When we’re engaged in a specific fitness program, seeking specific results, we want to know that we’re going in the right direction.
So what are the best things to track with regard to fitness goals?
At first glance the answer seems obvious – are we getting closer to our goal or not?
While that’s a good approach, it’s retroactive. It doesn’t tell us anything about the actual effectiveness of your program – it doesn’t tell us what works and what doesn’t, it just tells us that something seems to be working.
There’s been a ton of investment in monitoring and tracking methods for everyone one. For professional athletes we have VO2max testing and recording, heart rate and heart rate variability testing and monitoring, relative hydration, sleep tracking – all of it has its place.
For the lay-person we have calorie-counters, heart rate monitors, mileage trackers/GPS, etc.
But to be honest, most of it is extremely obvious and kind of a waste of time.
“We just got done with a training run and we went 3 miles!!”
“I ate 2500 calories today!”
Most of us tend to use these tools as motivation. If we have to keep track of ourselves with these tools, we’re more likely to stick with the program.
But then you’re stuck within that program. No way out. No hopes above and beyond that program. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t – but almost certainly, once you stop that program, you go back to where you were before.
Similarly, folks tend to train 80% of the time in precisely the same way. Cardio-addicts do cardio all the time. Strength-addicts do strength all the time. No big surprise…it’s what motivates them. Of course they’ll do that more.
But knowing that is a useful tool in itself. Knowing that we’re going to do whatever we like over whatever we should be doing is a powerful tool. We need to balance our physiology. Round things out.
So how do we know what we should be doing?
It’s simple. Three steps will provide all of the fitness tracking you’ll ever need. Here they are:
Stick to the basics of human exercise physiology.
Pay attention to how we feel.
The basics are very simple. To improve we have to introduce stress above and beyond what is “normal” for ourselves. Our opportunity to piggyback on our success comes at some point in our rest-cycle. After we introduce that high stress, the system dips down to recover, then bounces up past the old level (this is called “supercompensation”). At the peak of that supercompensation point is where we need to introduce another, slightly greater stress. If we do this overloading progressively over time (“progressive resistance”) the system adapts and relatively permanent changes begin to occur.
There is a difference between specific adaptation that is little-appreciated. We mostly experience “specific” adaptation when we’re training. We hit certain muscle groups, or certain movement patterns, to the point of challenge, but not really beyond. That’s specific adaptation.
General adaptation – where we end up shifting our entire physiology, the way our body maintains homeostatic balance, our metabolism – only occurs when we exceed the levels of specific adaptation. The intensity has to be very great to do this. Crossfit workouts excel at this type of thing, but really, any workout can – you just have to push yourself.
How Am I Feeling?
How do we know when that supercompensation curve is at the right point? Through a practice of paying attention to how we feel. Did we sleep well last night, and long enough? Feel rested when we awoke? General stress level? Diet good? Enough water today, and this week in general? Enough laughing and socializing? Enough quiet reflective time?
This is a practice – paying attention to how we’re feeling. Once we master this, we can start to feel when the rebound happens (or doesn’t).
Mike Tuscherer’s powerlifting program is awesome for this. His method focuses on recording Rate of Perceived Exertion for each workout. Was it harder than last time? If yes, back off. If no, do more.
But I’d like to apply this rationale to our experience on a regular basis. Check in early and often. Check in before the workout – sleep/rest, diet/water, mood-state…? Funnel everything into training, then check again afterward – how hard was that on a scale of 1-10???
Write it down or forget it forever. Not super useful if forgotten.
Motivation is the key behind all of this. We need to be motivated toward our goals. We need to be motivated to track our feeling. We need to be motivated to record and reflect…to hone our capacity for feeling.
Beyond that even, we need to learn how to motivate. How do we turn up the heat, step on the gas, pour jet-fuel into the tank? Music, emotion, visualization, imagination, danger…there are a lot of ways to do this…we have to experiment with this as well.
We have to go in and do more than we thought possible, each day, and know that we’ll recover and be stronger the next.
If you’ve been experimenting with other tracking methods, try these three for one month and tell me what happens.
I see one source in the dissociation of people from their “tools.” From everything they use, they are further and further removed. Things become “mere things.” We suddenly are no longer connected in a cycle of creation and destruction. We stand outside of it and look on…passersby, observers, voyeurs of our own self-destruction.
“Coincidentally” (if you believe in coincidence), I was reading a book today called “Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma,” by Peter Levine.
He describes the official definition of trauma as a stressful occurrence “that is outside the range of human experience, and that would be markedly distressing to almost anyone” (pg. 24, which he takes from the DSM III).
He goes on to mention that trauma can include anything, from falls or accidents, to illnesses and sad events, to the “typical” things we consider traumatic such as rapes, drive-by shootings, war, disasters, etc.
I really really (yes, that’s right, I wrote it twice) like this book, and his approach, which is based around the evolutionary/physiological response to trauma, and an approach to treating it from that perspective. More on that in a second.
The author then describes how modern civilization and technology have taught us to ignore primary, instinctual, bodily-centered resources that once helped us to deal with traumatic events.
Previously in our history, we would encounter life-threatening events, which eventually resulted in finely-tuned responses to danger. I think this capacity is part of the “thrill-seeker’s” profile – they feel a need to experience this aspect of themselves more regularly than others.
As Levine says, “Modern life offers us few overt opportunities to use this powerfully evolved capacity. Today, our survival depends increasingly on our ability to think rather than being able to physically respond…The fundamental challenges we face today have come about relatively quickly, but our nervous systems have been much slower to change…When [the need for the successful facing of challenges] is not met, or when we are challenged and cannot triumph, we end up lacking vitality and are unable to fully engage in life” (pg. 43).
Later in the book, he even quotes Tom Brown, Jr. about the process of tracking. Clearly, he is describing a method of dealing with trauma that uses what I like to call “physiology tracking” in this book.
But it was the paragraph just before a section called “Dissociation” that really grabbed my attention. In it, he writes, “When constriction [as a response to a perceived threat or danger] fails to sufficiently focus the organism’s energy to defend itself, the nervous system evokes other mechanisms such as freezing and dissociation to contain the hyperarousal. Constriction, dissociation, and freezing form the full battery of responses that the nervous system uses to deal with the scenario in which we must defend ourselves, but cannot” (pg. 136).
Levine recommends, specifically, that one not try to avoid dissociation, but rather, to become aware of the feeling of that state in the body, so that one can, first, recognize it, and, later, be able to be in a state of dissociation while still cognizant and active in the world. This leads to the ability to discriminate between physiological events that lead to (or have lead to) trauma, and those that do not.
I resonate extremely strongly with this book, for many reasons. The author’s approach to dealing with one’s problems through a continuing and ongoing process of deepening self-awareness seems to be the type of powerful medicine that everyone can use in their lives. But he also recognizes that physiological responses are rhythmical, as well as the need for play and a playful attitude when confronting survived trauma (at a certain point in the process, of course).
To the last point, about play, the author talks about wild animals’ tendencies to “reenact” traumatic or dangerous events, where they will play the role of hunter and hunted, and either experiment with new strategies for evasion or survival, or repeat the tactic used in the recent event. The physical act of evasion or survival itself is immediate and therapeutic.
In humans, reenactment happens both internally and externally. Internally, it represents itself in states associated with trauma, such as hypervigilance, anxiety, psychosomatic issues, sleeplessness, or other problems. It can also represent itself through repeated thoughts about the traumatic event.
Externally, reenactment can happen either in the “acting out” of previous traumas, either by inflicting those traumas on others, or by creating ritual behaviors that reflect and temporarily mitigate those physiological upwellings; or, external reenactment can take place in the recurrence of traumatic events in relationships, where we seek out situations with others through which our trauma presents itself, again and again, the body searching for a path to resolve that old wound.
Unfortunately, usually, our initial response only repeats itself again and again. With our minds not realizing that we’re replaying these patterns for a specific reason, we succumb to habitual responses, sometimes watching before our very eyes as things crumble apart and wondering “how can this be happening again?”
More subtly still, external and internal reenactment, at some point, collide, and the victim of trauma acquires patterns of behavior that simultaneously save them from further experiences like the first, but also prohibit them from being able to confront that traumatic experience and move beyond it.
Which takes me to his final point, his solution to this dilemma. Since we are confronted with traumas that we cannot resolve through physical means, and have developed habitual physiological patterns of response to situations in which we feel the same types of threat, we have only one tool by which to work with, on, and through those physical manifestations and feelings – awareness.
Through awareness of the traumatic event, awareness of our initial response to it, acceptance of ourselves and the fact that the event happened, and finally, a developed ability to pay attention and slow down when those feelings manifest themselves again, we have acquired tools to operate in a new dimension. Eventually, the nervous system will heal, the process will become second-nature, and life can be rich and fulfilling.
On a side-note, this process, of trauma, the formation of “protective” mechanisms which ultimately lead to further repetition of trauma reminds me strongly of the pain-spasm-ischemia cycle I was taught in massage school. In that process, damage occurs to muscle, the muscle “spasms” to protect itself from further damage, but in doing so, restricts blood flow to the area, preventing oxygenated blood (and white blood cells) from getting to the area to begin the healing process and remove restrictions. The “knot” gets bigger and bigger, till it causes overt pain and movement restriction…
Levine notes that our fast-paced culture doesn’t make this an easy task. Which brings me around to the final bit of my essay here (his book continues…if you’re interested, you should buy it and read it).
As I mentioned in my previous blog entry, it isn’t just the fast pace of our culture that “shields” us from slowing down and tracking our physiologies.
In fact, it seems that much of our culture has that exact effect.
Since reading Andrew Weil’s book “Eight Weeks to Optimal Health,” back in the 90′s sometime, I’ve engaged in what he calls a “news fast.” I don’t read or watch the news. Not at all. Haven’t in years, actually. And…nothing has happened to me because of it.
Weil recommends this practice because the news has a few qualities that cause human beings trouble, and for no good reason. First, the news is typically all bad. As Gary Gnu said, “No gnus is good gnus.” Second, the news is aggregated bad news from all over the world. So, not only are you getting a dose of bad news, but you’re getting a large dose of bad news composed of all of the bad news that happened today…anywhere. Needless to say, that news doesn’t really reflect the happenings in your habitat. Fourth, almost all of the news (because of its distant relation to your habitat) will make you feel completely helpless, frustrated, sad, or angry.
Learned helplessness, reinforced, twenty-four hours a day. Thank you?
But the news, or the way we “do” news, is just one symptom of a larger thang – of our approach to life…the philosophical underpinnings of our culture, expressed through or visible in the actions of our culture, and, of course, our selves.
a quick “thang” intermission:
I think one of the roots of that philosophy is a trauma-cycle, associated with something that happened to us culturally, maybe somewhere back in the mid-sixteenth century…in fact, when we were most susceptible to trauma, in our early-childhood…the Renaissance.
Not to be a conspiracy theorist here, but I hope Dan Brown is reading this blog and writes a nice book about this idea…and figures out what that event was, because I have no idea…hahaha.
However, it does seem that some “crisis” (which in Chinese is a character composed of the two characters for “danger” and “opportunity”) occurred, which we could not mitigate or win against, and have repeated ever since.
Hell, maybe it goes even further back than that.
But what stands out to me most is the point at which we dissociated from our tool-making.
We’ve been dissociated from our habitats for thousands of years. Human beings have lived in cities and such for around 8-10,000 years. Sure that could be a factor.
And life has been relatively “distracting” ever since we’ve been in cities. Fast pace, hustle and bustle, are nothing new.
But the loss of consciousness that we are using tools – that symbols are tools, machines are tools, that mathematics and language are tools – that seems more important.
When did that happen? And why? When did we lose sight of the fact that we make technologies to help us?
Because it was at that point that we committed ourselves to a path of recurrent trauma reenactment. It was at that point that we closed our eyes to a process within ourselves (as a culture).
It was at that point that it became “necessary” to pursue pain in order to deserve pleasure. This thing we see in cubicles and offices all over the world.
It was at this point that we begin to see scarcity as our ruling dictum, and fear as its messenger.
When I was younger, I always associated “love” with the feeling of sexual passion – the intense desire, the suffering in that desire, the longing…and the consummation of that longing and desire.
For a while, “love” was just my addiction to the chemical “squirt” in my body that I felt in moments of passion.
Now, love means much more to me. It isn’t an instantaneous thing, but a process. Love is still passion, still that desire/fire, but it is also the process of suffering the wound of separation…remaining within yourself, appreciating the other person’s path as their own, and not interfering…loving them from “so close, yet so far away.”
Or, updated a bit…
This recent article in Parade – A Connecting Flight – sums up part of this so well, I had to post it. Please read it, I think it’s worthwhile.
We often forget, in moments or relationships, in that wonderful gush of chemicals flooding our body, that there is another person, another individual, there with us. Or that we are an individual person, with our own history, issues, joys, and desires – that all are only, ultimately, experienced by us alone.
And what happens when that high wears off? When we become used to the presence of that cocktail in our system?
No one else feels what you feel. We agree on meanings of words, and approximate agreement on what we’re feeling inside by using those words…but it’s only ever an approximation.
No one ever feels what you feel. And you never feel what someone else feels.
To try to even get close requires so much space, so much observation, so much silence, and listening, that most of us never get there. But that’s what love really is…the attempt to get there. The attempt to give that much space, observation, silence, listening, care, facilitation, whatever you want to call it…
We’re so busy with our lives, with our own feelings, and our ideas of what the other person may be living or feeling, that we rarely clear space to see if we can really experience that connection.
In the article above, it often only hits us, as with so many things in life, too late. Or, if we’re lucky, when we meet someone who can wake us up to that.
Part of the goal of “physiology tracking” is knowing your own physiological responses to things, so you can see those in others. So you don’t have to rely on words – which are never good enough.
But to track, you have to be silent. You have to be careful. You have to clear your mind of opinions, and let the signs guide you.
Another goal of physiology tracking is to stay true to yourself. Only if you know yourself, your physiology, can you be aware enough to keep it in check when it threatens to overrun you, or allow it to overrun you when you most need or want it to.
Learn to be a tracker.
Desire, as my Sensei, Mick Dodge says, is Fire – it is an ember within you, and you have to carry and protect it, to tend to it, like a fire bundle, and to stoke it into life.
The rhythmic process of the rise and fall of desire/fire can be encouraged. And then it becomes a relationship with yourself, a new lens through which to see things, a new way to experience different dimensions of “reality.”
Part of love is respecting the other person’s path, their full path – the place where their desire ebbs and flows – as the thing that you loved, inseparable from the rest, and the thing that you love now.
Even if it’s the pair of slippers you trip over every day.
But to feel this, you have to agree to suffer the wound of love, the suffering (which is what “passion” really means, by the way) of the whole person of the other, of the realization that the other is complete, and you are too, and you embrace it all.