Until fairly recently, “More is better” was my training mantra. But low-grade injuries and a thyroid-adrenal meltdown forced me to reconsider.
I wasn’t always a training go-getter. I started out as an overweight kid (who preferred reading to sweating) and blossomed into an obese adult. But eventually I turned it around, and I devoured new physical activities the way I’d formerly tucked into a bag of Doritos.
For the twenty years between college and now, I tackled all kinds of adventures to turn myself into a super-hero: kick boxing and triathlons, flat track roller derby and interval training, CrossFit and half marathons, with step aerobics and the slide thrown into the mix. I enjoyed all of them, but they also left me exhausted and, ultimately, injured and sick. I didn’t recognize that my slow-to-heal shoulder and burnt-out thyroid were, perhaps, related to the fact I never powered down. I worked out, full throttle, six days a week for years — until my body decided it was going to force me to slow down.
If you’re a competitive athlete or a natural-born firebreather, the messages in this post might not be for you. (Although I hope you’ll try some of my suggestions, to see if they don’t make you feel even better.)
These ideas are for women and men like me: regular people who want to train smart so they can look as sexy as possible and wake up feeling physically — and emotionally — great every day.
Disclaimer: I know the temptation can be strong to kick your own ass on a regular basis. I’ve felt the allure of being new to CrossFit, daydreaming about nailing an RX workout, or running with the big dogs who go hard three days on, one day off. I understand the desire to pay penance for an indulgent vacation with “punishment running” to work off the extra calories. I’ve been the girl who worked out for two hours at a stretch in an attempt to get in the The Dress™ for a class reunion.
To be successful, we are not required to turn our training up to eleven every time. For most of us variety, recovery, play, and meditation — alternated with workouts that make us feel like a monster (in that good way) — are vital to build the body we want and to enjoy ourselves while we’re doing it.
1. High, Low, and In Between
I am not advocating you start cupcaking your workouts. In fact, I urge you to do the opposite. Each week, I choose one or two workouts each week, and I make ‘em count. I push myself in sessions that leave me breathless, confident in the knowledge I really did something. That might work for you, too.
Then for the rest of the week, I turn my focus to accumulating as much activity as I can. I balance those two high-intensity workouts with moderately challenging movements: run-walk intervals, swimming, skating, yoga, gymnastics skills, lighter weights. Whatever it takes to keep me engaged. The goal is to move my body without beating it up.
In between and around those high- and moderate-intensity workout sessions, I try to remember to walk, walk, walk — to get outside, breathe fresh air, and let my body and mind reconnect with rejuvenating, low-intensity movement.
A caveat, should you try this approach: If it’s your scheduled high-intensity day, and you’re feeling ragged, do something else. A broken down body needs time to rebuild, and we do ourselves no favors when we train tired.
2. (Not) For Time
When it was suggested to me that I cut back on the number of high-intensity workouts I did each week, my response was far from receptive. I pouted. I fretted. I cursed. I mourned the loss of movements I love, like box jumps and man-makers and burpees. (Yes! Even burpees.) Then I realized I could do all those movements as “activity” rather than “exercise.”
I didn’t need to change what I was doing; I need to modify how I was doing it.
The simple answer was to kill the clock. Now on my moderate-intensity workout days, I tackle my favorite CrossFit-style WODs and chippers, but I do them without a timer. I accomplish all the work without the physical and mental stress of being dogged by the clock.
3. Body Maintenance
Like any other intricate machine, our bodies need conscientious, reliable maintenance to perform at their best. And true maintenance is more than a half-hearted hamstring stretch after a run or a begrudging day off once in a while. When I injured my right shoulder a few months ago, I was prescribed a series of stretches with a band and ohmygoshsopainful rolling with a lacrosse ball under my shoulder blades and around the shoulder socket. Again, I pouted. But two months of consistent rolling, stretching, and rest rehabilitated my shoulder — no surgery and no lasting limitations. Of course, the smart way to do it is to incorporate stretching, yoga, foam rolling, and lacrosse balls into your weekly routine so you can prevent injury with maintenance, rather than heal after the fact.
4. Get Out and Play
As a self-doubting over-achiever and wannabe superhero, I’m notoriously bad at playing. Until recently, I never understood the point of doing something without a point. Climbing on a jungle gym. Throwing a Frisbee. Tossing a football. Roller skating in the park. I could get behind the idea of all those activities as potential workouts — I even said to my husband Dave one day when he suggested we play with a Frisbee, “Can we throw it, then sprint to it?” During my Derby days, I used to roller skate as fast as possible around Austin’s veloway to work on skills and endurance – but why would I just go out and skate?
Because it’s fun.
And that kind of fun — activities done for their own sake, without any kind of productive outcome attached to them — is essential to our overall health and happiness.
It also provides a feedback loop with intentional training. The fun takes advantage of the strength and endurance we build in our challenging workouts – and the fun also provides a mental break so we can bring all of our focus to our hardcore training sessions.
Here’s a sentence I never thought I’d write: Meditation improved my deadlift.
Research shows that the people around the world who describe themselves as “happy” meditate on a regular basis. Based on that stat alone, I decided to give it a try. I started with guided meditations because I usually have my own radio station playing nonstop in my noggin. (WMEL: Home of the constant chatter and 24-hour Duran Duran megahits).
By practicing breathing with intent, I’ve become more adept at dropping into meditation mode pretty consistently, and it’s improved all aspects of my life — even strength training.
When we’re under a barbell, we need to control our breath, focus our energy, clear our minds of distractions, and be completely in the moment. That is exactly what happens during meditation, and my daily meditation practice has kicked up my strength training skills.
Getting started with meditation can be challenging for just about everybody. Here’s a simple relaxation exercise that works like gangbusters and won’t set off your hippie meter.
Find a quiet spot where you can lie down, uninterrupted. I like the floor, but a bed or couch is OK, too. Now is not the time to be picky. Pillows under your head are also a personal preference; you might also like one behind your knees.
Lie on your back with eyes closed, arms a comfortable distance away from your body with palms facing up, legs comfortably apart with feet gently falling naturally toward the outside of your body mid-line.
Here we go:
Quiet your body, and imagine your limbs and torso are getting heavy. Imagine your skin heavy against your muscles, your muscles heavy against your bones, your eyes heavy in their sockets.
Now turn your focus to your breath. Inhale through your nose for a count of four, then exhale through your nose for a count of eight. Repeat a few times, and when the rhythm feels natural and unforced, turn your attention to your rib cage. Envision your torso gently expanding on the inhale and contracting on the exhale. It’s all seamless and easy and smooth.
Feel yourself sink into the floor as your breath relaxes your body, making every inch of your limbs heavy with relaxation.
Now imagine warm sun shining on you. It provides heat but it’s not bright, so your eyelids stay relaxed. Feel the sun easing the tension from your face. Relax your eyebrows… your jaw… your neck… your tongue inside your mouth. Continue the rhythmic breathing and feel your head grow heavy.
Now the sun begins to move across your body. Visualize each body part as the sun warms the muscles.
The sun moves to your chest. Your shoulders relax into the floor as your chest expands and contracts with your breath. Your ribcage and abdominal muscles are relaxed. Your torso feels heavy and sinks gently into the floor.
The sun moves to your left arm, and its warmth radiates from your shoulder to your elbow… to your wrist… to your hand. Your arm is heavy and relaxed. Now the sun moves over your right arm: shoulder, elbow, wrist, and hand. Your right arm sinks into the floor.
Now the sun moves to your waist and hips. Your muscles relax further and continue to feel heavy. The warmth moves from your left hip… to your left knee… your left calf… your left ankle… you left foot… slowly relaxing each muscle group.
Then the right hip… right knee… right calf… right ankle… right foot. Your whole body is now relaxed and quiet. Your limbs feel both heavy and weightless.
Return your focus slowly to your breathing: in for a count of four, out for a count of eight.
Imagine your torso gently, slowly, effortlessly expanding and contracting. Remain in this state, breathing and relaxed for as long as you need to. When you’re ready to return to the rest of the world, keep your eyes closed and slowly wiggle your fingers and toes. Bring your hands together in front of your heart and rub the palms together to generate some heat. Place your cupped hands over your eyes and slowly open your eyes inside your hands to feel the warmth and gently re-engage with light.
When you’re ready, roll onto your right side and use your arms to press up to a sitting position. Aaaaahhhhh.
Long ago, I was the girl who said, “I only run when chased.” — and then I became the girl who worked out when sore and exhausted, in the dark, in the cold, and with a cold. I’m working just as hard now to find the right blend of work, rest, and play, and I encourage you to do the same. Becoming the best versions of ourselves can be tricky business, but finding your personal balance is a (broad jump) leap in the right direction.