If you’ve never seen the classic ’80s movie, ‘Top Gun’, go watch it. For those of you have seen it, you may recognize that the title of this post is based on an oft-quoted line: “I feel the need, the need for speed.” The movie is about a group of advanced fighter pilots in an elite US Navy flying school. These guys are in the prime of their life, physically speaking, and they go hard and fast. All. The. Time.
Okay, now that we have today’s ’80s education out of the way….
I was talking to a friend the other day, and she was telling me about a recent workout she did at a local gym. She had taken a high intensity interval training (HIIT) class, which involves alternating short periods of intense anaerobic exercise with less-intense recovery periods.
“It was great, “she said with a big smile on her face, “My legs were toast. I could barely walk afterwards!”
Let that sink in for a moment. She could “barely walk” at the end of her workout, and she was happy about it!
Now, I’m sure she was exaggerating to some extent, but her sentiment is not uncommon. In fact, I regularly see posts on social media from people who brag about feeling completely spent from spin class, kickboxing, running, or a workout involving scores of burpees, push ups, lunges or whatever. Regardless of the nature of the exercise, these individuals regularly push themselves close to their breaking point. Not only do they believe that exhaustion is the hallmark of a good workout, but they seem to have a need for fatigue. They crave that physical, psychological, and emotional rush that often accompanies a really hard effort. It can feel satisfying in more ways than one, and serves as an immediate confirmation (and sometimes as a lasting reminder) that you “worked out”….an invisible badge of honor, so to speak. And I get it. I used to seek it too. In fact, prior to my long bout with injuries and chronic pain, I often viewed deep fatigue as an integral, even desirable, aspect of exercise. If there was no fatigue, I didn’t work hard enough. But I was wrong.
Complete exhaustion does not equal great workout.
Before I go any further, allow me to explain. There is nothing wrong with hard work that challenges you. And I’m not picking on a specific form of exercise. Crossfit, powerlifting, running, HIIT, just to name a few, all have value and provide exercise benefits. Getting your heart rate up to promote cardiovascular fitness, is indeed, a valuable component of a healthy exercise program. There is also a time and place for pushing your limits and going for PRs. However, these times should be saved for competition and/or lightly sprinkled on top of a large volume of quality training that is designed to help you improve, not stress your body to the point at which you have difficulty moving your body.
Wait…doesn’t exercise reduce stress? Yes! Many studies have demonstrated that regular exercise has been shown to decrease overall levels of tension, elevate and stabilize mood, improve sleep, and improve self-esteem.
So, why would exercise cause stress? Well, exercise itself is a form of physiological stress. The body actually needs stress to grow stronger, faster, more agile, etc. and, in fact, the stress must be above a minimum threshold intensity in order to produce these adaptations. But here’s the rub: Too much stress, in the form of intensity and/or frequency, can result in chronically elevated stress hormones such as cortisol, which can interfere with learning and memory, lower immune function and bone density and has been linked to weight gain, high blood pressure, and heart disease, among other things. Further, pushing your body to the point of excessive fatigue also places a tremendous amount of stress on your nervous system. The reason you may have “trouble walking” after a hard workout is because you’ve taxed your nervous system to the point where the brain starts shutting down your ability to move before you’re able to inflict serious or permanent damage to yourself.
Does this sound like a good path to better health and fitness?
I don’t think so either. The goal of any health and fitness program should be to improve, not take a step backwards. Yet, day after day…especially in January….people flock to the gym and push themselves beyond their limits. Quite frankly, it’s counterproductive and not helping them reach their goals. The hard part for most people, however, is finding that sweet spot. How do you know if you are getting enough exercise, but not too much? How do you know if you are putting in enough effort, but not too much?
Are you making steady progress toward your health and fitness goals? Are you moving well, seeing improvements in body composition and strength? Are you less “out of breath” after you run up a flights of stairs?
Are you practicing quality over quantity? More is not always better. Better is better. Strive for high quality training. If quality starts to fall off and your form or technique starts to fall apart, then you’re done. Better yet, stop before your form begins to break down. (An exception to this rule is hypertrophy training, or bodybuilding, which requires working to failure.)
Can you see yourself exercising this way a few times per week for the next 10-20 years? A good exercise program should be sustainable over the long haul.
How do you feel after your workout? A quality workout should leave you feeling invigorated and ready to tackle your next task of the day.
Do you feel completely recovered before beginning your next workout? If not, you are very likely are overtraining which depletes your body’s resources and inhibits your ability to recover, putting yourself at increased risk for illness or injury.
“Suppress your desire to keep pushing and learn to do the minimum amount in order to progress.” – Neil Meekings, Trainer and Therapist at Kinect Health
One also should keep in mind that, in addition to recovery, proper nutrition and adequate sleep are critical to good health and fitness. You can be on an ideal exercise program, but if you are eating and sleeping poorly, your performance will suffer and progress will stall.
Listen, it would be great if we were forever in our physical prime like Maverick and Goose. (Well, maybe not so much like Goose. And if you don’t know what I’m talking about, go back and reread the first sentence of my post!) But the reality is that most of us are not in our twenties, and if you are in your twenties, you won’t be there forever. Going hard all the time is just not sustainable, and it won’t improve your health and fitness in the long run.
Finally, always remember to put health before fitness. If you are having any pain or discomfort, make time to seek help from a physical therapist who can help you address it before it becomes a bigger problem. They can help facilitate your return to a pain-free, active lifestyle.
Happy New Year!
Thanks for reading,
Dr. Cheryl Keller Capone