Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Fitness, Fatigue, and Performance

By Andrew McGunagle 

The science of strength and conditioning is incredibly interesting. Well, at least it is to me. Early on in my lifting career, I realized that the majority of people do not share my fascination for lifting information. Most people simply want to look better, perform better, and/or feel better. They don't care about the processes occurring while they train, they just want to lift well and achieve their goals.

The science of, well, this.
Upon understanding the apathetic attitude that most individuals have towards strength training, I resolved not to bombard and bore the people I train with unnecessary exercise info. However, I believe there are instances when a basic understanding of the "why" underlying the "what" can make a session more successful. Keeping the client's lack of interest in mind, I do my best to whittle the concept I need to convey down to the simplest terms without distorting the intended message. While another strength and conditioning professional might think of me as an imbecile if I gave them one of these explanations, these simple statements get the job done when working with the general population.

One of the simplified explanations that I commonly provide has to do with the relationship between performance, fitness, and fatigue. Whenever I run into a lifter or an athlete who is struggling and seems a bit run down, this quick summary helps them to understand their situation.

Fitness, Fatigue, and Performance
Your ability to perform, whether you are in the gym or on the field of play, is determined by a host of factors. Two of the most important factors regarding your ability to perform are, put simply, fitness and fatigue.

Fitness encompasses the myriad of qualities (strength, speed, power, etc.) that make up an athlete's ability. Your fitness levels can be built up by implementing a well-designed and well-executed training program. Furthermore, the majority of fitness qualities are fairly easy to maintain and do not readily dissipate on short notice.

Fitness, it's what you can do.
Fatigue, in this sports performance context, is a reduction in your ability to do physical work. Fatigue can be both acute and chronic in nature; you can be tired because you just squatted for three sets of five and you can also be tired from getting inadequate sleep for the past few days. In addition to the weariness that can result from exerting yourself and not getting enough rest, fatigue can also accumulate due to mental stressors. You may not have done any intense exercise and you may have been sleeping more than enough, but life stress could still be causing you to accumulate fatigue.

As fatigue accumulates, your ability to display your fitness and perform well is hampered. Most people already understand this in the acute sense of fatigue; you might be strong enough to squat 315 pounds for a set of five, but fatigue prevents you from grinding out a sixth rep. Chronic fatigue, on the other hand, is not as widely understood and acknowledged. Chronic fatigue is fatigue that has built up over a period of time. It is fatigue that masks your current fitness levels as opposed to causing your ability to perform to deteriorate during a single session.

For example, let's say you can deadlift 405 pounds for a set of three. One day, you walk into the gym and start to work your way up towards a top set of three with 405 pounds. You get up to 365 pounds, and that weight feels strangely difficult. Then, you throw on 40 more pounds for your top set. You get set up and you try to lift the weight, but the bar doesn't budge. This frustrates you, because you lifted this weight for three reps just a week before, and you wonder why you got weaker in such a short period of time.

"Ain't you supposed to get stronger when you lift heavy weights?"
Well, you did not necessarily get weaker. Your body is still capable of lifting 405 pounds for three reps. However, at that moment, when you failed to lift the weight even once, you had too much accumulated fatigued to display your fitness. A few days of eating well and sleeping soundly later, you would likely be able to deadlift 405, or more, for three reps once again.

The takeaway from this summary is that you need to structure your training and manage your recovery intelligently if you want to perform well. High levels of fitness mean nothing if they are masked by high levels of fatigue. In the gym, you need to use your strength to build your strength, so being too tired to lift heavy leads to poor results. On the field, the best athletes may appear average if they are too tired to perform well. If performance deteriorates despite steady, well-executed training, then you may need to take a step back and get some rest to be at your best!

Fatigue masks fitness, folks!
Thanks for reading!

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