tired mountain biker

3 Tips to Understand What Your Body Is Trying To Tell You

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By Syd Schulz
CTS Athlete and Pro Athlete

“Listen to your body.”

This is a common refrain in the world of athletics, but WHAT DOES IT MEAN AND HOW DO YOU ACTUALLY DO IT?

I mean, seriously, this phrase really needs an addendum (or two or three). When people say “listen to your body” what they actually mean is something more like this:

“Listen to your body when it hurts — but not during the last thirty seconds of an interval because your legs are always going to be screaming then and that doesn’t count. Listen to your body when you’re tired — but not a normal amount of tired because you’re SUPPOSED to be good tired, just start listening when it turns into bad tired. Listen to your body when it’s sore — but only when the soreness is unusual or doesn’t go away.”

I mean, good grief, no wonder so many of us just give up on listening to our bodies entirely, and embrace a philosophy of “no pain, no gain.” And no wonder so many of us end up over trained and burned out.

I am no expert at this, but the past year has forced me to really stop and think about what my body is trying to tell me. Last June, I trained myself into the ground and ended up with a mysterious virus and a case of burnout that I am still recovering from. The only reason I have been able to return to training and racing at all this year is that I a) took several months off the bike entirely and b) completely changed the way I “listen to my body.”

So here are my practical tips for actually listening to your body:

1. If possible, train with both heart rate AND power.

Okay, this is cheating a little bit, because you’re not reeeally listening to your body, you’re listening to numbers on a little screen, but hey, those numbers ARE your body talking and they can be damn helpful. Even if you aren’t a serious racer, a power meter could spare you a LOT of overtraining woe. In fact, I have a theory that most recreational cyclists are chronically un-recovered and if more used power, more would realize that. Power meters are expensive, but so, it turns out, is getting sick.

The reason training with power is so great is that it gives you a fixed baseline. Two hundred and fifty watts is 250 watts is 250 watts. It doesn’t matter if you’re on a trail or a road or riding into a 90mph headwind. It’s still 250 watts. However, if you usually turn 250 watts with a heart rate of 160, and suddenly your heart rate is 140 (or 180), something is up. You might be getting sick, or, most likely, you’re not adequately recovered. You don’t have to be a coach or have a degree in exercise physiology to figure this out (although working with a good coach is like having an interpreter when you’re not sure what you’re body is saying).

Comparing your heart rate to your power output and perceived exertion gives you a valuable tool for knowing if you’re recovered or not, but it’s what you do with that information that counts. Last June while pre-riding for the Angel Fire Enduro Cup, I was hyperventilating, struggling on the climbs, and feeling awful… all while my HR languished around 130 bpm (aka really, really low). Something was obviously up. I noted it, and then proceeded to ignore it and race anyway. Bad idea. This year, when my heart rate won’t respond, I stop workouts, cut my rides short, go home and take a nap.

2. Use “The Relief Rule”

I have a rule called “The Relief Rule.” If the idea of not doing something causes me genuine relief, then not doing it might be the right decision.

Usually, when it comes to a difficult workout, if I envision myself not doing it I immediately feel guilty. This means it’s time to suit up and do the workout.

But if the idea of not doing it brings a flood of relief… well, that says something different, and it’s probably worth listening to. I know what you’re thinking: “But, what if I’m just being lazy? Of course not doing the workout sounds nicer, etc., etc.” But here’s the thing, you’re not lazy and neither am I. Laziness has never been my problem, and if you’re reading this blog, it probably isn’t yours either. Of course, lazing around often sounds better, but if you’re anything like me, there’s a voice in your head saying, “Wow, you will feel so awful if you don’t at least attempt this workout.” But when that voice is silent? Yikes, it’s time to brew some coffee and sit on the couch.

This is tricky because it requires you to develop trust in that voice in your head, and that takes time. Remind yourself constantly that you are motivated, not lazy, and that you have the best interests of your fitness and performance at heart. It’s not a foolproof rule, of course. You will likely end up skipping some workouts you *probably* could have done. But ask any coach anywhere… it’s easier to help an athlete make up for missed training than it is to dig someone out hole from overtraining.

Similarly, your inner voice saying a workout is a great idea doesn’t necessarily make it so. You still might not be properly recovered, which is where Point #1 comes in. Heart rate, power, and perceived exertion doing funky stuff? Probably time to call it, even if your mentally ready to go.

3. Stop assuming that you SHOULD feel a certain way

“I’ve only ridden twice this week so I shouldn’t be tired.”

“I just took a rest day so I should be totally recovered.”

“I only climbed 1000 feet yesterday so my legs shouldn’t be sore.”

“My heart rate is normal so I shouldn’t be feeling terrible right now.”

Here’s the reality: sometimes you need two rest days. Sometimes you need a whole rest week. Last year, by the time I dragged myself to the end of the season, I needed a rest MONTH. “Should” really has nothing to do with it. Yes, maybe your training partner doesn’t need a rest day after that interval workout, but that has nothing (LITERALLY NOTHING) to do with you. We have the tendency to over-rule what we’re actually feeling with how we think we “should” feel. As with Point #2, getting rid of “should” requires working on your self-trust. I’ve found a morning meditation practice to be very helpful with this, as it forces me to acknowledge how I actually feel in the present moment and to do so without (er, with minimal) judgment.

Yesterday was a rest day, but I still feel exhausted and foggy.

Okay what can I do to accommodate that?

Sometimes it works the other way around, too. After a long day on the bike you might assume that you’re exhausted because “DAMN, YESTERDAY WAS HARD”, but maybe when you check in with yourself, you’re doing okay, and you’re ready to do that gym workout after all. Spending a few minutes each morning to assess your mental, emotional and physical state as objectively as possible is key to listening to your body.

Listening to your body – I mean ACTUALLY LISTENING – is hard. It requires conscious, deliberate effort, and it’s an ongoing process. You’re never going to get it completely right. You will always have days where you over-do it, and symptoms you ignore that you really shouldn’t ignore. This is just part of being an athlete. If we all got it right every time, we’d all be world champions. It’s not supposed to be easy — that’s what makes it fun.


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Comments 12

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  3. as I read your article, it felt like you were literally reading my mind. Some of the exact phrase is I was thinking this morning we’re in this article. The part that particularly resonated with me was feeling relief at the idea of not cycling. That’s how I’m feeling today, but I was feeling the rest of what you said as well: “…but I only x km this week, I should be fine”, etc. Thank you for taking the time to write this article, and for the reality check. I think you are absolutely right it’s better to occasionally miss a workout that we could’ve done, versus over training and having to take much more time off. Thank you!

  4. great article
    thank you
    it is good to hear from a pro about some common sense strategies that us fanatics have hard time applying

  5. Syd, I agree with everyone above… one of the best blogs yet. It describes all the things I do wrong and feel to the tee… not that I didn’t know it already, but now I won’t feel so guilty about knocking off when I’m really tanked.

    I use Power and RPE, stopped wearing HR monitor a few years ago but thinking about using it again, as it seems that as I’m aging it’s getting harder to judge just by feel.

  6. Excellent and to the point. My new mantra after falling ill just before the etape de tour 2 years ago: I was under-rested, not over-trained. Courtesy of my son in law the pro xc ski coach: Hard to over-train, easy to under-rest.

  7. One of the best posts I’ve read here, I’ve struggled with this and this perspective is spot on. Thanks!

  8. Great article. My CTS coach always reminds me that life has a way of wearing you down too. Just because you don’t think you should feel tired, sometimes the kids, work and stress may be adding extra fatigue.

    1. Agreed. Great article. I have a hard time recognizing the impact mental strain has on my body. Work can be very stressful and yet I often think, “but hey, I just sat in front of the computer all day, I shouldn’t be tired….” Then I realize how much thinking I did and that it too is a type of “workout” that pulls on my body and can drain it as well.

      I also try to remember that my friends who seem to have endless energy and the ability to work out all day — THEY’RE RETIRED! They can swim, take a nap, and then go for a run.

      be kind to yourselves out there and train on!

  9. Syd, thanks for the article. Your statement: ‘We have the tendency to over-rule what we’re actually feeling with how we think we “should” feel’, is a tendency I’ve had for years (35 years avid rider). After heart surgery I have been on beta-blockers and therefore my heart rate isn’t a good indicator of how I feel and I rely on perceived effort. I keep it simple and to me if I don’t feel like riding I don’t.

    Lots of good stuff in your comments!

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