We are not the same every day. There are many things that influence how we perform day to day: recovery time, the foods we eat, quality of sleep, alcholol consumption, etc. But yet we like to see improvements day to day when working out or performing. But that isn’t really realistic, is it? It may serve us well to be in tune to what our body is telling us and to then adapt accordingly.
Let me relate a recent experience with you. My current running routine has one slow day a week and the remainder workouts are intervals. When doing my interval days I like to keep the speed of the fast interval at no less than the last workout. I want to see progress and I want to make sure I’m working hard so I realize the progress. But my interval workout didn’t go that way. I didn’t get enough quality sleep the night before. I knew it as I woke up feeling like I really didn’t sleep at all. I could have easily stayed in bed for another hour that morning, but that’s how bad habits start.
I arrived at the gym, jumped on the treadmill and started my warmup/run. I was able to complete my first interval without issue but it wasn’t easy. I had to push a little more than normal. It felt like I hadn’t ran in 2 weeks. Next interval the same. Then, on my 3rd interval I made the decision to dial it back a bit. I feared if I didn’t I would either injure myself as I would be extending myself and that is when form takes a hit and becomes sloppier, or I could injure myself as I could put myself into an over trained state. That can lead to injury or sickness.
3 days later after some nights of better sleep I found myself at the gym again ready for my interval training. I felt rested and good. I did my first interval running at the speed I had worked up to, and I felt great. When I hit the slow part of my interval I listened to my body to get an idea of what my perceived exertion was and it wasn’t as high as some other times. My next interval I decided to add .5 mph to the speed, the fastest I have run in quite a while. Did it and I felt great, still! Next interval my fast speed was now a 1 mph increase. I finished my run completing the fast parts of my interval at the fastest speeds yet, and I also extended my run by 5 minutes. I completed what I wanted to do, experienced growth in my performance even though a few days earlier I performed below what my average was.
Growth does not happen exponentially but more inline with a continuous S curve where we plateau and then grow. And the more we know when we are plateauing, and the more we listen to our body the shorter time we will spend at the plateau or worse, falling off of the plateau.
Let’s look at some tools we can use to better understand how we are progressing in our workouts.
- Journal: I’ve written about this many times. If you don’t know what you have been doing, from the first day to the last workout, then it becomes very hard to see the growth or know if your latest workout was your best. Just like in the world we live today data in power. The more you know about your performance the better you can be for it. And you can log plenty of data: amount of sleep, workout duration, type of workout, foods consumed, current weight. All of these things can come into plan on how you perform. And if you don’t have time to keep a journal, read my next item.
- Bio Feedback: I’m a fan and a retractor of Fitbits and other fitness bands. Why? They are great in that you can look at your stats for your workout and your day (see items above from journal) and compare to your previous workouts, you can see how well you slept and how long (these are different things) you slept, you have a readout of heart rate including resting heart rate and historical heart rates. These are all metrics that impact performance. Unfortunately people can end up using these numbers as a way to reward themselves not fully understanding the impact of the reward. Constantly rewarding yourself by increasing your dessert intake or drink intake probably is adding that weight you are trying to lose instead of aiding in the removal of that weight. There are also newer fitness bands that are better at giving you bio feedback and will let you know what type of workout you should focus on that day: high intensity or mid to lower intensity. These type of bands take the guess work out of it. You go into your workout pretty much knowing how you will probably feel during that workout. A great tool to help you from preventing over training which can be just as bad as not training.
- Perceived rate of exertion: PRE, or perceived rate of exertion is a scale that allows you to assign a number to how you are feeling while you are working out. As an example, 10 is max effort and comes with the feeling of it being impossible to continue, completely out of breath, and unable to talk. 6-7 on the scale is for vigorous activity where you feel you are on the verge of becoming uncomfortable, short of breath and can speak only a sentence. On the low end, 2-3 is light activity where you feel you can go on for hours and it’s easy to carry on a conversation. Understanding where you fall in the chart when working out should help you understand your goals for that workout. Feeling really good you might be able to live in the 10 zone for 30 seconds if the workout that day is meant to be intense but take that same workout another day you may need to be in the 6-7 zone due to lack of sleep or recovery time
The more you listen to your body, the more data presented in the right way to understand your body should result in you staying motivated, seeing the results you are working hard to achieve. Gone should be the days of a cement head attitude of ‘balls to the wall’ or ‘take no prisoners’. Now don’t conflate this with a softening attitude on my part. Do you need to work hard? Absolutely! Just what ‘hard’ is in actual measurable work can change.
Hard work is can vary day to day. It’s no different than if you go for a 2 hour run and 90 minutes in you start to have pain in your knees. You would be stupid and irresponsible to yourself to continue. How is that different than running at 8 mph when your form has gone to sh*t just because your last interval training was at 8 mph. Take down the intensity a bit for that workout. You may be able to increase the intensity next workout or the one after if your body conditions are right. Rested, had a great sleep, ate the right foods and enough of the right foods probably got you there. Your best is not always better than the last time.
Train hard but train smart! You’ll be training longer and you’ll feel better for it.
Yours in health,