Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Ersatz Althete

I wasn't what you'd call physically gifted or cool or a jock growing up.  In fact, if you'd whispered the words Douglas Adams or Star Trek as you walked by, or better yet Red Sonja, I probably would've turned to see who was carrying on an interesting conversation.

Sci-fi-fantasy-music geek
It wasn't until college when the freshman 15 found me (or was it 20?), and hearing folks tell me I looked “healthy” (we all know what that means) during my first trip back home made me wonder if maybe staying up to date with the New Mutants and becoming TNG's new biggest fan perhaps wasn't keeping me in the svelte shape I was expecting.  Well, I suppose soft and squishy is a shape.  So sure, I was in “a shape.”  A roundish, malleable shape.  A soft-shouldered, slightly-out-of-breath shape.

Not having excelled physically at anything more taxing than walking to the dining hall, I had no idea how to change my shape, so the obvious choice was to join the women's rugby team.  Me, who bruises if you glance at me the wrong way.  Whose idea of tackling someone involved giving them a hug.  Obviously I was destined to become one of the rugby greats.

But I digress.  Well, no, I haven't actually gressed into anything yet, so it's hard to diverge from a topic when there isn't one to begin with.  What I mean to talk about in this post is the concept of recovery, which all started for me as a sci-fi-fantasy geek in my late teens when I decided to try to switch gears and be a jock.  That's a really long time ago for me now, so my memory is a little sketchy on details.  I'm pretty sure I never became a jock.  I'm also pretty sure I kept up with the latest drama in the world of Xanth, because that was important.  One thing I do recall, though, is that even though I started pushing my heart rate up more than 20 years ago, I didn't really grasp the concept of recovery until about a year ago.  And in all honesty, I'm still trying to figure it out. 

When I started playing rugby, I was young.  You can get away with a lot when you're young.  Probably more than you should, but damn, those are some fun years to get away with stuff.  One of the things you can do when you're young is to absorb all sorts of information about exercise, weight lifting, naughty lyrics, and alcohol.  Well, not so much information about alcohol, but alcohol itself.  Rugby is pretty much the perfect venue for accomplishing all of that.

So freakin' hot we had to forego the jerseys

Mostly what I seemed to absorb at that time (aside from C2H5OH – geek, remember?) was that more exercise and heavier weights were always better.  According to the broscience I heard, a little was better than none, some was better than a little, so of course a lot was better than a shot of tequila with a beer chaser.  Days off were for the weak, or because you had a really gnarly hangover.

So I entered CrossFit thinking that the more WODs I did, the better I'd get.  Those PRs during those first addictive months are so startling that it's really hard to believe that more is not necessarily better.  But at week 6, when my answer to the question of "how are you feeling?" came back as "really, really tired," Jenny suggested that I do a half-week, which meant only doing half the weight, or half the reps, or half the time, for the whole week.  And as timing would have it, I was scheduled to hike the Grand Canyon the week after that, so I wouldn't even be at the gym to win back my WOD cred.

Honestly, it felt weird.  I was pretty sure regression was imminent and I'd revert back to my “healthy” shape faster than Superman could spin the world backward and reverse time.  But I did it, I scaled everything and took the next week off for “active rest” … and a magical thing happened.  I came back to CrossFit feeling stronger and better than I did before. 

Active Grand Canyon rest
Which meant, of course, that I delved into researching the topic of recovery.  Because if you're an obsessed and converted geek like me, there's one thing you're really good at, and that's research. 

It turns out everything I learned when I was young was mostly wrong, but I could get away with it because I was … well, young, and pretty damn lucky not to get injured.  What I've come to understand – and this is probably dead obvious to those of you who did something more active than memorize all the lines from Star Wars in your younger years – is that your body does not actually get stronger during exercise, but rather after you've finished the exercise and you take a break to let your muscles heal up from it.  And not only that, but your ability to recover from hard (a.k.a. CrossFitty) workouts is completely dependent on everything else going on in your life, too, like how you feed yourself, how much sleep you get, day-to-day levels of stress … and yes, your age.  (Dammit.)

What recovery sometimes looks like -- a head pat
The libraries of CrossFit provide approximately one bazillion schools of thought on recovery.  A popular one among the masses is the “listening to your body” approach, which involves being tuned in enough to realize that if you try to increase your lifts or decrease your time at that moment, you might hurt yourself.  Ergo, take a break until you feel ready to tackle it again.

Personally, I love this approach.  I'll admit I'm occasionally guilty of loading the bar with a little more than I should during heavy cleans or deadlifts, and my back is all like, “Hey, WTF! That's 3 days of hard time off for YOU!”  Fortunately this provides the perfect excuse to sleep in for a few days (win!), heal up (Win!), and from what I now understand, get stronger at the same time (WIN!).

But sometimes the siren call of the endorphin is hard to ignore, especially on days when the workout looks fabulous because it hits all your favorite moves (power anything!), tweaked knee or sore shoulder be damned.  In these situations, a more structured approach to recovery may be appropriate, and it's one I'm really interested in trying more consistently.  This school of thought recommends doing a half-week every 4 weeks (even if you're feeling super peachy), and taking every 12th week off entirely from the gym to do something you've spent all that time at the gym training for.  You know, “active rest.”  Hiking the Canyon.  Strutting the beach to show off your hot CrossFit bod.  Cuddling with your squeeze.  Reading the entire Harry Potter series back-to-back.  (Or watching it.)  (Or both.)

Of course, there are infinite variations in between to try.  Three days at the gym instead of five per week.  Four days instead of six.  Two days on, one or two days off.  A half-week every six weeks instead of four.  There's even this nifty recovery point system, for those of you who dig on quantification methodologies.

This is part of what I think keeps CrossFit so interesting to me – there's always something new to try, diet details to be tweaked, extra sleep to be had, time off to be encouraged, weight lifted or number of reps to be increased or decreased – it takes more effort to be bored than to be engaged.  And with the added bonus of regular rest days built in for the sake of recovery and remaining injury-free, this ersatz athlete still has time to get her geek on, too.

Anyone up for a Firefly marathon?

BFFs

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