Equestrian Fitness: Overtraining, Part 3

Back in the gym this week and trying to keep to my new, less crazy fitness plan, I realized I had been overtraining in more ways than one.

I wrote in my last post about the importance of rest in between workouts, and previously about the negative consequences of training too often without allowing your muscles to heal. But there is another aspect to overtraining that I didn’t think about until this week, and that’s overextending myself in the moment.

When I work out, I want to get the most out of the experience; to build the most muscle or stamina and know that I will really be getting results from the efforts I put in. But this is another area in which balance is key; running too hard or lifting too-heavy weights is not going to do anything but set me back.

Yesterday at the gym, I did my typical interval training while running on the treadmill: several sprints interspersed with walking for recovery. Previously, I had been warming up with a run at about 6 mph, going up to 9 mph for the sprints, and then gasping for air as I recovered at around 3 mph. This time I warmed up at the same 6 mph speed, which is a comfortable jog for me. But instead of pushing myself to all the way to 9 mph, I decided to try slightly less speed, only 8 mph. That made a huge difference. I was able to extend the length of my sprint intervals, going from 1 minute all the way up to 2 minutes; whereas at 9 mph I had only been able to do a 1.5 minutes at the very upper reaches of my ability. But even more importantly, I was not dead after 2 minutes of running at 8 mph. I didn’t need to walk at a slow speed for a long time and try not to make embarrassing whimpering noises as I struggled to recover. I was able to, within the minute, accelerate back to my comfort zone of 6 mph and then go for another round of sprint. Normally after 3-5 sprints at 9 mph, I could feel my body suffused with fatigue. Doing them at 8 mph energized me; thus, in the spirit of still pushing myself I decided to do the last one at 9 mph, but for that one I went back down to only 1 minute.

I had a similar experience with the weights. After my run, I went to do some upper body weight lifting. I had previously been using the highest possible weight setting at which I could complete 8 reps. I decided to back it off a little and just do one setting under that for the machines I used: the overhead shoulder press, the mid-row, and the chest fly. Like with my intervals, I found that afterwards I felt much better. I felt that I had exercised my muscles, but hadn’t destroyed them.

The more experience I have with serious training and exercise, the more I learn about my body and its limits. Finding the optimal level at which to push myself is sometimes difficult, but I’m learning every day.

Equestrian Fitness: Overtraining, Part 2

cliff

Last week I wrote about the destructive effects of overtraining. I recognized that I was pushing myself too hard and not allowing enough rest in between workouts and this was actually hampering my progress.

In my last post, I put together a new weekly schedule for working out 5 hours a week with scheduled rests. This is what that looked like:

Monday: rest

Tuesday: yoga class (1 hour)

Wednesday: calisthenics/leg and core toning (squats, lunges, crunches, etc) or upper body and core toning (planks, push-ups, crunches, etc)  at home (1 hour)

Thursday: rest

Friday: riding lesson (1 hour)

Saturday: cycling class/upper body weight machines (45 mins /15 mins=total 1 hour)

Sunday: treadmill intervals/lower body weight machines (30 mins / 30 mins= total 1 hour)

Well, none of that happened.

I was actually so shot from overtraining that I ended up taking the entire week off.

The body is so adaptable that it’s very easy to miss subtle signs, or to mischaracterize them. But there were things beyond “normal” tiredness that made me see that I needed a break. Like going up more than one flight of stairs made my thigh muscles feel as exhausted as doing several sets of squats.

So what did I do on my week off? Pretty much nothing. I did some stretching before bed, took some strolls around the park, but that was about it for physical activity. I also made some changes to how I’m eating, cutting sugar (almost) entirely out and adding more lean proteins and vegetables.

The surprising thing is that during that week off, I felt better than when I was working out. I mean “better” in the sense that my body felt leaner, lighter, and tighter–all the things I was aiming for with working out so hard. Towards the end of the week I noticed visual evidence of this as well. The lesson here: the body gets stronger during recovery. Rest is essential.

This is just another part of what I’ve realized is basically my life’s work for myself: finding balance. I’ve written before about my difficulty in finding balance in how hard I push myself physically; between perfectionism and a more lackadaisical approach.

I think where this comes from is a lack of self-knowledge; I don’t honestly know my own limits. Having never tried before to really be an athlete, to make my body the best it can be, I don’t know when I’m pushing myself too hard. I don’t know what is definitively beyond my capabilities and what is simply something I need to build up to. Exercise can be deceptive because in the moment it feels like you can do something and only later when you feel the consequences do you know that you overdid it. Hunter S. Thompson put it best:

The Edge…there is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over.

After this week off, I see that my body was clearly telling me that I’d “gone over” with overtraining. But where? Exactly how much was too much? Now the only thing to do is slowly wade back into working out and patiently, systematically, try to find that edge so that from there I can find balance–the place where I am training only as much as I need to for performance to be optimal.

Equestrian Fitness: Overtraining

This is not me, but it's what I look like when I'm dying in the psychotic spin class.
This is not me, but it’s what I look like when I’m dying in the psychotic spin class.

After my lesson on Friday where my muscles and cardiovascular system seemed unusually exhausted, I had to stop and consider what I was doing wrong. Nearly every day, I have been doing something to get into shape, building strength, flexibility and stamina. But how much is too much?

Obviously that answer is different for everyone, but there are a few common signs that you may be overtraining. “Overtraining” specifically refers to a workout intensity that exceeds the body’s capacity for recovery. If you don’t let your body recover, it can’t get stronger. I know that if I don’t work out for a day or two, I feel an internal pressure to be doing something, like I’m wasting time that I could be using to get better. But overdoing it is actually counterproductive to my goals. Here are some consequences/symptoms of overtraining:

  • decreased performance
  • chronic fatigue
  • irritability and moodiness
  • insomnia
  • depressed immune system functioning

In the last couple of days, I have definitely experienced these symptoms. I skipped the psychotic spin class on Thursday night because I just didn’t feel up to it. At riding on Friday, my leg muscles simply didn’t respond, getting fatigued extremely quickly and I found myself huffing and puffing an inordinate amount after jumping a course. After I came home from my lesson, I fell into a nap so deep that I felt like I couldn’t move upon waking. All of yesterday I felt under the weather like I was coming down with something.

So today is a day of true rest and recovery. It’s also a day where my boyfriend (who is experiencing the same thing in training for hockey) and I sat down and made a more sensible weekly training schedule for ourselves, keeping it to 5 hours a week. Here’s the new schedule I’m going to try:

Monday: rest

Tuesday: yoga class (1 hour)

Wednesday: calisthenics/leg and core toning (squats, lunges, crunches, etc) or upper body and core toning (planks, push-ups, crunches, etc)  at home (1 hour)

Thursday: rest

Friday: riding lesson (1 hour)

Saturday: cycling class/upper body weight machines (45 mins /15 mins=total 1 hour)

Sunday: treadmill intervals/lower body weight machines (30 mins / 30 mins= total 1 hour)

Push for Perfection?

I didn’t post about last week’s ride because when I got home, freezing and beat up, I fell asleep for hours in a wide swath of sunshine on the bed, still in my breeches. Nothing that bad happened. It was just brutally cold and windy. My horse, a large Thoroughbred named Professor, is a big, energetic boy in normal circumstances. In those biting temperatures, he was ready to GO, charging forward and tossing his head to escape the pressure of my half-halts as I attempted to slow him to a pace reasonable enough for a ring full of other horses. With a martingale and a double rein, he was still simply too strong for me. We ended up trotting in small circles in one part of the ring for the whole lesson, lacking space and strength to do anything else. Then on the ride back to the barn, the wind picked up a stray plastic garbage can and it came skidding across the pavement in the traffic circle toward the horses, freaking them out. Professor wheeled in the opposite direction, which happened to be straight into traffic. It took everything in my arms and back to keep him still and safe. I was dunzo when I got home.

That’s why this week I was relieved to be greeted by a milder, sunny day and a ride on my favorite horse, Aladdin. I just needed a sane, productive ride after last week’s shitshow. But walking to the barn today, hoping for some respite, I wondered about my attitude. Shouldn’t I be pushing myself? A challenging horse can only make me a better rider.

Finding the right balance in how far to push myself has always been one of the toughest things in life for me. I want to push myself so I can get stronger and better. But it’s possible to push myself too hard and risk injury or burn out. My perfectionist tendencies have prodded me too far in that direction before, like when in one weekend I biked 50 miles, had softball practice (at which I also pitched the entirety of batting practice) and then attempted to do level 2 of Jillian Michael’s 30 Day Shred, during which I injured my quad so badly that I couldn’t get up off the floor. My pitching performance in the softball game later that week was piss poor because I still couldn’t put much strain on the muscle. After episodes like that, I vow to go easier on myself. But in my impatience I become a bully. Dissatisfied with my progress, I’ll start pushing myself again, wondering if I’ve been too easy on myself all along and thinking about the success I could have had if I’d only been less of a soft lazyass. And so it seesaws, back and forth. This seems to be the only way I ever acquaint myself with balance: I get a glimpse of it as I pass by while running back and forth between extremes.

I think that it was a good thing to have a break this week. Aladdin is small, quiet, and responsive, so I didn’t have to push myself to contend with a challenging horse. The thing is, I grew up competing with girls who only ever rode immaculately-trained pushbutton ponies and they looked like perfect pretty princesses out there in the show ring, but in my opinion that’s not riding. I rode every horse in the barn, running the gamut from sweet-tempered old friendlies to hot-blooded, tweaker Thoroughbreds, most of them outright batshit crazy in their own individual ways, and because of it in my prime I could handle just about anything.

Today I got to ride a horse that was easier to manage and because of that I was able to work hard on my equitation–my position, my horse’s balance and stride and bend around the corners–all the little things that one would be judged on in a show. Aladdin tends to drift inwardly on the long stretches and then can get stiff on the outside around the turns; so I worked my inside leg pushing him over to the rail and bending him around it on the corners. Then the next time around, I tried to do the same thing with more subtle movements of the reins and of my legs. Instead of just being a parcel on the horse’s back, I worked on uniting us, making us a single entity working in rhythm together.

These things may be subtle, but they aren’t easy. Every horse has his quirks; smoothing them over without looking like you’re doing anything and also maintaining correct position in every part of your body is no small feat. But equitation is about balance and subtlety, not perfection. I think that’s something it would be helpful to remember in the rest of my life as well.