How hard you should push, if at all, to return to and beat your personal best?
Ever since Eugene's gyms opened back up, I've been back at it early, three days a week. I've also added back my weekly hour-long program with my fitness trainer Ryan at Genuine Fitness. Between the two I've seen swift improvements.
Those improvements, particularly for those of us coming out from under quarantine, are tempting. Every step we take to reclaim the athletic ability we had or were hoping to best before March of 2020 is exciting. That can lead to pushing even harder, topping every single personal best with yet another personal best, until we're setting personal records, or PRs.
While it's entirely understandable that many of us are very eager to rid ourselves of the unwanted quarantine weight or regain what strength we've lost, it's also easy to lose sight of the cost to the body when we fail to plan rest days.
My sports chiro, Kevin Plummer, is a bit compulsive when it comes to planning out his workouts. A classic mesomorph, Plummer's workouts are as much as source of stress release as they are also a way to ensure healthy aging. He was a competitive decathlete out of Creswell, just south of Eugene. Now some thirty years later, he continues to improve his sprint, jump height and lift numbers, even as his school records still stand at his old gym. Yesterday morning as he was realigning my back after a particularly challenging day moving large bags of lawn waste around my yard, I asked him how he keeps improving, year after year.
"I plan my workouts four months at a time," he explained. "There is always a rest week, which in this case means workouts at 50% intensity. The final two weeks of the quarter are pure rest."
"Rest" for Plummer means camping with his boys. So in this case, rest is relative. However, the point is that he stops pushing his limits, day after day after day. He takes a dedicated, lengthy, regular break from training. For many the mere idea of taking a two-week respite from a hard workout brings up terror.
Plummer categorically disagrees. Since he's been a personal trainer for athletes for years, he speaks from having worked extensively with folks focused on results and improvement.
"Just as with endurance training, there is a point past which the search for the Holy Grail of the PR becomes counterproductive. If you keep pushing, at some point the body is just exhausted, and starts pushing back," he said. "That could mean injury, exhaustion, and yet another layer of stress."
Here's a way to understand this:
From the article:
But there are limits to how much stress the body can tolerate before it breaks down and suffers injury. Doing too much work too quickly will result in injury or muscle damage. Doing too little too slowly will not result in any improvement.
...and even more importantly,
The consequences of overtraining are many. Research has found that it can increase your body fat, raise your risk of dehydration, lower your libido, and worsen your mood.
The article goes on to explain the difference between passive and active rest days, which are what Plummer is describing, above. He'll do 50% workouts on active rest periods. Pure rest, for him, means two weeks of camping, fun, exploration with the boys; in other words, not at the gym or the track. While that spells active for many, for him it's a critical vacay from the daily effort to reach yet another PR.
I am surrounded on all sides at my Planet Fitness in West Eugene every morning by folks who are clearly trying very, very hard to roll back the effects of a year under quarantine. They're putting in Herculean efforts, and in the process, may well be causing undue harm to their bodies. Their movements sometimes speak of desperation. Finally out of Covid jail, we want our bodies and our lives back. I know the feeling, and I've done it myself. At 68 I can't afford those injuries, and the need to protect my aging body from unnecessary damage becomes paramount.
Yet I too, lost muscle under quarantine. I understand the urge to surge back.
However, as Plummer points out, putting additional undue stress on our bodies in an attempt to regain our health might just torpedo us further. This article from Healthline discusses the warning signs of when you're overdoing it. No pain, no gain could in these cases put you in the hospital:
Given the current conditions dealing with Covid, this line from the article really leapt out:
Decreased immunity or illness
Along with feeling run-down, you may find you get sick more often. You may also be prone to infections, mild illnesses, and upper respiratory tract infections (URTIs).
You might honestly believe you are building strength when overdoing it is doing the opposite. In this case, more isn't necessarily better.
This article from Shape magazine speaks to the compulsion to keep after it even when a workout starts to hurt us, and what happens when we back off and let our bodies do what they are designed to do. Adapt:
This line from the article likely speaks to how a great many of us feel now that the trails, the gyms, the pools and all the outdoor options are finally open to us:
...(overtraining) was also driven by fear that if I stopped, my body would instantly revert back to how it was when I had felt the most insecure about it.
I've done that too. I can also speak to what happens when you plan to rest, as Plummer does. My gains take a huge leap within the first few days after a serious rest break. I'm often amazed at how easy some tough moves can be after even a two-day break.
This is my favorite piece from her story:
After my baby was born, I cut my workouts down even more so I could spend more time with her and my husband. This time I was surprised to discover that not only did my fitness not suffer but it actually improved! Despite working out so much less, now I'm faster, stronger, and leaner than I've ever been. My husband jokes that pregnancy got me in the best shape of my life-and it's true.
It isn't going to hurt, and likely will support your post-quarantine fitness goals far more to plan rest days. No matter how fearful you are that you might lose ground, the ground you gain from having an ice cream walk down Amazon Creek with your kids on a sweet, slow Saturday will likely motivate you to plan for more of same.
Rest days are why Plummer, at 48, continues to push out his PRs across the board. You and I might not be that motivated to be superman or woman, but chances are we really, really want to be out, say, on our bikes. There are days to race, and there are days to pedal slowly.
To that, on those days when it's time to stop and watch the ducks with your own ducklings, here's a list of great family-friendly bike trails around Eugene:
Stopping to watch the world as it is rather than trying to race time is one of the pleasures of living in Oregon. Your body will come back, one way or another. Maybe not precisely as it was, maybe better. The way Plummer and my trainer Ryan see it, spending a few quiet hours in the cool shadows of the fir forest around my house, quietly pulling up invasive geraniums, is part of my workout program.
That way when I hit the gym tomorrow, that kettle bell that beat me last week is a piece of cake.