Slowing down. This is something most are trying to do the opposite of; trying to get into an exercise routine, trying to move more; do more; become more; get better; get healthier. Constantly seeking that better version of themself. I am probably one of the biggest advocates for self-growth, I do believe people can change, and I do believe that life - a well-lived life - is full of many versions of yourself, all advancing to a higher state of being. What I’ve learned is that reaching a healthy balanced life doesn’t always mean doing it all, and the path to these better versions of you isn't always linear. In fact, it rarely ever will be a straight and narrow path, and more often than not, if you are doing it right, you will have many ups and downs and setbacks; turns in all sorts of different directions to get there.
So, what is the perfect formula for health? Well, what I have discovered over the years, is there are two extremes, and to live in either one isn’t the way to a healthy well rounded you. There is such a thing as too much. Too much exercise. Too much work. Too many studies. Too many goals. Too much. Here is the thing: our bodies, physiologically, cannot decipher between physical stress, mental stress, emotional stress, stress from lack of proper nutrition or sleep. It all equates to stress and that stress wreaks havoc on your health. How do I know this for sure, because I have experienced it first-hand?
What exactly does too much stress do to you?
“The stress response begins in the brain. When someone confronts an oncoming car or other danger, the eyes or ears (or both) send the information to the amygdala, an area of the brain that contributes to emotional processing. The amygdala interprets the images and sounds. When it perceives danger, it instantly sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus. When someone experiences a stressful event, the amygdala, an area of the brain that contributes to emotional processing, sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus. This area of the brain functions like a command center, communicating with the rest of the body through the nervous system so that the person has the energy to fight or flee” (Harvard Publishing, 2020).
The changes that occur in the body from distress happen so quickly and repeatedly under constant stress you aren’t even aware of them happening. The wiring is so efficient that the cascade of events, such as the hormone epinephrine (also known as adrenaline) being pumped into the bloodstream, circulates through the body, bringing on a number of physiological changes. Many symptoms that arise from long term stress are high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, depression, anxiety, skin problems, menstrual problems, forgetfulness, frequent aches and pains, headaches, lack of energy or focus, tiredness, trouble sleeping, or sleeping too much, weight loss or gain, depression, and the list goes on. I found myself go from healthy to feeling sick all of the time and not knowing why.
I was living years and years of being under too much stress from training for big endurance races, all while working, school, a dying dog, and then COVID-19 on top of it all. I was creating the perfect storm of stress overload from every possible stress source a human can experience. I never allowed myself to see what I was doing until it was too late. Last summer during probably the worst of it, I was hiking one day, unable to focus, I slipped, tumbled down the mountain about ten feet, and cut my hand wide open resulting in seven stitches. And that is how it happened for me, the universe forced me to go from 100 to zero in a matter of seconds. I was forced to do nothing but heal for a week. During this time, it was the first time in a very long time I was doing this very foreign thing, relaxing. Over the duration of that week, I began to feel this type of energy I hadn’t felt in a really long time and it was all from relaxing. I began to feel this type of healthy I hadn’t felt in a very long time, even though physically I was in the best shape of my life. As time went on, life’s stressors, unfortunately, didn’t get better, they only got worse, and I still wasn’t listening to what I needed, even though it was right in front of me, screaming at me to slow down. Soon the stress built up so much that I hit the wall, and not in the analogy endurance athletes use when racing and they ‘bonk’ or ‘hit the wall’ because they have depleted every last glycogen energy store in their body. No, I depleted everything that was in me and had nothing left, I was overly emotional, tired, overall body aches, headaches, hard time talking, sleeping, anxiety, you name it. I was experiencing it. I suddenly felt so far from myself, I didn’t even recognize myself because I felt nothing like my normal healthy self. This was a big wake-up call for me, I went from one extreme to the complete opposite extreme of needing to rest fully and eliminate being active nearly altogether in order to allow for my body to recover from being in overdrive for too long. I have learned the hard way that there is such a thing as too much.
My passion was and still is moving, I am built for endurance and I love it. I love running up mountains and biking, testing my body over 100 miles and at extreme elevation. But to do that I have learned I need to also balance the rest of my life; I can’t do it all, I, unfortunately, am not superhuman. And that is what I was trying to do. When I crashed from being under too much stress for too many years, I gave myself permission to give up something I loved so much to focus on the parts of life I needed to in order to avoid total burnout again. I gave up training and racing altogether. COVID forced my hand in that a little bit, it wasn’t an easy choice, because that was a huge part of my life and in ways it defined me entirely, making me who I was. I felt pretty lost for a while by doing this. What I learned from this though is that I am many things, and that wasn’t the soul-defining thing in my life that made me who I am.
Now today, I am missing that part of myself, realizing just how far away I have gotten from it all and beginning to plan how I will transition into re-prioritizing life to reintroduce that part of me back. This time I have a whole new outlook. A healthier, more stable, less stressful approach is my goal to training and racing for 2022. My goal is to integrate more relaxing, more recovery, and accepting the fact that I can’t do it all and that is okay. We tend to think we get stronger when we exert ourselves constantly, but in fact, the exertion is only the stimulus. We get stronger when we rest. Exertion and rest are both necessary components of improvement. Rest is when your body and mind recover. You can’t build new connections in your brain when you’re under stress. Your brain needs rest to sort things out and make sense of what has happened. Taking time every day to relax activates your parasympathetic nervous system, allowing your body to continue all the processes necessary for long-term health. These include digesting food, healing injuries, fighting infections, and relaxing your heart rate and blood pressure. There is even evidence that people who make time to relax deeply every day, such as regular meditation, have DNA that is better preserved as they age. (The Dawn Rehab 2020)
Have I found the perfect happy medium? Admittedly, I have not. What I have learned is, that there is no real everyday balance you can find in life. Perhaps most importantly, you don’t finish recovery in a week, a month, or a year. You can’t take a break after recovery is finished. It’s something you have to keep working on indefinitely. Like any other important undertaking, it takes a long-term, daily effort. That means you have to work, then rest. It’s not like meeting an important deadline. You just have to keep going. Making relaxation a regular part of your day gives you the ability to recuperate and get back to work the next day. Building daily relaxation into your recovery reinforces the fact that recovery is a process and not a goal. Life is and always will come in undulations, it is learning how to balance life so that you aren’t living in the extremes all the time. Because let’s be real with ourselves, no one can successfully balance it all day in and day out. But what we can do is decide what needs to be the priority now and what we can leave behind so that we can achieve balance over time later.
Essentially it's a matter of making it through with the least amount of stress possible on the body. That is the ultimate goal.
Pedal to the medal is just as important as reeling it in on rest day.
I spent 11 years of my life training to compete on Nordic skis (the skinny ones). I never valued rest days as the gold nuggets they are for performance and overall wellness, but knowing what I know now, I should have.
When you skip rest days it not only creates a constant state of depletion in your physical body, but your mental state isn’t getting that break either. The long-term lack of proper rest messed with my cycle, my sleep, my studies, and my overall well-being.
It wasn’t until I was so burnt out and I quit skiing that I started to learn how to balance feeling the burn and pumping the brakes. Now off days are just as important, if not more important, to me in my training than the on days. And I’m here to help you come around to the idea that no one can pour from an empty cup, not even from yourself to yourself. Giving yourself a break is perhaps my favorite way to advocate enhanced performance in the long run.
Here’s how I bank that recovery to continue training hard and efficiently:
1. I sleep. Like religiously, I sleep 8 hours every night. If I get to bed late, I push my alarm. It might sound nerve-wracking to cut down your morning routine time, but when you commit to 8 hours of sleep every night (or however many hours you need to function optimally because everyone’s needs vary) you will make it work because you know you’re saving yourself in the long run by letting yourself sleep.
2. I fuel with nourishing foods and enough of them. I’m not about to give you a meal plan, that’s not my place. But ask yourself if you’re largely fueling with nutrients from fresh or packaged foods. Do you load your cart with items from the perimeter of the grocery store? Or largely from the shelves of the aisles? That’s a great start to gauge how nutritiously dense the foods you’re consuming pre-and post-workout really are. The fresher the better. Food is fuel. What are you putting in your gas tank?
3. Self-care. Now this one is broad, but let’s dial it in just a bit. I’m talking about pampering type self-care… massage, yoga, meditation, manicures, pedicures, face masks… it might sound extra, but who cares if it allows you to relax and exit the activated sympathetic state? I choose 1-2 of these practices a day (bigger things like massage and manicures 1 a week) and prioritize making them happen.
4. I walk. Okay, you might be confused by this because I’m encouraging rest on your off days, but it’s actually been proven that post-exercise active recovery (AKA walking) can reduce muscle fatigue and soreness in the long run. So if you’re feeling restless, do something gentle and steady-state to flush out the muscles you worked (i.e. go for a walk after leg day, go for a sunset paddle after arm day). Better yet hop off that treadmill and get this movement in outside and double up on the benefits by nature bathing and walking at the same time.
I learned the hard way that lacking prioritization of rest and relaxation was a drain on my performance no matter how honed in my training plan was ever going to be. So I share these ideas in hopes that they encourage you to start before you reached the point I did.
Everyone's journey is different, we all face different challenges and setbacks along the way, but once we've experienced them and learned from them, why not share with others so they don't have to repeat what's already been done? We're all in this together. Your mess is your message. This is mine, and in short, I hope you relax.