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The Three Speeds. How To Train Hard, Recover Fast & Not Be Stupid

The other day I was hanging with my good friend Brad Davidson who spent much of his career as an elite strength and conditioning coach.  We discussed workouts, and why so many people burn out and overtrain.

Let me share some overarching perspective; some of the things Brad and I talked about. Here is the way I think about training.

The Three Training Speeds:

When I think of a “workout,” I think of speeds.  Your metabolism is like an engine. It can be revving at full throttle, burning fast and furious. Let’s call this red.  It can be set in cruise control, and coasting down the highway. This we’ll call yellow. It can be in idle or turned off parked in the garage. This is green.

Sprints, Intervals, and hard driving metabolic conditioning workouts like Crossfit are red. Long duration runs, bikes and rows are also red. This is because all these activities require a huge metabolic stimulus to allow for either harder or longer workouts. These sessions have either no rest periods (running), or short rest periods (intervals, sprints and metcons).

Traditional weight training is the yellow zone.  You get some stimulation, and then you get plenty of rest.  Few weight lifters in practice use defined rest periods, instead they do another set when they “feel ready.” The rest-based intervals and metcons, popularized by my brother, Keoni, and I, took inspiration from traditional weight lifting routines.

Think of the green zone as the recovery zone.  It consists of things that move the focus into rest and relaxation.  Examples include, restorative yoga (not the crazy intense power yoga), and tai chi.  It also includes slow, relaxing walking and recovery activities like stretching, foam rolling, and even passive activities like hot or cold immersion and massage.

Why this is important:

It is important we make these distinctions because without an operating framework, people start doing all kinds of dumb things. It does not look dumb until you understand the framework.  Once you have the framework, we can all collectively smack ourselves in the head like Homer Simpson….. DOH!!

When you train, it is a stress to your body.  There is good stress (eustress) and bad stress. Stress is only ever as bad as our body’s ability to recover from it. Red training can easily become bad stress.  Green training is more eustress.

Short-term stress, that nudges our body’s adaptation mechanisms, is exactly why we train. Long-term stress, or stress that is too extreme, can overwhelm our body’s ability to adapt, and cause negative effects; including metabolic compensation, metabolic resistance and metabolic damage.

Admittedly, these are vague, non-scientific terms, yet they provide a useful framework in understanding how to triage your body’s stress burden relative to diet and exercise.  For a review on these terms, check out my blogs on Metabolic Damage HERE and at Testosterone Nation HERE.

Sympathetic & Parasympathetic:

Sympathetic response is your body’s gas peddle.  It’s the “go” system.  When the body encounters stress, it hits the sympathetic turbo drive.  This causes the release of adrenaline first, and cortisol a little later.  The purpose of these stress hormones is to release glucose and lipids (sugar and fat for the non biochemists), so the body can fuel movement.

Many people call this the “fight or flight response.”  This is actually incomplete, because there is another, more important, response of the sympathetic system: freeze.  So, the sympathetic response is actually the “fight, flight, freeze response.”

This is an important distinction…you will see in a moment.

The other side of the metabolic coin is the parasympathetic response.  This is the “relax and restore response.” It has also been called the “rest and digest response.”  It is required to balance the system.  In fact, when you are training hard, it is the more important system.

Just as sports cars are often in the garage more than on the road; so too, must your body be able to easily park itself, cool its engine, and switch into recovery.

The parasympathetic response sees cortisol and adrenaline lowered, and is more associated with restorative hormones like HGH.

Stuck In One Speed:

When you overtrain, you are essentially stuck in one speed.  You have exceeded your body’s ability to repair, recover, rest and adapt; tilted into sympathetic mode. You are stuck in red, and unable to get back to green.

When this happens, you feel all the hallmarks of sympathetic drive in the body.  You feel tired on the outside, wired on the inside, and ironically, for having all that energy, unmotivated to train.  Sounds a lot like “fight, flight and freeze” doesn’t it.

This is also why you feel tired during the day, yet wired at night.  You either can’t go to sleep, or can’t stay asleep.  You are frustrated as hell because you have energy inside, making you feel agitated and on edge.  However, it is not the type of energy that will sustain a workout.

Many people mess this up so badly that they stay in this perpetual state for months, even years, wondering why they feel like shit.

The patterns:

Here are some of the patterns that we see every day at metabolic effect:

  • The person with diagnoses like hypothyroid, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, or any autoimmune condition who is told to cut carbs and do intervals.
  • The chronic dieter, who insists on the eat less, exercise more approach, and is eating like a bird and running for miles.
  • The low carb, paleo or primal guy, who is doing Crossfit 5 days a week, and can’t figure out why, within a few months, he has lost his erections and can’t stop crying whenever he watches a Disney movie.

You get my point right?  All of these are patterns where the person is training too long, too hard or too frequently. They are in the red zone and can’t get out. As a result, their metabolic engine takes a beating.

The Fix:

Does this mean you can’t do your hardcore training?  No, it does not mean that at all; but, it means you need more balance.

Start by asking yourself how many green sessions you are doing per week versus how many red? You should have a 1:1, or even better, closer to 2:1 ratio of green “workouts” to red.

Next, ask yourself are you fueling your body for your red workouts?  On the days you train hard, you also need to fuel smart.  Do intermittent fasting if you want.  Do keto diets if you want.  Go super low carb if you want.  Just don’t do it when you are training red.

When in doubt, go yellow.  Traditional weight training is a balancer. When you are lifting, you are getting sympathetic, and when you are in between sets, resting, your body is trying to go parasympathetic. Yellow workouts have a great way of training both sides of the nervous system in this way. This is why these old fashioned weight training workouts are less likely to burn you out, and far more likely to keep you from overtraining.

Whenever you find yourself stuck after coming off a red-dominated period of training, a few weeks back in yellow zone will help keep your gains, while restoring your metabolic potential.

One great, generalized rule of thumb for those who don’t want to think too much about this is the following:  Start your workouts in red zone; perhaps 10 minutes of interval training.  Move to yellow, spending 30-40 minutes in this zone.  End your workout with a long walk (green).

A few other general guidelines:  Red zone workouts should stay in the 10-40min time frame.  Yellow, ninety minutes or less. Green, as long as you like.

Hot & Cold Therapy:

An interesting side note regarding hot and cold recovery strategies.  Cold immersion is sympathetic, and stimulating short-term (first few seconds to minutes).  It is parasympathetic longer term.  When you get into a cold pool, it takes your breath away, it is stimulating, at first.  Stay in, you adapt and it will begin to sedate and relax you.

Hot is the opposite. It is sedating at first, and stimulating for longer periods.  Get in a sauna, and it feels relaxing for the first minute or two.  Stay in awhile, and find yourself agitated and ready to get out.

This is useful information for those who can’t train or are wanting to aid recovery.  Hot is like intervals and metcon.  Cold is like yoga and tai chi. Going back and forth from hot and cold is the best, as it balances both ends of the nervous system. Contrast is like traditional weight training.

A little objective help:

If you are really serious about your training, consider investing in a heart rate variability (HRV) app.  Heart rate variability is the heart rate’s beat-to-beat variance.  Most people think the heart beats like a metronome and is in constant sync.  In fact, the heart is asynchronous, and varies slightly, by fractions of a second from beat to beat. The more varied it is, the more adaptable and healthier it is.

A higher than normal heart rate variability means you are more parasympathetic (green) and a lower than normal means more sympathetic (red).

Take about 7 days to get a baseline, and then use your day to day fluctuations in HRV to aid your training decisions. Measuring is best done first thing in the morning.  My two favorite apps are Bioforce HRV and Hrv4training.  HRV4training does not require a heart rate strap, and is the one I currently use for that reason. Bioforce, I think, is moving in that direction, and I like their graphics better.

When the HRV deviates too far from your baseline, you want to move into the green training days and away from red.

For example, my baseline HRV is 8.0.  When I see it jump into the 9’s, that almost always comes after some intense days of training and is a strong indication my body is trying to get back to balance.  I aid it by moving to green zone workouts for a few days.

If it goes down into the 6’s, I move to green or yellow, depending on what my training schedule says. This is an indispensable tool.

Final thoughts:

Working out and training are two different things.  Working out is just flying blind and doing whatever.  Training is having a plan and being smart.

If you are going to train like an athlete, you need to learn to think smarter about exercise and recovery. If you don’t, you will be asking for burnout, or worse.

Understanding this red, yellow, and green framework can aid in choosing workouts that suit your current metabolic state, and keep you from burning yourself out.

Using HRV, along with this framework, allows for tight control of training parameters and will keep you healthy, happy and enjoying sustained, effective workouts.

*Metabolic Effect has a monthly workout subscription service that includes all these types of workouts programmed for you each month so you don’t need to think about.  JOIN HERE

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