The Female(?) Athlete Triad - Part III/III: Road to Recovery! Step #3 = Reinvent Your Training Regimen

You don't have to wonder that you get lost, when you embark on a journey without food, a map and as you will soon realize no definitive destination.
After I did not have time to write the third part of the Road to Recovery, which is Part II of the SuppVersity Female(?) Athlete's Triad Series, my guilty conscious has been plaguing me, so that I will simply take the time, sit down and write down everything that comes to mind, as far as the workout side of the triad is concerned. To be honest, aside from those of you who are still caught in the "working out to burn body fat" idiocy, I believe that everyone who has been following the SuppVersity for some time, who has read the Step By Step Guide to Your Own Workout Routine and, most importantly, follows his or her rationale instead of being misguided by fears of "getting fat again", "losing muscle", etc. should not make so many mistakes, here... right? Well we will see ...

When we are talking about training, there are a couple of fundamental, objectively measurable variables and a handful of non-quantifiable parameters you have to keep an eye on. In view of the fact that there really is no high quality research into a 'recovery protocol' you could apply to rid yourself of the athlete triad and against the background that I am very that you won't be willing to follow the mainstream recommendation to lie around idly and eat, I decided to base this third part of the Road to Recovery on a general discussion of these training variables and their individual contribution to the etiology of the athlete's trial.
  • Training density: The density of your training regimen refers to the time lag between training stimuli. Accordingly, the number of workout days per week, the number of exercises and sets (or intervals) per workout and the rest you take between sets all have to be taken into account.

    If we go by the hormonal patter, of an insufficient acute response to stressors, a flattened, initially elevated, at later stages of the triad rock bottom cortisol profile that's accompanied by profound reductions in luteinizing hormone, testosterone and estrogen, the following adaptations appear to be reasonable
    1. Remember: There is no mating and by no means childbirth possible, when your body feels that he is being chased by a saber-tooth. You can be active on the other days, but you cannot train more than 3 times per week during the recovery phase.
      reduce the number of workouts per week - This will allow for more of the urgently needed time to recover. Unless your physical stress level goes down first you cannot expect to (a) see the rest of the hormonal millieu, esp. the reproductive part, recover and (b) the restoration of an appropriate acute phase stress response to your workout with increases in catecholamines, a spike in cortisol and a subsequent decline to below baseline.
    2. increase the rest between sets - I am usually no proponent of long rest times, but due to the messed up response to acute stressors, it will necessarily take longer for your body and brain to recover. And this will be the case not just after a workout, but also after each set in the workout. 90s+ should be the rule of thumb for isolation or machine exercises and 120+ seconds for complex compound movements such as the squat
      Note: "Rest" does not include carrying weight around the gym. It does not allow for ab-exercises to be done in-between sets. And it is not be estimated, but has to be taken with a stop watch - at least for so long until you really know how long 90s and 120s actually are!
      You can rest longer, but in my humble opinion it does not really make sense, if you are not training to total failure, which is something you should avoid like a plague during the recovery phase (see paragraph on intensity techniques below).
    3. adapt the total number of sets accordingly - In order not to stay at the gym forever, but also to avoid falling victim to the "damn I just have 30min, the 90s rest must be over now" - syndrome. You will simply do a calculation like this:
      5 exercises x 3 sets each x 90s rest) x 2(*) = 45 min
      * we multiply by 2 to have room for the sets & everything else
      The figure this equation will yield is your estimated total workout time. If it is higher than the maximum workout time you are about to settle for in the next paragraph, you'll have to reduce the number of sets.
    Figure 1: Growth hormone response to exercise in 13 resistance trained men after 6 months on a standardized strength training program with either short (SR) or long (LR) rest periods (Ahtiainen. 2005) - The subjects trained to failure, were even assisted on the last 2 reps of their 10-RM, therefore the "short" rest periods were actually already 2 minutes, the longer ones 5 minutes long.
    For most of you, I guess this is going to be all about reducing training density. I know you will read in other article here at the SuppVersity how beneficial the increase in density actually is - "get  more results in less time", etc. - for you, however, even the hailed increase in GH levels that would only remain on a very high lever after 6 months of regular training level, when the 13 recreationally strength-trained men of a 2005 study by Aithianen trained with short rest periods, would be counter-indicated (see figure 1; Ahtiainen. 2005).  
    Assuming that you have been following the previous installments of this series, you will be aware that th GH levels of athletes who suffer from the triad are not only through the roof already (due to the constant overexpression of ghrelin, see Part I of this series), but also  fail to do their anabolic magic, since their livers (and other organs) simply refuse to turn the growth hormone into IGF-1.
  • Training volume: The volume of your training regimen is defined by a set of 'totals', the total number of sets, the total number of reps, the total number of minutes you spend actually working out, etc. The most straight forward reason you will have to cut back on the volume side, is actually the amount of energy you are willing / physically able to consume.

    Figure 2: Mere illustrative plot of the fallacy of training more to burn more energy (not based on actually data, effects deliberately accentuated)
    Despite the fact that the caloric expenditure during your workouts will scale with their duration (figure 2, blue line), the scaling is nonlinear and once you start working out "too long" (obviously a relative term) on a regular basis, your bodie's evolutionary conserved energy saving mechanisms will kick into full gear (figure 2 red line). They will decrease the energy you expend and increase the energy you conserve and store. The less energy you consume, the more pronounced the effects will be. And what may start off with a very welcome loss of body fat, while you are only overreaching, will segue into chronic fatigue, loss of lean muscle mass, bone demineralization, compromised immune health and so on and so forth once you are chronically overtrained (see "How An Evolutionary Advantage Can Turn Its Ugly Face On You!").

    I am not aware of your current training volume, but if you intend to slowly crawl out of your self-dug hole, you better make sure to limit the total workout time per week (including all medium to high activities at the gym / on the track or wherever you work out) to less than three hours.

    Don't be afraid to cut back on the training volume. The main use of high(er) training volumes is to increase the overload. The whole issue of "chronic" overload (i+1) is however counteracted, when you are adding so many i + 1 stimuli to the equation that adaptive and thus beneficial adaptation processes can no longer occur.
    You can remain, and I would even suggest you should remain active for more than those three square hours, but this activity should be either "just for fun" or as a means of locomotion and should not make you sweet, huff or puff at all (e.g. walking from A to B, taking the bike instead of the car, walking the dog, throwing a couple of baskets with your friends, sun or nephew, etc.)

    At the same time the you want to reduce the length of individual workouts do less than one hour, to avoid depleting your glucose stores completely.

    If we take the sample calculation from the paragraph on workout density as a basis these recommendations would imply that those five exercises with three sets for each of them per workout, plus five minutes of specific warm-ups and a ten minute cool-down is the maximum you will do on a weekly basis during the recovery phase. 
  • Intensity techniques: Intensity techniques are a way to increase the density, weight, or volume of your workouts temporarily in order to provide a novel growth stimulus without that goes beyond the steady increase in weights, running speed, cycling duration or whatever else it is that your athletic progress is measured against. 
    Please note: while I did hint at progress in sports other than weight lifting, intensity techniques are so resistance training specific that will stick to a discussion of those in the following paragraph.
    I already mentioned that you will need longer rest period in between sets, if you insist on training to failure. Even if you are not already within the vicious cycle of overtraining and undereating, training to failure on each and every set of a medium to high volume hypertrophy routine can - in the long run - do more harm than good. If you have already 'fried' your central nervous system, though, it is the very best way to forestall recovery and to ruin your physical and in many cases also your mental well-being completely.
      intensity techniques you should not to use at all:
    • extended sets, super-sets, 
    • triple (or more) drop sets, 
    • breathing squats, EDT-type training, 
    • forced repetitions, training to failure
    • techniques you can use very sparingly: 
    • single-drop sets - only on the last set of a given exercise, and only to extend a set where you wanted to do 10 reps, but stopped in order not to fail at rep number six , by another four reps to arrive at the ten reps you intended to do
    • rest pause training - can make sense especially once the initial recovery phase is over; e.g. you plan to do eight reps, but pick a weight, were you know you can only crank out five if you want to stick to the "don't train to failure" principle; you do the five reps, rack the weight, take ten deep breaths, do another two reps, rack the weight, take another 10 deep breaths and do your last rep -- not a single rep more regardless of whether you feel you could do more!
    • intensity techniques you should use chronically:
    • none!
    As far as bullet-point three, i.e. "intensity techniques you should use chronically" goes, the answer "none!" applies to all trainees, regardless of whether you would or wouldn't say that you are at risk of getting caught up in the vicious cycle of the Athlete's triad. I mean, what's the "novel growth stimulus" an intensity technique is supposed to provide, if you do it during each and every workout, anyway? If you are lucky, your body will simply consider that "normal" and what once has been beneficial overreaching will simply become "normal training" (green path in illustration above). It is however more likely that overreaching will turn into overtraining and you will start digging one of those nasty dark holes, so many athletes before you have dropped into.
  • Training for a purpose:  I have repeatedly pointed out that lifting weight is a means to an end. This goes regardless of whether you do it to lose weight, to build muscle or to win at the next strongman, power lifting or o-lifting event. What you do during your training has to be purposeful! 
    Once you are losing sight of your goals, you are almost guaranteed to either fall off the wagon completely or get caught in a cycle of ever increasing weights, training volume, frequency and density that will inevitably pave the way to the athlete's triad.

    To avoid this ill fate you will have to (1) make up your mind about what exactly it is that you want, (2) draft a plan of attack, (3) find ways to hold yourself accountable and (4) monitor your progress.
    Another common mistake: Confusing athletic and social / other goals 'I want to look good naked' is per se not the best goal, it is however truly problematic if the actual reason you are training is that you are not just unsatisfied with the way you look, but if that dissatisfaction with yourself goes way deeper... if you are training with the one thought in the back of your head. That little spark of hope that "everything is going to change, once I finally get rid of that pouch". That finally all the girls that have been ignoring or laughing at you would want to date you, that finally all the guys who only wanted to be "friends" with you would regret that they did not recognize the woman in you before. That all the bullies would ... I guess, you get the message.

    Believe me, life does not work that way. Just like you don't get six-pack abs from training your self-confidence, training your abs, biceps, legs and butt won't automatically give you the confidence you have never had.
    1. Know what you want! The best ways to fall victim to the athlete's triad are to try to accomplish diametrically opposed goals (make maximal muscle gains and get to the below 10% body fat range at the same time), not to have a goal at all (to train to feel the exhaustion / accomplishment of 'having survived another workout'), or to have nothing but a nebulous idea of what exactly you want to achieve ('I look good!')
    2. Don't follow your instincts, or use someone else's routine! Either you find a non-cookie cutter trainer or come up with a well-thought routine of your own. Never go to the gym without having an idea of what you want to do there and how this is going to take you closer to your goal.
    3. Tell your friends and family about your new goals. Believe me, if you have not scared them away already (isolation and depression are unfortunately also part of the triad), they will be happy to hear that you realized that you can't go on like that and will support you.
    4. Make a habit of bringing a training log to the gym. I know it looks hilarious, but think about the argument most trainees will bring forward for not bringing a log with them and laughing at those who do - "Look at him / her! As if this guy / gal was a pro-athlete *laughs*?" If that's embarrassing for anyone, it's embarrassing for the idiot who says that. No athlete carries a training log around to "look like an athlete", he or she uses it as a tool to increase his performance from the  level of the amateurish gymbro who feels that a training log is laughable and absurd to that of a pro athlete!
  • Training type: The type of training is basically defined by its purpose about which I have written in the previous paragraph. Overall there are so many ways to train (and to train successfully) that simply compiling a comprehensive list of all of them would already go well beyond the scope of this series. Therefore we will stick to the most fundamental distinction: Aerobic and anaerbic training.
    Why do you train as if you would try to win the Ironman and the Mr. O in one year? You know that won't work!
    If you take a look at successful athletes, you will realize that regardless of what their sports and athletic goals may be, in the long term they all need incorporate both, an aerobic, as well as an an anaerobic component. The former not to drop the weight or whatever you they may be moving, throwing, etc. because they are huffing and puffing and the latter in order to maintain, better build the muscle mass that's necessary to be competitive.
    I could now go on about how athletes who perform in aerobic sports are more prone to overtrain and fall victim to the athlete's triad, but this is of no avail, if your goal is to win the next marathon, the Ironman or whatever (and I am the last one to argue you ot of perusing the one goal that truly motivates you).

    What I can and want to do, though, is to remind you of the necessity not to lose sight of your goals. And this will necessarily entail that you have to prioritize one training type over another. Don't lull yourself into the believe you could win the Mr. O and the Ironman in a single year!
  • Off time: Off-time includes both the 2-4 days you take off every week, as well as the 1-2 weeks you should take off every 4-6 weeks. In that, off means, no regular training! It does not mean you have to sit around all day.
    "Where is everyone? At home recovering and growing?" Click on the image to learn more about "Detraining & Training Periodization"
    "The time off is the time you grow!" All of you will have heard that sentence, but few of us actually live by the rules it entails. And when you already fell victim to your own ambition and discipline and followed a "plan", although your body kept telling you that this is too much for years, it won't feel right to take just a single day off. Right? Yeah, that feels so wrong...

    Ignore that feeling, use your brain! If you still feel after all those things I mentioned before that you id absolutely nothing wrong, take a week off, now! Completely off! And don't even think about cutting back on calories!

    Come back here in 7 days without exercise and plenty of nutritious food, read the post again and you will (a) realize that your brain is able to process information again and (b) you did not get a fat diabetic slob from giving your body what it needs: REST & FOOD!

That's it for this week! 

A long, not very sciency post of which I am quite sure that some of you will say that this was not very useful. After all, they were already doing all that... were they really? And what about the adequate energy intake? What about not calculating how much energy you spend during your workout and rather not eating another rice crump with all its "bad carbs", when they missed 5 minutes of your regular 45 minutes "till-I-drop" run on the treadmill they add on top of a strength workout to make sure they stay lean on a bulk, telling themselves that it was a "walk in the park" anyways and would thus promote regeneration? ... Not you? And you still got problems? Fine, then take a month off to fully recover.
Learn to program success
Use this month to think about your goals, about why you have been hitting the gym almost everyday in the past months, if not years. Take baseline measures, identify a new quantifiable goal, design a workout and nutrition routine that will get you there. Generate an Excel spreadsheet in which you will log the progress towards your goal and file bi-weekly progress pictures in the same folder on your hard-drive. Start all over and be wary of that little man (or woman) in your ear who keeps crying "faster", "harder", "more" while simultaneously telling you that "carbs are bad", "you are not hungry", "you did not train, so you have no right to eat", etc. Take action and write your own success story. You deserve better than total burn-out!

  • Ahtiainen JP, Pakarinen A, Alen M, Kraemer WJ, H√§kkinen K. Short vs. long rest period between the sets in hypertrophic resistance training: influence on muscle strength, size, and hormonal adaptations in trained men. J Strength Cond Res. 2005 Aug;19(3):572-82.
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