“Can I?” vs. “Should I?”


In my previous article, I gave some pointers on how to push yourself in training.  We explored the concept of “I Can’t!” vs. “I Don’t Want To!”  This article will dive into the other side of that coin: “Can I?” vs. “Should I?”

While many athletes – especially newer, less experienced ones – hit a certain level of fatigue and shy away from pushing through it, and deprive themselves of not only gains in performance, but the many health benefits, there are others who push themselves through unreasonable levels of fatigue and reap the consequences.

We experience pain and fatigue for a reason.  It’s our body’s way of both telling us that we’re doing something it’s unaccustomed to, as well as warning us that we are approaching levels of exertion that are dangerous.

Most people are capable of far more than they believe.  They back off too soon.  But what about those who ignore those warning signs?

When you’re knee-deep in a grueling set and are determined to power through it – maybe you’re gearing up for a big meet, or perhaps are simply in the mood for a good challenge – you need to ask yourself if it’s advisable to proceed any further.

If you read my previous article, you’ll recall some of the indicators that you’re good to keep going: technique remains sound, stroke count isn’t skyrocketing, breathing isn’t out of control, and you are able to maintain your goal pace.

If one or more of those has or you feel is about to fail, it’s best to back off and live to fight the next day…and the day after that…and after, and so on.  Just because you CAN push through serious pain and fatigue, doesn’t mean that you SHOULD.

Many athletes across the sporting world consider it some sort of badge of honor to work so hard that they throw up.  Many gyms even have buckets set aside for such occurrences.

Consider for a moment what’s really going on: when the body needs to vomit, it means that it has in some way been POISONED and needs to get rid of the offending agent … in what twisted, alternate reality is it ever a good idea to train to the point of poisoning yourself?

Training MUST be sustainable, whether over the course of a season for those involved in serious competition, or for longer periods for anyone simply out to achieve and maintain great physical health.

Courage, dedication, and perseverance are all virtues; foolishness is not.

Does that mean that you should never push your limits?  Not at all.  That has its time and place, and can help solidify gains made over the course of a training cycle, not to mention give you a good boost of confidence.

But be aware that such sessions come with a price and will require adequate rest and recovery, especially as you age.  You should certainly not be doing it day in and day out.  Pavel Tsatsouline, one of the best (if not the number one) minds in the strength and conditioning world, put it best: “Do not start treating these smokers as the main event rather than the occasional side dish they are intended to be.”

A friend of mine and fellow strength coach, Jeff Sokol, likes to say, “For some, it takes discipline to go to the gym; for others, it takes discipline to stay out of the gym” (it applies to the pool as well).

In other words, LISTEN TO YOUR BODY!  Know when it’s safe to push yourself and when you need to ease up on the throttle or even call it good for a day.  If you don’t back off when needed, if you don’t schedule breaks, your body will schedule them for you, in the shape of illness and/or injury!

Safe and effective training means both working hard and consistently, but also being smart and prudent and knowing your limits.  Yes, that involves pushing them from time to time, but not so frequently that you either stop improving, or get injured.

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