Ashleigh VanHouten’s Muscle Maven Radio interview with Andy Galpin had a really useful tidbit that has changed my mental framework for approaching training and recovery.

I already knew that adaptation follows stress, but depends on recovery. What Galpin said that surprised me was: You need to ask, “Will spending more resources on recovery allow you to train more?”

I’d never thought of it that way before. I had generally focused on how to train more—how to find the time, how to find the motivation. But I have a history of “getting serious” about my running or my lifting and then getting injured, which clearly means that more and better recovery would be key to being more successful.

I have dealt with this in the past from the training side: figuring that I need to find the sweet spot where I’m training enough to stimulate an adaptation, but not so much that I injure myself. I have not previous tried to deal with it by figuring that I could devote more resources to recovery, and thereby enable doing the amount of training that I want to do.

Galpin mentions the various obvious things that help recovery—better sleep, better diet, massage, etc. but skims over them to emphasize what he thinks is the important thing: Down-regulating. “The folks who can down-regulate post-workout the fastest get the best adaptations.”

Again, I had not thought of it this way before, but this makes perfect sense. Your workout should be up-regulating—putting your nervous system strongly into a sympathetic (flight-or-flight) state. But remaining in a sympathetic state once the workout is over is doing you no favors. The sooner you can get yourself back into a parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) state, the sooner you can start your recovery.

This is potentially huge. Getting into a proper resting state right after your workout has the potential to add hours a day to your recovery time, compared with remaining in a highly sympathetic state until later.

Galpin mentions breathwork as the most effective tool for down-regulating, and he didn’t seem to think it made much difference what you did (what breathing patterns you used, etc.). Or maybe he just thought that once you started a breathwork practice you’d quickly learn what worked for you. He mentioned Brian MacKenzie as a good place to start for learning about breathwork. I poked around there and found this free introductory course to breath work, which I’ve started watching.

The whole interview is good: Dr. Andy Galpin | MMA training, hydration, and taking ownership over your health. This stuff on recovery and down-regulating is mostly from about the 30-minute point through about the 45-minute point. Highly recommended.

I’ve long struggled to program my training, a task that is difficult because I want to get better at everything. I want to be stronger and faster. I want to have more endurance for running and more endurance for walking (which turn out not to carry over perfectly from one to the other). I want to maintain and deepen my taiji practice and my parkour practice. I want to learn rock climbing and fencing.

This isn’t a new problem for me. As just one example, back in 2013 I was considering programming training not organized by the week but perhaps in 9-day training cycles.

There are at least two problems that I’m trying to address. One is just fitting in training for each capability I want to get better at. The other is how to not break down under that training load (which involves at least fitting in enough recovery time, but other stuff as well).

During the pandemic I’ve done okay, by focusing on exercise. Although I tweak things pretty often, very roughly I’ve organized each week to include:

  • 3 strength training workouts
  • 2 runs (a “long” run and a “fast” run)
  • 1 HIIT workout
  • 2 rest days

That looks pretty good until you do the math and see that it only works for 8-day weeks.

Besides that, note that this excludes my taiji practice (which amounted to more than 5 hours a week back in pre-pandemic days, because besides teaching I was engaging in my own practice). It also excludes my long, slow warmups (which I’ve started calling my “morning exercises,” since I do them pretty much every morning before proceeding with my “workout” for the day).

The way I’ve been making it sort-of work is by doubling up how I think about some of the workouts. A “fast” run with sprint intervals is a HIIT workout, and a HIIT workout with kettlebell swings is a strength-training session.

Still, there’s no hope to make something like this work if I want to add in parkour, rock climbing, and fencing. Likewise, I know from experience that I need a full day to recover from a very long (14-mile or longer) walk, so doing one of those requires devoting two days out of the week to just one training session.

So, I’m left in a quandary. How can I get better at all the things I already do and add in some additional activities as well? (Just before the pandemic I’d started taking an aikido class; I’m sure I’d enjoy finding a local group that plays Ultimate Frisbee….)

Happily for me, Adam Sinicki (aka The Bioneer) has written a book that addresses exactly this issue. The book is Functional Training and Beyond: Building the Ultimate Superfunctional Body and Mind. It starts out talking about “functional training,” and about the history of “getting in shape” i.e. “physical culture.” Then it runs though all the most common training modalities (bodybuilding, powerlifting, kettlebells, crossfit, etc.), before proceeding to talk specifically about how to take the best from each one, and then how to program it all into a workout plan.

His thinking on programming is pretty straightforward: You don’t just add everything together. Rather, you look through all the exercises you might do and pick the ones with the most cross-over benefit relevant to your goals, and then build an exercise program out of those (and you sequence them correctly to maximize your gains in terms of strength, mobility, flexibility, skills acquisition, speed, power, hypertrophy, etc.).

I’m going to spend some time (and some blog posts here) thinking over just how I want to do that.

One thing I’ve started doing (without really thinking about it until just today) has definitely improved my life: I’ve changed my attitude about “saving” energy for later.

It used to be that I’d consciously do less, if I expected to need that energy later. (And not just with energy. I’d ration all kinds of things that I had in limited supply. When I was suffering from plantar fasciitis, I’d ration my time spent standing or walking.)

I do much less of that now. It’s not that I have boundless energy, but I’m consciously refraining from setting boundaries in advance: I treat my energy as if it were boundless—and then, only when I find that I’ve become very tired, do I go ahead and quit spending energy with reckless abandon, and prioritize recovery.

One key here is having come to understand how important that second step is. I deplete myself, and then I recover. The more I do both of these things, the better I feel.

Children are like this—boundless energy and then none. (It was somebody pointing this out that prompted me to recognize that I’d shifted in this direction myself.) Broadly speaking, natural systems often work this way. A grassland that is intensively grazed and then allowed to fully recover tends to be healthier, more productive, and more diverse than one that is perpetually grazed, or one that goes ungrazed for long periods of time.

I recognize that I have some privilege here. I’m in a position where, if I tire myself out, I can just decide to stop whatever I’m doing. Someone working on a chain gang (or in an Amazon warehouse) doesn’t have that same option. If you’re not in control of when you stop, acting like you had boundless energy could get you into real trouble.

First, let me say that maximizing my Oura ring activity score is, in and of itself, of no value whatsoever—except to the extent that it reflects and reinforces my efforts to get an appropriate level of physical activity.

Happily, I find that getting an appropriate amount of activity generally results in a higher score. So it works at that level, with perhaps a few mismatches between what I think is appropriate and what the Oura software thinks is appropriate, the main one being their idea of what counts as a recovery day.

Periodization of training—getting a mix of training days and recovery days—is a great idea. In fact, the lack of periodization is one of the limitations with Google Fit, whose model is to have a daily activity goal which is a little aggressive—a goal that motivates you to to get out and walk just a little more than you otherwise might. The problem is that a goal that’s even a little bit aggressive is going to be excessive for your recovery days, while still being much less than you probably want for your training days.

This is where the Oura ring software is a big step up from Google Fit. It strongly encourages both training days and recovery days. Unfortunately, its idea of a recovery day seems a bit too strict for me:

For Oura, an easy day means keeping the amount of medium intensity level activity below 200 MET minutes (200-300 kcal/day), and high intensity activity below 100 MET minutes (100-150 kcal/day).

In practice this can mean doing lots of low intensity activities, getting healthy amounts of medium intensity activity (30-60 min), but only a small amount of high intensity activity (below 10 min).

Now, that’s all well and good, except that ordinary walking is a medium intensity activity, and (except when the weather is crappy) it’s a very rare day indeed that I don’t end up walking more than an hour—meaning that I basically never get a recovery day in Oura ring terms.

The result is that whenever the weather is nice my activity score starts dropping, because I’m not getting what my ring thinks is appropriate recovery. Then, when there’s a couple of days of crappy weather and I sit around the house all day, my score will climb (as my recovery time value improves). Then, as soon as the weather gets nice again and I can get out and be active, my activity score can shoot up into the high 90s:

However, I can only get five days of such high levels. Since I need to have at least two recovery days per week, a string of more than five nice days means my recovery suffers once again, turning into lower activity scores.

I haven’t fully characterized the behavior so far, but it seems like the software may well be doing just what the quoted text above says: Getting between 30 and 60 minutes of medium activity makes a day a recovery day, with a hard end to any “recovery” at 61 minutes.

If true, that would probably be the place to make a fix. That is, I’m not trying to suggest that I have any data to show that an average person could walk more than 60 minutes and still recover as well, nor do I have any good metric for identifying some subset of people who can walk more and recover well. But I am pretty sure that the 1 h 3 min of medium activity that I got the day before yesterday is not so much more than the 60 I got yesterday that the former should count as a training day rather than a recovery day.

I got a great comment on my previous post (thanks Ilana!), and started to reply in a comment there, but realized that I was straying into something that I wanted to talk in a post—training cycles that aren’t a multiple of 7 days.

Rereading my post, I see that it does look like my only runs are my long run and my fast run. That’s not the case, though. I try to include two or three easy runs each week as well.

In years past, my training schedule was pretty ordinary. Each week would include a long run and a fast run, each followed by a rest day. The other three days would each be a chance for an easy run. I found that I could just about maintain my fitness if I ran three times a week, but that I had to run four or five times a week if I wanted to improve either my speed or my endurance.

This summer my training routine has been complexificated by these very long walks I’ve been doing. It turns out that I need about two days to recover from a walk that pushes beyond the farthest I’ve ever walked before. Adding a long walk and one or two recovery days to my usual schedule pushes it out to a 9 or 10 day cycle, instead of a 7-day cycle.

The obvious thing to do would be to create a 9-day cycle—something like this: long walk, rest day, easy run, easy run, long run, rest day, easy run, fast run, rest day. One obstacle to that is that the various tracking tools I’m aware of all provide summaries for weekly periods, not for 9-dayly periods. (If you know of an exercise tracking tool that can produce useful summaries for training cycles of arbitrary length, let me know.)

So, I’m just winging it as far as a training schedule goes. Since it became clear that we wouldn’t get to Kalamazoo for the Kal-Haven trail walk this summer (we’re now hoping to do it next summer), we’ve eased up a bit on lengthening our very long walks, although we’re still planning to do 17 miles shortly. At these distances, it seems like doing each “even longer” walk ought to happen only every other week (with the long walk on the alternate weeks being comfortably within our established capability).

I recently came upon an old livejournal post about my struggles to get enough exercise.

It had been written in April 2008, some seven or eight months after I’d quit working a regular job, and was about how I’d always blamed the job for keeping me from getting enough exercise, and how I was unhappy that I hadn’t seized the opportunity that came from my new regular-job-free lifestyle to get into better shape. Here’s an excerpt:

The big advantage of not working a regular job ought to be that I can exercise anytime I want.  In the spring, I can run in the afternoon when it’s warm.  In the summer I can run in the morning when it’s cool.  I can pick the nicest day of the week for my long ride (minimize the chance of being caught miles from home in a thunderstorm) and then organize the rest of the week’s workouts around that.

I say “ought to,” because I haven’t taken full advantage so far.  Last summer I was still working until the end of August, and then I was trying to focus on my novel while still cranking out four or five Wise Bread posts a week.  I tried to get the running habit set up in the fall so that I could continue it through the winter, but didn’t really manage it.

Now, though, it’s spring, and I’ve decided to make exercise–that is, fitness–my number 1 priority.

Reading that post, I realized that I have, finally, succeeded. I now get enough exercise.

Brief aside: Except, of course, that I’ve scarcely run in a month, because of my injured calf.

I’ve tried three times to go out for a short run, and each time the result has been re-injury. After the third time, I realized that I was doing more harm than good, trying to get back to running as quickly as possible. I decided to wait until the symptoms were completely gone, and then give it at least a full week for further rest and recovery, before trying to run again. On that schedule, my first run would be roughly Saturday. In fact, it’ll be delayed at least two days further, because Saturday Jackie and I will go to Forest Glen and squeeze in a long hike in the morning, ahead of a spinning and weaving event there. (And not taking a day to recover from a long hike before a short run is how I hurt my calf in the first place.)

Basically, though, my calf is fine. It doesn’t limit either my walking (we walked 10 miles yesterday) or my taiji (I’ve taught my class on schedule every day). It has been completely pain-free, except when I re-injure it—then it hurts for a couple of days.

I wrote two years ago about my winter fitness regimen. (Three times a week I lift weights and then do an hour of taiji; the other four days I try to walk for an hour.) It proves to be satisfactory to maintain my weight and maintain a base level of fitness.

In the summers, I’ve been doing more. I preserve the lifting and the taiji (and much of the walking, which is mostly incidental to getting other things done) and augment it with running—before my injury, I had been running 7–9 miles most weeks—and have also added a weekly very long walk.

That livejournal post has a chart with the amount of time I had been devoting to exercise the last time I’d been in really good shape. Here’s a similar chart for what I’d been doing until a few weeks ago when I had to quit running:

Activity Minutes per workout Workouts per week Minutes per week
Lifting 30 3 90
Taiji 60 3 180
Short walks 60 4 240
Long walks 240 1 240
Short runs 22 2 44
Long runs 60 1 60
Total 854

The first thing that strikes me is just how similar this is to what I was doing in the past when I’ve been fit. I’ve replaced the bike rides with walking a very similar number of minutes per week. I’ve added the taiji, which adds 3 hours a week, and I’ve reduced the number and length of my short runs, to gain back maybe 50 minutes of that time. But the bottom line is that I’m now spending about 120 minutes a day on fitness-related activities.

Now, that’s great. Certainly it feels great—I feel great when I’m getting this much exercise. And having gotten here, I believe I’m prepared to declare victory, and say that getting and staying in shape is a solved problem.

But how could anyone with a regular job manage such a thing? And yet, much less exercise than this would not build and maintain the capabilities I want. If I want to be able to run for an hour, I need to run for an hour pretty regularly. If I want to be able to walk for four or six hours, then every week or two I need to walk for four or six hours.

I don’t really have an answer here for people who find that making a living limits their ability to be fit. I managed it temporarily a couple of times, but only by letting things slide temporarily—things that I couldn’t let slide permanently.

Still, just at the moment, I’m feeling pretty good. Thanks to the taiji, I move with more ease and control than I’ve ever had before. Thanks to the lifting and the endurance exercise, I have more power and stamina than ever before. I’m looking forward to Saturday’s long hike. And I’m looking forward (after a day or two to recover from that) to trying to run again. (Because, as Steven says, “Running is great exercise between injuries.”)

I’m of two minds about running for exercise. Except when I’m running or wishing I was running; then I’m all for it.

I used to have a lot of reasons I ran for exercise, but they’ve been dropping away.

One reason that I run for exercise is that I want to be able to run. (Sometimes I want to get somewhere reasonably close in a hurry, and running is great for that.) I always figured that, if I wanted to be able to run, I needed to run for exercise—to build and maintain the capability.

Except, twice this month I had to run to catch the bus, and I did—even though I haven’t been running for exercise since last year. These impromptu bus-catching runs weren’t long runs, but I did them flat-out, without warmup or stretching, wearing whatever shoes I had on at the time—and both times were fine. I did them without undue effort and without getting hurt.

So, it seems that my regular fitness activities are enough to maintain at least a minimum capability for running.

Another reason I run for exercise is that it’s wonderfully efficient. All winter, the aerobic portion of my fitness regimen has been to walk for an hour on the four days a week that I’m not lifting and doing taiji. In an hour I walk a bit over 3 miles. If I cover the same distance running, I do it a good bit more quickly, meaning that I don’t have to spend as much of the day exercising.

Except that I’ve found myself fitting the hour of walking in very easily, without scheduling any exercise at all. There are several local errands (grocery store, bank, neighborhood restaurants) that are about a 10 minute walk each way. To run my slightly more distant errands, I take the bus. It’s a similar 10 minute walk to the bus stop, but that’s typically followed by 10 minutes of walking at the other end as well, for a total of 20 minutes walking each way.

So, if I go on one outing by bus plus one neighborhood errand, that’s my 60 minutes already. Running is efficient, but it’s not more efficient than that.

Less important than either of those, but still a reason I run, is that it gives me a sense of health and fitness. If I have an irrational sense that there’s something wrong with me, going for a run will usually take care of it. (Surely, I tell myself, if there were something really wrong with me, I wouldn’t be able to run like this.) I always knew that this was the sort of false comfort that’s only appropriate when I’m really quite sure that my sense of unwellness is, in fact, irrational. Going for a run is a fine way of dealing with, let’s say, a  panic attack. It’s a really dumb way to deal with a heart attack. (I don’t have panic attacks, but I am prone to worrying about my health unnecessarily. Those worries don’t prey on my mind as much when I’m running regularly.)

The problem with running is that I get hurt. Almost every runner I know gets hurt. To the best of my recollection, I’ve never had a walking injury more serious than a blister nor a bicycling injury more serious than a sore butt. But I’ve lost months of exercise time due to running injuries.

Still, despite the problems with running, and despite the loss of some of my rationalizations for running, I’ve started running again. But I’m doing it a little differently, now that I recognize that my reasons for running aren’t as strong as I’d thought they were.

Now I recognize that I run mainly for fun. I run because I really enjoy it. I enjoy the runs themselves. I enjoy the feeling of tiredness in my legs after a run. I enjoy knowing that I can run further and faster than I’m likely to need to.

If my enjoyment is the main reason I do it, that suggests that I should only do the fun part. So, I’ll abandon any effort to make a plan or set a schedule. I used to carefully structure my runs around an idea of stress followed by recovery. (I’ll still include both stress and recovery, but I’ll just decide each day which is appropriate, based on how I feel.) I used to aim to be able to run a particular distance on a particular date, so I could run in a race. I won’t do that any more. (Although I might run a race on a whim, if I feel like it.)

I went on my second run of the year today. It felt great. My first run, a couple of days ago—merely a good run—moved me to haiku. In the original Esperanto, it’s:

spiro laboras, genuoj doloretas… jara ekkuro.

Which in English might be rendered as:

Breathing hard,
Knees a little tender…
Year’s first run.