Monday, January 5, 2015

When Is It OK Not to Exercise?

Today I want to talk about something you don't hear much about from fitness gurus: When is it OK not to exercise?

After all, we are Regular Guys, and this is a conversation about keeping fit and living your life.

So let's talk nuts and bolts here. When is it OK not to exercise?

When you're injured.
Last month, we discussed obstacles that are out of your control. One of those is injuries. As I wrote then, if you're working out regularly, you're going to suffer a few dings and bumps -- it's just inevitable. And you're going to feel some soreness sometimes. The key is to recognize when it's something you can work through and when it's time to take a break.

Running coach and author Hal Higdon offers what I think is the wisest advice on the subject: If it starts to feel better on its own -- or at least doesn't worsen during training -- you can probably work through it. If it gets worse, or if it doesn't start healing within a few days, it's time to take a few days off. And if it still doesn't get better, it may be time to call your doctor.

If you can work around an injury, great. But I think you'll be shocked at how interrelated your various muscle groups are, and how much two seemingly unconnected parts of your body work together to help you perform any exercise.

When you're sick.

A lot of people have offered me the advice that you can train through a head cold but not a chest infection. To that I say, "Bah!" Don't make a bad situation worse. You're not going to lose fitness gains in a couple of days. A few salient points:
  • When you're sick, you're going to be more fatigued, which will affect the quality of your workouts. And if your form suffers as a result -- lifting, running, whatever -- you could be setting yourself up for an injury.
  • Your body's energy reserves are limited, and it uses them both for workout recovery and to fend off illness. If you're putting your energy into working out, you could be holding back your immune system.
  • You need more rest when you're sick, even if it's just a head cold. That tired, fatigued feeling isn't just psychological. And Regular Guys already have lives full of work, family and other obligations. Let yourself have that hour of sleep.

When you have real obligations.
If you're wracked with guilt because you skipped your workout in favor of your child's awards ceremony at school, I'm going to level with you: Your priorities are out of whack. 

When I was in marathon training last year, a few people asked me about the biggest challenge or obstacle to achieving my goal. I think I surprised them when I said it didn't have anything at all to do with my workouts. We've all seen those Nike commercials that romanticize the athlete getting out of bed at 5:30 instead of hitting snooze and trekking out into the rain or snow or whatever. You know what? That's the easy part. It's really easy to let the 5-10 hours a week you spend exercising bleed into the other 158-163 hours of your week and affect everything you do and think about.

As a runner, my mantra is, "Run to live, don't live to run." Don't let your fitness regimen define you, and don't let it get in the way of your actual life.

When you're really fatigued.
One of the hardest things to recognize is the difference between just sleepy/tired/cranky and fatigued. You don't want to start making excuses for why you didn't exercise today. But you also don't want to overdo it. Pushing yourself when you're truly fatigued opens you up to illness and injury, and it can also push you to the point where you begin to hate exercising. Here are a few signs of true fatigue that I know about:
  • Cold symptoms for no good reason. If you're overtraining, sometimes your body compensates, and it allows things it normally fends off. Can't figure out that drippy nose, headache or sneezing? You might need some rest days.
  • Diminished performance. If you have a few substandard workouts in a row, you may have overloaded your systems. Your muscles may need some more time to recover and rebuild, or your heart and lungs might just need a break.
  • Serious issues waking up. It's one thing to be cranky and tired early in the morning. That makes you normal. But if you really just can't pick your head up off the pillow, or you find yourself hitting snooze multiple times, it's more than that. 

When you're really sore.
Soreness comes with the territory when you exercise. And if you were to wait to feel perfect before every workout, you'd get out there about twice a month. So yes, you have to work through some soreness.

But if the soreness you're feeling doesn't correlate with the amount of work you did in a given day, it's a sign that your muscles are feeling cumulative fatigue. Today, for example, I ran about 2.3 miles at a bit faster than 5k pace. (I actually went out too fast and had to cut it short.) But I'm feeling like I ran a 10k. Why? Yesterday, I ran about 1.8 miles and then did a 20-minute HIIT routine, and two days before that, I ran a very challenging trail 10k.

It adds up. When that happens, take a day off.

When it's a rest day.
Building muscle -- even your heart muscle -- is a process of tearing micro-tissues in order for them to re-build stronger. If you never give your body a chance to repair the damage from exercise, you'll never actually see results.

You need to schedule 2-3 rest days per week. Another good approach: 2 days on, 1 day off, rinse, repeat.

And when it's a rest day, it's a rest day. No, not a stay-in-bed-all-day rest day, but no "light workouts" or "a couple of easy miles." Let your body do the work it has evolved to do.

But while I have you, here are a few excuses you shouldn't make for skipping your workout:
  • The weather sucks. That's why man invented roofs and indoor heat. There's no reason why you can't do 20 minutes of bodyweight moves at home or join an inexpensive local gym.
  • I have to get to work. Sure, there are some days when you have to be in really early or stay really late. But you can find 20-30 minutes on a normally busy day.
  • I hate exercise. There has to be something active that you enjoy doing. Ride your bike if you hate running. Play basketball if CrossFit isn't for you. Figure out what you like, and find a way to do it. 
  • I don't know what I'm doing. It's OK -- neither do 70 percent of the people at your gym. And the other 30 percent are almost always happy to offer a bit of advice. Oh, and there are 8 gazillion online sources of information. I counted.
  • It's too expensive. Do you have a T-shirt, a pair of shorts and a decent pair of sneakers? That's all the equipment you need for pushups, squats, lunges, mountain climbers and countless other bodyweight moves.
  • I'll never be able to do that, so why bother? Everyone has to start somewhere. Gains won't be immediate, but they'll come faster than you think. I started by walking on a treadmill, then added some running intervals, and did a 5k within 3 months.

Can you add to the list? Tell us about the time you skipped a workout or four, and felt zero guilt over it. Comment below, or on Facebook or Twitter!

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