Happy New Year to you all! I hope that you enjoyed a happy festive season. We are now into 2020 and the start of a new year often sees a push for fresh starts, the introduction of new “healthier” lifestyle practices and the setting of goals to lose weight, get stronger, run further or faster and overall be better.
If you are one of these courageous people seeking to take control of their health through increasing your commitment to exercise and nutrition, I commend you. Excellent work. Exercise has been shown to improve just about everything from mental health through to your chances of getting cancer. Fitter people enjoy happier, healthier and longer more independent lives. It also means acknowledging that you aren’t where you wish to be health wise and that you are taking responsibility for rectifying this. Again, much Kudos to you my friend!! You’ve started the process and that is ALWAYS the hardest bit. That’s not to say there aren’t tough moments ahead when its cold, pouring down with rain and you’re sat wrapped up in doors with your new slippers that your Great Auntie got you for Christmas staring out the window thinking, “hmmmm… do I really want to go out in that?” YES! Yes you do. It’s so much easier to break a good habit than it is to start one…. and restart… again… and again… Before calling it quits. So we want that MOMENTUM to get the exercise habit ingrained into us.
Its hard enough beating all the obvious obstacles to forging a healthy exercise habit. The classics are; “I haven’t got enough time”, “The weather’s bad”, “I had to work late” and the ultimate killer, “I’ll go tomorrow instead”. All equally good and terrible at the same time, have you noticed that excuses always sound best to the person making them? However, these obstacles are all fairly defeatable with the right mindset.
Now the other common issue that I see day in day out at this time of year is of a peskier nature. Injuries! Picture this, you’ve decided to join a gym (for a princely sum), you’ve got your brand-new trainers and Lulu Lemon or Gym Shark gear and you’re pumped and looking good! You’ve started running or lifting weights or doing exercise classes or cycling or rowing or whatever it is that takes your fancy. You’ve thought, “right, this is it, this is going great! Five times I’ve trained this week and the first week of January isn’t even over! I’m loving this. Bring on the next [insert activity here].” Then suddenly, OUCH! You’re injured. The audacity of it! Your body failing you when you show it nothing but love. Who said exercise was good for you anyway? Well yes, quite.
There are some injuries that we cannot do very much about to prevent such as, trips, slips and falls. These are difficult to legislate for. Overtraining and overreaching however, we can intervene on and hopefully prevent this from being an issue for you. The last thing you need to derail your hearty endeavours is an injury to knock the wind out of your motivational sails. The aim of this blog post is to help guide you through the early stages of this life changing habit you are embarking on with aim of helping you avoid momentum scuppering injuries.
A key pitfall, along with the full-blown enthusiasm that a new year can instil in people, is the level of fitness that you are ACTUALLY starting with versus the level of fitness you THINK you’re at. Just because you used to carve through the streets smashing 50-minute 10ks five years ago, or that you used to be able squat twice your body weight when you were 21 doesn’t mean that you can now, at this moment in time at least. If you’ve been off of an activity for even a few months you should be considering yourself as newbie, from a soft tissue (muscles and tendons and the like) perspective. If you have a long history of training in the gym but haven’t been for three months then the chances are you’ll move through the gears pretty easily and be back to where you want to be quicker than someone who doesn’t have that history. But those initial first few sessions are a CHANGE, and like all of us, tendons in particular hate change. Sudden change is the worst thing in their eyes, they can’t stand it. Remember that before you decide to try and a get a PB at Park Run which you’ve not been to since the glory days back in the summer. Remember when it was warm?
Being honest with yourself about your abilities will go a long way to helping you prevent injuries. It is likely to help you design a better programme too. Literature also shows that if a habit is too hard we are much more likely to give it up quickly. Set a training programme that is too demanding and making you feel awful and drained is likely to go by the wayside fairly swiftly, just like Dad’s Christmas cracker hat. If you’re interested in knowing more about forming good habits I highly recommend James Clear’s Atomic Habits for more information on healthy habit formation.
Enjoyment, Accountability and Remove Barriers
Another tip is to pick an activity you like and will enjoy for a prolonged time. Exercise should be fun and make you feel good. So pick something that works for you and that you actively want to participate in. If you’re going to Yoga because its “trendy” but you enjoy high octane blood pumping, sweat inducing, AC DC rocking HIIT classes then you’re likely not going to enjoy nor stick to this plan.
** Disclaimer I actually rate yoga and think it has enormous benefits, my point is your motives have got to be right**
Consider logistics too. Location, ease of participation and cost are all potential barriers to longevity of exercise participation. If your gym is 10 miles away from you and a massive effort to get to its pretty obvious what’s going to happen in those should I shouldn’t I moments. If you enjoy a social component to exercising then pick something like a bootcamp or Pilates class that you can sign up to with friends. Prepaid packages for classes and the prospect of missing out with friends tend to commit people to the cause. Having a group of you also creates a sense of accountability.
Volume and Load
There are a huge plethora or training terms pertinent to exercise and for ease I have picked three clear terms to illustrate the points of this text.
When you exercise, the sports medicine world will refer to this as LOADING the body i.e. applying pressure to the joints, tendons, muscles, ligaments, heart and lungs and so on. VOLUME is the amount of LOADING you are doing over a set time frame. And FREQUENCY is how often you are LOADING. In this instance it is probably best to consider loading over two time frames, the first how much you are doing over the course of a week and then how much you are doing over the course of a month. If you’d like to get technical, we can refer to them as a MICRO cycle (loading over a week) and MESO cycle (loading done over a month).
The amount of loading you do over the course of one week is considered the ACUTE workload and is considered as measure of FATIGUE (i.e. a negative value). The amount of loading conducted over the course of four weeks is considered the CHRONIC workload which is measure of fitness (i.e. a positive value). *SPOILER ALERT* There is some maths incoming, but please stay with me, its not as bad as you might think. If I can figure this out, you definitely can. First though we need to be au fait with a tool called the Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE). Please glance briefly at the table below to see what the RPE is.
Using this model and the RPE tool you can get an idea of what your acute:chronic workload ratio is. All you need to do is:
- Step 1 – rate your training session according to the RPE scale
- Step 2 – Multiply the RPE score by the duration of the training session i.e. RPE is 6 and you train for 60 minutes = 360 Arbitary Units (AU)
- Step 3 – repeat steps 1 and 2 for all training sessions over a 7 day period and add values together to give you the total AU for that week.
- Step 4 – having collected this data for four weeks you will have four values of which you then add together and divide by 4 to give you CHRONIC workload value i.e.
- Week 1 = 1000 AU
- Week 2 = 1300 AU
- Week 3 = 1100 AU
- Week 4 = 1500 AU
4900 AU / 4 = 1225 AU
- Step 5 – now we take the AU of week 4 (the acute workload) and divide it by the chronic workload. So in this case:
- 1500AU / 1225AU = 1.22
- So we have our acute:chronic work ratio of 1.22
According to Tim Gabbett’s work (1) we are aiming for a sweet spot of an acute:chronic workload ratio of 0.80 – 1.30 for optimal training levels. Anything below 0.80 means that we are undertraining and therefore likely to be under prepared for any events you may be training for, and anything over 1.50 is considered as a “danger zone” and carries a high risk of injury.
Now it does get a bit more complicated than that if you want to start analysing the data, but for our purposes we can stop here (phew!). This really just gives you a guide and allows you to track how much you’re doing and whether you are putting yourself at risk of unnecessary and unwanted injuries.
The good news though is a lot of these injuries can be remedied through dropping the VOLUME of LOADING down a bit or altering what training/type of exercise(s) you are engaging in. For example, if you’ve been going mad on the bench press and now your shoulder is giving you jip, either lighten the load or give yourself a break and focus on some rotator cuff strengthening work.
So to summarise, evaluate and have a clear idea of what your baseline fitness is. If you’re struggling with this I’d recommend seeing a physiotherapist or strength and conditioning coach or anyone with a good grounding in sports and exercise medicine who can accurately assess your strength and movement patterns and identify areas you may wish to address. Once you know where you’re starting from pick a form or forms of exercise that you are going to enjoy and start tracking what you’re doing. Aim to keep the acute:chronic workload ratio between 0.80 and 1.30. If this message is getting to you a bit late then fear not. Adjust the type of exercise you’re doing by reducing the load and volume of loading and if need be the frequency of it. If this doesn’t resolve the issue it may be wise to see a clinician to ascertain why this is..
Otherwise, congratulations again for making a positive decision to improve your health. It wont always be easy but it will always be worth it.
- Gabbett TJ. The training-injury prevention paradox: should athletes be training smarter and harder? Br J Sports Med. 2016;50(5):273-80.
- Clear J. Atomic Habits