I have been thinking about this question a lot lately, as I train for my third marathon and am 311 days into my 365 Days Of Activity challenge.
There have been days when I really wanted to rest, but usually I did the next best thing and chose an activity that was easy, fun, restorative or all of the above. Yoga figured into those days quite a bit, as did walking the dogs and reading while slowly plodding along on the elliptical machine. But by far, the majority of my workouts this year have been pretty intense, and I have a few clients who are in the same boat.
As their trainer, I often think about and occasionally caution them against the risks of overtraining. At the very least, working out too hard too often thwarts progress – the body actually makes physiological gains not during a workout, but in the recovery period afterward. Of greater concern, though, are the negative long-term effects of pushing a body to its limits too often.
It’s easy to get caught up in focusing on performance – we all want to shave time off our run pace, increase pounds on our bench press and attain those ever-elusive six-pack abs – but at what cost? What toll does a performance-based exercise regimen take on our overall health and fitness? In many, if not most cases, it can be pretty bad.
Classic signs of overtraining are chronic fatigue, recurring injury, a compromised immune system and eventually, decreased performance. I have to admit that I sometimes experience one or more of these symptoms. It’s easy for me to blame being tired on the dog (who wakes me up at 4:30 every morning), and to blame my flagging performance on just getting older, but more and more there is a nagging voice asking me, “What if you took a little time off, got healthy and then adopted a more well-rounded training program?” And the rational, knowledgable trainer in me knows that this approach would not only make me a healthier person, but probably a faster, stronger one as well.
So why don’t I do it? Well, conflicting messages, for one thing. There is so much “research” out there, it’s hard for even a fitness pro to make heads or tails of it all. Is more mileage better for my marathon training, or can you really “run less, run faster!” as one popular running resource claims? If I want to hold on to the bit of muscle those miles of running haven’t burned off, do I need to be lifting two days a week or three, and should those sessions be “just enough” to maintain, or should I be loading up the barbell and shooting for failure ever time?
I am no stranger to self-experimentation. Some of the best insight I’ve gained as a trainer has come from putting myself through rigorous and sometimes crazy workout schemes. But lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about what a more well-rounded program might look like – one that makes me feel great instead of sore, that boosts my immune system rather than running it down, and that keeps me looking like a personal trainer without being overly intense. In thinking about this, I’ve done a lot of research and come up with the following guidelines:
1. Do Aerobic Activity 5 or 6 Days A Week – Aerobic exercise is the most beneficial in terms of lowering your risk for disease, and it’s also the best at keeping weight off. But most of those workouts should be fairly easy – somewhere at the high end of Zone 2, or at a level of effort that just has you starting to breathe a little hard. 4 days per week, you should shoot to spend 45 – 60 minutes in this zone. The other one or two days, you’ll want to go harder – either working in intervals, or a more intense (but much shorter) steady-state workout.
2. You Only Need To Be As Strong As You Need To Be – It takes months of consistent strength training two or three times per week to build muscle. So if you’ve neglected this aspect of your fitness, don’t delay – hit the weight room ASAP! We begin losing muscle mass around the age of 30, and it only gets harder to get it back with each passing year. However, once you’re feeling pretty good about your level of strength and the amount of muscle you’re carrying, there’s no need to overdo it. Most of us can keep what we’ve got with just two short total body strength circuits per week. In 25 – 30 minutes, you can hit all of the major muscle groups with two sets of 8 – 12 reps. Do that twice a week, and that’s about all you need. Lifting longer, harder or more often is likely to result in injury and puts oxidative stress on your body’s systems.
3. Flexibility Ain’t What It Used To Be – I have been an avid proponent of stretching among my clients for years. This started mainly because I was appalled at their lack of flexibility, poor posture and limited range of motion. But stretching, it turns out, is pretty useless actually. Stretching before exercise has unequivocally been proven useless and hazardous. It can injure you and will definitely make you perform worse rather than better. Stretching after exercise is a little better, but it generally only makes you more flexible doing those particular stretches, and does little to make you feel less tight or give you better range of motion throughout your day. Much better is to adopt a routine that incorporates dynamic movements – something like a vinyasa yoga sequence, tai chi, qigong, and the like. These routines will move your body’s joints through a full range of motion in multiple planes, increasing joint fluidity and giving you greater mobility. But you have to practice this often – every day is a good idea! Right after your cardio workout, after a light warm-up, or straight out of a hot shower are all good times for this 10-minute workout.
4. Stress Less – More and more, stress levels are being seen as a greater piece to the overall health pie than even diet and exercise. By going around in a constant state of stress, you are telling your body to stay in “Fight or Flight” mode, and the resulting buildup of those hormones becomes toxic to your system. Add to this a poor night’s sleep, irritable mood swings and a bad diet, and your body becomes a walking time-bomb. There’s no need to add to your already stressful life by throwing an overly-demanding workout regimen into the mix. View exercise the same way you (hopefully) view food – as nourishment for your body, rather than as something your body should have to “deal with.” Learn and practice some meditative breathing exercises. Listen to calming music. Take an enjoyable walk in a scenic location instead of pounding out five miles on the pavement. And make getting enough sleep a priority.
If you follow these basic guidelines, you should start feeling better in a few weeks. If you add to this a diet rich in fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains and low in processed foods, you’ll be feeling amazing in no time!