Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Why I Hate the Admonition "Listen to Your Body"

Today is a second straight rest day for me, despite some tolerable running weather. Losing decent weather is irritating in December, when OK days are few and far between. 

But this was planned. Two mornings ago, I had a truly lousy workout. Nothing was working. My muscles were all tired. After 15 minutes, there was no exercise for which I felt I could complete more than a couple of reps, at least while maintaining any form. So I stopped.

Over the past few weeks, I've been pretty disciplined about exercise. With the exception of an extra off day over Thanksgiving, it's been two days on, one day off. But this week, it seems to have caught up with me. So I decided to take a couple of days off to recharge.

Many fitness-minded people would say that I'm "listening to my body." I hate that phrase.

I hate that phrase because it really doesn't mean anything. It's amorphous. It's a catch-all generalization that, in my opinion, is just as cloudy as the issues it's meant to remedy.  

Your body isn't something separate from you giving you helpful advice. It is you. If you're not "listening to your body," does that mean you're not cognizant of your own existence? Or that you're ignoring it?

I Googled the phrase "listen to your body," and I found a bunch of articles. (Feel free to keep going.) All of them dispense what you could say is helpful advice. But none of them define what "listening to your body" actually means. Apparently it's some kind of turn inward to fend off stress, or it's heeding small pains before they become major injuries, or it's choosing rest over caffeine and sugar, or... 

To be clear, I don't think the idea of "listening to your body" is bad. I just don't think it's specific enough.

So let's go back to the other day, when I cut my workout short. In this case, I was feeling too much soreness in too many muscle groups to exercise effectively. That's a specific issue. The cumulative effect of the micro-tears in a number of muscles had gotten to the point where they weren't healed up enough to push my program. So instead of gaining additional muscle through the rebuilding of those tears, I was simply tearing them more. 

Memes like this one really confuse the "listen to your body" philosophy.
Some people might say, "That's listening to your body." Here's where I disagree: When during a strenuous activity or workout has your body ever "said" to you, "Keep doing that. It feels good."? It will always feel better, in the moment, not to do those last few reps, not to run that extra mile, not to hold that plank another few seconds. 

What I needed the other day was not to "listen to my body." I needed some basic understanding of physiology and to recognize the specific sensations I was experiencing -- in this case, acute soreness in my arms, legs, abs and back. That's not the same as the general "I don't wanna" that every Regular Guy feels during a workout. Understanding the difference is key to making gains. 

This is true for injury prevention as well. If you've ever trained for a long race -- a 10k or longer -- you know that it's nearly impossible to get through your regimen without some ding or pull or whatever. You could "listen to your body" to consider whether it's a real problem. Or you could actually do some research on your specific symptoms and how they change during and after stress. 

An example: About a year-and-a-half ago, I began experiencing pain on the top of my foot. Rest would help, but then it would return when I got back on the road. If I were to "listen to my body," I could have read it as a harbinger of a serious injury and shut down my running program. But it turned out that, because I have wide feet, my shoes were laced too tightly. The solution was to run the laces down the sides, rather than crossing them over the tongue of the shoe. Haven't had that problem ever since.

Conversely, a number of more serious injuries don't give obvious clues. An IT band pull can often feel better when you're warmed up and running at a comfortable pace. If you aren't familiar with this injury and are just "listening to your body," you might write it off as a little tendonitis in your knee, ice your knee (which doesn't actually help anything) and keep your running schedule on track -- and that could be catastrophic. 

And what about regular old fatigue? I don't know about you, but when I wake up most mornings, I'd much rather roll over and sleep an extra hour -- regardless of what else is going on in life. Let's face it: I were to "listen to my body," I'd always opt for sleep. But I have to ask myself if I've been getting reasonable rest -- a Regular Guy needs 7-8 hours a night. Have I given myself adequate down time for relaxation and stress relief, or has life been go-go-go lately? Am I experiencing cold symptoms or general achiness? Those are some signs that your issue is more than just regular morning "I don't wanna," but you have to do more than just "listen to your body."

So, Regular Guys, I submit that we eradicate the admonition "listen to your body" from our fitness lexicon. Let's talk about specific challenges and specific solutions. Let's have a real conversation about our real lives. 

What do you say?

1 comment:

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