What does your rock bottom look like? How do you feel when you’re there? How bout your not-quite-rock-bottom? It’s easy to picture the worst. It’s very dramatic and there’s tears and broken plates and tight fists and maybe a sad animal.
Back it up a little. Nothing is broken, not yet. No one died. In fact, things are fine. Work is busy maybe, you’ve got some side projects, some upcoming social obligations, and you feel good about life. But your edges are foggy. Your weights feel really heavy. You’ve been sleeping okay, but not enough. It seems like someone always needs something from you.
Suddenly you can’t focus. You feel like a baby deer in training, weak and wobbly. You feel sloppy at work, and you can’t answer the questions fast enough. Everything just seems a tiny bit harder, for no easily discernible reason.
Then BAM. Splat. You topple off the edge of the cliff you didn’t know you were creeping along. And you fall. And you keep falling, scrambling for anything to hold onto. You’re upset at everything. You’re slow, you’re weak, nothing works. You sleep, it doesn’t help. You eat, it doesn’t help.
This is what happens when fatigue builds up. The symptoms can be different for everyone, and sometimes it feels life-wrecking, and sometimes it’s just annoying. And if this happens, you need to stop what you’re doing and evaluate what is happening.
This happened to me recently. I was rolling along at a pretty brisk pace and feeling like a badass at everything. It was pretty great. Steady gains in the gym, bustling schedule of clients at work, and my social life was peeping it’s face out of winter hibernation finally. Then I had one of the hardest training days of my life and it knocked me flat on my ass.
Then it all seemed to avalanche down from there. Lifting was so hard, work took so much more extra focus and by the end of every day I felt like a total zombie. Next thing I knew I was crying in the post office (I mean, have you been to a post office? Not THAT weird). That hard training day didn’t cause the fatigue, it was a product of it.
Fatigue doesn’t just mean tired or sleepy, it’s total system wear and tear. Mind, body, emotions, spirit. When it comes to managing fatigue, they might as well all be the same thing.
Really stressed at work? That’s going to contribute to fatigue. Having trouble with your partner? That too. Your kid is sick? Yep. Having an existential crisis? Oh yeah. And then there’s the obvious stuff like under/poor-eating, poor quality of sleep (THIS one though) and the cumulative build up of an intense training program cycle. All of these things affect each other.
Unless you’re a pro athlete (and hey, even then), chances are you are going to need to back off your training every once in a while. This can be really difficult to accept and do, especially if you got into lifting to manage your demons and center yourself. If lifting is your happy place, it really really sucks to feel like you are failing at that. It sucks to feel like one of the best parts of your day, your YOU time, is now betraying you.
But your body is not betraying you. It is just trying to get you to listen to it and give it the nurturing it needs. What do you do to nurture yourself? How much time do you take every day just to stop, check in with yourself and see how you’re doing? Ask yourself what you might need?
And sometimes you may still burn out. And THAT IS OKAY. You cannot be a hard-training-hyper-productive-machine all the time. You shouldn’t be, because you are not a machine. You cannot linearly perform at increasing intensity over and over and over again. And THAT IS OKAY.
In fact, its more than okay. It might be great to spend a little time getting to know down-and-out- You. Sometimes it is when we are feeling extra vulnerable and weak that we can really honestly evaluate what we need, whether in life or in training. It might just be a hot bath or two, it might be total overhaul of how we spend our free time, and how we choose to decompress.
You need to burn out a little here and there. And when you do, do not beat yourself up. Do not get frustrated. Do not pound your head against the wall and “push through,” hoping it will get better. You should be doing something, but it is not working harder (You’ve had quite enough of that). It is laying down and getting a few good nights’ sleep in a row. It is resetting. It is nurturing yourself. It is looking at your rock-bottom-or-not-quite and noticing what is there and what needs attention. It is taking stock without judgement. It is backing off.
It is rest. It is recovery. It is essential. Savor it, and treat your recovery with the same reverence and respect you treat your work or training. Then recover.