Once when my son was in preschool, I came into his room to find him furiously pushing on his closet door. I asked what he was doing, and he said, “It won’t close!!” There wasn’t anything apparently obstructing the door, and so the poor kid just kept pushing, continuing to get more confused, frustrated, and tired in the process. I stopped him and said, “Instead of trying to force it closed, let’s see what might be in the way.” Once we opened the door, we could see that a toy sword had fallen over and gotten stuck in between the jamb and the door on the hinge side where we couldn’t initially see it. Once we moved the sword, the door closed with ease.
I love this story because it is the perfect analogy for what I see so often in people’s fitness journey. They know they want results, and they’ve been told how to achieve them, so when the results don’t come and there’s no obvious reason, they double down on their efforts rather than taking a step back to assess what might be in the way.
So much of our cultural messaging is “go hard or go home.” It says that your level of effort, your willingness to push past discomfort and break barriers, will dictate your success. This is especially prevalent in the realm of fitness, and for good reason. In order to increase performance, we must increase the demand on our body. This is known as the principle of overload, and it is a key component to eliciting change in any fitness program, regardless of your goal. Wanna get stronger? You’re going to have to lift a weight that feels uncomfortable. Trying to decrease your 5K time? Time to push your pace and experience a little breathlessness. But overload is not the only thing that contributes to performance. It is simply the easiest component to address.
The fact is that the science of performance is complicated. It requires an in depth understanding of anatomy, physiology, biomechanics, and psychology to produce the results that our culture tells us are simple. And that cultural messaging is powerful. Despite the fact that I’ve spent the last four years studying and practicing exercise science, I still sometimes fall victim to the notion that if I just. push. harder. I will achieve my goals. That cultural messaging is reinforced through our fitness trackers (close your rings, hit your steps), advertising (“Just Do It” comes to mind), and industry professionals (many of whom are just doing the best they can to motivate people to live an active lifestyle). An unfortunate side effect of this is that we often overlook, or many times aren’t even aware of, the other pieces of the performance puzzle. This means that we continue to push on that door, instead of moving what’s standing in the way.
The most overlooked and underutilized tool in our performance tool box is recovery. Without it, our progress can slow down and even reverse directions. Increasing performance relies on introducing an appropriate amount of stress and allowing an appropriate amount of time in between stressful events.
This is because our bodies are essentially homeostasis machines. They are programmed to keep our internal environment at very precise conditions, all of which are disrupted during exercise. Adaptation occurs so that those processes are disrupted less, and the result is an increase in performance.
However, in order for these adaptations to occur, they require an internal environment that facilitates growth. If your body is busy dealing with too many stressors, it cannot prioritize growth and repair. Additionally, our bodies don’t have infinite resources to adapt to stress.
If you continue to introduce stress while your body is already in a state of stress, it will eventually fatigue, and your performance will decrease.
The length of recovery time is key. Too little recovery time, and continued stress will result in a decrease in performance. Too much recovery time and your body will discard the adaptations it made and return to its original performance baseline. This is why some people refer to exercise performance with the term “use it or lose it.” Ideally, we want to give our bodies an appropriate balance of stress and recovery in order to increase performance.
One important consideration is that while adaptation is specific to the stress being introduced (i.e. lifting a heavy weight will result in greater strength and exposure to cold will result in greater cold tolerance, but cold exposure will not increase your strength), your body’s perception of stress is generalized. Your body only has so much available energy to adapt to stress, and it does not discern between mentally stressful life events, lack of sleep, or a hard workout. This means that you may need to adjust your training frequency or intensity based on your overall level of stress.
If you’re working hard and not seeing the results you want, prioritizing recovery might be the key to unlocking increased performance, particularly if you are also experiencing fatigue, irritability, changes in appetite or sleep quality, increase in illness or injury. Instead of powering through these signs of overtraining, allow yourself some time away from exercise. If you’re hungry for results, this may be hard to do, but keep in mind that recovery doesn’t have to be a passive process. Instead of grinding non-stop in the gym, use that motivation to improve your sleep habits, pick up a stress-reducing habit like meditation or journaling, or start a foam rolling practice. Making these small changes might just be what’s standing in the way of achieving your performance goals.