Whither Exercise?

By Tim Zeddies, Ph.D – October 1, 2014

What’s the first thought that comes to mind when thinking about that next workout or training session? If you reflect on what thoughts just ran through your mind, you may notice that the answer to this question was informed by at least several factors, including:
How your body feels – Has it recovered from the last workout? How well or poorly did you sleep last night? Are you battling illness or injury?

  • The details (if known) about the particular workout that lies ahead
  • Your general outlook on and attitude toward exercise – Do you enjoy and look forward to exercise and see it as one of the highlights of the day? Or do you view it with negativity, an unpleasant activity you feel compelled to perform?
  • Your goals – Enhancing physical appearance and attractiveness, elevating performance in a particular sport or on certain measures of fitness, improving various indicators of health such as blood pressure or cholesterol levels, etc. 
  • Taking this kind of mental and physical self-inventory is critical in gaining clarity on what to do on those days you don’t want to exercise. 

While we all recognize that the attainment of exercise-related goals are put at risk if we do not exercise (whether because of injury, poor planning, or just plain lack of discipline and commitment), it is just as true—if not more so—that exercise goals are compromised if optimal rest and recovery (along with diet, of course) are not emphasized.  In fact, rest and recovery—especially in the form of sleep—might just be the most important aspect of health and fitness most athletes neglect in spite of recent findings from sport science.

Increasingly, professional sports teams, for instance, are employing the services of sleep experts to improve individual and team performance when competing away from home and in different time zones. In fact, it is more common for elite and professional athletes to have scheduled nap times during the day in place of sport-specific practice. Moreover, when researchers recently examined the effects of sleep on performance, they found that the sprint times of swimmers and track athletes markedly improved after only several weeks of getting nine hours of sleep at night and then napping for another one to two hours during the day.

But let’s be honest: In this busy, buzzy, upside-down world, few have the luxury of sleeping as much as elite and professional athletes. Nevertheless, an important goal to consider putting at the very top of any New Year’s resolution list might just be to better balance exercise and recovery.  Doing so will, in itself, improve fitness and athleticism. Striking this balance effectively requires ongoing, honest self-assessment as well as openness to the opinions of others who occupy a privileged vantage point on our exercise efforts (e.g., spouses, medical practitioners, friends, workout partners, sports psychologists, coaches, and trainers). 

An example of how challenging it can be to balance the need to push hard in exercise and training with the need to rest and recover is seen when we wake up with sore, lactic-acid soaked muscles and stiff, achy joints. If you’re like me, you might find yourself wondering how you’re ever going to survive—much less crush—your workout that day. You might even entertain thoughts of not exercising. 

What are you supposed to do in these situations?  

For starters, self-assessment should not be conducted while the head is still on the pillow and the mind is acting like an out-of-control sprinkler, spewing negative thoughts about exercise. It’s all too easy to make poor exercise decisions while drowsy in bed. After you’ve gotten up, moved around for at least 20 minutes, and perhaps had a cup of coffee, incorporate the following coding system to assist in assessing workout-readiness.

 Green – Your body feels great. No soreness. No discernable injury or ailment. You’re in a position to push hard and find out what you’re capable of, maybe even go for a personal best if the moment presents itself. 
    Recommended workout intensity =  80–98 percent
    Recommended Modification = None. Focus on good form, become familiar with how your body feels exerting itself at near-maximal levels, maintain a healthy but not excessive rep count, and “leave one in the box” (i.e., do one less rep than your max to preserve solid form and prevent injury).

 Yellow – You feel some soreness, but no sharp or intense pain whatsoever. While soreness may make muscles somewhat sensitive to the touch, there is no discernable injury.  
    Recommended workout intensity = 60–80 percent
    Recommended Modification = A thorough warm-up is key in this stage, and paying attention to how well muscles loosen up is crucial. Don’t go all out or go for a personal best, but push hard enough to feel muscle fatigue and aerobic exertion.

 Flashing Red – You feel a very high level of soreness, to the point that even regular, non-exercise-related movement is not fluid and spontaneous but slow and strained. You may also have an injury that, at this stage, is necessary to train around.
    Recommended workout intensity = 50 percent or lower
    Recommended Modification = Extended warm-up that may actually comprise the main part of the workout. Avoid too many (or any) quick, sudden, or explosive movements. Emphasize mobility work along with stretching and/or light cardio. Consider non-intense activities like yoga, Pilates, and swimming. If training around an injury, make sure to avoid anything that directly or indirectly places your injured body part at risk. Do not go heavy or all-out in any resistance movements; instead, lower the weight and increase rep count.

 Red – Your body is in pain or you feel a level of physical or mental exhaustion that hurts. At this level, you may also be sick enough that you would seriously consider staying home from work. 
    Recommended workout intensity = Don’t work out!
    Recommended Modification = Your body needs to recover. Emphasize optimal (not just adequate) rest and sleep, take care of yourself with healthy fluids and foods, and avoid sources of stress to the extent you are able. Also, consider using this time in the Red Zone as an opportunity to work on mental skills and lifestyle improvement, such as positive visualization, meditation, foam rolling and flexibility work, and diet planning.

If you are experiencing a pain that is sharp, worsens with time, or does not improve, schedule an appointment with the appropriate healthcare professional (such as a sports chiropractor or sports medicine physician).

When using this coding system, keep in mind that each level is designed to improve health and fitness. For example, when you are in the Red Zone, your best workout is not at the gym, around the track, on the bike, in the ring, or on the trail. To get to your healthiest and fittest, you must do what is necessary to heal your body so that it can move another day. This may include foam rolling, stretching and flexibility work, taking time off from exercising, or seeking out medical consultation.  

Likewise, if you’re in the Green Zone, there is no excuse to half-ass it. Pushing yourself almost to the upper limit of performance threshold not only is healthy for your body, but doing so also builds mental strength and stamina that will improve performance in a future competition or race. However, keep in mind that rarely is it necessary or advisable to give100 percent during a training session, especially for masters-level athletes; maximal efforts should be reserved for competitions, races, and scheduled attempts at a personal best.  

One more thought to consider when learning how to strike a healthy balance between exercise and rest: We all have different rates of recovery, part of which means that two equally-fit athletes may respond very differently to the same workout. While rate or speed of exercise-related recovery can sometimes provide information on an individual’s level of fitness, I would venture to say that using recovery time as a measure of fitness is unreliable at best.

Unfortunately, many in the exercise and fitness community have unwittingly adopted the decidedly Americanized notion that more is always better. (Regarding training intensity, the accomplished bodybuilder Lee Haney was fond of saying, “Stimulate, don’t annihilate.”) 

Taking Haney’s lead, we should all aspire to be more like a fitness-minded Goldilocks—not too much, not too little, but juuuuust right.


Related Articles

October 1, 2023
October 1, 2023
September 1, 2023
Learn More