Fitness, Recovery, Improvement. The Art Of Getting Better

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In my late teens I was pretty obsessed with rock climbing, unfortunately I lived in Kent about as far from climbable rock as its possible to get – I climbed a lot of trees! None the less it has stuck with me as a passion.  A couple of years ago I got back to it more seriously doing more and then training seriously.  Not actually with any specific goal in mind other than to get better – a pursuit that now takes around 10-15 hours a week.  The process as much as the result fascinates me and I’m struck by the parallels between a physical training process and the quest to get better at anything or to perform at your best consistently.

A training programme is all about cycles – the balance between training load and recovery. You overload the system – by adding weight, going further faster etc and you force physiological adaptations to cope with the additional stress. Muscles adapt, get stronger and more efficient.  Rest and recovery is the phase in which these adaptations actually take place.  This can be viewed as a somewhat passive process but in fact how we rest and recover is a massive part of the overall equation and it’s an area of sports science where at an elite level more and more focus occurs.

When you chase physical performance it’s easy to see how a programme is built around 3 cycles.  These occur on a micro level – the rest interval between reps and the daily balance of load and recovery.  At a meso level usually a block of 4 – 6 weeks, where for me a typical block of training concludes with a week of decompression where all the loads and activity are cut back, often to zero, so rest and recovery are prioritized. At a macro level, these blocks of training build together over the training year and are designed to create peak performance at particular points in the cycle.  Built up and integrated, it is these cycles that allow continuous progression.

In life as in training there are huge benefits to thinking about how to build and create cycles and how to pay attention to the down swing – the rest and recovery so that this is not simply a passive or neutral process but a critical part of how we sustain and build performance.

As an aside it took me 20 minutes to write to this point so I stopped and spent a few moments stretching, hit my second double espresso of the morning and now I’m back to it, = micro cycle.

Most of us will be aware of our own daily rhythm – we feel better or sharper at particular times of day.  I’m an early morning person so if I’m using the day to be at my best anything that demands focus and effort has to happen first but getting to that point in turn depends on sleep and nutrition.  The more we learn about sleep the more we are understanding its critical role in performance – it’s absolutely foundational, to the extent that in any performance process if sleep is not right, anything else you are doing is basically a waste of time. If you haven’t read it already then Why We Sleep by the Neuroscientist Professor Matthew Walker is brilliant,  if you want the highlights check out his TED talk, which by the way, might just save your life.  In the UK large scale survey data suggests two thirds of adults suffer from disrupted sleep and nearly 25% manage no more than five hours a night – insufficient!

We all know that food is energy but we’re often pretty careless about that.  What you eat is basically how you’re going to be feeling in about 90 minutes time.  When we put people under stress the typical default is to short cut nutrition for comfort, so we preference donuts over salad and coffee over water.  Work and performance at an individual and a team level depends on having good energy and a positive emotional state – which to be more scientific, we could describe as the presence of DHEA and the absence of cortisol.  Paying attention to some of these factors is the difference between rest as a passive switched off state, to rest being powerfully recuperative because you set the conditions right.

When you set out to develop performance in anything, data is king, you can rarely have enough of it and if it’s good it drives high quality decision-making. The good news is the barrier to entry has never been so low.  The example in the graph below comes from collecting heart rate variance (HRV) correlated to the activity of your autonomic nervous system, which has 2 branches, the sympathetic and para-sympathetic.  In their inter-relationship these provide a rich and accurate insight into the relative balance of stress and recovery in your lifestyle.  Such data tells you a great deal about the quality of your sleep, exercise and impacts such as alcohol, family time, socializing and work.  The power of the data is that it allows you to design the cycles that enable you to maximize performance.  (If you’re interested in this and would like to look at a performance lifestyle assessment then contact us as this is a commercial service we can provide for clients, which costs around £250 for a weeks-worth of data and an individualized report with feedback).

When we start to get this right the cycles interconnect like the cogs in a gearbox.  One key to making these links is to make sure you finish strong.  Hemingway would end the day’s writing mid-sentence so he knew exactly where to begin the next days focus.  The last 3 turns on the ski slope are the most important because they are what you internalize, setting your state for the next time. What you do last, sets up how you approach what you do next, the end of the day and the end of the week are both endings but also beginnings.  January of course marks the beginning of another year and a good time to think about cycles and re-booting our approach to rest recovery, and gaining a deeper understanding of the inter-relationship between on and off.

Regardless of the discipline, the better we are at recovering, the greater potential we have to endure and perform under stress. Josh Waitzkin – child chess prodigy world champion martial artist and author of the Art of Learning.

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