A lady I know recently injured herself. She’s been on my mind—even though I only heard the news second-hand. Her femur didn’t snap or pop. But it might have crackled because this was a stress fracture. Stress fractures, if you don’t know, aren’t one-shot deals. They tend to come from high-volume work like long runs or repetitive jumping. That makes sense because she is next-level tough. I’ve seen it first-hand. She has the mental capacity to push her body to the limits. But since there are still limits, I want to talk about the crossover between mental toughness and physical fitness.
The imagery around exercise and grit is powerful. One of the first people that comes to mind for me is David Goggins. He’s a former Navy SEAL now known, for more than anything else, as pushing himself above and beyond. He describes his path as the one of most resistance. Here, you don’t need talent or genetics to guide you; those gifts may even delay finding your true limits.
Most of us could be tougher. Grittier. No question. And exercise can definitely be a path to resilience. But that path is straightest when we minimize downtime and injuries. So, we have ourselves a little paradox: to be tough, you must also be sensitive.
Coach says to call it a day
Charlie Francis, the great Canadian sprinting coach, would watch an athlete run a personal best. And then he would tell them to go home. This was counterintuitive. For most of us, a best-ever performance would be energizing. It would mean going for it again. And maybe again. However, Francis recognized that the athlete’s work needed to finish in that precise moment. After all, what is on the other side of more?
Francis was later controversial because of his work with Ben Johnson—the only Olympian who ever once took PEDs. Don’t let that distract you, though. Francis remained light years ahead of his time. Probably because—in part—he never bought into the idea that he was the first person to discover effort. This is to contrast him with stereotypical (but real) coaches who yell things like, “Faster! Faster! Push!” We can all agree that there are bigger fish to fry if an Olympic sprinter isn’t fully aware that they should run fast or try hard. So, Francis developed his own standards for quality and uncoupled them from ideas of effort. He changed the game for anyone who would listen to him.
Effort and outcomes
The idea that effort and outcomes are only loosely related is a tough one to swallow for many. In some ways, it would be nice if life was a true meritocracy—where whoever worked the hardest got the most. Of course, this would eventually pathologize into people just running themselves into the ground. You know, more than they already do.
Effort and outcomes correlate. Without doubt. But correlation isn’t causation. Compare a coal miner and their CEO. A boxer and their promoter. A paediatric-palliative care nurse and anyone. What people put in is not always what they take home after taxes.
Stress: a timeline
The hard part about effort—other than effort itself—is that more does not always beget more. There is a sweet spot. Here, the pace and intensity of hard work improves performance over time. There is also a sour spot—where the cumulative effects of grinding will decrease performance and mental wellbeing. Sometimes, more is less.
The problem with stress isn’t stress. At least not in the short-term. Stress itself just describes a series of triggers and responses that exist in the human body. This is the same stuff that allowed your ancestors to evade tigers, famine, and millennia of existential malaise. It got us this far.
Remember Pulp Fiction? The second that you notice that a bear is chasing you and/or that Uma Thurman’s character has OD’d, things begin to happen. Your hypothalamus secretes an agitated symphony of hormones. Within about 15 seconds, your pituitary gland releases a hormone (ACTH) into the bloodstream. Here, it makes its way to the adrenal gland and knocks over the next domino: glucocorticoids. These natural steroids combine with adrenaline and its cousin noradrenaline. When this cocktail hits (or, in Uma’s case, is injected) into your heart, it’s go-time! You bolt upright—scaring the shit out of everyone (another thing that sometimes happens).
What does this look like physiologically? Your heart rate spikes. Your arteries constrict to speed up blood’s round-trip to the oxygen store. Circulating levels of sugar spike in order to mobilize energy. Pain perception is blunted. You are ready to fight, flee, or freeze. Or you might go another direction. Newer research indicates that you may instead meet someone with a disarming intensity of empathy or care.
Meanwhile, long-term processes slow right down. Estrogen, testosterone and other reproductive hormones are inhibited. So are hormones related to growth, like HGH. Ditto for insulin, which would normally tell your body to store energy for later. But later is not important when right now is in peril. That’s the response in a nutshell; immediate survival trumps everything else.
You are not going to fine-tune your running mechanics while a grizzly chases you. You won’t modify your pace to take it easy on your calf strain. You will ignore subtle signals of over-exertion or fatigue. Survival priorities, tunnel vision, and blunted pain response take care of that. The bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy is not usually the place to stage a technical masterclass.
You can see how functional the stress response is. How it keeps Numero You alive in the moment. But what happens after the moment? Well, in wild animals, the answer seems to be to drop right back to baseline. And then go back to the rest and digest functions on the other side of survival. Tissue repair. Fat as a primary fuel source. Lower blood pressure and greater reproductive function. The list goes on. But humans are funny animals and we don’t always make room for this.
The effects of chronic stress are a longer-term version of what I’ve described above. The muscles around your arteries get such regular workouts that they bulk up like bodybuilders. Blood pressure stays high. This can also set up kind of a vicious circle with atherosclerosis. Insulin sensitivity drops, making it harder to use the nutrients you consume. Periods may get irregular or erections less reliable. Vigilance and anxiety may rise and your ability to sleep, rest, or chill out may diminish. The length of time needed to decompress may exceed your allotment of vacation days.
Maybe skip the pre-workout stimulants
If you’re going to exercise effectively, it will help to be aware of the nature of the stress response. If it’s chronic, more of the same may not be what the exercise doctor ordered. As my dad used to say, “The only thing worse than bad food is lots of it.” So, you can overcome the issue of chronic outside stress by leaving a buffer. This doesn’t mean that you should be lackadaisical about things; just that you also shouldn’t rev into the red every time. I generally suggest pushing boundaries around 10% of the time. And the rest of the time? Challenge yourself—but without feeling like you’re going to see the face of God.
9 Essential skills for building resilience in exercise
Will more sleep help you think—and feel—better? More downtime? More nutrient-dense foods (lean proteins, Omega-3s. Fruits, vegetables and plant-life aplenty)? Or is your next step to say no to things? Do whatever helps you decrease stress and boost recovery.
Make it easy to adjust your exercise volume
Start small. Add. Incrementally.
Build sensitivity and technique
Load your tissues from joint positions and levels of engagement that feel good. Focus on how you move and your ability to adjust things. Uncouple your experience from ideas of either easy or hard.
Sensitivity does not mean fear. You don’t have to respond to every signal. Simply being aware of them and adjusting as-needed is an essential practice. You can’t train it under high stress but—with enough practice—it may hold up there. This is one of the earmarks of a resilient practice.
Regulate your intensity and the output will take care of itself
Learn to work at a consistent level of effort. Understand that your output will vary based on innumerable factors. You can control some through recovery. Some will be a craps shoot. But, as it is with money, don’t spend more than you have.
Find the right training environment
Find the physical space and support you need to bring your full attention to bear. At Bang, we do everything to free up your bandwidth so that you can simply focus on the work.
Fine tune your life environment
You can’t always choose where you live or work. But you likely have unused tools at your disposal. Tools to shape the environment into something that takes better care of you. When in doubt, start with plants.
Find people who support you—and support them back
From relatives to old episodes of Mr. Rogers, the options are out there.
Get clarity on your values
It is probably not important to you that, at your funeral, people say, “You had great abs.” But something will be important. Your health and fitness habits are support systems for whatever that something is. That’s different between resilience and fitness for the sake of fitness.
Be relentless with your self care
Finally, if you want to demonstrate true grit, do so by saying no to things that don’t matter and taking consistent action with the things that do. This is what being reliably tough is all about. Resilience doesn’t live in isolation; it lives in integration.