During a grappling tournament in July 2006, Mike Henderson, a seasoned MMA fighter took a major slam, badly injuring his shoulder. He finished the tournament anyway. A few days later he began to suffer stomach problems. Henderson knew that extreme exertion and trauma could impact immunity. He’d been training hard for months and figured his fall and final push had put him over.
What Henderson wasn’t prepared for was a double whammy: What seemed like a stomach bug soon developed into a serious digestive disorder that stopped him in his tracks, causing the already-lean athlete to begin losing weight precipitously. Alarmed, he sought help from a series of doctors and was eventually diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, which devastated the health-conscious Henderson. “I’ve always been very careful about tracking and maintaining my health,” he explains. “But it seemed like my body got pushed past some limit and went sort of haywire.”
As a result of injury and illness, Henderson was forced to seriously scale back his training activities. He took it easy for a few months, forgoing his regular training regimen of grappling and Muay Thai in favor of walking and cycling. He also included some strength and flexibility work. By late fall, with his health improving, Henderson resumed serious training, faced with what he thought could be the long and frustrating task of rebuilding his fitness. In early winter Henderson timidly got back onto the MMA training routine.
Henderson was surprised and delighted to discover that he felt better than ever. “I had this new level of endurance,” says Henderson. “I didn’t tire as easily, and I was amazed at how strong and full of energy I felt.”
According to Henderson, it seemed that his body had just been waiting for time off in order to do some much-needed repair work. Apparently, it made use of the opportunity to do upgrades. Henderson’s story is no anomaly, according to many expert trainers. In order to get stronger, faster and more powerful, they explain, sometimes rather than bearing down, an athlete needs to lighten up.
My body is on vacation
Clearly, your body requires a certain amount of stressful stimulus to grow stronger. In fact, that damage- recovery cycle is the whole basis of fitness training: You break your body down, and it responds by building itself back up better than before.
But if you’ve been putting your body through its paces without opportunity for full recovery, or if you’ve been under additional stresses (physical, mental or emotional), you may not be giving your body a chance to restore itself. To do so, you may need to change your routine, pare down your training load or, in some cases, walk away from training altogether — at least for a little while.
“You can only make fitness gains when your body has time to recover from the training loads you put it under,” asserts Chris Carmichael, founder of Carmichael Training Systems in Colorado Springs, Colo., and coach of seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong. That means the harder you push, the more carefully you must observe the low points of your periodization schedule.
For an elite athlete like Armstrong, Carmichael not only inserts rest days into a training schedule, he also prescribes rest weeks, even months. After every three days of hard training, he instructs all his elite athletes to take a 24- to 48-hour break. After every three weeks, he recommends one week at half the normal training volume and intensity. Carmichael advises many of his clients to take anywhere from one to three months off from formal training after they peak for a big event. During this time off, they can run or walk, bike or swim, but they are not supposed to time themselves or monitor their heart rates.
This type of regeneration period allows your body to recharge not only your energy stores, but also your mental focus. You start fresh, with a more positive and confident outlook on what you want to accomplish.
Cease and Desist
If you have a consistent workout regimen, you needn’t live in mortal fear of losing all momentum the instant you take your foot off the pedal. It takes much longer than a day or two for the body to detrain. As long as you’ve been training consistently for six months or more, it would probably take at least two weeks of complete bed rest before you’d see your muscles begin to wither. Many athletes put themselves in a near constant state of overtraining, and needlessly sacrifice energy and vitality as a result.
While most hardcore macho MMA athletes pride themselves on being able to work through pain and pathos, the smart ones also understand the value of backing off once in a while. Knowing when and how to moderate your training plan is critical to your athletic success — as well as your health. Failing to reduce your training load when your body needs a breather can set you up for the following problems:
Pushing your body to its limits causes it to release stress hormones, including cortisol. As this hormone rises, immunity takes a nosedive — it can’t adequately repair your muscles, nor can it effectively fight off bacteria and viruses. “Periodically lowering your training load reduces cortisol levels, allowing your body to recover better from your training,” says Shawn Talbott, PhD, research director for the health education company SupplementWatch and author of The Metabolic Method (Currant Book, 2008). It also reduces your chances of sustaining an injury or getting an illness that could sideline your training for an extended period.
Reduced strength, power and endurance. A tough strength-training or cardio workout inflicts small tears along the outer coating of your muscle tissue. During your downtime, your body treats the tiny tears much as it does an injury, and satellite cells rush in to patch them up. The repair process creates longer, thicker muscle fibers. When you train too hard, too often, however, your repair system falls behind. Many of the torn muscle fibers remain tattered, and thus, your athletic results may begin to plateau.
Another sign of overtraining is an impaired heart rate. In some athletes — usually sprinters and power athletes — the heart refuses to speed up with exertion, and you feel as if you are exercising while half-asleep. Blood doesn’t circulate through your body as quickly as usual, preventing oxygen from getting to your working muscles and keeping wastes from getting cleared.
In others — usually endurance athletes — the heart rate is elevated, both first thing in the morning and during exercise. No matter whether the heart rate speeds up or slows down, the effect is the same: early fatigue during a workout.
As a precautionary and maintenance-oriented step, some athletes measure their heart rates in the morning to assess their bodies’ status. If your heart rate is at least 10 percent above or below normal, the rule goes, you should forgo training.
Reduced energy and motivation. If you’re overtraining, or if some other aspect of your life is exerting a significant toll and you haven’t adjusted your workouts accordingly, there’s a good chance you’ll see your outlook and enthusiasm suffer.
Part of this may be psychological (you feel pulled in too many directions, for example, and can’t get satisfaction from your workouts). But another part of it could be physiological — a biochemical reaction to nutritional and hormonal depletion. Stepping back from training allows you to rebalance your body chemistry, reduce stress and recharge your mental batteries.
Symptom No. 1: You’re feeling tired, strung out and crabby.
What your body is trying to tell you: It may be maxed out. Generally, exercise should make you feel better, not worse. But when you’re clocking 80-hour weeks or planning your wedding, intense exercise can become one more stressor in your already-stressed-out life. It can also further destabilize your body’s levels of amino acids and neurotransmitters. A lot of busy people find time to exercise by cutting back on sleep, but it’s during sleep that your body repairs and restores itself.
Symptom No. 2: You’re sick — again.
What your body is trying to tell you: If you’re getting sick a lot, it’s a sign that your immune system is struggling and that it may need more attention than your workouts for a while. Regular (moderate) exercise usually boosts immunity, but intense sessions, particularly those that last two hours or more, can lower it — especially if you don’t rest adequately between sessions or you aren’t getting adequate nutrients.
Symptom No. 3: You’ve hit a stubborn plateau.
What your body is trying to tell you: After six to nine months on any exercise program, everyone hits a plateau. In many cases, this indicates the body needs a new challenge. But in some cases, it’s a sign that you’re pushing too far, too fast, and not giving your body’s repair systems a chance to keep up. Remember also that your maximum muscle size and metabolism are both partly genetically determined. Trying to overcome genetics by cranking up the intensity and duration of your workouts can backfire by suppressing immunity, which in turn suppresses your metabolism, according to Talbott. High cortisol levels also increase appetite, which may interfere with weight loss.
Symptom No. 4: Your workouts aren’t making you happy.
What your body is trying to tell you: A negative mindset is often the first sign of overtraining syndrome, says Carmichael. With a symptom list that includes grumpiness, muscle pain, fatigue, insomnia and low immunity, overtraining syndrome results from going too hard and too often without adequate rest.
Keep overdoing it, and you can expect to see stress-hormone levels rise, testosterone (the hormone in charge of muscle building and repair) levels fall and immunity plummet. You may feel tired as soon as you roll out of bed in the morning, or get more short-tempered as the day wears on.
More Rest for the Weary
If you’ve been turning a deaf ear to your body’s requests for time out, maybe it’s time you took notice. Keep in mind that taking a break doesn’t necessarily relegate you to lying on the couch and vegging out with DVDs. In fact, in most cases, you can and should continue to exercise at a lower intensity and duration during your power-off periods.
The important thing is that you learn to be observant about the signals your body is sending and that you see your workouts in the context of your whole life. Exercising harder isn’t going to do your athletic capacity much good if it undermines your physical or mental health. If it helps, think of your reduced training load as you would a trip to a spa: You’re still doing something healthy for your body by giving it the time it needs to rejuvenate.
Dr. Kevin Moseley has been involved with health and nutrition for over 20 years. He has written many articles on such topics as Nutritional Supplements, Bodybuilding supplements, weightlifting supplements, vitamins and minerals to name a few. He is also an onsite doctor for many sanctioned MMA and boxing events in United State. Dr. Moseley is a contributor in Sport Supplements, American Cage Fighter, and VitaHealth magazines to name a few.