Most athletes over train. Now that’s a bold statement. How do I know? It is quite simple: I constantly ask athletes how they FEEL. The answers I get most often are tired, beat up, this or that hurts, when will the race be over, etc. all signs that they are tapping too far into their bodies’ natural ability to tolerate exercise. In other words, their minds are ahead of their bodies. In general, athletes are overly goal oriented and need to embrace the process more.
If you continue to train exactly as you currently do in the absence of any goal, then you are truly a process oriented athlete and are probably giving yourself the right dosage of exercise your body requires every day. If not, you’re probably in an over reaching state of disharmony that isn’t sustainable and by definition is over training. You’re pushing either too hard or too often and that’s not healthy in the long run.
It’s very easy to fall into the over training trap because in our exteriorly focused society we are constantly reinforced to look outside ourselves for solutions, hence our minds get caught up in the “training program” and we plough forward dragging our bodies along. We, in a sense, become disconnected from our holistic selves in pursuit of an external goal. However, progress from the inside out is possible, providing you hone your deeper listening skills.
My filing cabinet is filled with case stories of athletes performing very well on very little training. In fact, I remember a very competitive ultra-marathoner I worked with who does very well in competitions all over North America and who only runs three days a week. When asked why he trains on low volume, he told me it’s because he has learned through experience what feels optimal for his body. He hasn’t fallen into the trap of following an externally devised program; he follows his body’s guidance.
Many of the triathletes and runners I coach have improved on less mileage and intensity. What’s even more important is that I see the enthusiasm coming back, the aches and pains disappearing, and the competitive spirit flourishing again when you err on the under-done side vs. the over-done side. So how do you know when you’re over training? It’s simple; ask yourself if you feel great? If not, begin to analyze why not?
The training process should leave you feeling fresh the majority of the time. You should always feel good, excited about your next exercise session, and rid of minor aches and pains. Feeling good is a body’s natural state. If you have been battling any ach or pain for longer than a week, you need to take a serious look at your exercise program and give yourself the permission to back off - that’s the hard part, because rationalization, competitiveness, or your ego usually gets in the way.
Exercise is a double-edged sword. It can pull stress out of your body or it can drive stress inward. Too much exercise drives stress into your body and results in your system spending all of its time recovering. Nothing is left over for growth. Once you back off to the point where recovery is minimized then growth can occur and you become fitter, fresher, and stronger.
Being sensitive to this paradigm of stress will keep you injury free for a lifetime; it’s having the strength to park your ego that’s the difficult task. Yet it’s the critical part, backing off, disconnecting from your ego, forgetting about the race and listening to what your body requires right now, not tomorrow. I teach athletes to ask themselves the freshness question every morning and to follow their honest answer.
Your exercise program should leave you feeling invigorated not exhausted. You should feel excited to work out and enthused about training every day. If this is the case, then you are exercising in the zone of growth. Most athletes live in the zone of recovery and rarely experience growth, because their bodies are constantly trying to catch up to where their competitive expectations have driven them.
One quick way I get athletes into the zone of growth is by asking them this question: What length and intensity of a workout can you do today that will leave you feeling fresh and invigorated tomorrow? After their answer I cut it by 25% and we start there. Within a short period of time, usually a week or two, they are chomping at the bit to do more and that’s when it’s right to add training, not a moment before. At this point, when their body has caught up to their mind, athletes experience mind-body synchronicity.
I call this process training forwards. Most people train backwards, always looking at their goal and where they should be or what they should be achieving. I reverse this and have them train according to where they are right now. Basing their program on what they can comfortably handle right now ensures they give themselves permission to “be” in the their program and let their bodies dictate the progression from there.
To improve using this forwards approach is simple. Grow your distance or intensity when it feels right to do so and grow it in small increments. I use the 10% rule: You can add up to 10%, but not any more and only add when your body feels fresh, never when your mind say so. That’s the key, capitalizing on that invigorating feeling and practicing inner listening to know when it’s right to add the next step.
Don’t subscribe to a schedule, only have a basic plan, simply add to your run or bike on the days you feel great. Go faster when your body says it wants to let go! In this way your program evolves naturally from the inside out and you will find you are able to accomplish some amazing physical feats naturally and effortlessly.
Some of the most accomplished athletes I know use this approach and it’s interesting to note that they seem to be the healthiest, because they have learned to follow their bodies’ natural guidance.