time of day it was, whether it was convenient or not, whether I was sick or tired, or anything- I had to get on that elliptical and do random level 18 every single day. Although I wasn't particularly concerned with being a better athlete in those days, it probably didn't do much for my fitness after the first few months, and it definitely didn't do anything for my disposition. I had stagnant exercise syndrome (SES).

Everyone *knows* that the best way to improve fitness/athletic ability is with variety and a combination of intensity and rest. But old ideas and habits can be hard to break. When I got into running, I started running for an hour every day- same speed, same route, day in and day out. I was starting to get interested in getting faster, but I wasn't. So I did more of the same. Running for an hour and fifteen minutes or an hour and a half- same speed, same route, day in and day out. Did this help? No.

So I tried weight training. I added 3 hard days of lifting each week on top of a fairly large volume of running (and some stressful life stuff including a very long commute). But I quickly became frustrated with my total lack of progress. In fact, I was getting weaker each week rather than stronger or even maintaining!

I was committing both of the classic workout sins. In the first case, I had absolutely no variety in my runs. No speed, no tempo work, no long runs. Everything was exactly the same. In the second case, I was not balancing work with recovery. I was simply trying to do too much, and instead of backing off, I thought the cure was to do even more.

I admit that both of those devils still live on my shoulder to a lesser extent even today. It's easy for me to talk myself into ditching a tough run for an easy one and it's easy for me to think that- in terms of working out- more is always better.

But now I'm in rehab for SES, and here are four treatments I've learned:

1. Diversifying your training- Rather than running every day, I run three days per week, go to spinning two days a week and swim once or twice. I know there is a danger of adding too much here, but I have a personal cap of one cardio session a day to keep me from overtraining. This program also lets me "get excited" about each workout because it's not the same thing I did the day before.

2. Train with a group- Right now I'm doing spinning with the triathlon club two days a week. I've already met some nice people to chat with, which makes the 5:30 wake up call a little easier on those days, and the workouts are always challenging. And the best part is that I don't have to challenge myself. I let someone else do it for me.

3. Earn your rest- This is the best mantra I know to help ward off SES. If your rest is too easy, don't make your rest harder, make your workouts harder. If you don't truly rest, you won't be able to workout harder the next time, and you get into the vicious SES cycle. I've even taken to saying this to myself while doing a difficult tempo run or interval, but it also applies to diet as well. In the No S diet, Reinhard Engles advises readers to work hard on N days and "earn" weekend S days to recharge for the hard work of N days. If you let the line between N days and S days become mushy, you end up exactly where you were before the diet.

4. Remember that you won't improve if you are unwilling to be uncomfortable- Even though the working is kind of awkward, the idea is right on. This is something I want to reflect on more tomorrow, but I feel deserves a mention in this section because SES is all about staying in your comfort zone. You don't leave that comfort zone by doing hard workouts our challenging your notions about how much rest you "need" or "deserve".

2 sets of stairs
Walk home from work
Home strength program