I get a lot of people asking for help with overtraining, Adrenal Fatigue and Chronic Fatigue issues. It sounds silly but it needs to be said, because I had to learn this. If fatigue is your issue, doing anything that makes you more fatigued isn’t going to help. Sounds obvious I know, but everyone wants to know how they can keep training, how much they can do, and are very resistant to hearing that they can’t keep doing what got them to this place. Funny that. And before anyone else contacts me saying I’m suffering from over training, it’s not just the training! These issues, unless you’ve been unlucky enough to have a virus create it for you, are lifestyle stress disorders. You have an inability to handle the stress you’re being subjected/are subjecting yourself too. Training is ONE contributing factor.
We are aerobic beings. The first thing that most in these situations notice is that their aerobic base is shot. I used to get tired talking and walking. Walking up stairs would make me breathless. Making the bed even. When you’re just sitting on the couch but your legs feel toasted like you just did repeated 400m sprints or a massive squat session, you know you’re so sympathetically driven you’re basically stuck in an anaerobic state. NOT GOOD . If you want to read more about the why and how, look here. Right now I just want to give a brief overview on an option for how to rebuild yourself. Our most important energy system is the aerobic - think rest, digest recover. So it makes sense to start with aerobic work.
First rule, listen to your body. Realise sometimes the best remedy is to do nothing.
Sounds simple but most people who contact me with these issues are highly competitive, type A personalities, stubborn, and driven. I mean, to drive yourself in to the ground like I did, you need commitment and persistence beyond the norm ;) . It’s not easy to feel totally dead and continue to put 100% in to 10-12 training sessions per week. I’m joking a bit here, but also serious. To get that messed up and continue to push, you’re stubborn! Getting people to understand it’s ok to stop, is really hard. You can’t train your way out of Adrenal/Chronic Fatigue nor out of a simple over trained state. You rest your way out. This means using methods of recovery that suit a parasympathetic system that has been kicked in to overdrive. You see when first fatigued, you become sympathetic. If you ignore the messages your body and mind are sending you, your system shifts to a parasympathetic state in an attempt to force you to stop.
So this is where you start.
- When ever you feel tired… sleep!
- Cold showers (don’t need to go as far as an ice bath)
- Laser acupuncture/massage/lymphatic drainage
- Can’t ignore the importance of good sleep - see here
- Can’t ignore the importance of nutrition - see here
- Only exercise if you genuinely feel like you can and want to. Then you’re going to approach it with the rule that if you don’t feel more energised within 10min of starting, you need to stop or change the approach to the exercise. If you change and still feel bad after another 5-10min, you’re done.
Second rule, when you feel good enough to move, choose aerobic first.
This is really hard for people to do. Mostly because most are genuinely unfit and they are amazed at how slowly they need to perform an activity to keep it aerobic. Trust me I’ve been there, feeling super lame as someone 20 years older than me kept lapping me on the same route while I shuffled. On the upside, this’ll help ensure a better buffer against impact or repetitive strain type injuries associated with going too hard too soon.
The easiest way to make sure you’re staying in your aerobic zone in my opinion is to use Phil Maffetone’s 180 - your age rule. So if you’re 30 you’re max for aerobic training is 150. But I’d suggest dropping that another 10 if you’re coming from a bad place or just not fit. You are also allowed 5bpm either side as a buffer because it’s hard to stay on the money. You also need to be aware that some activities inherently make you work harder. For example it takes much less work to hit 150bpm running than it does rowing or swimming. You’ll find if you push to hit the same heart rate in seated and horizontal activities as vertical ones, you’ll most likely push to hard. How long do you train for? Honestly I’d start with 20min, obviously following the 10min rule above. If you feel ok the next day, you can do something similar. If not, switch your session for a restorative or yin style yoga session, just walk, or even try some deep breathing exercises. I’d keep assessing day to day depending on how bad your situation is. If you can work to doing something almost daily, great! Just remember, the goal isn’t fitness so much as energising and recovering. You should feel better after your session.
This doesn’t mean no weights. Before I knew this stuff, and while recovering from chronic fatigue, I intuitively felt best doing one set of a resistance based exercise followed directly by as much skipping or climbing stairs as it took to begin to feel energised again. I honestly used to feel burned out and depleted after one set of 5-10 reps at a very light weight, eg 60kg bench. But when I returned my system to an aerobic state with light skipping, it’d would have me feeling energised again. Typically 1-2min os skipping did the trick. Then I’d sit and rest totally for 1-2min and repeat 3 or so times. For 20min or so of exercise. Trust me when I say the skipping was as SLOW as I could possible make it with a super relaxed body. No double unders! Again, you should feel like you’ve exercised but feel more energised than when you started.
Third rule, when you involve strength training more, use ladders.
I think the single best thing to come out of my education in the world of kettle bells has been alternate programming structures. The best of which for fatigue management purposes in my opinion is utilising ladders. With most one on one clients over 30 (when we generally start declining in all our get up and go and recovery goodies) who have families, full time work etc, I opt for this approach straight away. The first thing to understand is that this process works best when you use a training rep max - meaning there is no need for psychological arousal, no degradation in form, and speed across the set has been pretty consistent bar 1 rep, maybe 2 if doing 10 reps. So basically it’s an almost ‘any day’ weight. Not a peaking weight.
So if our aim is hypertrophy, I find a 10 training rep max. Then the program consists of 3-4 sets of 2,3,5 using your 10Trm. So ultimately the volume is similar to a traditional hypertrophy approach, but there is recovery magic imbedded in not driving yourself to the brink by perform 10 reps after 10 reps after 10 reps. Form remains at a higher standard, so skill acquisition is faster, and strength improves quickly because you’re training becomes perfect practise not just a sweat session. If the goal is strength the format is similar but with a 5Trm and 1,2,3 reps for 3-5 sets. Or a 3Trm for 1,2 reps for 2-4 sets.
You can choose how to progress with your ladder. Over 4 weeks you might lift the weight slightly each week, keeping the above guidelines true. You can’t turn it in to a grind session. Alternatively you can start with low sets, eg using your 5Trm do 1,2,3 reps x3, and each week increase sets until you are doing 5. Then re-assess. There are so many options. This is where self assessment comes in handy, some will do better with volume, others with intensity.
I could go on, and elaborate further by laying out a week as an example. But if you’re anything like me, when you see that example, you’ll follow it expecting to be able to do it when it could be more detrimental to you. Utilising a tool like an HRV app will help massively to manage auto-regulation. And keep in mind this is more for people coming from a place of heavy aftigue. Though similar principles will help you recover from your normal training too, and keep you fresh so you can push when you're meant to. My purpose here was just to give guidelines about methods that have helped me and others in the past. And knowing how often I had to re-assess during my own recovery and restart, any such plan would be foolish. The above is the plan. Check your mindset/reasoning, be flexible, listen to your body! And keep the self talk positive whether you choose to do something that day, you pulled out midway, or felt like you improved. All are worthy of congratulating yourself!