The 'trifecta' of physical well-being

“The first line of defense against injury and overtraining is monitoring your life as well as your training” – Dan John

My pops had two heart attacks almost exactly one year ago. Good news is, he is doing great. The bad news… well, I suppose the bad news is that he had two heart attacks followed by a brief stay in the ICU and that sucks.

I believe an active lifestyle, a relatively healthful diet, and God’s grace (which placed my father literally inside of a fire station during his first heart attack, resulting in almost immediate EMS care) are responsible for his glowing reports from follow-ups with doctors. Genetics seem to be the major perpetrator of the heart attacks. So with no evidence of heart disease, no lasting muscular damage, and virtually no restriction on physical activity or major changes in diet, what’s a guy to do?  He needs to recover.

Exercise, diet, and recovery form a trifecta of importance when it comes to our physical (and mental) health. None is greater than the other, and if one is out of whack, you can rest assured that your body is not functioning in peak performance mode. My dad’s heart muscle took a bit of a beating and it dawned on me that in the weeks following his heart attacks, at the same time that I was encouraging him to listen to his body and take adequate time to recover, I was giving my own muscles a beating—and ignoring the importance of recovery.  

Our bodies process physical and mental stress in similar ways, so after a 10-hour drive to Michigan and a week of anxiety, fussing over my father and for the first time in my life, understanding his mortality, my body felt as though it had gone on a month-long CrossFit bender. In fact, I hadn't trained at all while visiting my parents in Michigan. When I returned to Philadelphia, for my mental health and at least a little bit out of guilt, I felt the need to hit the gym. Hard. On Monday, I did a double training day after a 10-hour drive the day before and five hours of sleep. Tuesday morning I woke up sore, but I hadn't trained in a week so I was destined to feel lousy. Right? The obvious answer was to push through the soreness.

Tuesday’s strength work tired me out so badly that conditioning didn’t even happen. Wednesday, which was supposed to be a day off, I was back at it to wrap up my skill work and conditioning that was supposed to be executed on Tuesday. Clearly I took Thursday off, right? Wrong. After another night of less than seven hours of sleep, it was imperative that I got in 2 hours of Olympic lifting (said I, not my coaches), which was neither productive nor pretty. The result of a week of turbo-powered overtraining (n., a physical, behavioral, and emotional condition that occurs when the volume and intensity of an individual’s exercise exceeds their recovery capacity) was a failed and bailed jerk at 30 lbs. below my best, a strained bicep, and frustrated tears in the middle of the lifting platform.

I exceeded my capacity for recovery. I threw the trifecta off balance.

Robb Wolf has this to say on recovery from training:

“What will largely determine the results you obtain from training is a multifaceted concept, recovery. Adequate recovery allows for more training and ultimately improved performance… In exercise we release hormones, mount immune responses, cause inflammation and use things like glycogen and lipids for fuel. Recovery complements this process. Accelerating the things we want and mitigating the less desirable processes will provide more return on our exercise investment.”

So would I have been better served if I had taken Wednesday as a rest day? Perhaps, but therein lies the difference between rest and recovery. Rest is simply the absence of movement and a lack of exertion. A day off of training does not equal recovery, which is the process that brings our bodies back to regular. In fact, the more time one spends training the more time, dedication, focus, and energy must be spent on recovery. Dallas of Whole 9 wrote in a 2010 blog post:

“I see more sub-acute and chronic injuries resulting from inadequate recovery from exercise (especially with high-intensity programs), than resulting from an acute or traumatic incident. The primary fault lies with inadequate or improper recovery from exercise, not the type or intensity of exercise. (To put it another way, it’s not that you’re hurting yourself doing pull-ups – more often than not, it’s because you’re not properly recovering from those pull-ups.) I believe that a high-intensity exercise program is both effective and sustainable life-long only when combined with good nutrition and recovery practices.”

There’s that trifecta again.

Next week: Cassie offers more tips for proper recovery.

Read more Sports Doc for Sports Medicine and Fitness.