**This is a revised version of the original Buttercup post, originally written for the Urban Gets Diesel blog.**
The subjects of rest, recovery, over-training and injury are hot topics in any health-minded community. Debating, “Should I rest or push through it?” is never-ending, and a quick Google search, message board scan or poll of the coaches in your gym will provide you with rationale to back up whatever decision you choose to make. A while back, a popular fitness message board entertained this discussion, with one participant writing, “It always seems to me that pain and discomfort are inevitably handled the wrong way by most people. Either you are like most of ‘us’, and you’re really tempted to (and often do) train through it. The (other) kind of people…are the kind that use pain or discomfort as an excuse to give up the program all together. So why is it that we all deal with discomfort in different – but wrong – ways? Those that need rest often don’t take it, while ‘they’ use it as an excuse to throw their hands in the air and give up.”
What the author was proposing is that both groups – the hard-core, elite athletes and the recreational, less committed exercisers– handle over-training in the opposite fashion. “We” push through the pain, even when severe, while “they” choose to bail under only mild duress. From this, it sounds as though the motivation for both sets of actions – pushing through and bailing – are polar opposites. Upon thinking about it further, however, we propose that both groups are, in fact, doing the same damn thing.
Two Sides of the Same Coin
People naturally choose the path of least resistance. For the non-athlete, a little bit of pain (usually in the form of delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS) is an easy excuse to abandon their program altogether. For those who aren’t committed, aren’t motivated, aren’t excited about hitting the gym, skipping their workout (or a week of workouts) requires the least amount of effort, and is quickly justified to themselves and others. “Better safe than sorry” is far easier to tell yourself than, “Suck it up, buttercup”, despite the fact that moving around is often helpful for general muscle soreness.
After you gain experience with training, however, you’ll know the difference between DOMS and over-training, being beat up and being injured. Where you go wrong is ignoring that difference, and continuing to train through more serious conditions. See, YOUR path of least resistance is for you to ignore the pain, weakness or illness and simply push through it. Wait, hold on… that doesn’t sound easy! That sounds like you’re toughing it out and taking the harder route. Sounds like it, maybe… but it’s not. Your path – ignoring the signals your body is trying to send you and pushing through anyway – is easy for two reasons.
Your Path of Least Resistance
First, by pushing on (even when you know you shouldn’t), you can then maintain your Training Plan. The alternative is to take an unscheduled rest day (gasp!), and deal with the consequences of having to abandon The Plan. So you will ignore pain in your shoulder if it’s push jerk and pull-up day, because, well… it’s PUSH JERK AND PULL-UP DAY. And if you miss that, then when are you going to make up that workout? Because you can’t skip deadlift day. Or squat day. Or met-con day. Maybe you could do two workouts on Saturday, but even you know that doesn’t sound very Smart. So given all of these competing, confusing, seemingly unsolvable issues… it is easier just to stick to The Plan and train through the pain.
Just as significant is the fact that unplanned rest can be even more mentally taxing than your physical training. Spontaneous and unwelcome days off can wreak havoc on your constitution. We heard one gym-goer describe it like this: “Often (extra rest) can far surpass actual physical discomfort or pain. I know I need to rest, but my brain says – you are a wuss, you should just suck it up and do the workout, all the cool kids are doing it”. Successfully making it through an unplanned rest day is, for most, an exercise in mental discipline. You feel weak, lazy, chubby, slow. You feel like a quitter, a slacker, a tourist in FitnessTown. And that little voice inside your head can be pretty persistent… which makes it even easier to just say, “Screw it, I’m going to the gym anyway”.
But look… that course of action is no different than the other side of the coin, where the non-athlete would abandon the entire week’s efforts because of one day of discomfort. The “difference” is often erroneously perceived because it appears as though you are so dedicated that you can will yourself to train through anything. But pretending your over-trained, injured or sick status simply doesn’t exist is taking the lazy way out… and in essence, no different than giving up entirely.
You Don’t Get Fitter By Training, Right?
Improvements in fitness don’t come while you’re training… they come while you are recovering from training. And just like your actual exercise, recovery is an active process, and requires serious effort. You have to devote time and energy to my recovery – you have to get enough sleep, eat enough high quality food, drink enough water, stretch, foam roll and care for your muscles. You can’t just sit back and expect it to happen all by itself – yet that is what you are trying to do, every time you decide to blindly follow Your Plan despite being over-trained, ill or injured. So the next time you’re thinking about taking the lazy way out, remember this – your recovery deserves just as much attention as your physical training, and demands just as much mental discipline. Which means that, “Suck it up, buttercup” may just need to be the mantra for your next REST day, too.
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Your post couldn’t have been more timely!!
For me, not wanting to take that extra rest day is about not wanting to give up the endorphin buzz that comes after a good workout. That post-workout feeling — calm, centered, strong, light — is a drug. It’s hard to pass that up for a day of rest, even when my head knows it’s the right thing to do — just like it’s hard to pass on the brownies even though I know I’ll feel better in the long run.
This IS a timely post, as I sit here at my workstation massaging a sore shoulder from working on dips. I’m glad I’m going to see KISS at the rodeo tonight, or I would be forced to do the usual Tuesday olympic lifting WOD as opposed to taking a much needed rest day. Five or six years ago, I would’ve been the all out quitter, but now I’m the addict.
I LOVE this post! We all need to hear this from time to time. Thank you so much for the ‘friendly’ reminder! AWESOME!!
The Get In Shape Girl says
I think about this A LOT. I am a personal trainer and I have to tell clients occasionally to slow it down.
I used to do 30 min of steady state cardio in the morning, go to work, go to 60 min power yoga after work, followed by an hour of strength and conditioning. I also saw no changes in my body after a couple of months.
when i slowed it down and did my S & C 3 – 4 days a week on SEPARATE days from my power yoga and steady state cardio I saw crazy changes in my body. I was able to lift so much more on the days I trained. I took a full 10 seconds off my 300 yd sprint. I jump on the higher box now and i can run a lot faster in my long distance training too.
If you take the time to let yourself recover your training will mean a lot more!
Great, Great, Great article. Although my toes hurt from you guys stepping on them. I have been nursing a nagging hip/back injury since I ran a Turkey Trot at Thanksgiving. You have convinced me that, perhaps, I don’t have the discipline to take time off. I have slowed my routine down, backed off running, seen the doc, added SFH fish oil, stretching, foam roller, started the Whole30…. alll to no avail. Thanks guys for this post. I think I will TRY to take some time off.
David Nichols EE says
Good stuff as always!
I have this discussion with people often and have come to the conclusion I always will.
I it’s interesting for me to see non-CrossFit athlete join my box and after a few tough workouts come to me about this pain or that pain and want to quit because “it’s dangerous”. I have to remind them of the similar discomforts they felt becoming a black belt, gaining that college athletic scholarship or racing their first triathlon. Most begin to see/understand CrossFit as a new “sport” so they begin to set their ego to the side and slow down a bit.
On the other side, I have a handful of CF athletes with absolutely NO back ground in organized athletics and they are the ones who seem to over-train. I have come to the conclusion they don’t want to stop making the progress by taking a rest day. However, as stated in the post above, their gains come from being able to operated at 100% and if you aren’t able to enter the gym at 100% on a consistent basis you need some time off.
I myself experienced this after the CrossFit Games last year. The training, new attention to my diet, the mental focus, (insert any other excuse) wore me down. I wasn’t sleeping, I was chugging coffee all day and couldn’t move a barbell during a training session. Finally broke down and took “workout time” off the calendar for 3 weeks. Oddly enough, I hit 4 PR’s the two-weeks back and have been able to stay healthier than ever since.
I have been struggling with rest for a few months now while my lower back injury heals. I am back at most of the workouts, but scaling them is murder for me mentally because of the EXACT reasons you described.
Thanks for the insight AND encouragement.
What a great post! Mary, I have that same issue with being addicted to the endorphines buzz after a workout, which is tough right now being that one knee is giving me trouble again. Reading this also makes me think, geez I’m glad I’m not a guy bc of that whole macho mentality that can happen often with men especially….otherwise I’d be in deep trbl.