Mitigating Training Stress: Working-out vs Working-in

Now is a particularly interesting time to be writing about training stress. Many, if not most, of us don’t currently have access to a training facility. And many, if not most, of us probably feel MORE stress due to this temporary lack of access.

I’m going to challenge you to use some the the suggestions below during time of confinement and heightened stress. First, because you probably don’t have much else competing for your time right now. Second, because it will make a difference in how you feel, both physically and mentally.

A recap on the basic physiology of stress here – and please do start there.

Training Stress = Stress

Remember, when you’re training hard, you’re putting stress on your body. There is no way around it. It does not matter how much you love it. It does not matter that you feel heavy deadlifts are the only thing that clears your head (I feel that). The reality is that heavy workouts fatigue your body (by design) and require recovery. They are adding to your stress total every day. 

If you are someone who knows how to keep your life stress at bay, then you’re someone who can probably lean a little bit more on hard workouts. If your reality is the opposite, it MAY be in your best interest to lighten up some of your training.

Please don’t take this as me suggesting you stop training altogether. Remember that stress is not ALWAYS a bad thing. Small doses of stress followed by recovery are how we get better after all – you push yourself a bit past comfort, you rest, you come back stronger. It’s why “progressive overload” is one of the most used phrases you’ll hear in a good gym. 

But so often we skip the recovery piece, intentionally or not. When stress is chronic and we can’t get out of the fight-or-flight state, we never give our body time to heal and come back stronger. What does that ultimately mean in the context of training? Our stress overload is keeping us from improving towards our physical goals. We’re spinning our wheels.

If we can’t train hard, what can we do?

Paul Chek, a controversial figure in the health and wellness sphere, coined a term that I’ve found really useful in figuring out how to think about training stress. In his practice, he focuses on both “working out” and “working in.” When we are “working out,” we’re expending a lot of energy and end up feeling drained at the end of a session. When we’re “working in,” we’re focusing on an activity that gives us energy vs. using it up.

“But wait,” you might be thinking, “I feel like I have MORE energy when I finish lifting.” If this is truly the case – you feel more energized at the end of a training session – the truth is you aren’t training hard enough. We’ll cover that another day. If instead you mean that regular training helps with your overall energy levels, that’s fine.

The ultimate goal is to be able to train HARD, then recover harder.

Chek talks about “working-in” using specific movement patterns and meditation (think tai chi), but I like to expand those ideas to other types of movement. Other people call it active recovery, but you can call it whatever you want. 

What activities leave you feeling energized right after doing them?

It looks a little different for everyone depending on your body and where you’re at on the fitness continuum, but ultimately the goal is gentle movement. 

For me, that tends to look like long easy walks and slow flowing yoga sequences. A faster runner than me might be able to use a really slow jog for active recovery. Someone who doesn’t run at all may prefer 20 easy minutes on the elliptical to keep some pressure off the joints. It’s all subjective!

The most important part is that your active recovery movement is easy, the whole time. If you find yourself struggling to breathe, you’re working too hard. If your heart rate is regularly getting over the 120s/130s, you’re working too hard. 

Sometimes things that register as “easy” in our brains really aren’t to our bodies, and that’s okay! An example: hot power yoga classes. In my head, these are supposed to be super easy, basically a bunch of stretching and breathing, nowhere near as difficult as running or powerlifting. In reality, they aren’t at all! I love hot yoga and power yoga, but they’re HARD for my immobile body. Despite the restful time in shavasana at the end, the other 60 minutes of a yoga class are more in line with a hard workout for my particular body, and I’ve learned to treat them as such.

Here are some other active recovery options to consider:

  • time in nature
  • Casual sports with friends (even golf)
  • An easy bike ride
  • Time in the pool (easy laps if you’re a good swimmer, just peddling around if not)
  • Mobility flows
  • General stretching/foam rolling/body tempering
  • Playing! With your kids, with your friends, on some monkey bars, climb a tree

Finding your balance

Ultimately, we all need find a balance between our “working-out” and “working-in” activities. If you want a faster mile time, you know you can’t just be taking long walks and hoping for the best. You will have to put yourself through hard training sessions, regularly. I’m just here to remind you that we need to match those hard sessions with time spent on energizing movement and recovery. For every hard powerlifting session, 20-30 minutes of gentle yoga or mobilization work (you know you should be doing it anyway). For every tough run, an easy walk or bike ride (aka cross-training). They’re the things we know we SHOULD be doing, but make excuses to skip.

Maybe if you can keep in mind that those activities are making your training actually worthwhile (by giving you energy and helping calm your stress response), maybe you’ll be more inclined to do them. Give it a shot and see.

Given our present circumstances, you may find your balance of “working-out” to “working-in” to be shifting more towards gentle movement. I certainly am.

Without access to a barbell and weights, and with just getting back into running, my ability to push myself as hard as I want to in training has diminished. I’m still trying – with band workouts and short runs to build up my legs again. I’ve just come to accept that this phase is heavy on the active recovery. I do gentle yoga at least twice daily now, and since I’m cooped up in an apartment with an active little dog, have ended up taking quite a few more walks than usual. I keep an eye on my step count, and make sure that 1-2 days per week are even LESS active, so that my easily-fatigued hips get some rest too.

Maybe while you’re isolated, you set aside 20 minutes per day to give some active recovery modalities a try. If you can, use that time to get some fresh air and an easy walk/ride. Find some yoga videos you like online. Use the foam roller that’s been sitting in your closet for two years. We’re either cursed and blessed with all this time at home, depending on how you choose to see it.

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