Updated: Aug 13, 2019
I haven't been that great at the 'adapt on my feet' thing. I like to plan meticulously and then roll out the plan. I don't like to deviate from the plan ... unless I've planned that.
Like most things, too much and too little fall either side of optimal. If you don't plan at all or you're too quick to abandon any structure, you'll find it almost impossible to attain fantastic results or break plateaus in your training or body composition. But if you plan too much and obsess about each tiny detail, you may also compromise your results because you lose the ability to trust your instinct and redirect. In both cases, you make things more difficult than they need to be.
Stress is a broad concept
Stress comes in many forms. It's easy to say 'I'm fine, I'm not stressed' if you don't actually feel upset or distressed. But stress is not the same as distress. As leading researcher Dr Robert Sapolsky explains, stress is anything that puts the body out of homeostasis. Stress is not just an emotional strain. It is any factor that disturbs our equilibrium. It makes many different physiological systems dip and then demands that they return to baseline or adapt. This physiological response keeps us alive, but it's not meant to be chronic. In reality, the kind of stressors that push our bodies out of balance today are psychological. They happen in our heads about things that happen far into the future, or possibly don't happen at all. Chronic stress could manifest as constantly being alert or seeking to be perfect. You might not even notice it because you've accepted that it's just 'your personality' or 'part of the deal'. But your body certainly notices it, and it can have a cumulative impact on your health, body composition and performance.
Chronic stress suppresses your body's line of defence
For example, lingering stress has an effect on our immune system. At the first sign of stress, the body temporarily jacks up our immune defences and cues inflammatory cells to infiltrate the site of an injury. This is a sensible thing for our bodies to do, because it helps us prepare to heal injuries, like a cut to the skin, and prevent infection right then and there. After that initial response, your immune system settles back to baseline and helps you recover from stressor to stressor. But if you're chronically stressed - and particularly if the source of stress is psychological and ongoing - your stress response suppresses the immune system until it's safe for your body to unleash its troops to fight a virus or an infection.
Fuelling the immune system is expensive. Have you noticed that you tend to feel weak and fatigued when you're fighting a bug? That's partly because your body diverts a large chunk of your energy supplies to your immune system so that it can tackle the bacteria or virus responsible. But if you're facing a crisis, your stress response kicks into gear and your immune system takes a back seat. It's smart energy use. Think of it as your body mobilising its resources to prioritise a close encounter ahead of maintaining a line of defence that might help us in the future. Have you ever been hit by a bug or the flu after a big project, right at the time that you’re on holidays? If your immune system is suppressed for a period of time, you're more likely to pick up a virus or the flu, and less likely to be able to mount a defence to it.
Can I take a rain check on looking after my body? I don't have time at the moment.
It's better to listen to your body before it starts to protest. You can't reschedule this to fit your plans. In the week of my competition in October 2017, I felt terrible. I crashed 6 days ahead of schedule - Monday morning of my peak week. My joints ached, my muscles felt fatigued and my body just didn't feel like moving. I couldn't sleep soundly because my mind had shifted into super alert mode at all times. My mood shifted, and I didn't feel present, I didn't feel like me. My throat hurt and I'd been sneezing. I lost my appetite. I even had a slight rash on one arm. My physique looked softer than it had looked recently. Good signs, huh? It's no surprise that my mind and body decided to sound the alarm - I had competed earlier in the year and didn't properly back off for months. I remember feeling unusually achey and tired in my legs session on Monday night. But at that time, I couldn't contemplate changing my peaking plans. I certainly couldn't accept not training. I ignored it and decided to proceed as planned. I actually felt shell shocked that I'd reached my competition week, and I'm sick! My mind refused to accept that I could feel any less that incredible. I'd planned to feel super pumped and excited, but instead, I felt flat and disappointed that my final legs session hadn't panned out as planned. I felt really mad too. What the hell, body?! Couldn't you keep it together for another week? Come Wednesday's session, I felt terrible. I fully intended to push that session. My coach acted as the voice of reason. He didn't sugar coat it - I had to accept that my ideal scenario was no longer an option. I wasn't in an optimal place, so I can't continue to follow a plan that's based on what's optimal. This helped. I needed to hear it. I accepted that I needed to change course. This freed me to adjust things and reformulate my plan.
I had the choice to banish the negativity and make the most of it. And I did. This meant that I only did half of the training sessions I planned to do right before my competition, but I realised that the last sessions weren't going to make me any leaner or change my shape. It meant that I spent hours napping that I would have dedicated to posing practice. It meant that I couldn't sleep properly. But rather than let it consume my mind, I reset. I felt stronger and re-energised on competition day. I felt like me again. I released my mind from my anxieties. And I competed in my most defined and leanest shape to date. I also felt confident, strong and unstoppable on stage. I had an incredible experience, and I didn't let my inner perfectionist ruin things for me.
Five tips to prioritise rest and play to support health and boost performance
It's one thing to schedule days off training, off study, etc. That's sensible and useful. But it's not a free pass to stop thinking about your recovery debt. You still need to listen to your body and be flexible if things change. You could choose to push full steam ahead and ignore the signals that you should back things off a little. But consider if you are too stubborn and don't listen to your body, you'll crash at some point, and it could knock you out for longer than it would have if you just took it easy for a day in the first place.
1. Sometimes, you may need to back off your training. For example, if you're clearly battling a virus or infection, you feel far achier than you usually do, or you're just not feeling yourself coming into a competition or a big day, there's nothing to gain by adding fuel to the fire. Historically, I haven't been great at this ... ok, I've been pretty terrible at it. If I can see a competition on the horizon, of even if I'm just focused on a lift, I can tune out my body and selectively listen to that voice in my head that tells me to push harder and keep improving, even if my program says to deload things. I reluctantly remind myself (well, my coach usually has to remind me) that backing off training at the right time is going to help me recover properly, and that's just as important to progress and results as any session you could do in the gym. There will be another session that you can unleash your crazy. I promise.
2. Play time matters. Does the idea of play and doing something that's completely unproductive make you feel a bit anxious? I know the feeling. Well, here's the thing. Play is not optional. Just like our body's biological need for rest, our mind has a biological need for play. That's based on medical research and science, not just a fluffy claim about leisure to make people feel better. Dr Stuart Brown, a medical doctor, researcher and the founder of the US National Institute for Play (sounds cool, huh?), says that play is as essential to our health and functioning as rest. It is integral to social practices, dramatically transforms our relationships, unlocks our capacity innovate and helps us to find joy and mastery in our craft. Today, give yourself permission to do something fun that's not on your 'to do' list. It's not a waste of time! Play (and sleep!) are not luxuries. It's counter culture because a moment of play doesn't fit the 'go hard or go home' mentality, but it's vital. 3. Resist doing some things like you automatically tend to do things. This one's for the Type A, analytical minds. If you're super structured and organised, find a creative outlet that can free your mind for a while. Do something that's a little out of your comfort zone. There's no need to completely abandon your personality, but a change of pace can make you feel alive, brave, rejuvenated and inspired. And that's directly applicable to your goals and projects - you'll be able to channel that energy to confront challenges and chase your goals with a little more perspective.
4. Practice gratitude. If you're struggling, flip your mindset and find gratitude. Often, our minds fixate on the 'bad' things even though there's something incredible right in front of us. I've used gratitude to reframe my mindset around my body. Like so many physique competitors, I had spiralled into a pattern of self criticism around my body image. It's a nagging anxiety that sometimes flares and doesn't succumb to rational control. I had to be patient and practice gratitude to turn this around. I started to deliberately reflect on all the incredible things that my body can do. I'm grateful for my strong legs that can squat a 100 kg PR. I'm grateful for my strong body that can train hard multiple times a week and make progress. I'm grateful that I'm healthier and I'm not navigating brain fog, energy crashes, disrupted sleep and fatigue all the time. Things like this are amazing, yet we don't give our bodies any credit.
5. Be honest and call out your self limiting traits. For me, I have a particularly bad habit to over prepare and perfect. For as long as I can remember, I've had a tendency to read thoroughly, highlight while I read, research secondary points, take copious notes, then type up a final draft of my notes (!) and plan painfully detailed to do lists. I fully realise that this is all, most of the time, unnecessary double up and just not necessary. In my head, though, I feel like it's all crucial, but that's just because it's a process that has become my routine. I didn't really question it and it helped to bolster my grades at school and then university. But in reality, a lot of it didn't add value to my task or study. One thing it reliably does is make me anxious and fuel my feelings of 'I haven't done enough'. And that lingers and keeps my mind and body on stand by, alert.
So, your challenge - if you accept it - is to conduct an honest self audit. It's not easy to call out our limiting tendencies. Here is a set of questions related to some common culprits to help you start. Can you identify the habits that might generate more stress than they need to? Do you really need to check and respond to emails in real time? Could you scan documents that you need to read first, rather than obsessing about every detail? Are there people you can talk to first that can help put you on track and make a task easier, rather than approach a monumental battle alone? Is it really necessary to explore that secondary issue immediately, or can you just wait and see if it becomes important later? The same applies to our personal lives. Do you really need to cook dinner each night, or could you double a recipe on some nights so you don't have to cook on the nights that you're home later? Do you really have to rush around in the morning, or could you shift your bed time, set your alarm a little earlier and start the day in a calmer manner?
Our first response is often to resist this kind of self assessment. It's normal to defend our habits and prefer the things you're used to, but remaining in that loop of our ingrained habits can be self defeating. It can be uncomfortable to put your mindset under the microscope initially, but this personal assessment is vital to free you from the self limiting traits that shackle optimal health and your true potential to perform.