Updated: Jul 31, 2019
The Price of Being Enamored with Exhaustion
Look around the fitness landscape and consider the question posed above; is nausea, fatigue, or exhaustion a goal in-and-of-itself? From CrossFit boxes to commercial Globo-gyms and every Instagram feed in between, the fitness zeitgeist seems to be moving inextricably towards a reality where the success of a workout is defined not by the adaptation it drives, but by the fatigue it produces.
Hans Selye and his GAS theory tell us that the two are linked; that adaptation occurs because of stress. I've written about the need to stop pampering ourselves and worrying so much about overtraining, but does fatigue guarantee adaptation? In a sense, and to a point, it probably does. Beyond that, however, we're limiting ourselves if we're simply chasing exhaustion.
Sure, Fatigue Drives Adaptation
Every modern theory of adaptation ("gains" for the bros out there) is built around the relationship between stress and recovery. In its search for homeostasis, the body will only change when presented with sufficient stress. Stress can take the form of a load that needs to be moved, a distance that needs to be covered, and pretty much everything in between. The response is dictated by the stress—a body that suddenly needs to move weight around gets stronger, while one that needs to move farther gets more aerobically efficient—a principle referred to as the SAID principle (Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands). It stand to reason then that fatigue, as a fellow byproduct of stress, would ultimately lead to adaptation, right?
...Up To A Point
Well, yes and no. We'll start with the yes. For the novice athlete, stress of nearly any kind will result in adaptation and a subsequent improvement in their overall fitness—fitness being a specific term—describing their various capacities. We all know a guy who's started working out or picked up CrossFit and gotten a little bigger, stronger, leaner, and faster all at once. The lifting, running, rowing, and whatever else they may be doing caused a stress, and simply by virtue of them having so much room to improve they're able to respond fairly effectively to a wide variety of stressors with an equally wide variety of adaptations.
For them, activities that cause fatigue tend to cause positive change. They're like a toddler exposed to new stimuli: because it's new and because they have so much capacity to learn, everything from puzzles to books to a mobile to colored blocks can help them learn. But what happens once that kid reaches high school, or that athlete has a year or two of training under their belts? Suddenly the shotgun approach to learning or improving—a little bit of everything all over the place—doesn't work so well. As we improve, mentally or physically, it takes a more considered approach to drive further improvement.
Again, we've all seen someone making great progress who suddenly hits a plateau. What's happening? Their body has attained a higher level of fitness and driving adaptation requires both a greater and more specific stress.
Increased stress means increased intensity, increased volume or both, and general fatigue limits our ability to reach either. Specifically, there's no way we're getting a few more quality sets or reps in if we're in the corner getting rid of our lunch.
So Why The Obsession?
Despite some hefty science arguing against it, we seem almost addicted to fatigue as the sole indicator of a good workout, so much so that it really has become its own goal. It's doubtful we can pin down one simple reason for this, but an understanding of the contributing factors, as well as their inherent flaws, can help us better serve our clients.
1) We're estranged from our bodies. Ask the average person to squeeze their glutes or breathe diaphragmatically and you start to see my point. Fatigue represents a rarity for an increasing number of people: a chance to reconnect with their body. Our job as trainers and coaches is to help them reconnect with their body and see fatigue as the occasional result of a good workout rather than the ultimate goal.
2) We remember those initial results. There's no progress like newbie progress, and it can be hard to let go of the methods that led to those big initial changes. Remind your athlete that as they progress so must their training.
3) The CrossFit games. It's easy to look at the Rich Fronings of the world and assume that their sport is the key to their physique. In reality, training for their sport is responsible for their physique (and CrossFit champions don't train with CrossFit workouts). Tackling doesn't make football players big and strong—their time in the weight room does.
4) The glamorization of fatigue. This may be the toughest obstacle of all. Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and the like have given a sense of validity and authority to anyone with a cell phone. Hashtags like #riseandgrind and #beastmode carry more weight than the people in the photographs can, but as the likes and retweets climb, so does the sense that there must be something to what they're saying. Keep your athletes focused on their own training, their own program, and their own progress. (Case in point: when searching for photos for this article I simply used the search terms "Crossfit" and "Workout".)
The Real Value of Fatigue
Over the course of a training cycle, fatigue happens and should happen. It's one of the body's responses to the stresses we're imposing on it, and it can be valuable as both an indicator of readiness and for its role in hormonal signaling. Having said that, the goal should be adaptation and improved skill or fitness. Programming designed with adaptation in mind is thoughtful and consistent, while programming designed with fatigue in mind may as well be randomly assigned. Training for fatigue is like driving to burn fuel; it may look and feel like you went somewhere, but in reality you're confusing symptoms with results.
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