I sometimes train at midnight. Especially in summer. Especially if I am tired. I know I need to unpack all this now. But first, context:
I use ballistic combat moves for a reason. First, they tire the body metabolically as opposed to through muscular degradation (and I will explain this in a minute). Second, they challenge the brain. Complex moves require focus in order to maintain the integrity of the mental modelling that makes them possible. Third, they require a lot of different elements to come together: aerobic fitness, balance, tendon strength, speed, agility, flexibility and strength. I end up killing quite a few birds with one proverbial stone.
Now, the metabolic fatigue part. Despite the many advances of science we are still in the dark on exactly how a body develops muscular fatigue. One theory is that fatigue is caused by metabolic stress. Muscles working really hard soon outstrip the body’s ability to supply (adenosine triphosphate) ATP to the cellular engines that make up each muscle fiber. Without fuel muscles begin to slow down and, at the same time, there is a slow accumulation of byproducts associated with use (excessive carbon dioxide in the bloodstream, a built up of lactic acid which is broken down into lactate and hydrogen ions. The hydrogen ions, in turn, make muscles burn and slow them down by reducing their efficiency. But all it takes to recover and reset the muscles is a little bit of downtime between training sets.
Muscular degradation happens when the exertion load applied on the muscles is so much that it produces mechanical damage (tears in the muscle fibers) which, in turn de-strengthen the muscles by weakening the load bearing capabilities of each muscle fiber. Lifting heavy, doing jump squats onto and from boxes, and performing gymnastics will do that. With each iteration the body gets weaker and weaker and no amount of recovery time within the training session will help (you need lots of water and a good night’s sleep at the very least).
Train On Empty
If you’re a cognitive worker you probably end up, like me, spending anything up to ten or twelve hours sitting in front of a screen. The work is mentally draining and it usually leaves your body feeling like it’s past its sell-by date and you really ought to think about chucking it for a new one.
Mental work requires focus, attention to detail and the kind of motivation that not even money can buy. I work, mostly, alone, under some pressure from deadlines and have to deal with subjects that constantly push against the boundaries of my knowledge which means I am always learning.
At the end of 10-12 hour day, like everyone else made of flesh and blood, what I crave is a shower and a comfortable bed. What I do, instead, is put in some physical training. There are very specific reasons why I do that and they all have to do with my mental growth and, maybe a little, with my physical health.
Mental work requires discipline and focus. You can’t allow yourself to get distracted and you can’t let the work tire you so that you miss important details. Neither of these two is acquired just by doing the work itself. Something extra is needed and that comes from getting physical. Because the brain is housed in the body and the two form a seamless system I have found that one of the most accessible ways to unlock my mind is to exercise. But the exercise itself has to be challenging. It’s a fact that we can’t perform physically if we cannot work properly mentally so by forcing my body to work when I really feel like crashing into my bed, I am also developing mental resources that I can then use in my less physical day job.
In order to push against every limit there has to be the feeling of training on empty. The sense that you find something to perform with when every logical part of you tells you there is nothing left. I use martial arts techniques because I am familiar with them, you can substitute any reasonable form of physical activity that is ballistic, complex and requires concentration: dancing, jumping, hula hoop combos, even table tennis training against a wall will do.
To help you see if your form of exercise fits the bill here are the criteria I use:
- Focus – I choose exercises that require some kind of precision to execute. I take the view that I am there to push against every limit. The precision of physical work takes me out of my own mind and the state of feeling sorry for myself because I am mentally drained and physically tired and it transports me into a zone where I just perform. This allows my body to feel rejuvenated as oxygen-enriched blood flows through it and my brain to recharge as it unwinds and focuses on something different and singular.
- Flow – I choose exercises that have some kind of natural flow so there is momentum and a certain amount of conservation of energy due to efficiency of technique. This is critical, at least for me, because it creates a sensation of freedom of movement where I feel my body perform almost like it has a mind of its own and that feels exhilarating. Plus the feeling when you get something right when you feel this low is simply amazing.
- Speed – The exercises I choose have some element of speed either in a part of the exercise routine or in all of it. Speed creates metabolic fatigue and allows me to test where the boundaries lie. And really, when it comes to using physical training as the key to unlocking your mental resources you can’t accept any boundary you can’t test.
- Complexity – Exercises that are complex become the easiest way there is to test concentration. In the beginning of the workout they are really hard work. The body is reluctant to do them and the mind doesn’t want to focus. And then, as you get through the first batch something clicks and everything flows better. You will find that your body is constantly improving and your mind has reset itself. While you know you are getting more tired paradoxically you feel less so.
Grow from Every Set
If you take the view that when you feel most tired, when you feel low, when your energy meter is empty, that’s the time to push hard, you will then need to also assess how you feel before, during and after your end-of-the-day exercise routine. This requires mindfulness. Being in the moment, after a full day’s work, is not easy.
You can learn to meditate, of course. Long walks in the forest might be a thing, but at night they are probably contraindicatory. That leaves exercise you can perform at home as the only viable option. To get through them you focus on your performance, paying attention to technique and, in the process, I can guarantee you will feel physically re-energized, mentally recharged, totally decompressed and, the next day, capable of handling anything.
If you’re feeling that the world you knew has changed. If you’re sensing that the work you did no longer works. It’s time for an upgrade.