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Ancient Wisdom, Modern Athletes

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Balancing the Yin and Yang of Sports Training


As athletes juggling sports with work and family, we live a truly demanding lifestyle. We train hard, log big workouts to build fitness, and still maintain busy careers and relationships with friends and family. It’s amazing how we manage this! This kind of multi-tasking, super-productive, results-oriented personality is especially prevalent in my sport—triathlons. In many ways, the sport itself (swimming, biking, and then running, all in a row) is symbolic of our busy, hectic lifestyle.


The truth is, during my nine years as a triathlete, I have seen numerous athletes come and go. New athletes often take the sport very seriously, train hard, and then get burned out or injured. If there is one major issue plaguing our sport, it is that many athletes hold onto a constant charge-forward (or borderline obsessive-compulsive) attitude—leading to eventual burnout. We often forget the importance of balancing training and recovery, work and rest. Some of us may even feel guilty if we must skip a workout due to illness! Does this sound familiar to you?


Whether you view it from the Eastern or Western perspective, it is important to understand that optimal health, athletic longevity, and sports performance comes from a balanced lifestyle. The body can only grow strong with balanced doses of stress and recovery, work and rest, yang and yin. During a hard workout (yang), the body is broken down and depleted from the workload. Then, during recovery (yin), it adapts to the stress and builds back up stronger and fitter—i.e., it is during the recovery phase that the body gets stronger! Fitness gains can only happen if there are balanced doses of both stress and recovery. 


For endurance athletes, a periodized training plan with scheduled cycles of stress and recovery is a good starting point. However, smart athletes and great coaches recognize that each individual has a unique balance-point that is optimal for him or her. Furthermore, the body’s balancing is a dynamic, everchanging process. For this reason, the best individualized training programs are derived from mindful observations and a continual dialogue between athlete and coach.


My studies in Chinese medicine focused on the uniqueness of each individual. We each have slightly different constitutions and physiology, requiring different therapeutic programs to achieve health and healing. Sports training should be viewed in that same light. Besides a unique physiology, we all have varying stressors outside of sports training which also affect our response to workouts. A training program that works for one athlete may not work for another. Furthermore, what worked for you last year might not work as well this year! 


Chinese medicine also emphasizes that the mind-body-spirit complex is a seamless, integrated whole. Every thought, every movement, every action is a manifestation of our body’s Qi (vital energy)! So our athletic training must be viewed within the context of all the physical and emotional activities in our lives. This means that in addition to scheduling easier recovery days or weeks in your training, it is equally important to have relaxation time to quiet the mind, rejuvenate the body, and just be. During scheduled recovery weeks, give yourself more rest from all activities, not just your sports training.


And understand that extra rest is especially important when healing a sports injury. So if you are ever sidelined by an injury, resist the temptation to replace all your training time with long, exhausting hours at work. By moderating all activities, the body can devote its energy and resources to healing the injury and recovering quickly.


If we are committed to our health, athletic longevity, and peak performance, then finding an optimal balance is a must. In doing so, we should take a holistic view of our sports training within the context of all the physical and emotional stressors we must manage in our lives.


Chances are, if you truly listen to your body, and use common sense and intuition, you can be your own best coach. In juggling work, family, social life, and athletic training, you must take ultimate responsibility for knowing your own body. Recognize the early signs of overtraining, illness, or injury. Be proactive in logging your responses to training, and if you have a coach, work with him or her to fine-tune your program for optimal performance. With an intelligent and mindful approach, we can each develop a healthy, balanced, and long-lasting relationship with our sports.

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