The Rocky Boat to Recovery

As a Powerlifting Coach and as a professional Clinical Social Worker, when I think about the concept “recovery,” I used to define it two different ways depending what hat I was wearing at the time. As a Coach, I conceptualized recovery as the immediate time period in between sets that the athlete needs to briefly rest before starting the next set. Also, it’s the longer time period needed in between workouts to recuperate and grow in the process of gaining strength and conditioning. However, when I’m in my role as a mental health professional, I viewed “recovery” as the on going process of maintaining absence from some addictive substance, behavior or faulty thinking. Or, it can even the process of recovering from emotional stress or improving a dysfunctional relationship. Of course in both of the above processes, there is much more involved than I just briefly stated. I’m going to explore some of those aspects in this article and also explain how I’ve come to believe that the two different concepts of recovery are more alike than maybe first realized. And how the power athlete can improve his/her progress by utilizing different aspects of both concepts. Of course I’ll be using a “wellness model” rather than an “illness model” for this article. As I am a powerlifter, it’s hard for me to suggest powerlifters are crazy. Well, I do have this one teammate…but that’s another story for another time!

Before going into more detail about the various concepts of recovery, I’d like the reader to close his or her eyes – not quite yet – and visualize standing in the middle of a large rowboat in rough seas. The boat is rocking back and forth and even going up and down on the swells of the waves. You’re trying to maintain your balance and even prevent yourself from being thrown into the water…and there’s a leak in the bottom of the boat that you’re trying to cover with the flat of your foot. At the same time you have one big oar that you have to use to make any headway towards your goal. If you don’t keep rowing, you’re in danger of drifting past an island with a protected cove, and your goal is ashore. Along comes a luxurious yacht with all the forbidden foods, drinks and activities aboard that would sabotage your progress towards your goals. The yacht is even going in the opposite direction but if you climb aboard, your immediate struggles would be over. What do you do? Spend a few minutes with this fantasy and really try to get in touch with the emotions and thoughts it brings up? The more real you can make the experience, the more you’ll be able to learn from it.

OK, if you really did the above exercise, you will have learned a lot about yourself and how you manage stress, temptation and whether you maintain your course or give up. If you stayed in the rowboat, most likely you did some sort of self talk with motivational themes to keep moving forward. You maybe even told yourself how much a better person you’re going to be for having followed through. You probably also reinforced how important your goals are and what you’re willing to endure and sacrifice to reach them. If you got on the luxurious yacht, you probably down played the importance of your original goals or even decided to change them. You probably also gave yourself some nice rationalizations as why it was OK and maybe even the smart thing to do in the circumstances. You may have even decided you owe it to yourself to have a good time and to have stayed on the rowboat was for losers! If you chose to get on the yacht, you re-framed the act of giving up somehow as “quitting is doing the right thing.”

Whether we’re talking about dealing with emotional problems and addictive behaviors, or about the recovery from physical exercise and continuing your training cycle, the process becomes the same. Do we do positive self-talking and do what is most healthy for ourselves, or do we rationalize taking an easier and quicker way out? The truth of the matter is that I don’t know anyone that doesn’t at least entertain the idea of quitting. Even the greatest champions have had their moments of self-doubt if all the work, sacrifice and dedication towards their goals were worth it. In mental health we call that having ambivalent feelings. It’s a universal phenomenon in all human activities and thinking. There are very few simply pure black and white issues in life. Most issues have shades of gray and they are often conflicting, but they’re still legitimate priorities that pull us back and forth. If you’re still harboring the misguided belief that all great acts of courage were performed by men who experienced no fear or doubt, go read an old book called Profiles of Courage, by John F. Kennedy. The point to be made here is that if an athlete has their moments of discouragement and frustration as they train towards some meet, they should not “over label” those feelings as evidence that you will fail. “So why try?” Those moments are a normal part of the process to become a champion. The real question is what to do with those feelings so they don’t sabotage your progress.

I said earlier, as time has gone by, I’ve come to realize that the mental health and physiological concepts of recovery are very similar. They’re both part of the human condition of moving towards goals of self-improvement. In Western Society we have the tradition of separating the body from the mind and act as if they’re two separate phenomenons. When in fact there is a rich interplay between the physical and the emotional; and each is a vital part of the health functioning of the other. So as I explore the positive methods of enhancing recovery, the reader will see the blending of both aspects through the recovery process that will be a stronger model than separating them from each other. And again, we’re exploring a Wellness Model that is similar to Sports and Motivational Psychology.

  1. Make Realistic Goals: If your goals are too grandiose and out of reach, you’re setting yourself up for fear and doubt from step one. Make your goals more attainable. Adding 5 or 10 pounds to each lift is more realistic than 30 or 40. Improve your form. Become more flexible. Try to have more successful attempts in the next meet than the last by choosing your attempts wisely. Miss fewer workouts this training cycle. Be more consistent on your diet this time around. Lose a few pounds of body fat, etc. All the little changes and successes will eventually add up to significant changes and successes in the future! And on those occasions you may still fail, learn from it and know every champion has failed along the way. The real Champ is the one who can pick him/her self back up from the canvas and enter back in the competition again! Examine where you went wrong. Was the goal too big? Can you break the goal down into smaller parts that you can more reasonably take one at a time over the next few training cycles? Just get back into the game and build success again!
  2. Success Breeds Success: Failure breeds failure. This is closely related to number one. It is better to develop a habit of winning than the habit of feeling like a failure. If you have kept your goals reasonable and attainable, you’re much more likely to come away from each successful meet with more confidence and enthusiasm for your future training. The more positive you feel about your past successes, the more likely you’ll want to repeat that process to get more of the same. After you’ve achieved your attainable goals, then make a new set of realistic and attainable goals for the next training cycle. Set yourself up to win, not to lose. You’ll be shaping yourself into a real champion.
  3. Be Patient: I often use the fable of the Tortoise and the Hare as an example of the type of training I encourage my athletes to follow. If you try and do too much too fast, you’ll run out of steam and need to lay down and take a nap (layoff or even quit training entirely). Also trying to do too much too soon is the fertile ground for injury. It is much better to make steady long term progress towards bigger totals. Tortoise Training will win the race. And you may be pleasantly surprised that you’ll end up making faster progress than the Hare who is always overextending him/her self and developing rationalizations for taking too many breaks and time off!
  4. Plug All Leaks in the Boat: Do this by taking good care of yourself on a daily basis. There are too many ways of neglecting our health that cause leaks of our energy, strength and ability to recover. Get eight to nine hours of sleep a night. Take sensible supplementation. Eat clean balanced diets, and keep the junk food to a minimum. Take good care of your personal hygiene including good dental care. Don’t smoke or take recreational drugs. If you drink, keep it reasonable…one or two drinks on a rare occasion. Alcohol consumption increases the conversion of testosterone to estrogen. So much for the macho-image of the two fisted drinker! Reduce stress in your life, as it’s well-known high stress levels causes your body to develop higher levels of cortisone that cannibalizes your muscle mass.
  5. Be Focused: If you try to do too much in too many areas at the same time, your energies will be spread too thin. Also your stress levels will be too high. Keep your training “sport specific” with a moderate amount of cross training for conditioning and variety to keep you fresh. Cycling training may be part of maintaining a clear focus. At different times of the year, your focus may be on more conditioning, becoming explosive in your lifts, or you may need to focus on some muscle weakness to get a stalled lift moving again. And at other times you may need to combine your methods of training to “pull it all together.” If you’ve made reasonable and attainable goals in the first place, your focus will be clearer with fewer distractions of self-doubt and fear of failure.
  6. Be an Open System: Don’t close yourself off from new methods or styles of training. While I do strongly recommend that novice powerlifters keep their training simple, brief, and basic, there becomes a time to be open to new ideas and doing different things. I only caution that you read as much as you can and talk to others who are using the new methods before you start. Be sure you’re doing it right to prevent injury and to get the full benefit from the activity. Also, only add one new thing at a time to your training program so you can have a clear idea if it’s really working for you or not. If you’ve started several new movements or techniques at the same time, you really have no clear idea which of these are really making a difference. Be sure to raise the levels of more intensive training gradually so you don’t overwhelm your ability to recover. You may need to cycle back and forth between sessions and periods of time and varying intensity to insure good recovery before moving back up the ladder to more advanced methods. The “best” training method is of little value if you aren’t able to recover from it in a reasonable amount of time. The drug-free powerlifter must slowly “tease” their levels of intensity higher than trying to ram ahead!
  7. Develop a Training and Support Team: “No powerlifter is an island, a continent by himself,” to paraphrase Mellville. Nothing can zap your energies and cause you stress like a training partner not showing up, or one who always criticizes you. On the other hand, to have training partners who encourage you, and give corrective criticism with praise when you correct any form flaws, etc., can build confidence and reduce stress. Your support team goes well beyond your training partners. Your friends, family, co-workers and your spiritual advisors may play a giant role in making or breaking your goals. If you have people outside the gym don’t understand your need for consistent scheduling of your workouts, they may sabotage your commitment to training by making demands on you that are conflicting to your needs. Take a big hint. If you always schedule other times to be there for them, they’re more likely to be more flexible and supportive of you. Friendships and partnerships work better when they are compensatory and equal.
  8. Get up from the Bench Press and Move Away from the Gym: When you’re in the gym, be in the gym with all of your heart and focus. Keep your workouts to less than an hour whenever possible. Any longer and your testosterone levels go down – not a good thing! When you’re done with your workout, get a life! Don’t be a gym rat and live and breathe powerlifting 24 times 7. Tend to relationships. Get some relaxation and fun. Read a book. Go to the movies. Take a leisure walk in nature. I like to remain hungry for powerlifting by not having saturated myself with it. Go back to the gym refreshed and excited to be there again.
  9. Be Moderate in all Things: This is closely related to many of the other items already discussed. Be moderate in your training. If you’re doing the same intense workout day after day, week after week, you are going to get over-trained and stale…or worse, injured! It’s better to under train than over train. Take it to the limit occasionally, but too many times to the well will invite trouble. I like to work in cycles of three or four weeks of increasing intensity then switching to other core exercises and began again. This is similar to the conjugate periodization method. Be moderate in your activities outside the gym also. Within reason, keep your other physical activities to a minimum so as to reduce the drain on your physical resources. Don’t overeat, drink, party, etc. Do a good job at work or in school. Don’t become a workaholic. Pay the bills. Just take care of business so you don’t have to worry about your obligations. It really helps if you haven’t over extended yourself by buying that 500-inch television set, etc. Build up your possessions slowly; get a nice home, car, etc., over a reasonable time. Build your possessions of substance rather than flash. Think Tortoise rather than the Hare.
  10. Enjoy the Journey: While the great moments of receiving first, second or third place trophies are fantastic to strive for and to remember long after the meet is over, it’s the camaraderie and great times in the gym with my teammates that I get the most pleasure. Enjoy and treasure each workout for its own intrinsic worth. When I was ill for several years and not able to break sweat at the gym with my friends, it was a very depressing period of time. The song lyric “You don’t know what you got until it’s gone,” is so true. Powerlifting should be fun. Otherwise we’re making it too much like work in its most negative definition. Enjoy each and every workout. Do this by varying your intensity, rotating exercises, do some moderate cross training, but not so much it drains your energy for powerlifting. Think longevity in the sport. Make powerlifting a major part of your lifestyle in balance with other areas. With modest gains each meet, over time you’ll achieve great heights in powerlifting!
  11. Give Something Back to the Sport: None of us today would be moving the amounts of weights we are without the help, role modeling and encouragement from those who preceded us. They showed what and how it could be done. I strongly believe one of the best ways to keep something is to give it away. The more you give to others, the more they give back to you. When I share training methods and coaching with young people just coming into the sport, I always get much more back in return. I pick up their enthusiasm, their intensity and their joy in accomplishing their goals. It becomes a very vivid reminder of how important the sport of powerlifting is to me. It reinforces the importance of my goals, and renews my commitment to continue my own training for strength and health. Go help out at meets. Consider getting your referring credentials. Coach the Special Olympics. Whatever! You’ll be the better person and powerlifter for it!
  12. Be a strong person. While we are primarily talking about powerlifting in this article, it must be obvious to the reader that I believe in balance and responsibility in all areas of our lives. Physical strength is a waste without noble purpose and deeds. Develop your character as well as your muscles. When you’re a good person, other people are drawn to you for your strength and support. As you praise, love and care for others; you’re building a network of friends, family and colleagues who will want to be there for you. Strong people develop strong commitments and loyalty to others, which in turn builds strong families and communities. Recovery is enhanced in an atmosphere of support, reduced fear and stress, and joy of the caring of others.

I hope it has become obvious that our physical, emotional, social,and relationship aspects of our lives interact and can either support or distract from each other. Recovery is both physical and mental. If you strive for balance and moderation in all things, keep committed to realistic goals, share with others, and you’ll grow into a truly strong person with great success in your life. You will have an abundance of physical and emotional energy and strength that will serve you and others well. Each and every workout will be more productive and long-term progress will be assured. Self doubt and fear of failure will dissolve and tend to disappear in such a positive atmosphere. You’ll make more progress if your seas are calmer. Think Tortoise Training. And as Old Iron Smith always says, keep hammering, or in this case, keep rowing for that distant shore!

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About the Author

Lawrence M. "Iron" Smith, ACSW, LISW is a professional Social Worker and is employed by the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction in Mental Health Services. He is also the current Ohio NASA record holder in the Squat, Bench, Deadlift, and Total in both the Masters II (50-59 yr.) SHW and Masters SHW Pure (lifetime drug free) Classes. He also holds the World Squat Record in the IPA SHW Amateur 55-60 yr. old class. Iron Smith has over 40 years experience in the Iron Game. He can be contacted through his web site: