When the Numbers Don't Add Up
Sometimes the "Ups and Downs" of working out are purely about motivation. And other times the might be about injuries, or busy schedules, or whatever.
But there's also a form of "Up and Down" that I find really mysterious: when out of the blue your level of performance changes.
Perhaps you go to the gym or the running trail with no particular ambitions, or even a vague sense of dread. Yet you have an awesome workout where you are bursting with energy! You run faster, lift heavier things, bend further, balance longer, bounce higher, smile more enthusiastically--even your hair is shinier! You kick ass the entire time and revel in what an awesome physical specimen you are.
Other days? You don your workout wear innocently enough, get your ass out the door like you're supposed to, and proceed to have a totally wretched time of it. You're tired, draggy, weak, slow, tight, clumsy. Your times go up; your reps go down; your normal weights are suddenly too heavy. You're trying, but you just can't do what you normally would and every minute of workout miserableness seems to last an eternity.
There are two things about this kind of workout variability that make no sense to me.
1. There is often NO REASON IN THE WORLD for either the good or the crappy workout. If fact, often there's almost an inverse relationship between how I expect I'll feel exercising and how it actually goes.
2. After many decades of regular physical activity, with the same unpredictable results, every single time I have a terrible workout or two I'm still totally shocked by the phenomenon.
What difference does it make? At least for me, I've discovered there are smart ways and not-so-smart ways to handle these strange workouts so they don't turn in to sneaky motivation killers.
Do You Let it Get To You?
Some people are psychologically well-balanced and evolved. They try hard every time, but remain cheerfully unaffected by their performance ups and downs because they don't judge themselves. They're just really happy to have the opportunity to exercise at all!
Others of us are not so evolved. We care what we lift and how fast we go--even slackers like me who are not willing to put enormous amounts of effort into getting better. Thus these little ups and downs can really be demotivating unless handled properly.
One Important Thing I've Learned About Awesome Workouts
An awesome workout can actually be more demotivating than a lousy one. How can this be? Well, it sort of depends on how you react to it.
Smart way to think about it: "Wow, did someone slip crack in my water bottle? Where the hell did that come from?! That was amazing, but WTF?"
Looking for trouble: "Gosh, I must be working out harder and more consistently than I'd realized! I'm really getting in great shape. Next time, I'll try for even heavier weights and a longer run and a faster time!"
That second approach, in which you decide your most amazing day ever is the "real" you? That's a recipe for days or even weeks of feeling ripped off and frustrated because you can't replicate your amazingness again.
Bottom Line: attribute good workouts to astrological events, fairy dust, voodoo spells, whatever--just not your own physical prowess. Wait until you get a bunch of great workouts in a row, then celebrate your achievements.
Handling awful workouts is a bit more complicated though:
Five Steps to Mastering the Craptastic Workout
1. First Line of Defense: Shrug it Off.
It can feel like a slap in the face to have a totally wretched workout when you're not expecting one. After the initial swearing, pouting, and disbelief, the first impulse may be to troubleshoot and analyze the hell out of the experience.
Eh... I'd say hold off a bit. There may be no use running around changing everything about your exercise program or your diet or whatever based on just one or two lousy workouts. Give it a week. Chances are, whatever was wrong will mysteriously right itself.
2. If it doesn't get better after a week or so: look for clues
Are you over-training? Eating too much crap? Not hydrated enough? Depressed? Not sleeping enough? Fighting off a bug everyone else has gotten? Going through a funky part of your hormonal cycle? Pretending you've been going "regularly" to the gym when you went once in the last 3 weeks? Are you depressed? Is it time for a medical check-up?
If there's something that will go away on it's own; be patient. But if there's an obvious problem to correct, then now perhaps you might want to get serious about fixing it.
3. In particular, if you've been over-training, CHILL.
Sometimes less really is more. Rest days and knowing when to back the hell off can be really helpful to long term progress.
4. If there's nothing obvious to correct: do what you CAN.
Then give yourself tremendous credit for it. Don't measure your workouts by conventional standards; try a more subjective workout measurement tool.
Lots of currently slothful people "used to" work out. The difference between the slugs and the lifelong fit people is that the slugs gave up when they couldn't be perfect. Go ahead and do less than your full workout; take more rest days; whatever it takes to feel like you're still at least kind of on track. Even a half-assed workout is an incredible accomplishment when you're feeling discouraged. In the long haul, it "counts" even more than a great workout done when you're feeling all fit and perky.
6.Don't Quit; Shake Things Up.
If performance issues are tempting you to bail entirely from exercising, maybe it's time to focus your energy into remotivating yourself. This may involve making major changes to your routine or perhaps switching to an entirely different kind of exercise.
(Note: if your performance slump drags on for months with no obvious cause, it really may be time to get your ass into the doctor's office.)
7. Eventually, it will get better.
Often, as suddenly and mysteriously as it got worse in the first place. That is, if you don't give up.
Struggling Myself a Bit Lately
So the reason I decided to post about the topic in the first place is that after making steady progress over the last few months on some recent workout goals, suddenly I've been backsliding. I go to the gym in a semi-consistent manner like I always have, but instead of doing more than my previous accomplishments, the last few workouts I've been doing less.
I haven't been over-training or under-training or doing anything out of the ordinary... So what gives? It seems so unfair!
Am I just getting too old for this? Why should I go to the gym at all if it makes no difference!!??
Er... it might be time to remind myself that the same thing has happened before... about a zillion times. Even as recently as a few months ago. And after a draggy week or two I came back even stronger than before.
So. I'm gonna hang in there, and keep trying, and just hope for a generous sprinkling of magic fairy dust sometime soon.
Anyone else ever struggle with a Sudden Onslaught of Workout Crapitude?