6 Thoughts

Below are some things that I think are missed in many of the online programs and strategies I am seeing at the moment. That is not to say that these programs are bad or don’t address these implicitly, but more so that I think blindly adopting some of them may not be helpful for all involved. Perhaps more understanding will help you adapt things to your own needs and situation.

1) WHY?

What is the reason you train? Without an understanding of this, you will find decision making and motivation difficult.

  • What is your ‘Why’? Without being able to answer this question things can be very hard. This obviously has meaning and utility for more global aspects of life as well as more minor ones. Within this spectrum somewhere lies physical activity and exercise.
  • If your ‘Why’ is the Olympic games, then your training looks as similar as possible to what was planned before whatever lifestyle limitations have been imposed on you.
  • If your ‘Why’ is about a race or event which no longer happening, you may well be struggling for motivation.
  • If your ‘Why’ is about health, then you are likely modifying training around restrictions and maybe decreasing it a little.
So, what’s important to understand? Nobody is particularly happy about being limited in what they can do, but there are some ways to approach things that may help. If your ‘Why’ is performance related, then take the opportunity to do what you can of ‘normal’ training and double down to improve any weaknesses you can at this time to come back with a better starting point than you may otherwise have been. That may be extra mobility work, creating a recovery habit or specific strength work you have been neglecting. This reframe may mean you are nudged towards something as good if not better than you would otherwise have been doing. If your ‘Why’ is more about health, then make sure you consider what ‘healthy’ is. This may be difficult given the various definitions and opinions about health and what being ‘healthy’ constitutes but it is worth doing due diligence on. I would suggest making sure you get enough aerobic and anaerobic conditioning, with the best strength training you can do, given your situation, a couple of times a week. I would then suggest some additional stress management to what is normal for you. Perhaps consider increasing physical activity outside of your exercise/training. The difference being exercise and/or training are planned, and at least somewhat regimented, whereas physical activity encompasses this but also things like walking about your apartment (all exercise is physical activity but not all physical activity is exercise).

2) Dose

How much exercise is enough and how hard should it be? There is a common adage in toxicology which is attributed to Paracelsus; ‘the dose makes the poison’. This is particularly pertinent at a time people are likely changing their training significantly. Part of the concept of ‘dosing’ is that of tolerance, for a quick explanation just remember the first time you had a coffee and the effects it had and consider how that now pales in comparison to the 3 cups you need to pry your eyelids apart daily.. just me? So, as we are exposed to a stimulus and we develop a tolerance to this stimulus. Therefore, your training needs to progress, because we adapt to it. The concern here is the stark alteration in training stimulus as a result of restrictions imposed on us without the time to adapt to it. Big alterations in training load are a risk factor worth considering in many injuries. Most notably I see many plyometric type activities being included in home workouts and am hoping this is not the first time someone is trying them or that people aren’t increasing their number of jumps per session or per week significantly. Similarly, there are some high-level bodyweight exercises that are part of bodyweight strength training progressions which have their different nuances from some of their external resistance utilising counterparts. Make sure you gradually increase these sorts of variables in your training rather than creating huge contrasts and exposing yourself to risks you don’t need to bare during this time. The key here is to consider what is actually needed for your given situation and goals which hopefully, after the rest of this article, you can answer.

3) Allostatic load

What is the total stress that your body is being exposed to? You body doesn’t understand kilometres, kilograms or minutes. It understands molecular signalling. That is; load in different planes like compressive or tensile loads, or metabolic stress. Likewise, it doesn’t differentiate the source of these stresses and loads. So, all stress impacts your body, as it attempts to adapt to the stress of the environment. That may mean getting stronger as a result of load from strength training or surviving during times of high psychological or emotional stress. The takeaway points being a few; psychological stress impacts your ability to adapt to training, your body can only cope with so much stress and during times of high psychological stress, reducing training stress may be of value. I learned this the hard way by increasing training intensity during exam periods going through my studies, and almost always got injured.

4) Enter the U and Goldilocks

The relationship between training and the immune system. Yes, physical activity and exercise is good for your immune system but, in what can be known as the ‘Goldilocks principle’ or indeed a ‘inverse U’ relationship, there is a ‘sweet spot’. Both too little and too much stress from exercise can impair your immune system. This is classically seen in elite endurance athletes who are quite susceptible to upper respiratory tract infections. The takeaway here is that this is probably not the time to spike your training load (or components thereof like intensity or duration) or even perhaps inducing significantly more stress via dietary strategies like significant calorie restriction. Points 3 and 4 speak to the reason for my suggestion around what training may look like if health was your goal in point 1; enough stress, enough recovery and some semblance of ‘balance’ or ‘moderation’ (if they exist).

5) “Muscle memory” and “Use it or Lose it”

Detraining and retraining. These are a couple of fairly common concepts in the health and fitness industry. Neither are 100% accurate but perhaps the broad concepts serve their purpose. Muscles have no mechanism for ‘memory’ per se, but in training it is definitely the case that certain adaptations are harder to achieve than they are to maintain or indeed regain. Without going into the mechanisms for this, much is due to the nature of some adaptations being less ‘elastic’ and more ’plastic’ in nature and/or more long term. So the takeaway message here is that you need to do less to maintain your levels of performance than you did to gain them and that they will definitely return in a shorter time frame after detraining than they took to initially attain. The length of time for detraining is generally loosely proportional to the amount of time taken for these adaptation to be made initially, that is, the longer it took to attain, they longer it will last (or perhaps ‘easy come, easy go’) This speaks to what is mentioned in point 2 when discussing what is actually needed in terms of dosing of physical activity and exercise for your goals.

6) Little Bits of Fit

Regular small amounts of activity or one intense hour of exercise? In general, it is hard to quantify whether fitness/activity trackers are a net positive or negative for health, but they probably have some things right. The vibrate function some have as a movement prompt after a period of inactivity is worth considering, more in concept than execution. The debate between long periods of sedentary behaviour with an hour of vigorous exercise vs constant amounts of physical activity being better for health is long standing and ongoing. Whilst a false dichotomy (you can exercise and be generally physically active throughout the day) it is no doubt worth considering given the difficulties of being house bound in terms of physical activity associated with daily life. I would suggest that breaking up long periods on zoom with regular amounts of physical activity (some squats or walking around your dwelling) is of value in addition to getting enough exercise. Likewise, I would suggest, given some of the things written above, pushing the balance to slightly more physical activity and less vigorous exercise may be of merit.

In practice as a runner this may look like the following:

  • Maintain easy running
  • Cut back high intensity sessions as needed
  • Add in whatever weak point training you can
  • Manage stress and do extra walking and recovery strategies
  • Don’t increase mileage too much or add too much new strength work
  • Stay confident that this will serve you well when you start another training block.

So, in summary, be very clear in your reasons for wanting to do exercise and the goals of it in a broader context of your life goals. From there, dose it appropriately to help achieve your goals. Make sure you spend some extra time on recovery and stress management given what is likely a period of heightened stress. Make sure you are getting enough general physical activity given what is likely a reduction in this given imposed restrictions and be confident that any detraining that occurs will be easier to regain than it was to attain initially.