My Secret Training Formula: Less is More!

Those of you who have been reading my blog for a while know that I have recently changed a couple of things up in my training routine as I wanted to spice things up and take a leap of faith to see if this new approach could yield even more results in my fitness journey towards becoming a better runner and achieving a more chiselled look. The key things that I have newly implemented are:-

  • A more protein-focussed diet;
  • Functional and varied HIIT style gym workouts instead of classes based on a  repetitive choreography.

I have been trying to adopt this new formula over the past two months, and I have to say, it has been a very transformational few weeks so far, with some good learnings and also some hiccups along the way.

First of all, I wanted to take a look at the positives:-

  • My gym based workouts are much more fun and challenging – I am looking forward to each one of them and I feel motivated to go regularly.
  • Due to challenging my body very differently and infusing so much more variety into my gym based training (instead of going to the same classes over and over again and following the same choreography for months), my knee/ITB issues have improved astronomically and almost completely disappeared. I sometimes even forget to worry about my knee/ITB when I am out on a run (!)
  • Being more conscious about protein when selecting or preparing my meals is helping me feel fuller throughout the day and manage my general energy levels; as a result, I feel less need to graze between meals and eat huge portions of food to keep me sated and energised throughout the day.

Of course, the journey so far has not been entirely seamless; I guess it is only natural that it will always be a case of ‘trial and error’ whenever you try something new and you kind of need to take the rough with the smooth and keep experimenting until you find what really works for you.

In the world of fitness, everyone seems to obsessed with the concept of doing ‘more’. Turn up that gear. Lift heavier weights. Do longer runs. Go to more gym classes. Restrict more calories. And all in the name of ‘no pain, no gain’. Right? However, this model can create some serious damage – if we are not careful, ‘more’ can actually lead to overtraining, which in turn can lead to injury and illness. And I have to admit that overtraining is the single biggest struggle I tend to face from time to time and which I decided to devote an entire post to –

Hi Everyone, I am Timea and I am a workout-a-holic. 

So how do I know that I have been overtraining? It is all about learning to notice the subtle (or occasionally not so subtle) signs your body is giving out, and learning to interpret them correctly. For example, I have recently noticed that I feel more tired generally during the day, I sometimes struggle to fall asleep even though I am physically tired, my runs started to feel more laborious and my pace started to slow down. Most shockingly, I have started to pile on weight and feel bloated often, no matter what I eat – my metabolism must have slowed down as my body had gone into ‘red alert’ mode. There were even times over the past few weeks when I actually looked about 5 months pregnant with my bloated belly bulging out! Definitely not what you want to see in the mirror and how you want to feel like when you have been putting in so much hard work and commitment! So how can this happen to me?!

tired-gym-workout-overtraining

So I have started digging and came across a couple of revelational articles on this topic. Dr John Berardi wrote in his recent article called How intense workouts (and overtraining) can ruin your results on the Precision Nutrition website that

‘Exercise is a stressor. Usually a good one. But a stressor nonetheless. If you exercise intensely and/or often, you add stress to a body that may already be stressed from other life stuff like work, relationships, travel, late nights, etc. This isn’t a bad thing. Exercise can indeed help relieve stress. But in terms of a physical demand, we still need to help our bodies recover from all the stress we experience.’

This shows that we need to approach fitness holistically – firstly, we simply cannot ignore what is going on in our lives when we are not training, and secondly, fitness is not just what you do in the gym. In my case, one of the contributing factors of stopping seeing results temporarily is the fact that I increased my training load whilst my workload at work has also increased, roughly three-fold since June, due to colleagues going off sick or leaving and not being replaced, leaving me to ‘pick up the pieces’. This has obviously placed a lot of mental stress on my shoulders, leaving me less time and space to truly recharge my batteries in every sense. However, fortunately, this time I may have just caught myself out in time to avoid any further unwanted consequences (such as sports injuries) down the path I have started treading.

According to Dr Spencer Nadolsky, in his article called Double Down Your Recovery on the Girls Gone Strong website,  when it comes to fitness, the time you spend resting is just as important as the time you spend training:-

‘Maximizing your recovery is key to consistent, sustainable workouts. (…) Imagine what each workout could be like, if you felt fresh and energetic every time you walked into the gym!’

Some alarming signs you may pick up and which are likely to indicate that you have been overtraining are for example:-

  • You feel that you simply ‘can’t do any justice’ to your workouts any more;
  • Your workouts do not ‘feel good’ any more;
  • You feel ‘crushed’ after your workout instead of elated and energised;
  • You are concerned whether you will ‘get through’ your pre-scheduled workout at all;
  • You feel tired and sluggish (and yet struggle to fall asleep easily at night);
  • You feel irritable and moody;
  • You have strong cravings;
  • You put on weight/get bloated;
  • You feel overwhelmed when it comes to day to day tasks.

If you are experiencing any of the above symptoms, it may be a good time to press that ‘pause button’ and take some time out to properly recover, and re-assess where you may have gone wrong, and then put together an action plan.

Hitting-a-plateau

In my case, the first step on the road of taking a break always needs to be doing a bit of self-assessment and ask what drove me to overtrain and literally ‘go backwards’ when everything seemed to be going so well:-

  • I do depend on intense and challenging exercise to feel great, energetic and to be able to mentally face the challenges of everyday life.
  • Exercise gives me a sense of pride and immense joy in my abilities, through continuously pushing my boundaries and doing things that most people can only dream about.
  • I love to carry the same drive I have for succeeding in life into my training as well: when I start doing really well (e.g. getting new PBs in races), I begin to ride on the high to see how much farther I can go.
  • I love being involved, and being part of a ‘tribe’, if I do not join in every race my friends do, I kind of feel I am ‘missing out’.

Suffice to say, in light of the above, I often find it hard to take a break and ease back. However, in times like these I just need to ask myself what is a bigger sacrifice to make – to take it easy for a week e.g. say ‘no’ to doing just that one more race; or continue to push myself and then risk spending a month on the bench licking my wounds due to an injury that ‘somehow’ crept up on me? It is a no brainer what I will choose to do.

I also feel I need to be clear on what I REALLY want to achieve, i.e. what my ultimate goal is and therefore where my fitness related priorities should lie. For example, my focus now is to run another good half marathon; so turning up for my training runs feeling energised and in good shape is more important than the fun I have at the gym classes. So I may need to cut down on the number of gym classes I go to and be more selective about choosing the type of classes I go to. Of course, my fitness goal may change over time, so priorities will need to be re-evaluated.

As the saying goes, for every cloud, there is always a silver lining! The good news is that our bodies are capable of doing many wonderful things and handle A LOT, IF we are humble enough to take time to recover fully and properly from all the hard work and stresses we are putting our bodies through. It is a bit like ‘give and take’. I like to draw on a simple training concept where I look at training as a ‘rolling hills’ pattern – for every up (increased stress in form of everyday life or intense training load), there should be a down (recovery). Ultimately, it is all about finding a balance that works for YOU.

So what can you do to help your body recover and restore itself? 

Most of us are not elite athletes who have the luxury of having a whole entourage of health & fitness experts behind their back to keep them in tip top condition at all times. However, fortunately, there are countless ways you can help yourself. Here are some strategies I like to draw on:-

  • Take walks somewhere really nice
  • Do that ‘little project’ of yours now which you never started until now for lack of time
  • Swim
  • Immerse yourself in beautiful adult colouring books
  • Write a blog
  • Read and educate yourself
  • Go on an adventure (Whatever that may mean to you… Trying new healthy recipes is adventure enough for me LOL)
  • Do some restorative work e.g. stretching, foam rolling, Yoga/Pilates/PiYo
  • Set time aside to meditate/relax (guided sessions are readily available on YouTube and through Smartphone Apps). Combine with using essential oils such as lavender oil to maximise the effect.
  • Get some massage and/or a body MOT from your physiotherapist/osteopath
  • Top up on good quality sleep, allow yourself to have lie-ins at the weekend
  • Have a bit of fun and pamper yourself – when was the last time you had your hair/nails etc. done or been to a spa?!
  • Focus on your other hobbies that you may have neglected for a while
  • Marshal at races and encourage other runners
  • Pay your friends/spouse/pets a bit of extra attention
  • Eat like an elite: we need protein to help build and repair our muscles which we are constantly using so make sure you eat a protein dense diet during your recovery days especially

Is there a fool-proof training formula which helps you progress AND not backfire at you?

 

I have recently read an eye opener article by Greg McMillan on his website, McMillan Running, about the concept of Finding Your Sweet Spot in training, somewhat contrary to the usual ‘go hard or go home’ formula. Firstly, he introduces the concept of each athlete having two rates of adaptation to training: a maximal rate and an optimal rate. Adaptation is defined as the physiological and psychological changes that allow us to perform better:-

The maximal adaptation rate occurs when your body is adapting as fast as possible to the stresses you put on it. It summons all its resources to build new blood-delivering capillaries, energy-producing mitochondria, and stronger muscles and tendons. But adapting at the maximal rate requires that your body be stressed to its limit. Over time you’re bound to push past that limit and get injured or burned out and perform poorly.

The optimal rate of adaptation, on the other hand, occurs when the body is stressed to a tolerable level, allowing it time to adapt without having to draw on every ounce of its physical and mental reserves. It gradually adapts and is at far less risk for injury or burnout. At the end of a training session you feel pleasantly fatigued but also know that you could have done a little more.’

So the take home message is to apply a bit of ‘controlled training‘ i.e. around 90% max effort during your harder/key sessions. This way your body is less likely to feel over stressed and will be able to adapt gradually but progressively to the training load, always leaving you hungry for a bit more. Train optimally, not maximally (at least most of the time) – challenge yourself at the right level. A little control will make training more enjoyable and lead to greater overall improvement and, most importantly, better sports performance. This is what Greg McMillan calls finding your sweet spot in training.

Another article that has helped me understand more about this subject was written by Lisa Elaine Held on the Well + Good website called Why your workouts might actually be sabotaging your metabolism. Because intense exercise puts a lot of stress on the body, she recommends restricting it to three days a week, with lower-intensity workouts like yoga and Pilates as well as plenty of recovery in between. (As seen in my ‘food belly’ example, lots of stress can mess with our nervous system as well, which regulates metabolism.) So the golden rule of thumb is to work hard if you are well-rested and have energy; and if you are stressed, go easy. So simple, but so easy to forget!

I hope that you have enjoyed reading this article. No matter where you are in your fitness journey right now and whatever your goals may be, remember that exercise should make us feel, look, perform and live better… not crush us. Please respect your training by respecting your body. Your body is constantly letting you know how it is doing, via your appetite/cravings, shape, and energy levels – so listen to it for goodness sake and you WILL see results!

OK folks, now I am off to do some colouring.

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