Stress and Recovery

Today I worked out at one of my favorite gyms – Burn 1000. The workout of the day was a high-intensity interval training (HIIT) style called tabata. In a nutshell, you go all out for 30-60 seconds, then rest for 10-20 seconds, then repeat, repeat, repeat.

We were in the middle of 6 sets of mountain climbers and my shoulders were on fire. The instructor noticed that most of us were struggling and rather than let up on us, he brought us some wisdom that I loved.


That 10 seconds in between sets may not seem like much, but it’s enough if you use it properly. Focus on slowing your breathing and see if you can drop your heart rate.

I loved it because it’s true (it worked), but also because I’d already heard this message once this week, on Tim Ferriss’ podcast with Joshua Waitzkin. The link takes you to the following section of the audio:

You want to be turning it on, turning it off. And teaching people to turning it off is a huge part of turning it on much more intensely. So stress and recovery workouts, intervals training, meditation together are beautiful habits to develop to cultivate the art of art of turning it on, turning it off. So if you’re undulating your heart-rate for example between 170-172-174, then say 144 – the practice of lowering your heart-rate over the course of say 45 seconds is akin to falling asleep, releasing your tension and then as you’re pushing your heart-rate back up, you’re learning to turn on. You’re using a physical metaphor to train at the art of turning on incredible intellectual energy, and then turning it off. (…) So training people to do this: have stress and recovery, undulation, throughout their day, and then thematically this ties in to again this internal proactive orientation. Building a daily architecture which is around understanding your creative process as opposed reacting to things…

This reminds me of a chapter from The Power of Full Engagement. Author Jim Loehr studied professional tennis matches with players who wore heart rate monitors. The players that practiced a recovery routine between points dropped their heart rates by 20 bpm in 20 seconds, and they were the ones that retained their stamina and quality of play into the 3rd hour of the match. I guess my instructor was onto something today.

As Waitzkin preaches, the stress/recovery undulation of interval training is great practice for learning how to turn it on and off outside the gym. To Loehr, outside the gym includes our mental, emotional, and spiritual lives. Stress and recovery helps in these areas too.

Balancing stress and recovery is critical not just in competitive sports, but also in managing energy in all facets of our lives. When we expend energy, we draw down our reservoir. When we recover energy, we fill it up. Too much energy expenditure without sufficient recovery eventually leads to burnout and breakdown (Overuse it and lose it). Too much recovery without sufficient stress leads to atrophy and weakness (Use it or lose it). (…) The same process occurs emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. Emotional depth and resilience depend on active engagement with others and with our own feelings. Mental acuity diminishes in the absence of ongoing intellectual challenge. Spiritual energy capacity depends on regularly revisiting our deepest values and holding ourselves accountable for our behavior. We call this rhythmic wave oscillation, and it represents the fundamental pulse of life.

He gives the example of how Jack Nicklaus would mentally recover between golf shots.

I can’t concentrate on nothing but golf shots from the time it takes to play 18 holes. Even if I could, I suspect the drain of mental energy would make me pretty fuzzy headed long before the last putt went down. In consequence, I’ve developed a regimen that allows me to move from peaks of concentration into valleys of relaxation and back again as necessary.

– Jack Nicklaus

After reading this book a few months ago, I noticed my tendency to operate on a fairly even keel throughout the day. Loehr calls this linearity. Today’s workout and the podcast above are great reminders that I have work to do in this arena. I think I’ll start with this advice: Fully unplug, take short breaks often, and step out of the office once in a while.

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