The most common and most costly mistake made by casual and serious exercisers alike is habitual overtraining, which results in a decline in health, fitness and motivation levels. Exercise is a form of physical stress to your body. When you exercise, you are actually fatiguing your muscle fibers, heart, lungs and other systems of your body.
In the recovery period, your body's natural ability to adapt to the stress placed upon it enables you to grow stronger and fitter - the desired response to exercise. This simple principle of stress and rest is a fundamental law of fitness, yet it's ignored by many highly motivated, goal-oriented exercisers.
Often your mind and your ego override the natural principles of stress and rest as you pursue your tangible goals. The goals you set, the training diary you keep, the influence of your peers and the judgments you place on your physical appearance are all mental factors that motivate you into action. These motivational factors quite often do not co-exist peacefully with your body's natural rhythms and the natural process of becoming healthy and fit.
When this happens you are faced with a serious problem of conflicting goals and motivations. The demands of your ego and your compulsions fight against, and often take precedence over, the natural needs of your body. This causes you to exercise harder or more frequently than optimal, sending you into a spiral of habitual overtraining.
These conflicting goals can confuse you; you don't know whether you're just being lazy or whether your body truly is tired and needs a break from exercise. This confusion arises when the connection between mind and body is weak. When mind and body are connected, your behavior will align closely with your goals and you will gain the maximum benefits from your exercise routine.
How to connect mind and body? Listen to and trust your intuition when it comes to training decisions. Your intuition is that little voice inside that always knows the right thing to do — whether it's rest with a sore throat or extend your ride from a planned 50 miles to 100 just because you feel fantastic! Trust your intuition above all else — even highly paid coaches or best-selling authors. Instead of blindly following a robotic training schedule, govern your training decisions (and all other decisions in your life) by asking yourself, Is this healthy? Is this aligned with my long-term goals?
My discussion of the Four Rules of Intensity for anaerobic training is an intuitive approach to properly scheduling and conducting intense workouts in your training schedule. Establishing a strict guideline like, Only push yourself when you feel 100% rested and motivated introduces a subjective, intuitive element into your decision making.
Consider the opposite, "group track workouts are every Tuesday night at 7:30pm". This approach makes you a 'victim of circumstance' just like Curley of the 3 Stooges. While you can certainly organize your lifestyle and your training load to predict that your body will be ready to go hard on Tuesday nights, you should always back into your training schedule in this order:
I'm rested, motivated and eager to run hard
I'm going to the track workout tonight
rather than the victim order
Track workout is scheduled tonight
I'm pretty tired, I hope my knee holds up
In the first example, mind and body are connected. In the victim example, mind and body are totally disconnected. The body pounds a track workout while the mind is worried and anxious. Every time you exercise, your mind should be at peace and congruent with the physical purpose of the workout. The only exception is when you sneak into a health club you are not a member of to swim some laps. Then you will naturally be worried.
Future articles will discuss some practical steps to become a more intuitive athlete.