One of the best pieces of advice I remember regarding overtraining is this: if you’re motivated to train, you can train. If you’re not motivated, if you’re unenthusiastic, that’s your central nervous system telling you to back off. Whether you’ve been training infrequently or not, different body parts or not, is really irrelevant. If you’re not motivated, don’t train.
It’s brilliant. It would be a corner-stone of an intuitive training model, if such a thing were formalised. At the risk of oversimplifying like crazy, the body seems to have a lot of warning systems and regulatory systems in place to influence your will and desire and therefore choice. It’s a funny and very fuzzy area. We don’t always want to think that our desires are informed by something as unromantic as our hormonal environment, but as complex as I am certain it is, there appears to be truth to it.
What’s revolutionary – if I can use so strong a word – about this approach is that it flat-out rejects our usual guidelines for what constitutes over- or under-training. It is entirely intrinsic. It denies that all people respond the same way to a given stimulus. It denies that a person may be average, and it embraces the idea that you are unique.
It acknowledges that young people might recover better than older people, or that if you’re eating more you might be able to train more, and that if your sleep is disturbed you might need more time off. Actually on another level it throws those guidelines out. It tells you to trust how you feel, not to analyse the stats. I know for myself, there have been times when I’ve been training one muscle group or movement pattern for weeks on end and I’m fine, I’m recovering, I’m enthusiastic, when I should be fatigued – and then there have been other times when I’ve had plenty of down time for recovery and sleep, but I just couldn’t make any progress in training. The whole thing felt laboured, it was a chore. And there was no logic. Nothing obvious that I could see – the signs I’d been told to look for revealed nothing.
You can train when you feel like it, and when you don’t, you can rest. There’s nothing wrong with that. Your body regulates itself, and it informs your conscious mind that makes choices through very subtle means.
The thing is, we are used to not trusting ourselves. We’re used to not quite eating enough – chronically – to resenting or mistrusting the gym, and believing that we’re lazy rather than depleted. Believing that we are weak, not that we’re in need of care. When you’re a bit beaten up, when life is hard, you don’t need to toughen up. That’s a quick fix only. It’ll get you through the short term, but at what cost? What is better is for you to have time and space to recover. You don’t need to harden the fuck up if you know how to give yourself room and protect your boundaries. You can acknowledge your vulnerabilities, respect them, protect them and get on with it. You don’t need to pretend that you’re made of stone.
But all the negative self-talk. Many of us… maybe I’m just speaking for myself – but we aren’t used to trusting ourselves. Many of us aren’t used to having positive, life-affirming experiences at the gym. We are used to being marginalised and feeling inadequate. We are used to being told we have to do everything harder if we want to progress. Everything needs to be pushing, expanding the comfort zone, growing. When do we learn to trust ourselves?
When can you trust your motivation? Your sense of enthusiasm? And if you never have any sense of enthusiasm for exercise, what does that reveal? Laziness? I don’t buy it.
Formalised training methods are not for everyone. It doesn’t mean you’re lazy, it doesn’t mean you don’t care about yourself, your wellbeing or your health. People express joy and excitement physically all the time. Every day, sometimes in small ways. We clap our hands. We bounce or we jump, or we pound our fists; people express their frustration physically too. Things manifest through your body; your body desires movement. To some extent, at least.
I feel a bit like I’m walking into the ableism trap. I’ve done it before. People often like to say that if you’re in tune with your body, you’ll truly want to move, to exercise sometimes – but this view is based on too many assumptions for me to be able to sit with it anymore. I think the truth is more likely this: if you’re in tune with your own body, you’ll actually notice that it’s unique. Your needs are unique. You are not a type, or an average. Science deals in averages, and is incredibly useful. But we always need to moderate generalised advice, use our brains and hearts and discover how to apply what really is applicable to ourselves.
In the Olympics and sporting events of that calibre, you notice all people are not suited to all things. In an athletic sense – your friend might be well-suited to endurance events, and you really might not be. I know I’m not. And so the idea that I should ‘do cardio’ like an average person – what is that? I’m not sure.
It’s not just training that determines your specialisation. We were not all the same blank canvas when we were children. You have a temperament, a unique disposition, a particular genetic makeup. There’s a reason I chose the ‘softer’ kung fu to the ‘harder’ karate as my martial art. Someone who is well suited to weightlifting will never be a world-class marathon runner. Even someone who is well suited to bodybuilding might never be a competitively successful Olympic Weightlifter, and vice-versa, though the sports appear so similar at a glance.
All training methods have merit, and not all will suit all people. That’s certainly – and hopefully obviously – true.
And then, in a non-athletic sense, for people who are not athletes or have no desire to be – why do we assume that all humans are basically capable of the same activities, or that they should attempt the same activities, or be able to find satisfaction in them? Diversity is really awesome, but if you’re diverse in a non-sanctioned kind of way, it can really suck.
Some of you will not desire movement, for some of you movement will really wipe you out. What then? This, again, is not laziness. You may not be able to endure formalised systems of physical training or rehabilitation, this then is about systemic issues, not self-discipline or force of will. Whether or not you can endure what other people can endure is not actually a reflection of the strength of your will or character. Some things are easy for some people, and some things are hard. You cannot accurately measure effort if you’re only looking at the end result, and oftentimes expending effort for the sake of effort is not so good for you.
The first step for everyone is, I think, investing in trust. It’s the accumulation of many small steps. Practice trusting yourself. Allow yourself to develop the skill over time. Practice listening to yourself, respecting your boundaries, and being as honest as you can be. And I mean honest – not cruel. When you respect your boundaries, every time you say ‘no’, no matter how small it may seem, this is a victory. Every time you refuse to subjugate yourself, to try to change your body because you feel pressured to do so, every time – no matter how small – every one of these moments is a win for you. Every one of them reaffirms that you can be trusted with yourself.
And I keep coming back to this – exercise is fun when you aren’t forced to do it. Movement is fun when you aren’t forced to do it. Nothing beats feeling free, feeling a sense of possibility in your life. And the constant feeling that you have to do a thing a certain way can feel soul-destroying. I know a little about this, if only from my own perspective, in the context of my own health, illness and struggles, being what they are.
Many times I have observed myself resisting the thing that should be good for me and wondering why. I know, as a closeted rebel-at-heart, I don’t want to be compliant, and I am only capable of compliance when I feel free, and when I’m ultimately confident that I’m relying on my own good judgement, rather than that of some other person or institution. Maybe this is why I’m so keen on investigation.
If nothing else, if you’re struggling to start training, observe yourself for a week, a month. See what circumstances give rise to the desire to move, and see what circumstances give rise to the desire for stillness.
Rest and movement are both useful. They are opposing sides of the same coin. Recovery is not laziness, and grinding through to the point of exhaustion proves nothing to nobody except that you are maybe not in tune with your own needs. Unless, of course, you are.
One failed set of lunges while paying attention will reveal more to you than an hour long absent-minded training session. One new movement pattern that you have never done before has value, if you can discover it. Moving your fingers or toes in a different rhythm has value. And even vacant, absent-minded exercise has use. You can move the body to quieten the mind, or just do whatever the hell you like.
My favourite approach to stretching has become this: that stretch you do in the morning, the one that feels great? The one that’s a bit like what a cat or a dog does after getting up from a nap? Yeah, that one. That’s your way in. Investigate it.