Our culture pushes us to push ourselves in the never-ending pursuit of more. But what if the secret to success and progress is to do less?
Spring, for me, represents a return to flying trapeze and trampoline, two of my favorite sports. All winter I eagerly await the return to the outdoor trapeze rig on Pier 40 at Hudson River Park in New York City. Until we get an indoor rig, trapeze has a limited season, and I cherish it. I protect my fly and bounce time like the sacred space it is, because this is what fuels my soul.
The start of my season began 2 weeks ago, and it’s been a rough start. Returning to trampoline and trapeze has shown me that I’m not in peak fitness shape. This is disheartening, to say the least.
The unseasonably cool temperatures and windy afternoons haven’t helped. If you have ever walked around in high winds and felt how hard you have to work to battle the elements, try imagining how that must feel when you are on a pier, by the water, 25 feet in the air and swinging from a bar. Battling the wind while flying is exhausting. Feeling out of shape while doing so is even worse.
But even the winds could not explain what was going on with me.
In the first practice of the season, I started with a few warm-up swings to loosen up as best as I could in the chilly and windy conditions. Then I put on the safety lines to dust off my basic tricks. These tricks are all skills that I’ve taken “out of lines” (meaning I can safely take them to the net on my own), but it’s prudent to put the lines on after a few months away.
This is where things got rough. For the first time in years, I had trouble performing skills that I’ve performed with ease, consistently, hundreds of times, if not thousands. They are conditioned into my body – or at least I thought they were.
And yet I was struggling.
In the first class back, I chalked this up to the time off and the strong winds. The wind was gusting at higher speeds in our practice last week. A few days later, I sat out half the practice with pain in my shoulder.
I felt weak and ineffective.
I imagine that it was like if a tennis player suddenly couldn’t serve the ball, or a basketball player suddenly started shooting airballs.
My basic skills were eluding me. I was frustrated. And I was starting to lose confidence.
If you didn’t know me, you might say that I learned a lesson about the need to stay in shape over the winter and hit the gym more. And that might be prudent advice – if I hadn’t worked out all winter.
In August 2013 I started a daily practice of “Fitness First” that is still going strong. Every day starts with fitness. Every single day. I vary my routine, but I do not vary the getting my ass out the door and moving in the morning.
I am diligent about keeping myself in shape.
So to feel like this – out of shape, weak, ineffective – is disheartening.
I feel betrayed by my body.
This is not how this is supposed to work.
So what do I do from here?
What do you do when you find yourself in a situation where you aren’t getting the results you believe you should be getting?
Most of us tend to push harder in this situation, and that was my initial instinct.
It seemed that the fix was to get into the gym and push myself to do more: More cardio. More crunches. More pull-ups. Heavier weights.
I heard the call of the inner voice that said,
If you’re not getting the results you believe you should be getting, then maybe you’re not doing enough. You can always do more. Push harder.
What if that’s not the answer?
Some of my coaches wondered if perhaps I had been over-training. It was something to consider.
As I considered this, I had a thought:
Perhaps my body wasn’t betraying me. Perhaps I had betrayed my body.
I betrayed it by not allowing it to rest sufficiently and recover. By thinking it could keep up a rigorous routine of working out, without sufficient recovery time. By treating life as a marathon instead of a continuous series of sprints and rest intervals.
It’s my nature to push myself. Rest is not my natural habitat. I also like my daily ritual of getting out of bed and moving my body immediately. It helps me to start the day like that. I didn’t want to give it up.
I did not give up my daily fitness practice. And I did push myself.
But not in the way I typically do.
I backed off.
I pushed myself to do less, and rest more.
Over the past week, I tapered down my workouts and changed them up.
One light swim, to work my way back into my swim program (something I’ve neglected too often over the past several months). Some really light days in the gym, where I focused on dynamic stretching.
I’ll admit, backing off felt counter-intuitive to me.
It also felt like what my body was calling for.
And it seemed to work.
Last night in practice, I felt stronger.
Whereas last week I could hardly muscle into my tricks even on the low bar that we use for practice, tonight I could get into my tricks on the low bar with ease. My swing felt stronger and more powerful. My tricks started to come back to me. Not yet back to peak form, but getting there.
A huge difference from just a few days earlier.
Backing off is the opposite of what our culture tells us to do, and yet the periods of rest and recovery are essential to maintaining ourselves in peak shape.
We live in a culture that pushes us to push ourselves. Goals. Deadlines. Always a next level. Always a pursuit of more. #competeeveryday is the motto of the high achiever.
One of my coaches is a former Olympic diver and US national champion. So she knows a few things about training and competing. She shared with me that when she was competing her team had a rhythm to their training:
- A period of intensity
- A slow taper to a more moderate level
- A further taper to almost nothing
It appears that the secret to victory is not to compete everyday, but to create a rhythm of intensity and recovery.
There are times when we need to push harder. But we also need to know when to back off.
I started to get my strength back when I did less.
What else might improve with a little less intensity and a little more backing off?