Thursday, June 10, 2010

Stress, Sleep, and Exercise

By Hoyt Chang

Previously I blogged about my high intensity training with a focus on the recovery time in between workouts. Since then I've collected more data, and the focus now is on stress.

On May 1, I had a couple of beers with dinner. I almost never drink. It was the first time drinking since college. Even in college I didn't drink much. I should go for wine, since beer is made from grains and we know that grains are bad news. But I had 2 beers.

The next day (May 2) I did my high intensity workout, with an 8 day interval since my previous workout. It was a horrible workout. I felt like I was not in control, and my whole body was wracked with pain. I felt like I gave up at the end of each exercise, because of the unbearable diffuse pain, instead of an exhaustion isolated to the specific muscles I was working out. The next day, there was no soreness.

The data is in the chart below. As you can see, the seated row and the bench press increased, but the bicep pull-down, the seated overhead press, and the squats decreased. There is one caveat, though, if you are trying to draw any conclusions from this workout. This workout was when I started implementing Drew Baye's Dynamic Exercise Ordering. Basically, since the bicep pull-down showed the greatest improvement in the previous exercise, I shifted it to last during this work out, and put the seated row and the bench press earlier in the workout. This may explain why these two exercises improved: I performed them without being tired from the other exercises. This, in combination with the beer, and possibly other significant factors, led to the data you see. Recall that TUL is time under load, and ideally we want to see steady improvement in TUL for a fixed weight being lifted.

I then performed workouts on May 10, May 20, June 3, and Jun 11, continuing the dynamic exercise ordering of moving the poorest-performing exercise to the beginning of the workout. The data just jumps around with no discernible trend, although the bicep pull-down fluctuates the most. This is 5 data points over the course of 2 months, which is a considerable time period, and yet no real progress was made. Why?

A while ago, Christian wrote a post about stress and exercise. Robb Wolf talks a lot about stress and sleep on his podcast. Body by Science talks about the need for stress management. Mark Sisson has talked a lot about the need for sleep when the sun goes down. See what I'm getting at?

The reason I had the beers was because I was very stressed out, from my work, among other things. This was the kick-off for a period of prolonged stress and a very bad sleep cycle: getting to bed between 2 and 4 am, and hitting the snooze button several times at 7 am. My personality is such that I am very likely to stay up late if I’m doing something where I easily ignore my own tiredness: reading books, watching TV, surfing the web and reading blogs, listening to music, painting, etc. During the day, I’ve been 100% engaged in my work, which recently has to do with solving crisis after crisis. I love it and hate it. I love it for the opportunity to be unusually productive, and I can ignore my tiredness because the work is so urgent, and I hate it because in the evenings I’m tired but not sleepy. Even if I have the discipline to get to bed early, I can’t sleep and just lie there wide awake because I’m wired.

All this has had a negative impact on my workouts. Previously, I could feel my specific muscles getting worked out with a burning sensation, and I felt extraordinarily exhausted, but fantastic, after a workout, as well as the day after. Now I just feel a whole lot of diffuse pain during a workout, and no “feel-good” or any soreness afterward.

I need to get back into a healthy sleep cycle. There was a short period of time earlier this year where I went to bed between 8 and 10 pm, and woke up each morning refreshed, and usually before my alarm clock. I’m pretty sure that if I stay in the current unhealthy cycle, my workout performance will just bounce around in the same range and not show any improvement. Unfortunately, it’s easy to fall from a good sleep cycle to a bad one: all it takes is one night of staying up too late, but it’s hard to go from a poor sleep cycle to a good one: even if I change my evening schedule to get to bed earlier, I’m wired and unused to falling asleep so early, so there is no quick fix. I have to gradually ease back into the better sleep cycle. Ironically, it takes hard work to sleep better and reduce stress! And there's a sense in which I think I'm still young and invincible and can handle any sleep deprivation, but at the same time I know I desperately need to fix my problem and get my ducks lined up. Even as I write this I'm half dead-zombie-tired and half alert and energetic.

Back to the exercises. The performance of the squat is not very meaningful, I don’t think. More often than not, I stop not because my legs have reached failure, but because my back has gotten tired and I sense that it will become dangerous if I continue. If I can find a leg press machine I can solve this problem.

I tend to do much better at the pulling exercises than the pushing exercises. You may notice that the bench press and the seated press just kind of coast along without much improvement at any time. When I do these exercises, I believe that I spend too much energy flexing non-essential muscles. With the pulling exercises, I feel more in control and I tend to do a better job of targeting essential muscle groups such as the biceps. With the pushing, I just get tired overall without being able to target anything. I think I can help address this problem by using a lighter weight for the pushing exercises. It may help me learn how to relax non-essential muscles like my back, my legs, my neck, etc. In all the data so far, I haven’t yet changed the weights.

Also, I might reduce the big 5 to a big 3, because I’m just so damn tired after my first and second exercise that I don’t think I’m being very productive on the remaining exercises.

And now, I've spent more than enough time staring at a computer screen, and it's time for lights out.

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