I work with a lot of clients that are very similar to me, namely type A, driven, hard charging, perfectionists.
Luckily this makes my job as a coach somewhat easier because I can relate to them when these traits get in the way of their goal.
There are always two sides to every coin.
On one hand clients with these traits tend to not need much encouragement to get stuff done.
They do their workouts.
They eat the right food for them and their goals.
They are open to change and try things you suggest.
They are always willing to go the extra mile when there is a goal in front of them that they want to achieve.
Unfortunately this can also backfire from time to time. These types of clients are so driven that eventually they can burn out and get themselves into trouble. The warning signs are there, their body might be yelling at them to slow down, but they don’t listen. Then the wheels fall off and generally all the progress they made is for nothing and they wind up back where they started.
As their coach I am there to guide them, I am there to tell them to listen to their body and to not just “push through” in hopes that it will get them to their goal quicker or for fear that if they stop working so hard that they are somehow a failure.
When it comes to knowing when you might need to take a break and take a step back from the pursuit of your goal, there are several things you can monitor in order to tell if you have been pushing yourself too hard.
I think we underestimate our mood as an indicator of needing some rest. A major reason for that is that we never take the time to step back and observe why we are feeling the way we are. It is not a coincidence that when you are well rested, your mood is generally positive. You have a lot of energy, your motivation is high, you have the drive to work really hard at achieving your goal. But as the weeks and months go by this hard work can wear on you, it can drain you, and your mood starts to shift from very positive to very negative.
As we push harder and harder towards our goal, the more and more energy we expend. If we don’t take enough time to “refill our bucket” we eventually start to run low on energy. Many people may find themselves reaching for an extra coffee, or wanting to take a nap, or skipping workout because they no longer have the energy they need to make it through the day. Unfortunately we only have so much energy that we can expend throughout the day. If you are constantly running your fuel tank dry without refilling it properly, eventually you are not going to be able to sustain the amount of work you are putting out.
Often times when people have pushed themselves too hard their sleep quality starts to decline. They tend to wake up a lot at night and don’t feel as rested in the morning. This can all affect their mood and energy for the rest of the day (can you see how all of these start to play into each other?). I find the main contributor to this problem is stress, people’s overall stress load is so high that their body just can’t settle down and is on high alert all the time, including when they are trying to sleep.
When people need a break their hunger can go one of two ways, it either goes way up or way down. I have seen clients that have pushed too hard that can’t eat enough while others have very little appetite at all and even feel sick to their stomach. The drive to eat more can be due to the amount of energy you are expending, more calories = more energy. At the same time the constant stress you might be putting yourself under can put a pause on your digestion making you want to eat less. Just know that either extreme can be a sign of being overworked.
When you have pushed your body hard and are under a lot of stress you will generally see a rise in your resting heart rate. In general, when your resting heart rate rises your heart rate variability will decline. Heart rate variability is a measure of the variability between heart beats. The more variability between your heart beats signals that your body is in balance with stress and rest. When there is less variability it means you are out of balance, and in today’s world that means that it is due to too much stress. I track both resting heart rate and heart rate variability in my one on one clients as an indicator of possibly needing to take a break.
Normally when you are well rested and fresh you are very ambitious, you have a drive to work, do chores, exercise, go for a walk etc. However, when you have been pushing yourself too hard your body wants you to take a break, so your ambition to do things that you would normally do suddenly takes a monumental amount of effort.
Now that you know what signs to look for, how do you know if they are due to pushing yourself too hard or just some kind of fluke? For example, just because you are hungry one day does not automatically mean you have pushed yourself too hard and need a break.
As a coach, I am always trying to take a holistic view of my clients. This means I am monitoring all of these markers and if most of them start to show signs of not being normal that is a strong indicator that it might be time for them to take a break.
I had a client who just a few weeks ago completed an intense endurance event. A few days later he messaged me saying
“…I find I am never fully satisfied. I am never ‘full’”
“Don’t seem to have much mental energy”
“Can’t focus at work. No energy at the end of the day. Bed by 9:30 and wake up tired.”
In addition his HRV and resting HR looked like this
The dotted red line is his resting heart rate and the green and yellow dots are his HRV. It was exhibiting the tell tale pattern of being too stressed, higher resting heart rate and lower HRV.
In addition to the tough endurance event, he also just moved, so that was adding to the overall stress load.
We made the decision to take a break, no exercise but walking, plenty of sleep, maintenance calories, focus on all things recovery and relaxation. It took nearly a week of rest but after that week we started to see better heart rate and HRV scores in addition to more energy mentally and physically and a normalization of appetite.
If you are like me, and most of my clients, taking a break can be a hard thing to do. Back in 2018 I took an extended rest period of several months to allow myself to bounce back from way too much work stress, intense training, and difficult life stressors. During this time I focused on sleep, eating plenty of food, and did nothing more than walking and yoga. This was very difficult for me because I felt like I was being unproductive and lazy. I had to suppress a life long drive to do more and instead do less. I stuck with it and after a few months started to feel much better and could finally satisfy that drive to do more, but with a much improved perspective on the need to sometimes do less.
This always do more mentality is another ancestral mismatch, just like our modern food environment. Humans are inherently built to handle short intense periods of hard work, and then spend lots of time resting. Now though, it seems like the demands of life never stop coming, work, family, friends, societal expectations, there is always something somewhere that needs to get done.
Ancestrally we had just a handful of demands on us from day to day, eat, take care of our tribe members, and reproduce, that was pretty much it. When we weren’t doing those things we had plenty of down time. Today it is necessary to carve out the downtime we need because if we don’t we can easily become consumed by the demands of life.
From a day to day perspective I like to carve out downtime in a few ways:
- Meditation – 10 minutes in the morning to clear my head and set my expectations for the day
- Walking – at least 3 walks a day where I can take a break from life to be by myself
- Reading – I like to spend a portion of my day reading. Sometimes its a book, sometimes, its articles online, sometimes its an audio book. It allows my brain to focus on something less stressful.
It is also important to schedule days off and vacations when you can. I find injecting random days off to go do something you enjoy are quite beneficial in making sure you give yourself a chance to recharge. When I start to feel like I need a break, I look for a random day in the upcoming week’s schedule where I can escape from work and life and relax.
Be sure to plan longer extended breaks as well. Family vacations are great, but also don’t be afraid to do “solo vacations” as well, a time when you are alone by yourself for a few days.
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