Coach Caleb’s Corner
The Subtle Art of Balancing Training and Recovery
One of the most satisfying aspects of being a coach is seeing just how well our competitors hold up under the stress of preparation for competition. Last week our TSC team put in some of the most challenging sessions of the training cycle, and you’ve never seen more smiles, high fives and happy campers!
As an official StrongFirst gym, we are fortunate to be able to apply the latest research as to strength and endurance-building protocols that deliver maximum results, using the minimum effective doses of training stress. Our Breakthrough athletes are able to experience fewer difficulties with wear and tear on their hard-working hands and bodies than you might see with comparable event prep strategies used in other training settings. Perhaps even more notable is the alacrity with which StrongFirst-trained athletes recover following a competitive event; be it a powerlifting meet, SFG certification or Tactical Strength Challenge. With lower levels of central nervous system fatigue, less inconvenient muscle soreness and reduced risk of injury, athletes are able to quickly set their sights on the next achievement; sinking their teeth into a new phase of programming without delay. Achieving personal records and pushing one’s fitness limits but at a lower cost in terms of stress… sign me up!
Managing the stress of a busy lifestyle along with the stress (albeit a more positive stress) of hard physical training can be quite a juggling act, but careful planning enables us to take an ultra-minimalist approach. A “train as much as needed, not as much as possible” philosophy in the gym balanced with an appropriate recovery strategy make up the “one-two punch” that knocks out overtraining and promotes ever-readiness for action. Competition training should enable us to take on a Tactical Strength Challenge or a 10k race and not have us paying too hefty a physical price during the prep or in the aftermath.
The difficulty with making this work usually lies in being honest with ourselves about the training / recovery balance. The wrench thrown into the best-laid plans is usually our prioritization of the hard-driving active stuff with unequal prioritization of the recovery stuff. (I freely admit I am personally challenged by this myself which is why I can speak from experience with the scars to prove it!) We need as many of the obvious recovery elements as possible to maximize our results; adequate sleep, proper nutrition, corrective exercise, massage, etc. If you’re anything like most of the athletes I have the privilege to train, that’s already more recovery ideas than one can manage all at once. So, much like working on improving nutritional habits, it’s best to start by making a small change in one area until it becomes a habit before adding another element to the recovery strategy.
All this may seem counterintuitive to our hard-working culture, but the truth is many of us usually don’t need more training, we need better recovery. As the “big picture” of recovery outside the gym is a much larger topic, for right now let’s just focus one of the ways us coaches attack this problem right in the gym and during the training session itself. We can insist on periodized programming and rest intervals that often seem unnecessarily long. I’m often asked, am I really working hard enough?
Before acceptance must come understanding, I know, so let’s talk briefly about why always training more (and heavier) and resting less isn’t better. The stress reaction in the body is necessary to promote adaptation. In normal stress situations, the body channels resources to the system dominant for the given adaptation at the expense of other systems. The stress of consistent physical practice causes the body to prioritize the resources needed to recover from the training and we grow stronger, get faster and possess more stamina. These adaptations are all good! That is until we do all this “good” stuff so persistently that the body perceives that we are being exposed to a “no way out” situation. Our structural and energetic resources get excessively mobilized, perceiving there is a prolonged life-threatening crisis, and they can’t be put to productive use because they have nowhere to go. In these cases we are literally throwing recovery currency in the trash! This is because there isn’t actually an “I’m about to be eaten by a bear” crisis to react to, but we are sending our autonomic nervous systems the physical and emotional signals that there is.
If we are overly exposed to a stress reaction that lasts too long, our systems that promote rebuilding and produce life-giving energy simply get tapped out. The positive healthy adaptive reaction we were trying to create becomes a pathological one and can possibly lead to serious problems like diseases of the digestive tract, cardiovascular system, dermatological etc. Scary stuff! With the “Go hard or go home,” “Your competitors are out-hustling you” mentality so prevalent in our modern work environment, along with the deceptiveness of social media posts, we are distracted by a fitness paradigm that just isn’t good for long term health.
Here’s the ray of hope. The cost of adaptation to physical demands and it’s associated negative cross-effects are not unavoidable. Sensible pre-planned load selection, appropriate rest intervals and the use of “combined adaptation;” being simultaneously stimulated to adapt to several factors at once, are keys to success in the gym. As such, our training and recovery strategies seek to promote “Cross Adaptation.” By adapting to the minimum effective dose of diverse stress situations, we can actually incrementally increase the power of our stress limiting systems. These systems neutralize free radicals, fight inflammation, reduce pain, improve mood, lover blood pressure etc. A program that includes the right balance of easy and challenging anaerobic training, active recovery and aerobic conditioning can help promote this cross adaptation.
For a very straight-forward example of this, look no further than our current TSC prep cycle; heavy deadlifts once a week for brute strength, short burst KB ballistic intervals with ample rest for cardiovascular endurance, grease the groove practice for hangs / pull-ups for strength endurance and low-stress variety movement days for active recovery. This yields just enough stress to promote positive changes and readiness on competition day, without depleting the resources that fight off illness or help us cope with life’s other challenges in the meantime!
So the next time your heart is pounding hard from that last burst of beautiful kettlebell swings, or you’re feeling the euphoria right after a big set on the bench press and you want to go heavier or longer than the program had in mind, take a moment. Then take another moment and think of the resources you are mobilizing during that rest interval. Give them a chance to work their magic! Remember that we are training to become more resilient, not destroying our own resiliency by training.