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One Small Change

Practice Makes Perfect... Right?


This month I’ve committed to working out at least one hour every day in order to explore the physiological and psychological effects of “exercise streaking.”

When I began my streak of daily yoga two weeks ago (click here if you haven't read the previous blog posts in this series), I was enthusiastic but skeptical. I had come of age during an era when coaches advocated following a hard workout with a day of rest so the muscles could fully recuperate. Knowing I could kick back made intervals and long, solitary runs or bike rides more bearable. But for this month’s experiment, I wouldn’t have that luxury.

After profiling Jim Langley, a guy who has ridden his bike for nearly 6,000 consecutive days, I became even more fascinated (and fearful) of how it’s managed. Does working out daily in one sport break you down or build you up? Gabe Mirkin, M.D., says the answer is unequivocal. A graduate of Harvard University, Baylor University College of Medicine, and board-certified in four specialties, including sports medicine, he contends that daily training is the only way to train if you’re serious about reaching your potential in a given sport or activity. However, there are two caveats to doing it right:

  1. Stress the muscles. “To improve, you have to damage your muscles,” explains Dr. Mirkin. “That’s the basic principle of conditioning. A biopsy would show actual hemorrhaging in the fibers themselves. But if you go hard when your muscles are damaged and sore, you’re asking for disaster.”
  2. Recover actively. “The key,” he continues, “is to go easy the next day rather than resting entirely. Muscles that recover actively rather than passively become more fibrous. They actually get tougher, so they can take more abuse.”

Dr. Mirkin admits to not fully understanding this concept until recently. “I used to think the guy who logged the most miles was the best athlete, but all that ever got me was injuries. The current theory is stress and active recovery. This makes all the difference.”

So how do you incorporate this philosophy into your training? Here are Dr. Mirkin’s rules:

  1. Build background. “If you can’t exercise casually for 30 to 60 minutes every day in your chosen sport or activity, you have no business trying this,” he says. Lay an ample base first.
  2. Go hard. Warm up thoroughly, then pick up the pace until you feel a burning sensation in your sport’s dominant muscle group. For cyclists, that’ll be the thighs; for runners, the calves or shins. As soon as you feel that burn, slow down. Once you recover, pick up the pace again until the burn returns, then back off. Continue doing this until you’re fatigued.
  3. Go easy. You’ll feel sore the next day because your muscles have been damaged. But that’s the basis for improvement. Now it’s time for active recovery. To do it properly, reduce the pressure on your muscles. Cyclists should stay in an easy gear and avoid hills; runners should do a casual jog or walk. Remember that muscle pressure is what prevents healing and leads to injury, not muscle movement or even the speed of that motion.
  4. Go easy for as many days as necessary. When you start training this way, you may need two or more easy days until the muscle soreness subsides and you can go hard again. Don’t feel guilty about this. The specificity of motion in your sport is keeping you sharp, your muscles are becoming more fibrous, and the periodic intensity of your training is building greater aerobic capacity and burning more calories than steady-state work. In time, your muscles will recover quicker, and you’ll be able to train harder more frequently, alternating hard/easy/hard/easy.

You can apply these principles to your sport of choice. “I never understood why baseball players end the season in September or October and then don’t pick up a ball again until January,” notes Sue Falsone, physical therapist for the Los Angeles Dodgers and director of Performance Physical Therapy for Athletes’ Performance. “We have seen anecdotally that the few players who only take a couple of weeks off and then start up again very lightly, do well. Essentially, we advocate that they throw easy and not far. Just play catch for 10 minutes daily. The theory being if they never lose their arm slot, muscle memory, endurance and strength, they’ll have fewer issues upon returning to throwing hard.”

“Consistency is the way to achieve anything worthwhile,” concludes Dr. Mirkin. “If you want to be a musician, a doctor or an athlete you have to practice daily. It’s the people who have this oneness of purpose who rule the world.”

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About The Author

Joe Kita – Joe Kita is a noted writer, editor, motivational speaker and teacher. He authors the blog "One Small Change" for CorePerformance.com.

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Tags: Rest, Focus, Goals, Regeneration, Soreness