Making Room Under the Cap

By Deane Barker

I heard something once about fitness that I thought was silly at the time, but that makes more and more sense the older I get:

You don’t increase your fitness by working out. You increase your fitness by recovering from working out.

It’s true. You don’t get more fit in the gym. The gym is actually a form of “creative destruction.” You tear yourself down in the gym, by design, so that you build yourself back up stronger than before. Where you actually get more fit is in the gaps between the workouts, when your body thinks to itself, “Well, that sucked. I need to improve so that it sucks less next time.”

This is weirdly frustrating. Going to the gym and tearing up a WOD is a proactive step that you take and feel good about: I did that thing. I took that action. The idea that it’s just as important to not do something is downright annoying. The idea that lying asleep in bed is actually just as important to your overall fitness bothers some of us on a fundamental level.

But the fact remains: you simply can’t out-run your body’s ability to recover. You can try, but it’s a race you’re going to lose.

As you get older, it becomes sadly easier to catch up to your maximum recovery pace – to bump up against the cap. While we can do some amazing things to slow the aging process down, there’s just no denying that your ability to heal and improve between workouts decreases over the years. Eventually, you find your limit – you hit a workout schedule and intensity level that maxes out your ability to bounce back.

Of course, this is personal for everyone. Some people are just naturally athletic, and can carry a higher level of intensity, later into life. "Flying Phil” Rabinowitz ran the 100m in 36 seconds at the spry age of 103. But others aren’t so gifted. I lump myself solidly in this category. Our bodies can only take so much, and as they get older, this threshold naturally decreases.

Bumping up against this limit is not fun. Minor injuries start to pile up – bumps, bruises, strains. Nothing serious, but the combined weight of aches and pains just begins to weigh you down. You try to work harder in a Sisyphean attempt to break through, but it just gets worse. The physical weight eventually becomes mental. You don’t really look forward to going to the gym as much anymore. Eventually, you don’t want to go. Then, you simply don’t.

The whole thing has me thinking about Lance Armstrong, of all people. There’s a tendency to think Armstrong took drugs because he was lazy and wanted to win without working hard. But I’ve come to understand that the exact opposite is true: Lance Armstrong took drugs not because he didn’t want to work hard, he did it because he wanted to work harder.

Armstrong was working so hard that he maxed out his body’s ability to recover. He literally couldn’t work out any harder, and looked to drugs to give him more breathing room under the cap. This explains his lack of guilt – he was working so hard, that the drugs didn’t allow him to slack off, instead they allowed him to punish himself more. He probably thought he would get away with it too. However, drug tests like the mouth swab drug test have come a long way in recent years. Even the slightest trace of any banned substances can be detected.

Now, I’m clearly not saying we should all rush out and take EPO. But as you get older, it might be more constructive to stop asking yourself what you can do to work harder, but instead ask what you can do to recover better? Like Armstrong was trying to do, you might need to put more emphasis on finding ways to give yourself more room “under the cap.”

The two biggest factors in recovery are also the most obvious.

  • Diet. What are you eating? What are you not eating? Are you getting the maximum benefit out of each calorie? What does your sugar intake look like? Are you eating enough protein? Are you eating enough in general? Do you stay hydrated?

  • Rest. How much are you sleeping? Are you really resting during your rest days? (No, your 5K “recovery run” is not rest.) Do you take an week off from the gym every few months, to give your body a break?

(Sleeping is my personal weakness. I’ve always hated sleep; I’ve viewed it as a massive waste of time. For the last few years, I’ve been getting up at 3-4 a.m. to read for a few hours before going to the gym at 5:30. I’m starting to think a much more productive use of time might actually be to go back to bed.)

This reminds me of a pair of body-building twins from the 80s and 90s called The Barbarian Brothers. They probably weren’t the sharpest knives in the drawer, but they did make one statement that’s stuck with me for years.

There is no such thing as over-training, just under-nutrition and under-sleeping.

There’s a natural tendency to think that you can solve every problem through intentional action. If you’re not reaching your goals, it’s because you’re just not working hard enough. You clearly need to do more and push harder to break through.

And when you’re younger, your recovery capacity is so high that maybe this is true. Your body bounces back so fast, that maybe you can’t actually work hard enough to catch it. If so, enjoy this period in your life.

But aging can be cruel, and eventually you’re going to find that there’s an upper limit to what you can do in the gym. Over the years, you’ll bump up against this limit more and more often. And instead of simply pushing against that limit in a battle you can’t possibly win, perhaps you should try to increase it by looking at the things you’re doing when you’re not at the gym.