Too Young To Appreciate The Lessons

I was at my parents house last week for my dad’s birthday. While I was there I decided to pick up some of my books so I could reread them – in this case I picked up Speed Trap: Inside the Biggest Scandal in Olympic History by Charlie Francis. {Check out My Top 10 Books post for some information about this and my other favorite books}

What is funny about this book now is just how much sense it makes – I’ve had plenty of time to assimilate the lessons it teaches given the almost 20 years that have past since I first read it. But equally shocking is just how little I did with the information between the time I first acquired it and very recently. Frankly, I’m a little concerned at the latency. It’s making me wonder what other lessons I have had that I have yet to action on?

Charlie talks about two types of fatigue – muscular and neurological. Muscle fatigue is easy to understand because there is a physical symptom associated with it – delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is the result of the muscle fatigue – okay, they are not exactly sure why people get DOMS but given that it only shows up after someone has used their muscles fairly intensely we know it is related to muscle fatigue. Basically, after intense or prolonged use, muscle are damaged and need time to recover. Provided you give them enough nutrients, water and rest, they will be good to go again fairly quickly.

Neurological fatigue is more difficult to understand because there is no pain to indicate that it is there. In fact, you can only tell that you have it if you compare your performance to a previous performance and notice a decline in intensity. For example, you lift 20 lbs LESS for the same number of reps, you do fewer reps with the same amount of weight, you move the bar or run slower. These decreases in performance occur REGARDLESS of how well rested or pain-free your muscles feel. Nervous system recover takes much longer than muscle recovery for reasons that are well outside the scope of this post but it is fair to say that for a very intense workout – one that demanded repeated all out efforts – it can take 3 – 5 days or more to get back to normal. Also consider that training age factors into the neurological recovery – given that highly trained people have better recruitment patterns than untrained people. It would be safe to say that someone who is just starting to workout will suffer muscle fatigue much more frequently than neurological fatigue and that their training frequency can be much higher because of this.

It isn’t surprising that I missed the lesson the first time I read the book – I wasn’t a speed athlete and I was so new to weight lifting that I didn’t realize that I was always in a state of neurological and muscular fatigue. Back then some of my lifting numbers didn’t go up for months and the only time I grew was when I stopped training in the summer. Looking back with the knowledge and years of experience I now have, it’s very clear what was going on. I wasted a lot of time training when I should have been resting. I didn’t realize that my nervous system was so fatigued that it couldn’t fire a signal to recruit a sufficient number of fibers to help me move a heavier load. The outcome of this lack of recruitment was a lack of progress because I wasn’t able to overload my muscles.

But back then I knew everything and was doing it all by the book. Ah the wisdom of youth!

Today, depending upon how I am training, I use a variety of ways to make the decision about my readiness to workout out. I use time since last workout, muscle pain and heart rate to help me decide if I am ready to go. For example, I try to wait 2-4 days between workouts for the same body part – 4 days if the last workout was very intense in terms of percentage of 1 rep max, 2 days if it was a lower intensity workout. I will take a day off or train with less intensity if the muscle group I am supposed to train is still sore. When it comes to cycling, if I am having difficulty getting my heart rate up to 155-160, I will cut a ride short, or I will treat it as an active recovery ride and aim to keep my heart rate between 135 and 145.

The saying goes “better late than never” and I suppose that is true. It is just kind of sad to think about the potential gains I squandered because I did not hold on to the lessons of my youth. I guess this plays a big part in why I work as a strength coach because I am hoping I am able to help someone avoid the pitfalls I made.