I am a self-proclaimed research nerd as I like to point out as often as I can. Recently, I have been trying to wrap my mind around how to train in the most efficient manner possible to support my development as an athlete in my sport. After much internet searching and trying to discern the bozos who want to sound smart from the real professionals, I have found some great stuff. I have also learned that there is a lot to structuring a training regimen at the highest level possible. My goal in this post is to pass on some of what I have learned in a manner that the layman can understand and apply to their training at least at a basic level starting tomorrow if they choose.
The first concept that all true professionals in the field of strength and conditioning seem to agree on is the importance of what is known as “fatigue management”. Anybody who has undergone intense physical training over a period of time knows that there comes a point where the body starts to break down. They feel so sore they can’t quite perform at their best. They find that they just cannot find the motivation to really work hard. This is the point where many people start to get down on themselves and label themselves as lazy or unmotivated. Imagine their surprise when somebody with knowledge comes along and says, “You’re not lazy… You’re just tired!”
I find it funny that people seem to understand the importance of having the weekend and occasional vacations to emotionally, intellectually and physically recover from their jobs but when it comes to exercise and athletic preparation they feel like taking a break is somehow just laziness setting in. Have you ever noticed that when you train constantly and you start to feel tired that it isn’t long before you get sick or injured? Your body knows when it needs a break and if you won’t take one, it finds a way to force your hand. This is a result of something called “accumulated fatigue”. There are a lot of ways that accumulated fatigue affects us and it will not go away if you just “keep pushing”. The data on the negative effects of overtraining is plentiful and you can find article after article on it if you try. Integrating planned rest periods into your training will help you to manage fatigue and improve your athletic performance.
Exercise can be broken into three phases. The first is “stimulus” which refers to the act of actually training. An example would be lifting weights. The second phase is “recovery” which, simply explained, means recovering what was lost during the stimulus. The third phase, which is tied to recovery, is “adaptation”. It is during and after recovery that adaptations are going to happen. Adaptation can be explained as adjustment to a specific stimulus. Take the example of lifting weights. You stimulate the muscle being worked when you lift the weight. This stimulation causes micro-tears to the muscle tissue. During recovery, your body repairs the micro-tears and the muscle adapts so that it can more easily deal with a similar stimulus in the future. This muscle adaptation is known as hypertrophy. If you never take the time for recovery, your body cannot adapt and thus you will not see the benefits you were hoping for in terms of strength gains or speed increases or whatever it was you were hoping for.
This brings us to the term “periodization”. I am not an expert in the science of periodization so please understand that I am only trying to introduce the concept at a very basic level… Periodization has been defined a number of ways but the best one I have heard sounds something like this. Periodization is programming your training into blocks that include planned intervals of both stimulus and recovery to help avoid the negative effects of overtraining, to help get the most benefit from your training and to ensure a peak condition at precisely the time needed for competition. Based on the things I already wrote about earlier, the first two points should be easy to understand. The third one may need a little unpacking.
The idea of maintaining a peak condition over the long term really does not work! To maximize performance, we need to take those recovery periods to regain what was lost and to allow for adaptation as mentioned earlier. My research suggests that the longest a person can maintain a peak condition is three weeks. After that, the effects of overtraining start to creep in and performance will begin to decline. Periodizing your training so that you time being in peak condition for a specific time is thus crucial to performing at your best! You simply cannot push yourself to work with a high training volume and at maximum intensity over a long period of time and expect to keep it up.
Take the example of a kickboxing match. A hypothetical fighter has 12 weeks to prepare for the match. Right out of the gate they start running 5 km a day, going to the gym and doing an actual kickboxing class. He or she follows this routine 6 days a week and on Sunday they make sure to go for a run just to make sure they are working really hard. After the first week, they may notice that their timing is off during sparring and their muscles are so sore that they really don’t feel like training. Somebody spouts the old refrain “No pain, no gain!” and they get inspired and push through feeling like a bag of crap. By the end of the next week their performance is getting even worse and they are feeling depressed for some reason. They have now caught a cold and are being a miserable bastard with the people around them. If anyone reading this has ever done this or witnessed somebody else doing this they know exactly what happens next. This extremely hard working and disciplined individual inevitably gets injured or sick and has to take a week or possibly much more off from their training. This entire scenario reeks of poor fatigue management!
At the very least, our hypothetical warrior should consider taking at least one day completely off of training per week. They could also spread out the emphasis of training throughout the week to work on different areas of focus on different days. Always do at least a little cardio each day but vary the intensity throughout the week. If you are going to hit the weights hard on a given day, don’t also do sprints and hit pads until you are gasping for air. There are incredible complex concepts like “phase potentiation” (look that on up if you have a couple of weeks or so to study…See research by Mike Stone) that a person can adopt to accommodate this idea but at a basic level, everyone likely understands what I am saying here. Build planned periods of rest into your training schedule and listen to your body if it persistently refuses to cooperate.
On a slightly longer time horizon, our hypothetical fighter should consider taking a “recovery week” to slow down and allow for some healing and thus allow adaptations to occur. Rest or time-off seem like dirty words to many people. Some people genuinely have no idea what to do during a recovery period. One important thing to know is that recovery does not mean that you have to sit on your couch doing nothing. There is a concept called “active recovery” that will help busybodies stay active while still allowing them to deplete their accumulated fatigue. Active recovery can entail lessening the volume and intensity of your training for some time while your body reclaims some of its vitality. Don’t lift heavy weights. Don’t sprint. Only jog at slow pace and do lots of stretching and myofascial work. Go see a massage therapist and/or hit up a hot tub or sauna. A very simple method could be to do three weeks hard and one week light. Let both your mind and your body take a little break so that you are ready to go hard again the following week. After the actual fight you should take a genuine week or more off of training to fully recover. The emotional stress that a big competition causes requires recovery as much as the physical stress does.
I’ve heard people talk about their fears that they will “lose” some of their gains during a recovery period. This concern is unfounded as the residual effects of training do not simply disappear after a short break. Your fatigue will dissipate much faster than your fitness will and once fatigue decreases, adaptations can finally occur as described by another concept known as the Fitness/Fatigue Paradigm. Have you ever gotten a semi minor injury that kept you from intense training for a while? Maybe you took a nasty leg kick or rolled your ankle and it leaves you limping slightly for a couple days. After a short period of a week or so to allow for healing you return to full paced training to find you are stronger than before? This is explained by the fact that fatigue decreases faster than fitness. As I already mentioned, when fatigue decreases, adaptations can occur. This is the explanation for why you returned to the gym feeling like a million bucks!
There are so many people out there who pump out garbage about pushing yourself to the limits and ignoring your pain. Pushing yourself to the limit is a wonderfully motivating concept but we also need to know when it’s time to scale back. Your body and mind have built in warning systems (pain, mental exhaustion, a-motivation, the beginnings of coming down with a cold, extreme muscle soreness, etc…) to tell you when you are over-reaching. Listen to your body and use your mind to overcome those limits by intelligently structuring your training to include time to recover and again, listening to your body when the warning systems are firing. You can rest easy (pun intended) knowing that taking time to rest and recover will not cost you all that hard work you put in and that you will in fact benefit from taking it easy once in a while.
Now get to rest you hyper-focused bums!
The purpose of this blog
This blog is intended as a place to discuss ideas relevant to both both martial arts and life in general. Our school doesn't exist with the sole purpose of making great fighters but also of helping its members develop themselves into great people. The entries are about sharing ideas. I will not spend much time editing grammatical errors so please try not to let it drive you crazy when you come across them!