Managing the Ebb & Flow Nature of Fitness

Posted on December 16, 2011

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(alternatively, “If You Ain’t Ebbin’, You Ain’t Flowin'”)

The fact is, much as you may like to be all things to all people, especially you type-A’ers, you simply can’t be maxed out in all areas of your fitness at the same time. Now, you may be thinking, “but I don’t want to be a million different types of “fit”.  I just want to be fast/lean/an Ironman/insert your fitness goal here. But consider this gang, if you’re injured, and trying to work around/through it, while also trying to be fast/lean/an Ironman…you’re trying to marry two ends of the fitness spectrum that don’t jive together well at all. If you want to be strong, like really strong, but also want to complete a marathon this year…again, two ends of the spectrum that don’t jive all that well. That doesn’t mean you can’t address and even achieve both goals in the same year, you would simply be wise to spread those goals out so that you can get your best results out of both, rather than mediocre results from doing both at the same time.

Look at the fitness/performance spectrum like this. Along the spectrum are various types of fitness – all the points along the spectrum are fine goals to work for, no one point is better than another. Some bleed over into others, or lend themselves to other fitness factors, and it is possible to achieve more than 1 point on the spectrum in a given year. But, there are aspects of  fitness/performance that are so far apart on the spectrum that you can’t achieve both goals at the same time, nor can you even come remotely close to having quality training sessions for both if you attempt both goals at the same time.

For example, if you’re working out of a decently large injury…it may not be the year that you work on cutting a minute off your per mile pace. Not to say that you can’t, every person is unique where they’re starting on the spectrum & what they’re capable of doing – the point is, the training methods & intensities for injury recovery/prevention are very different from those that you would do to get much faster in your running season. Trying to fix the injury AND get faster is a recipe for disaster. You end up never putting your best effort to either goal & you risk lengthening the amount of time it takes for you to heal from the injury, which further delays your aspirations of being a speedy demon in your races.

And this doesn’t just apply to injuries & performance goals. The adaptation required of the body to develop powerful strength to lift heavy things is different from the strength needed to have the muscles go and go for a multi-hour event. The work an athlete must do in their off-season is different from what they should be doing when in-season. Repeating the same kind of workout for general fitness or weight loss is a sure-fire way to overtrain, plateau, or die of boredom.

Every person’s fitness/performance training needs variations throughout the year. And not just swapping the leg extension machine for lunges in your workout.

Enter, the ‘ebb’ and the ‘flow’. In training, we call this periodization, & we (fitness pros, conditioning coaches, etc) can make the ebb & flow very technical & personalized to the individual reaching for fitness/performance goals. Olympic & professional athletes have extremely detailed training protocols. But it boils down to this: hit ‘x’ goal by ‘y’ date/event, marking checkpoints along the way that show the fitness for achieving ‘x’ goal is moving along in a consistent manner.

If you do it right, you’ll peak at the right time in your fitness/performance with whatever goal you were going for. The hard part is then letting that fitness/performance level go a bit so you can rest your body or work on a different goal. But you have to do it. Going along with repeated effort at repeated intensities doing repetitive movements = injury or burnout. 

I spent from Jan – end of August this year training for middle-distance running. My gym time focused around functional strength that developed endurance-strength for running half marathons. Endurance-strength is noted by the ability of the muscle & kinetic chain to hold up under repeated movements, greater than 1 hour. But when the season ended, as elated as I was with my performances, I could hear/feel my body telling me it needed to rest. My body was telling me it was ready to shift away from the endurance stuff for awhile, heal the tissue distress that running perpetually throws on you & try my hand at some true strength work.

So I took a week off to do nothing. No thing. The fastest I moved was a slow walk. I needed it. Not only to heal, but to build back the excitement to jump into the gym. Then I grabbed the strength standard test from a fellow micro-gym owner in California & on Day 1 of my new program, I tested my strength & skill level. And it was pitiful. (I grabbed someone elses’ strength & skill test because I didn’t want to test myself with my own test- knowing my own weaknesses, it would be easy to cop-out from what I “should” be able to do to meet my strength goals.) Sure, I had enough strength to run 13 miles, but I did not have the strength needed to deadlift my bodyweight at least 3x, nor did I have the strength to perform multiple bodyweight dips.

And there you have the fitness/performance spectrum. You can only focus on so much at 1 time, and some goals simply take you in too different of a direction to accomplish both at the same time. If I’d been deadlifting my bodyweight multiple times, I’d not have had the endurance in my muscles to complete the large volume of miles I needed to do each week. The goal would be to then address these other strength factors in the off-season, retain some of the progress I make from working on that strength, then shift back to endurance running stronger, more powerful, & better than last season.

But when you ebb & flow your training program like this – you must deal with the inevitable, “wow, I suck at this” thoughts that come up  early on as you struggle to get into the groove of the different movements…as you take note of just how weak you are compared to where you want to be. And this is where you need to be vigilant over your thoughts, reminding yourself that you, in fact, are not ‘weak’, you simply are not strong at this type of strength/performance. YET. You were quite strong at whatever phase of training or goal-accomplishment you just came out of, and that phase or goal was located down the spectrum a bit from what you are now reaching.

Workouts early on in a new phase of training can be disappointing if you’re not careful. You have got to manage your expectations accordingly or else you’ll end up in a tailspin of negativity. When I began my off-season strength program, I was unbelievably sore. I struggled through exercise movements I had not done in months. But guess what happened along the way to my off-season fitness goals? I developed coordination for the exercise movements, I built strength & power in my kinetic chain, I adapted, I got strong. I felt good. In case you’re keeping track, after 3 months of heavy lifting, I went from a max effort of 3 deadlifts @ 83% of my weight to 8 @ 100% of my weight. I achieved exponential growth in various other strength & skill tests. But that was only after I got through the initial mental challenge of “wow, I’m so not strong.” Reminding myself, “I am strong. I haven’t trained for these new goals, of course I’m not going to feel amazing with them yet. But I will be strong if I stay the course.”

And when I began my endurance program a few weeks ago, I was stupid-slow on my runs. My lungs and heart rate did not respond like they did back in my peak in August. And for a fleeting moment, I thought “oh this is bad,” then I focused only on completing the workout, and putting one foot in front of the other as I re-built my cardio base. I vowed not to put any attention to where I should be, my only focus was on “complete this workout Kate, & you’re one step closer to not sucking at distance running anymore.”

Ebb & flow folks, ebb & flow.

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