Spend Your Energy Wisely: Why and How to Manage Your Stress Exposures for Optimal Progress

Posted by Maureen Harris on

Look, I get it. Talking about recovery can seem like a bit of a snooze fest. I mean, honestly—half of what we talk about when we talk about recovery is literally snoozing! It’s way more exciting to talk about achieving your first pull-up, building some huge quads or a kettlebooty, or a delectable new slow cooker recipe (mmm, pulled pork...).

But consider that your recovery time is when all the magic happens! When you allow your body to recover, you enable yourself to build muscle, get stronger, and support a hormonal environment conducive to fat loss. Yes, you absolutely need to put in the hard work in the gym and kitchen, but without rest and recovery, you are wasting your time or, worse, making yourself weaker, flabbier, and more susceptible to infections and chronic aches and pains.

I’ll say it again as it’s so important: if your training plan does not include appropriate recovery, your efforts can make you weaker and flabbier! No matter what your goal, recovery is key! (Unless your goal is to be grumpy, weak, achy, fatigued, and sick all the time, in which case, please proceed.)

“But I don’t have time for rest and relaxation!” you say. “I’m very important and I drive a Dodge Stratus!”

Seriously, though, after budgeting time for work, friends, food prep, and exercise, you’re already overbooked!   I believe you. Really! But I am still going to try to convince you that recovery is worth prioritizing.

Everything has a tradeoff, and you might find that trading out a six mile run for a Yin yoga class or trading out a metcon class for an extra hour of sleep is a worthy trade. Prioritizing recovery does not need to impose an additional obligation on your schedule. Rather, it’s about smart allocation of time and energy resources.

Before we go further, let’s play a quick game, OK? Can you guess the common thread linking these everyday events?

  • A truck cuts you off on the highway, missing you by a hair
  • You pulled five sets of heavy deadlifts yesterday (with a PR weight!)
  • You polish off a glass of your favorite rosé
  • You just de-planed after a 15 hour flight to Sydney
  • You are giving a sales presentation to your most important client—tomorrow—and you just remembered about it today (and have prepared nothing)
  • You slept four hours last night
  • Your three year old has a stomach bug
  • You eat your first meal at 2 PM after deciding to give that intermittent fasting thing a try
  • You blissfully enjoy the last sip of your third cup of coffee

Any guesses?

All of these events, despite their differences, stress our bodies, straining and fatiguing us, even those that we enjoy or make us feel good in the short-term. Our bodies do not distinguish physical, mental, or emotional stressors, even if our brains interpret them differently. You may not recognize some of these as stressful. In fact, you may even use some of these as part of your stress reduction strategy! Nevertheless, they all contribute to what is called allostatic load, a fancy term to describe the summation of all our acute and chronic stressors, regardless of source. Whether we’re talking about caffeine, alcohol, exercise, traffic, or work obligations, each is going to impose some degree of load on the body.

Now, before you give up coffee and working out, remember that many stressors, in the right amounts and in the right context, make us better, stronger, healthier, more “antifragile,” to borrow a now overused term from author Nassim Taleb. The trick is to keep unproductive stresses to a minimum and to expose ourselves to productive stresses (those that create eustress, or “good” stress, rather than distress, or “bad” stress) in the right doses (not too much, not too little) to stimulate a constructive adaptation, moving the needle away from breakdown towards construction and repair.

If we want to see the maximal benefit from the time and effort we invest in the gym and kitchen for the purpose of improving our fitness and body composition, then we need to recognize and respect stress we encounter from all sources in our life. If we want to have the resources to respond productively to good stressors like exercise, then we need to reduce our exposure to less positive sources of stress and/or amp up our recovery efforts.

Most of us are driven, ambitious, and prone to falling victim to the mentality of “the more the better.” More work, less rest, more results, right? We do not want to be perceived as lazy, and we value hard work. And we have goals we’re trying to reach! I get it, I really do. But the truth that we all know to be true but have trouble accepting is that quality beats quantity ever time.

Despite our desire to do it all, we need to be honest with ourselves and respect our limits. Objectivity in assessing how much stress you are experiencing and your ability to recover from that stress will enable you to make much greater long term progress and avoid breaking down physically, mentally, or emotionally.

Too much total stress, regardless of the source, moves the dial towards breakdown and away from restoration and growth. Goodbye, #gainz! Hello, chronic soreness, swelling, and inflammation! You are spending more time and effort for less desirable results. Not a good investment!

So what can you do? If you have a week with heavy travel or sleep deprivation, you may want to give yourself a little extra rest and recovery time. Because the truth is, whether you wanted to or not, you already chose to invest your energy in travel or work or stressing about your relationship. You’ve already spent your stress “dollars”, and therefore you do not have the same resources you normally have for rocking your training session in the gym. To attempt to do so would be to dive into an energy debt of sorts.

You should absolutely move your body even when you’re low on energetic resources, but the manner in which you do so will need to change. This is not the time to add 10 lbs to your deadlift or test your 1 rep max. Maybe you spend a little extra time on mobility work, cut the weight or volume of your lifts down a bit, or go for a long walk instead of a run. Respecting the reality of where your body is at this point in time, rather than mindlessly following your original plan, will get you much farther long term. Remember that recovery, not the training session itself, is when you adapt and get stronger, faster, fitter!

In Summary

  • Neglecting recovery is like planting seeds and not watering them. Why put forth the initial effort if you’re not going to follow through with the remaining necessary steps to see the end product?
  • Many different things stress us, even things we may not perceive as stressful.
  • If we want to see positive adaptation and progress towards our goals, we must allow for adequate recovery from all our stressors, including “good” stresses

Action Steps/Homework!

It’s going to take some trial and error to find an optimal balance between stress and recovery.

  • Begin to practice the skill of evaluating your energy level and performance regularly. Do you feel rested? Do you feel drained? Do you feel strong? Do you feel exhausted? A daily journal that you fill out at the end of the day or first thing in the morning is one great way to make checking in with yourself a habit.
  • Be honest and objective, and act accordingly. Drop any notions of “I should work out today” or “I need to run 8 miles tonight.” Respect where you actually are rather than where you want to be and remove stressors/add recovery techniques accordingly. If you have been loading your body with many other stressors, you may be much better off doing some restorative movement or simply getting to bed earlier, such that you have the energy to get back to your regular routine tomorrow.
  • Re-calibrate over time. As you learn what your body can handle, try removing/reducing stressors or incorporating more recovery methods. Give your body what it needs, and use your energy and performance self-assessment to determine whether you can handle additional stress at a given point in time.
Recover

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