Chaos and dysregulation. This has been the current state of training due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For the past 8 weeks training endeavors have been defined by social isolation, restricted opportunities, and the inability to confidently pursue goals. This has left us with unmatched levels of uncertainty and brought pain into our lives. How we interact with this pain will impact how we come out of this pandemic. We can fold or we can triumph.
In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity.
-Sun Tzu, The Art of War
My intentions with his article, much like my career as a physical therapist is to help mount a successful comeback and provide the practical strategies needed to return to a high level of training.
We were dealt a hand that we have had no control over and we have been working to do damage control just to stay oriented. If we return to the gym and try to be a hero by PRing in the first week, two weeks, or even month, we may find ourselves injured and laid up for even longer. This environmental adversity has changed us whether we feel it or not. We have to respect this during our comeback.
Unfortunately, handling adversity is not a simple process. Typically our brains leave little footprints and store memories from each experience, but when a stressor is present, like the COVID-19 pandemic, our perceptions of reality become distorted. This is because sustained environmental adversity disrupts our stress regulatory systems: the autonomic nervous system (ANS) and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. And it is these systems that work synergistically to regulate our physiological response to stress and drive the biological adaptations necessary for learning and survival.
Acutely, it is the ANS that responds and works to maintain our homeostatic balance when faced with adversity through changes in our cardiovascular tone. Whereas the HPA-axis is more of our delayed regulatory system. When chronically stressed or in an adverse environment the HPA-axis acts by releasing stress hormones into the bloodstream, specifically cortisol. In the short term cortisol allows the body to self regulate, but when chronically elevated it begins to affect hippocampal function and impede our memory. This is a big threat because now we may be overly confident in our abilities as we return to the gym. We need to be aware of our abilities
Here are my top 3 strategies to make your comeback successful. .
STRATEGY 1: Face Reality and Identify Your Goals.
Before you hit the gym again be sure you take a look in the mirror and reflect on where you were BC (before COVID-19). You have to be incredibly honest with yourself for this to work. Ask yourself, were you on track to hit your goals? Yes or No. It’s easy to lose ourselves during these difficult times and assign blame to the pandemic for our failures. In reality, it may just be a contributing factor. We need to embrace our past failures and learn from them so we can achieve our goals in the future.
Your ability to see the changing landscape and adapt is more a function of your perception and reasoning than your ability to learn and process quickly.
-Ray Dalio, Principles
Take time prior to your return to training and practice higher level thinking. You can begin to consider first, second, and third order consequences of your decisions. What may be attractive in the short term may have long term consequences that you don’t want to endure. This moves us from looking at the what and onto the how and why of programming. Now we know how we need to redesign our training programs to be more goal oriented. That’s science: assess, intervene, reassess, refine.
An easy way to track your progress is to monitor your Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) over a standard interval (say every two weeks). Key Performance Indicators are considered measurable attributes used to illustrate if objectives are being met. If one is not moving the KPI dial then a re-orientation of the current program may be necessary. In other words, KPIs allow for program iterations to be established to ensure the appropriate emphasis is always in place.
STRATEGY 2: Use a Minimal Effective Dose to START!
Reality is we are all more “deconditioned” to the training stimulus than realized. Our bodies being inherently lazy structures have not had to prioritize anabolism without the progressive overload of training. So returning to the gym where you left off with high levels of training volume and intensity does not make sense right away.
It’s not the load that breaks an individual down. It’s the load they aren’t prepared for.
-Dr. Tim Gabbett
That means we have to take a step back and practice some humility and build ourselves back up. One solution to make this a more efficient process may be to begin with a minimal effective dose (MED) of volume and intensity. This will allow for the threat of training to be dampened, but still provide a stimulus high enough to yield an adaptation: strength, hypertrophy, etc. If put into the context of a program this is likely going to apply to our primary output-based exercises. The intent of these exercises are to drive large physiological adaptations, but this will always come at a cost.
Our bodies have been under toxic levels of stress during this pandemic and to layer on more physical stress may have negative secondary consequences. Right now we want to find our entry point and build from there with volume accumulation and progressive overloading.
At the same time, because you are using a MED you will be able to accumulate more aerobic work to facilitate your recovery potential and further enhance your workload tolerance. This is good low hanging fruit that you can grasp to support your long term goals of training.
STRATEGY 3: Simplify then Grade.
When we return to the gym it may be best to simplify our routines and focus on the basics. Simplifying does not mean to make it simpler, but to work at the foundation first. Securing our foundation again will allow us to move away from the current state of chaos and back into a state of order. When applied to movement and training I tend to find this process has 3 distinct phases:
To have movement awareness means to have the ability to sense, feel, and interact with our environment. A chaotic system lacks this ability because it has no boundaries. We can use sensorimotor drills to help define these boundaries and improve qualities like coordination and motor learning, which make power and strength development more trainable.
Like movement awareness, movement competence still has a cognitive bias, but now instead of learning to expand movement options we learn to refine and apply them contextually. We now know our boundaries and through practice and repetition are able to improve our movement efficiency to ensure we have reduced undesired structural costs so that we are able to tolerate the external loads of training.
In turn this builds our movement confidence and allows boundaries to be expanded upon. We are no longer limited by options, but by system tolerance. At this point we use the SAID principle and progressive overloading to train specific qualities and move towards our goals.
Look at the Big Picture
Regardless if you have tried to mitigate the damage of our environmental chaos or we have simply taken this time off, our training momentum has been broken. You need simple yet effective and practical strategies if you are to come out on top. By practicing the 'strategies first, tactics second' line of thought, you can use big picture thinking to avoid possible short term frustration.
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