Sunday, December 1, 2013

No pain, no gain? How the toughness mindset can be our worst enemy in the long-run

Toughen up.

Man up.

Suck it up.

No pain, no gain.

Try harder.

Push yourself.

We've heard all of these words of "encouragement" for years. Regardless of your sport, your workout, or your occupation, there are times when the going gets tough, but the tough get going.... and oftentimes keep going past the point of health.

I spend most of my working hours in the field of clinical pain medicine. I see what goes on behind the scenes with high performers. And I see what happens when hard chargers tune out the warning lights for too long.

Pain is something we all need to learn to deal with, to control, to suppress. When you're in a life-or-death struggle, your little hangnail shouldn't be on your radar. When you're competing for an Olympic gold medal, a sore muscle or blister shouldn't be testing your commitment to giving your absolute best. When you're in the middle of fighting off an assault, you shouldn't be wallowing in the sadness of the breakup you just went through (unless it's to quickly tap into the anger that'll kickstart your offense). There are undeniably situations where forcing yourself to train through a mental block can create positive physical adaptations that improve long-term performance.

But when you're trying to sleep and diffuse, throbbing pain is robbing you of the ability to rest and recover, when you can't even bend down to pick up a child's toy without suffering sharp pain, when getting in & out of your car makes your breathing more shallow because of a twinge, when you need to use alcohol or pain killers or antidepressants or other substances just to be able to "function", something's VERY wrong.

What's the solution?

The solution is & isn't an easy one. We need to learn, apply, and constantly improve our self & contextual awareness.

Self awareness has a few fundamental components that need to be developed and habituated:

  1. Posture - Having the ability to align your body for maximum efficient power, a.k.a. joint alignment
  2. Relaxation / Engagement - Having the ability to take your muscles deeper into disengagement and maximal tension. This includes breathing, vision, and other seemingly non-athletic activities that we often take for granted and never bother to optimize.
  3. Range of motion - Being able to take your body parts through wider ranges of movement with ease and without pain

Contextual awareness deals with our ability to apply our self awareness in different situations:

  1. Load - How well do we align, engage, relax, and move (ROM) under load?
  2. Endurance - How long can we align, engage, relax, and move under a given load and for how many reps?
  3. Adaptation - How well do we align, engage, relax, and move under a given load, for how long, and for how many reps while dealing with different challenges (such as hunger, noise, emotional distraction, physical discomfort, etc.)

If we lack the contextual awareness to see that we reflexively deal with some sort of noxious stimulus (or stimuli) by unwittingly sacrificing posture, using improper relaxation/tension, or losing range of motion in certain patterns, this is where "toughness" gets in the way of health & performance.

It's great to be tough, as toughness is one of the attributes that feeds endurance. But when you start substituting stubbornness for toughness in the hunt for performance, you're actually pulling your performance ceiling lower and covering up the "check engine light" with electrical tape, so to speak. This makes finding a solution to the pain/performance paradigm more difficult.

It's a great quality to be driven to succeed. It's a fatal flaw, however, to be so committed to driving yourself (and your clients, students, etc.) "forward" that you're unable to adapt your programming in ways that honor safety as a part of performance.

Be flexible in your approach, in your programming, in your intensity, and in your mindset for the purpose of perceiving and LEARNING how to get better, safer results. Don't just slow down or speed up & expect that things will get better. Don't just use lighter weights or go heavier and expect that things will get better. Be observant and sensitive to how your body reacts to any given program, load, or challenge.

Too little stimulus, and no positive adaptation happens. Too much stimulus, and a negative compensation develops. So when you're spending time working off those pounds from the Thanksgiving weekend indulgence, make sure to listen to your body, to double and triple check your technique (and work with a skilled trainer if you're not 100% sure about proper technique), and to push the envelope of your capacity without tearing it.

Train perceptively.