When I started to learn about how to become more mentally tough by conquering self-talk and the other mental training techniques to get to the next level, I found out that I am able to push my body to limits I didn’t know existed. Eventually, unfortunately and undoubtedly, I discovered a condition that I didn’t even know existed: overtraining.
So I decided to follow up on my toughness blogs with a blog post of equal potential, in the complete opposite direction: How to become tougher by LISTENING to your body and RECOVERING.
My last blog was about ignoring your thoughts and needs (for the time being) that are not helping you when you need to perform at your best. This post is in the complete opposite direction, it is about learning to listen to your body, during rest, in order to ensure that it is recovered and prepared for further stress and stimulus.
This post is summarized by Loehr's quote from ‘the new toughness training for sport’:
"STRESS is the stimulus for growth. RECOVERY is when you grow."
Photo cred : Athlete Strength and Performance
The importance of recovery
I’m going to assume that a lot of you are looking to improve your game - gain an inch on your competitors. As you might know, becoming a better athlete will require a lot more hard work which involves adding physical, mental or emotional stress to what you already experience.
HOWEVER, if you are already, at your peak of stress with the current workload, you don't have room for ADDITIONAL stress. In this case, what you need is ADDITIONAL RECOVERY that will allow you to increase your tank for more WORKLOAD and stress.
The correlation between the two opposing forces of stress and recovery is evident in our everyday life including nature itself. Even the fundamental aspects of the 24-hour day is made up of daylight (time for stress and work) and night, (time for recovery and rest).
Being from a martial arts background, I find the Yin-Yang sign to be quite helpful to depict the necessity for balance. The Yin-Yang sign, originating from ancient Chinese tradition, stands for how ‘opposite or contrary forces are actually complementary, interconnected, and interdependent in the natural world, and how they give rise to each other as they interrelate to one another’. In other words, not only are these opposite forces (stress and recovery) complimentary to each other, but they actually give rise to one another – without one, there is no other. Without stress, there is no rest and without rest, there is no stress. The same way that without light, you cannot have darkness and vice versa.
Photo cred: Quiet Cone
What does this have to do with me?
Your job as a “high-performance” athlete is to be able to balance the stress you undergo with proper recovery. This means that all the physical stress that you endure, you must find a way to create equal physical recovery.
Learning how to recover properly physically, mentally and emotionally will increase your capacity for additional stress. To recover properly, you will need to learn to listen to your body’s signals and work towards restoring the stress-recovery balance.
The stress-recovery balance when it comes to high-performance cannot be emphasized enough.
Stress is any time you are expending energy. Recovery is when energy is re-captured. Pushing yourself in training and competitions causes you to release physical, mental and emotional energy. Failure to "re-capture" some of that energy, will cause you to over train or burn out.
If you took my advice on how to become a tougher athlete, you'll realize that your ability to push yourself has increased dramatically. Although you will feel physically tired, you will also feel mentally and emotionally fatigued. This is because you started tapping into your mental and emotional energy. Bringing out the necessary emotions to perform at your peak is mentally exhausted. As a result, you need to make sure you are physically, mentally and emotionally recovered.
Therefore recovery both mentally and emotionally becomes just as important as getting physical rest. In the past, I always believed that simply recovering physically would help me recover mentally and emotionally. However, that is not the case. Our mental and emotional capacities need a special kind of care – they have their own needs.
Image cred: Black Lizard
Under-recovery, so what’s the big deal?
The cause of a burn out or plateaued progress is constant and prolonged physical, mental or emotional stress OR recovery. Essentially any prolonged stress or recovery without a chance for recovery can hinder the ability to cope with stress. Furthermore, your body enters one of two states:
1. Overreaching – accumulation of training and or non training stress that results in a short term decrement in performance capacity in which restoration of performance capacity may take several days to several weeks.
a. Functional overreaching – bounce back in couple of weeks with appropriate recovery
b. Nonfunctional overreaching – recovery takes 2 to 6 weeks
2. Overtraining - accumulation of training and or non training stress that results in a short term decrement in performance capacity in which restoration of performance capacity may take several weeks to several months (usually longer than 6 weeks).
Now if you are not recovery properly or not balancing your stress and recovery, your training and recovery graph might look like this :
Photo cred : Ben Greendfield’s book, Beyond Training: Mastering Endurance, Health and Life.
Photo cred : Ben Greendfield, Beyond Training: Mastering Endurance, Health and Life.
As you can see by the graph above, you end up with improved performance at the end of your training cycle.
Understanding and configuring Stress
Any kind of physical training where you are pushing your body, you cause micro-traumas to your muscles an all systems of your body. It is interesting to see how physical training affects the various body systems, below we only touch on your muscular and nervous system. For more information check out Ben Greendfield’s book, Beyond Training: Mastering Endurance, Health and Life.
Working out = micro-trauma for the muscles!
So, what happens to your muscles when you workout? The reality is that you are actually “tearing” your muscles. The micro-trauma to the muscle fiber signals inflammation and the nearby satellite cells. These satellite cells help repair or replace muscle fiber by either fusing to themselves or to the muscle fiber (Greenfield, 2012). McMaster and Washington University conducted research that discovered that muscle protein synthesis is up by a hefty 109 percent after 24 hours of the workout and the process finalizes after 36 hours. In other words, your muscles only finish repairing themselves after 36 hours following your previous workout. This study and various others simply state that going training without your muscles properly repaired, you are increasing your chances for further damage and injury. However, pushing yourself physically also affects other systems of your body, such as your nervous system.
Photo cred : BET
Your nervous system
Your nervous system is the “battery” that fires all your muscles. Putting your nervous system to work causes your body to release inflammatory cytokines that dock on receptors in your central nervous system and delay neural recovery.
That is why, even if your muscles have completely recovered, when your nervous system is shot you will not go anywhere. Also, your nervous system doesn’t differentiate between muscle groups. This means that if you had a hardcore bike session yesterday, you will not be able to bench press as much as you usually do. However, it’s important to note that low aerobic cardio doesn’t really create much neural fatigue as high intensity workouts such as sprints.
So how long does it take for the nervous system to recover? Approximately 48 hours if your nervous system has been drained by high-intensity efforts. Any workouts prior to the 48-hour recovery mark only further depletes your nervous system and prolongs your recovery. Doing this continuously sets you up for some serious under recovery.
The most fascinating aspect of all of this is that your nervous system, blood, bones, immune system and hormones need relatively the same amount of time to recover. The caveat here is that if you workout without giving your body at least 48 hours to recover between high-intensity workouts you are essentially working out with torn muscles, a depleted nervous system, blood, bones, hormones and immune system.
If you are injury prone and/or constantly sick, having hard time sleeping or having weight issues, this might be why. Continuously depleting all your body systems without properly recovery is the reason that you might run into overtraining – which means resting at least 2 months.
Photo Cred : OutsideOnline
Three week ‘over-reaching’ Study
French researchers we working with two groups of triathletes – one group’s training remained the same while the other group did three weeks of overreaching and then a week of tapering (recovery). The results were a substantial increase performance following the week of tapering for the group that undergone three weeks of overreaching.
Step 1 to recovery – listening to the body
Your body is an incredible machine. Even your mind is incredible, however seeing the connection between the two can sometimes be tricky. Your body will actually send you signals when things are off balance. Your job is “de-configure” the signal and give your body the necessary care it needs.
Here are other signals that something is off and you need to try to recover better:
Physical Signals of overtraining:
- Chronic fatigue
- Lost of motivation
- Muscle Soreness
- Constant illness
- Aches and pains
- Problems with eating, sleeping and managing your weight
Once you experienced any of these symptoms or you want to increase our workload to improve better, here are some ways to increase physical recovery:
1) Better sleep – sleep is actually when your body is healing itself from all the stress that you put it through
a) Make sure you have a similar routine before going to sleep and when waking up - this will help your sleep be more regular
b) Sleep in complete darkness - get rid of any electronics
c) Take a nap especially if it fits your body’s regular rhythm
2) Better nutrition – the food that you eat is resources that you give your body to heal itself
a) Make sure you stay hydrated
b) Get all the vitamins and minerals your body needs
c) Talk to a nutritionist about a diet plan that has enough nutrients to achieve your results
3) Recuperation – you can actually manipulate the body’s systems to send more blood and more nutrients to the body parts that need it the most.
a) Foam rolling
Meeting your physical needs is the base for all your athletics performance. I’d highly recommend researching every single aspect of your athletics to discover better ways to recover so that you can push yourself further and harder.
Photo cred : Dr. John Rusin
Meeting your mental and emotional needs
Beyond just the physical stress, all athletes are also susceptible to intense mental and emotional stress.
Each athlete differs in how they deal with this type of stress; however, the mental and emotional stress often equals and sometimes out-weighs the physical stress.
Let’s tackle mental stress first.
There are a bunch of reasons that athletes are susceptible for extreme mental fatigue:
- Athletes focus on physical recovery and ignore their mental and emotional needs.
- Athletes are susceptible to the usual work-personal life stress that every person goes through such as:
- Relationships problems
- Financial problems
- Work stress
- Life stress
- Academic stress
- Athletes have to look and act tough at all times – no time for being a “wussy”.
- Mental and emotional energy is necessary to perform at peak potential
- Athletes have to visualize a lot of the plays and exercises that they have to do before actually doing them.
Athletes undergo additional stress from:
- Nutritional and diet restrictions
- Pressure to perform
- Climate changes
This issue is worsened when athletes don’t give themselves time to recover. If you accumulate a substantial amount, you can end up of some of the mental stress symptoms such as
- Confused thinking/poor concentration
- Persistent mental mistakes
- Chronic mental fatigue
- Irrational and negative thinking
- Poor problem solving
To recovery mentally, athletes should try to decrease focus and increase calmness, fantasy and creativity. This can include anything from playing an instrument to hanging out with friends. The solution that worked for me is to infuse your schedule and training routine with fun. Make it a goal to have fun at least once before or after practice.
Finding ways to recover mentally and emotionally will increase your tank for more stress.
Now let’s look at emotional needs
Emotional needs are the ones that are slightly harder to fulfill partially because they are slightly harder to “admit to”. Furthermore emotional needs need your full and undivided attention. It also requires you to be honest with yourself and the thing that athletes hate the most – being vulnerable.
For example, I’ve always thought low motivation was something to be scared of - it is sometime to hide or ignore, or shove under the nearest carpet (or tatami in my case). However, after reading Loehr’s material, my mind, heart and ears are fully attuned to any signs or signals of low motivation.
Low motivation is a very simple defense mechanism employed by your body as a way to protect itself from further stress. When I lose motivation it means my body and mind need a little break. This actually works magic. Immediately after a very short break - it can be a single nap or even just a day of fun- I get my motivation back.
Feelings and emotions are the way that our body communicates with us to tell us about needs that it has. Ignoring these feelings and emotions when it is time to perform is critical to reach peak performance; however, any time beyond when you are performing, ignored feelings and emotions is detrimental to your ability to perform at peak performance.
There are many signs that you are overreaching yourself. Sometimes listening to your body and acting in the right time can save you from entering the overreaching or, god forbid the overtraining state.
To find out if you are under a lot of emotional stress check if you have any of the following signals of overtraining:
- Low Motivation
- Lack of enjoyment
Additionally, talking about your emotions or writing out your thoughts can increase emotional recovery. This is because keeping emotions bottled up can be emotionally stressful and energy consuming.
I think the topic of recovery is highly overlooked by most high-performance athletes. It is these athletes that have perfected the mental toughness but forgot to put the same effort into their recovery.
Many athletes, including myself, have plateaued their growth because of NEGLECTING their needs. As a high-performing athlete you should be looking after your body like it is a temple. You need to listen to it and give it the proper care it needs to recovery, recuperate and get ready for the next training session.
I’d love to know what you think about this topic and if you think I missed anything please let us know in the comments below.