When it comes to stress, there are two major categories into which it can be categorized: (There are two major stress categories:)
Eustress – good/beneficial stress, and
Distress – bad/harmful stress
The difference between a good or bad stress often has more to do with the context than with the stressor itself.
When we train, we are essentially applying (and removing) different types of stress to our bodies in varying amounts. Over time, when done correctly we become increasingly resilience; which in turn allows us to and become stronger, faster and fitter athletes. This stresses we apply are ‘good,’ so long as we know, when to stop and when to back off (i.e. take a rest day/deload week) and allow our bodies time to recover.
Unfortunately, as CrossFit athletes we often have a tendency to think “more is better”, and to put more emphasis on applying the stress (training) than we do on removing it (rest/recovery) and end up training in a constantly fatigued state as a result. We forget (or are hesitant) to take time off for fear of ‘falling behind’; and in doing so we risk turning our training from a source of eustress to a source of distress, and damaging our progress along the way. Essentially, rather than training ourselves to be resistant to fatigue we are simply training fatigued; a distinction I never paid much attention to, until I heard James Fitzgerald (OPT) mention it in an interview. Since hearing that interview, that idea has become lodged in my brain; and while the difference may sound minor in writing in reality I think it is more important than many of us realize.
Stress and Progressive Overload
The exact amount of stress that can be applied before it transitions from good (eustress) to bad (distress) can vary significantly between individuals based on a number of factors such as:
genetics (some athletes simply handle more volume/higher intensities better), predisposition to being ‘high stress’, athletic experience and training, age, presence of external stressors (work, relationships etc), etc
And even within the same athlete, the ‘optimum level’ of stress can change in relation to:
how much sleep an athlete is getting, their nutrition, what is going on outside of training, menstrual cycle (this one is just for the ladies)
Which is why it’s so important that we monitor our training/progress, schedule regular rest/recovery days, and be on the lookout for extended dips in performance.
Temporary dips in performance and “off days” are to be expected (its part of being an athlete) and it’s perfectly normal to be sore/tired after a hard day of training or week of training. After a hard day (or week) of training however, its important to dial back the intensity (temporarily) so that our bodies can repair and recovery. By systematically applying stress and removing it, we become more resilient and more capable of handling increased intensity and load. This is what’s known as progressive overload; and it is one of the key training principles behind pretty much any successful, long-term training programs.
Ineffective Progressive Overload & how to Fix it
Progressive overload is one of the key principles of a successful program; however, it can be applied incorrectly, and if there is an imbalance between training intensity and the rest/recovery. It can be hard to recognize over-training (or under-recovering) in the early stages, due to the fact that progress isn’t linear. Everyone has good and bad days and progress is hard to measure by a single training session. However, if we track our performance over an extended period of time, we should be able to see an upward trends in our strength, speed, or skill level development(depending on the focus of the program). If we aren’t seeing any improvements over time, or if we start to notice general downwards trend then something is off with our training and needs to be addressed ASAP.
Sometimes the problem is the program itself – it’s ineffective/doesn’t address our needs – but more often than not, it is something we are doing (or not doing) that is the root of the problem.
Maybe we’re not eating/sleeping enough, and as a result we can’t recover properly.
Maybe we’ve stopped doing our accessory work/are skipping parts of our program.
Maybe we’re doing too much on our days off – e.g. running 15km as ‘active recovery’ – and this is what is holding us back.
Or maybe its a combination of all three, and we’re constantly injured/unable to make keep up with our program because we’re chronically under-fed/under-recovered and over-trained.
Whatever the underlying issue is, our first step to getting back on track is to figure where we are going wrong, and once we’ve done that, all we need to do is address the problem. Unfortunately, this is often the hardest part; because ‘knowing’ and ‘doing’/fixing are two different things. We all ‘know’ that rest is important, but sometimes its hard to silence that voice in the back of our head telling us that “more is better”, and that we’ll fall behind if we don’t train.
This is where it can make a huge difference to have a coach keeping an eye on you/making sure you rest as needed. Or, if you don’t have a coach, make sure that whatever training program you follow, you make rest/recovery a regular part of your schedule. Otherwise it can be tempting to skip our rest days/light weeks altogether – especially if we’re feeling good – by throwing in an extra WOD we found online or jumping between programs.
Whether we CrossFit recreationally, train to compete at a local level or have our eyes on qualifying for a high-level competition (Super Regionals, the Games etc) our ‘success’ and longevity as an athlete will depend on how we approach both our training and our recovery. It’s been said that there can be no light without darkness, no good without evil, no right without wrong….and when it comes to training there can be no progress without rest.