Training and Your Metabolic State
When I think "workout," I think of speeds. Your metabolic state is like an engine:
- It can be revving at full throttle and burning fast and furious – let's call this red.
- It can be set in cruise control and coasting down the highway – call this yellow.
- It can be idle or turned off and parked in the garage – this is green.
If you want to make progress in the gym and feel great outside of it, you need to recognize what "colors" your workouts are, how to balance them, and how you need to eat based on that info.
Sprints, intervals, and hard-driving metabolic conditioning workouts like CrossFit are red. Long duration runs, biking, and workouts on the rower are also red. This is because all these activities require a huge metabolic stimulus to allow for either harder or longer workouts. These sessions have either no rest periods (running) or short rest periods (intervals, sprints, and metcon sessions).
Traditional weight training is the yellow zone. You get some stimulation and then you get plenty of rest. Few lifters use defined rest periods; instead, they do another set when they feel ready.
Think of the green zone as the recovery zone. It consists of things that move the focus into rest and relaxation. Examples include slow, relaxing walking and recovery activities like stretching, foam rolling, and even passive activities like hot or cold immersion and massage. It could also include restorative yoga (not crazy-intense power yoga) and tai chi.
It's important we make these distinctions because, without an operating framework, people start doing all kinds of dumb things. It doesn't look dumb until you understand the framework.
When you train, it's a stress on your body. There's good stress (eustress) and bad stress. Stress is only ever as bad as our body's ability to recover from it. Red training can easily become bad stress. Green training is more eustress.
Short-term stress that nudges our body's adaptation mechanisms is exactly why we train. Long-term stress, or stress that's too extreme, can overwhelm our body's ability to adapt and cause negative effects, including metabolic compensation, metabolic resistance, and metabolic damage.
Admittedly, these are vague, non-scientific terms, yet they provide a useful framework for understanding how to triage your body's stress burden relative to diet and exercise. (For a review on these terms, check out The Hidden Story About Calories and Weight Loss.)
The sympathetic response is your body's gas peddle. It's the "go" system. When the body encounters stress, it hits the sympathetic turbo drive. This causes the release of adrenaline first and cortisol a little later. The purpose of these stress hormones is to release glucose and lipids (sugar and fat) so the body can fuel movement.
Many people call this the "fight or flight" response. This is actually incomplete because there's another, more important response of the sympathetic system: freeze. So, the sympathetic response is actually the "fight, flight, freeze response." This is an important distinction we'll get into in a moment.
The other side of the metabolic coin is the parasympathetic response. This is the "relax and restore" response. It has also been called the "rest and digest" response. It's required to balance the system. In fact, when you're training hard, it's the more important system.
Just as sports cars are often in the garage more than on the road, so too must your body be able to easily park itself, cool its engine, and switch into recovery. The parasympathetic response sees cortisol and adrenaline lowered and is more associated with restorative hormones like HGH.
When you overtrain, you're essentially stuck in one speed. You've exceeded your body's ability to repair, recover, rest, and adapt – tilted into sympathetic mode. You're stuck in red and unable to get back to green.
When this happens, you feel all the hallmarks of sympathetic drive in the body. You feel tired on the outside, wired on the inside, and ironically, for having all that energy, unmotivated to train. Sounds a lot like "fight, flight and freeze," doesn't it?
This is also why you feel tired during the day yet wired at night. You either can't go to sleep or can't stay asleep. You're frustrated as hell because you have energy inside, making you feel agitated and on edge. However, it's not the type of energy that will sustain a workout.
Many people mess this up so badly that they stay in this perpetual state for months, even years, wondering why they feel like shit.
Here are some of the patterns my colleagues and I see:
- The person with diagnoses like hypothyroid, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, or any autoimmune condition who's told to cut carbs and do intervals.
- The chronic dieter, who insists on the "eat less, exercise more" approach and is eating like a bird and running for miles.
- The low carb or paleo person who's doing CrossFit five days a week and can't figure out why, within a few months, he has lost his erections and can't stop crying whenever he watches a Disney movie.
You get my point, right? All of these are patterns where the person is training too long, too hard, or too frequently. They're in the red zone and can't get out. As a result, their metabolic engine takes a beating.
Does this mean you can't do your hardcore training? No, it doesn't mean that at all. But it means you need more balance.
Start by asking yourself how many green sessions you're doing per week versus how many red? You should have a 1:1, or even better, closer to a 2:1 ratio of green workouts to red.
Next, ask yourself if you're fueling your body for your red workouts? On the days you train hard, you also need to fuel smart. Do intermittent fasting if you want. Do keto diets if you want. Go super low carb if you want. Just don't do it when you're training red.
When in doubt, go yellow. Traditional weight training is a balancer. When you're lifting, you're getting sympathetic, and when you're in between sets, resting, your body is trying to go parasympathetic. Yellow workouts have a great way of training both sides of the nervous system in this way. This is why these old-fashioned weight training workouts are less likely to burn you out and far more likely to keep you from overtraining.
Whenever you find yourself stuck after coming off a red-dominated period of training, a few weeks back in the yellow zone will help you keep your gains while restoring your metabolic potential.
One great rule of thumb for those who don't want to think too much about this is the following:
- Start your workouts in the red zone, perhaps 10 minutes of interval training.
- Move to yellow, spending 30-40 minutes in this zone.
- End your workout in the green zone with a long walk.
A few other general guidelines:
- Red zone workouts should stay in the 10-40 minutes time frame.
- Yellow: 90 minutes or less.
- Green: As long as you like.
An interesting side note regarding hot and cold recovery strategies. Cold immersion is sympathetic and stimulating short-term (first few seconds to minutes). It is parasympathetic longer term. When you get into a cold pool, it takes your breath away; it's stimulating... at first. Stay in, you adapt, and it will begin to sedate and relax you.
Hot is the opposite. It's sedating at first and stimulating for longer periods. Get in a sauna and it feels relaxing for the first minute or two. Stay in awhile and find yourself agitated and ready to get out.
This is useful info for those who can't train or want to aid recovery:
- Hot is like intervals and metcon.
- Cold is like yoga and tai chi.
Going back and forth between hot and cold is the best; it balances both ends of the nervous system. Contrast is like traditional weight training.
If you're really serious, consider investing in a heart rate variability (HRV) app. Heart rate variability is the heart rate's beat-to-beat variance. Most people think the heart beats like a metronome and is in constant sync. In fact, the heart is asynchronous and varies slightly by fractions of a second from beat to beat. The more varied it is, the more adaptable and healthier it is.
A higher than normal heart rate variability means you're more parasympathetic (green) and a lower than normal means more sympathetic (red).
Take about seven days to get a baseline, then use your day-to-day fluctuations in HRV to aid your training decisions. Measuring is best done first thing in the morning. My two favorite apps are Bioforce HRV and Hrv4training.
When the HRV deviates too far from your baseline, you want to move into the green training days and away from red. For example, my baseline HRV is 8.0. When I see it jump into the 9's, that almost always comes after some intense days of training and is a strong indication my body is trying to get back to balance. I aid it by moving to green zone workouts for a few days.
If it goes down into the 6's, I move to green or yellow, depending on what my training schedule says. This is an indispensable tool.
Working out and training are two different things. Working out is just flying blind and doing whatever. Training is having a plan and being smart. If you're going to train like an athlete, you need to learn to think smarter about exercise and recovery. If you don't, you'll be asking for burnout or worse.
Understanding this red, yellow, and green framework can help you choose workouts that suit your current metabolic state and keep you from burning yourself out. Using HRV, along with this framework, allows for tight control of training parameters and will keep you healthy, happy, and enjoying sustained, effective workouts.