If you ask most people how they are doing, “good” or “fine” is what most people would say. Whether they just had a bad week, a rough break-up, found a $100 bill or beat Super Mario Bros. in a record time, they most likely won't expand beyond the basics. Maybe it's because Facebook ( or if you are weird, MySpace) and other sites peeking into the banality of our lives that there doesn't seem much left to share anymore?
Yeah, but how do you really feel? I am asking sleep quality, joint pain, muscle recovery, burnout, fatigue, excessive hunger, absence of hunger, irritability or just plain blah.
You know that strange, eery feeling of restfulness you get once in a while when you have a morning with no responsibilities, no schedule, no deadlines and nothing planned for the day. You somehow slept 11 hours, had a relaxing morning drinking coffee and reading Calving and Hobbes or watching the Wonder Years on Netflix (just giving some friendly suggestions!) and just felt good? That doesn't come around often enough.
However, there is a lot more to feeling good than just sleep. Active recovery, an intelligent training plan, nutrition, hydration (possibly supplementation) caffeine control and healthy socializing all encompass the stress you either combat or are buried beneath.
My Mistakes (some of many)
Back when I was cooking, my life was stress from the moment I woke up to the time I went home. Not all of this stress was perceived as “bad” by me, but I had it coming from all angles. I had a few years working in restaurants and the summers were particularly rough. Oh, it's hot outside? Yeah, well, try standing above a stove, grill, oven and/or all three for the better part of the day. My days were usually 12 hours long and were standing 90% of the time. This isn't 12 hours at a desk, this is 12 hours running to check on bacon smoking over the grill, rolling out and cooking homemade pasta, carrying gallons upon gallons of heavy stockpots, overflowing trash and industrial kitchen equipment up and down stairs; usually most of this at the same time or back to back.
I was a coffee machine. I ran on coffee. To off-set the coffee, at night, you had to have beer, of course: Beer helped you sleep.
On top of the physical stress, there was a lot of “perceived” emotional and mental stress, too. The pressures of putting out hundred dollar meals for expectant patrons and meeting your chef's expectations can keep a guy up at night(once again, beer).
At one point, my sleeping aid of choice caused me to speed down Rt. 1 in Ogunquit Maine around 2am for which I was pulled over, show the radar gun (yikes!) and I had to go to court. I assumed I'd lose my license, so to prepare I decided to start riding my bike to work everyday so I would be in shape for it when my license was suspended. Work was 12 miles away. So, I rode to work, worked 12 hours on my feet and then rode back.
When that year (in Maine)was over, I never wanted to do anything like it again. I slept ok, ate as well as I could, but was depressed, anxious, compulsive, short-fused and just plain 'ol burnt out. I was exercising (a lot) but had no down time or recovery strategies.
I've made a lot of mistakes along the way in my own recovery and wellness, not just physical but mental and emotional as well. If just one of these instances I shared above sounds like you, then it might be time to employ some new strategies.
I'm not going into specifics here but can give some general recommendations. If you aren't eating right either for your individual body chemistry/metabolism or are under-eating/over-eating according to your activity levels, life will not be as good as it could. I'm going to link the Precision Nutrition “Eating Right for Your Type” article here and I think you should check it out. Once I associated myself with the sympathetic dominant, caffeine sensitive, naturally tall and thin ectomorph and employed a higher carb, lower fat diet I just felt better. Recovery was better from exercise, caffeine tolerance increased and sleep improved. Likewise if you don't do well with carbohydrates, you're just likely depressing your Central Nervous System more with every high-carb meal as the brain and nervous system try to absorb excess glucose the muscles won't take up, or it spills over into fat stores.
If you simply have no idea what you've been eating, I highly suggest joining My Fitness Pal and logging your food for a few days. Don't worry about the calories and macronutrients the app suggests, just focus on your daily totals and how the percentages break down, then reference the article again to check if you are in the recommended guidelines.
With the inclusion of Paleo, Clean Eating, Low-Carb, Gluten-Free and/or every other dietary strategy now, I think people have assumed it is ok to overeat designated “safe” foods because they are deemed "clean", "Paleo", whatever. Calories still count. Total amounts of carbohydrates to fats still counts. Adequate protein, eating enough vegetables and drinking enough water still counts! If you've been exercising hard and consistently and are eating almost no carbohydrates and 200g of fat per day, I'd guess you aren't going to feel very energetic. Likewise, if you are relatively inactive and consuming Ezekiel bread with every meal, it most likely isn't going to be oxidized(burned off) as fuel for the low level of exercise you do.
For instance, a lot of people have read about and tried Intermittent Fasting. This approach works great for some to burn fat, decrease hunger, increase insulin sensitivity and so on. On the flip side, fasting from waking until noon everyday could wreak havoc on your hormones: consuming nothing but coffee and water, elevating cortisol and adrenaline and often exercising during this period might be great for a parasympathetic dominant individual but it could also be the worst option for those already “high-stressed” folks as it would simply feed into their overly active fight or flight drive.
Start logging your food and get a real handle on what you have been eating. If it doesn't match your goals, activity or metabolism your overall well-being, mood and energy will suffer. This can seem insurmountable on your own. If you want detailed help, send me an email, if not, start with the basic above and see how you respond.
There is a lot of conflicting research on coffee and caffeine in general. I can say this, caffeine from coffee and tea are going to do a lot more for you than energy pills, drinks or the like. Aside from flavanoids and antioxidants the caffeine can be useful pre-workout for increasing free fatty acid circulation, decreasing perceived exertion and increasing focus, among other things. Also, coffee is just flat-out awesome and has a culture all its own.
However, the rabbit hole is deep and it can be hard to climb back out. I suggest making at least one of your daily coffees (preferable the ones later in the day) 1/2 regular and 1/2 decaf. Life will be less fun if you simply drop the coffee altogether and decaf never tastes as good as it should, even the organic stuff, so this is a good compromise.
On top of that, you might want to consider balancing your coffee with some decaf green tea. Green tea contains theanine, an amino acid that promotes relaxation without drowsiness, decreases anxiety and promotes better sleep. Green tea also has something really cool called Epigallocatechin gallate(EGCG). This molecule, in higher doses, has been shown to increase fat burning, increase insulin sensitivity, increase blood flow and act as a cancer-preventative. Most bags of green tea have about 50mg EGCG and effective doses start around 200mg/day, so 3-4 cups is ideal. You can either brew two cups with two bags each or just buy Green Tea Extract, However, I like caffeine-free green tea as the ritual of brewing the tea and drinking it can be calming all by itself.
Note: Black teas also contain theanine, but lack EGCG. I also think decaf black tea tastes lousy which is why I prefer the green.
Turning on the Parasympathetic Nervous System
This is your rest and digest branch of the nervous system. It promotes recovery and restoration which is why it is so important not to dominate your body with Sympathetic activity like excess exercise or stimulating it with too much caffeine and too little quality nutrition.
I'll just give you one exercise to practice. Do this immediately after intense exercise and/or at night to calm you down and decrease sympathetic drive.
--Child's Pose Deep Belly Breathing--
I got this from Nick Winkelman who suggested it for turning the nervous system back over to a parasympathetic state after intense exercise. It works, like really works. So much so that it can make you sleepy the first few times you try it.
Sitting into the child's pose, you want your thighs together and your butt back on your heels. Using your thighs as a cue, breathe through your nose into your belly; your stomach should push against the tops of your thighs, rather than breathing up high in your neck and chest.
You will breathe like this:
4 second inhale (in through nose)
2 second hold
10 second exhale (out through mouth)
All of this breathing is done in through the nose and out through the mouth. It will take effort to suck in all that air and especially push it out for 10 seconds. You should feel your abs and diaphragm doing a lot of the work. 4 cycles of this is a good starting place. Try it after every exercise session and/or before bed for a week and see how your stress response improves.
Last summer, my step dad passed away. It was a rough time and during that time and following, anything depressing, excessively violent or melodramatic in music, television, movies or books simply stopped appealing to me. I found I really could not watch a slow tv drama, read a gory thriller or listen to sappy pop or indie music. All I wanted to do was watch Seinfeld or 30 Rock, read either training/nutrition books or fast-paced fiction and keep my music upbeat. It helped quite a bit.
If we constantly inundate ourselves with media, books and entertainment that actually causes stress or favors one emotion too much, it can shift how we think, act and speak. About a year or two ago I was watching Criminal Minds weekly and loved it. However, every episode dealt in the utmost human depravity and suffering and I was actually having nightmares at night after watching it, so I stopped: It was actually decreasing the quality of my life!
Whatever we choose to surround ourselves with or feed or minds and spirits with will affect us physically as well. Even Mel Siff, in Supertraining, discusses the power of the mind in the success of training programs and writes that the most successful programs are the ones athletes believe in.
Whatever we say, do and think is going to influence how we feel. If you are judgmental, try to go an entire day without saying something negative, only build people up. If you tend to be pessimistic, say something positive about your job, diet, training or home life. If you are feeling depressed or apathetic(aside from using common sense and seeing your doctor etc) try watching comedies, reading lighter fiction and listening to positive music.
Side Story: When I was working as a social worker for about 4 1/2 years, we often worked with clients who had lived part or most of their lives in institutions. Not necessarily the kind you imagine where everyone is strapped to a bed(or with their eyes forced open Clockwork Orange style), but still a place where the majority has a mental illness like bipolar, schizophrenia etc. I had a client or two who were institutionalized instead of being sent to prison for certain crimes, depending on their age, criminal history etc. I often wondered how these adults (now with a severe mental health diagnosis) had been influenced by their institutionalization, despite not being diagnosed until their sentence. Would they have the same level of bipolar, personality disorder etc if they had instead spend those years in a low-level security prison rather than a mental health hospital? Conversely, often we would see clients with quite debilitating mental health issues make drastic improvements when they ended destructive relationships, started working, found a better apartment, lost weight and started speaking positively about themselves.
Environment makes a huge difference in your mental and physical health; it is a factor even in which genes are turned on or off in our genetic code. So, if you think your lifestyle and attitude don't affect how you are feeling, right down to sex drive, memory, muscular recovery, sleep and so on, you'd be making a mistake in my opinion.
Exercise Volume and Intensity
I'll be honest, I doubt the average gym go-er exceeds his or her recovery capacity through exercise alone. But exercise in addition to tons of outside stress can then culminate and start affecting how you feel.
Regardless, if you've been going to the gym 4 or 5 days a week and doing "cardio" or some other form of exercise on your non-gym days, there will probably come a time when you need to cut back on your volume. The more I train myself, others and talk with coaches in the industry, the more I have come to believe that total exercise volume will affect your recovery rather than intensity. This idea was driven home to me by Mike Ranfone who also introduced me to using Heart Rate monitoring for programming aerobic exercise as well as monitoring recovery.
Exercise volume in typically regarded as the total amount of work you do during exercise. With weights, it is the total amount of reps you do multiplied by the the weight on the bar, dumbbell etc. So 4 sets of 5 reps with 400 lbs on the deadlift would be 4 x 5 x 400 = 8000 lbs volume. Most people focus more on just the total number of reps though as fewer reps is often indicative of more weight being used and thus less opportunity for volume. If you were relatively weak or deconditioned and could only do 5 pushups, 4 sets of 5 pushups would be much lower volume than the deadlift example because the load (your body) is so much lower, despite feeling "intense".
Just looking at total volume though in terms of how much work and how many sessions you are engaged in per week, you can assume that usually 3 sessions per week is going to be less volume than 5 sessions per week.
If your recovery has been poor and you are only doing 2 sessions a week in the gym, I doubt that's it. However, if you have been doing upwards of 4-6 every week for weeks on end, it might be time to cut the volume back for a week or so and allow for some supercompensation and focus on resting. You won't get weaker and if anything, you'll get stronger.
You can simply cut back your total number of reps and sets if you are following a more traditional program. Cutting back 4 sets of 8 of most exercises to 3 sets of 5 is one simple way of doing it. However, in a class setting or more unstructured atmosphere where you do not have control of the workout, you need to employ a different strategy.
For this, I like sticking with the same sets and reps, but only treating your last set as the true working set. NOT like 5/3/1 where you re out the last set until neat failure, but using your first few sets as glorified warmups. Lets say you typically might DB bench 4 sets of 8 at 75 lbs. Instead of doing all 32 reps with that weight you might ramp up this week instead and work up to 75lbs in 10lb jumps. So your sets of 8 would be 45lb, 55lb, 65lb and then 75lb as your last set. It'll feel like you did the appropriate work (if you are someone afraid of doing too little) but there is much less stress imposed on the body.
Heart Rate Variability
I saved this for last because it isn't necessary for a lot of people, especially if you haven't addressed any of the above conditions first. If you want, though you can check out Joel Jamieson's HRV program on his website here. The app in his program tracks your heart rate through a heart rate monitor and gives you recovery feedback based on the variability in your heart rate. At its essence, a more conditioned person will be able to raise and lower their heart rate faster than a deconditioned person. So if your heart rate stays at 160 beats a minute well after exercise ends, your recovery is lacking. You also track the variability in your heart rate in the morning before getting out of bed as a completely resting heart rate can indicate the state of your recovery. The HRV app measures the time between heart beats and this gives feedback on neural and systemic recovery. Basically, the more variable the time between heart beats is, the better your recovery state.
The simple version: I simply purchased a heart rate monitor from Best Buy (Polar) and it tells me my heart rate during exercise on the included wrist watch. Then I work within zones during my aerobic work and increase/decrease rest periods as needed to stay within that zone. This eliminates the guess work from my conditioning and allows me to then adjust overall training session length or heart rate to increase my fitness.
This can be useful for those doing 2-3 aerobic sessions outside of the gym every week as it allows you to work within recoverable heart rate ranges. If you are one of those "I just do lots of everything" people, this is a great intervention.
One or all of these factors can affect your recovery and how you feel and respond to stress. If you already know which area of your life is causing the run down feeling and decreasing recovery, it probably means it is serious enough to warrant attention. If you just can't seem to figure it out, slowly sift through this list and see which one jumps out at you the most.
And, if you are a cook in Maine during the summer, riding your bike to work and living off coffee and sleeping on beer, just quit that job.
Supplement Goals Reference Guide, Retrieved June 15th, 2014.
BioForce HRV, Retrieved June 15th, 2014. From:
Siff, Mel C. 2003, Supertraining. Denver, USA: Mel C Siff.