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How to Get the Most Out of Your High-Intensity Workout + Tip to Make it Easier!

Intro: Training hard is a way of life for some. It’s all they know, and I can relate. Few things feel as good as feeling strong. For many, feeling strong and training hard go hand-in-hand.  I do realize that that is not a way of life for some, but it is important to note that training hard is vital and I'll even go as far as to say it is a necessity for everyone, even those who don't happen to take great pleasure in it. If that's you there's a quick tip at the end on how to make this more realistic for you!


Whether for those who love it or those who hate it, high-intensity exercise should always be in respect to the person's heart rate variance (HRV). HRV is a metric that we can use to identify the current state of our autonomic nervous system (ANS). To learn more about HRV download my EBook here. However, in this blog, we’ll be talking specifically about the importance of training with respect to your HRV.


In order to fully grasp some of the latter concepts, it's important to first identify a very important perspective to take with you along your exercise journey. That being that exercise at the cellular level is no more than physical stress.  It is physical stress that we subject ourselves to chronically in order to yield some particular physiological adaptations. Those adaptations can vary. The adaptation(s) that we hope for is also known as our goal(s). Sometimes they’re aesthetic, sometimes they’re in relation to health benefits. It could be losing weight, increasing muscle mass, and/or it could be to fight heart disease or some other diagnosis, such as diabetes. Or possibly it is in response to a heart attack. Whatever the goal is, it's an adaptation or change within the environment of the body that you are hoping to create via your effort through exercise, diet, and lifestyle.


Knowing this now puts emphasis on the need to tailor and calibrate workouts with respect to the current state of the autonomic nervous system. The ANS consists of two opposing systems - the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. It's this ANS system that dictates both performance and recovery, as well as the appropriate timing for using those systems.  


When you should workout hard becomes about more than how you’re feeling that day. Deciding whether or not to train hard on a particular day becomes less about what we feel like doing and more about what we should be doing, based on the current state of the autonomic nervous system. Not that we ignore subjective feelings - they are relevant.  We just require more data to determine our readiness for the workout.  


It is safe to train hard if the nervous system is prepared and balanced and you have the green light to train hard, at least with respect to the nervous system. There certainly could be other reasons to not train hard, like a structural issue or acute digestive complications. If, for example, your HRV is low and your parasympathetic system has been underactive for some reason the day prior, this means that your body is going to have a difficult time recovering, or in fact currently is having a different difficult time recovering. If we then go and subject our bodies to a high-intensity workout (AKA high exposure to stress) we further delay the recovery cycle and hinder the body's ability to recover well and to recover fully, often resulting in excess stress hormones in the blood and increased inflammation in the body.  


In normal circumstances, it takes around 24 to 48 hours, depending on the individual, to recover from a high-intensity workout relative to that person. If we take that individual and tax their  nervous system under these aforementioned conditions we've now prolonged the recovery response by two or three times. I'm not saying that you don't feel recovered or that you don't feel well – remember it's not about your affect, it’s about the effect. Your nervous system is certainly negatively impacted and still suffering and struggling to return to rest. Can you still achieve some aesthetic adaptations while having a poor recovery trajectory? Yes. I'm saying it’s more difficult,  not ideal; you're sacrificing health and it's not sustainable.


Along with this, we speed up the rate of decay by causing an increased and perpetual state of inflammation within the body. This inflammation contributes to all kinds of secondary diseases even for the “fit person.”  We can be fit without necessarily being healthy. We ought to first truly establish health prior to setting out to become fit. This is where high-intensity exercise could be harmful and cause a plethora of side effects to the various systems within the body ,as well as impacting your mental health, potentially leading to anxiety and depression. This increased state of chronic inflammation can result in different ailments for each person. 


This is why it's so important to train with respect to your HRV, because there will be days that you “feel” great but your HRV is low. On these days it would be wise for you to spend your time working in and not working out, which requires doing things that are regenerative in nature as it pertains to energy and resources, as opposed to things that cost you and are more catabolic in nature. During these times we want to add to the body, not take away from it.  


High-intensity exercise is an expenditure of energy right? It’s us hitting the gas pedal. When you're working in, you’re filling up the tank by doing things that are contributing to energy storage, healing, repair, and restoration.


On the contrary, the opposite can be true, meaning you can wake up not feeling so well, but your HRV is really great. Now even though you may feel a little bit lethargic it is still okay for you to work hard on that day, with respect to the current state of the ANS. This is precisely why it's so important to have data pertaining to your ANS, because without it we're shooting in the dark and we're just going off of how we feel. Just because you feel energetic and may not currently have any aches or pain doesn’t mean that it's okay to rev your nervous system or tax your nervous system at that moment or on that given day. Certainly, don’t ignore entirely how you’re feeling, but couple it with the data you now have at your fingertips.


I can go as far as to say that with respect to health, there isn’t a more important piece of data or information you should be utilizing as a North Star to guide you along your exercise journey.  There are a lot of apps you can use to obtain this data. Out of the many I have tried over the years, Elite HRV is superior.  It’s effective and easy to understand, which is so important.  What good is data if you can’t understand it or make use of it?


 This has to be a top priority and something that you're taking into account because it's the foundation of setting up the environment within your body that will allow you to achieve all of the more superficial goals that you might have pertaining to fitness. I say superficial because health is vital and fitness is not. The ability to press into work is important to benefit the health and longevity of systems that keep us alive, but not apart from first establishing proper health. This is what allows us to make our fitness goals more attainable and sustainable. 


The longest route to your destination is the shortcut that you attempt to take in the beginning.


Modified from John C. Maxwell's book, The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader.  Where he says “The longest distance between two points is a shortcut.”


I like to emphasize the journey, the destination, and the impatience at the beginning. 

This is a quote that changed my life for sure and it certainly pertains to health and fitness. 

Shortcuts have problems if they didn't they would just be the way! 

Shortcuts are usually accompanied by rough terrain and challenges. With regard to fitness, the challenges happen to be injuries, adrenal fatigue, allostatic overload, depression, and other health and mental health issues.  The phrase "health and fitness," is specific in the sense that health must precede fitness in order for fitness to be attainable and sustainable. 

 The gist of it:

  • When you should train hard has a lot more to do than just feeling good that day.
  • Gather data like HRV to determine when is a good day to train hard.
  • When you can't workout, work-in.
  • Set out to establish health first, so you're able to train harder more often.


Tip: Choose something that you enjoy doing, so you can get lost in the hard work!


Takeaway Questions:


  • Do I have a system in place or a way to measure and track my HRV? 
  • Am I training hard on the correct days?
  • What regenerative things can I do on the days I should be working in instead of working out?

By: Vinny Nuzzo, mr_stress_undone

Integrative Health Coach

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