The Fatigue Fallacy: Why You Should NOT Finish ALL Your Workouts Exhausted
I incorrectly assumed that the trend of working out with the goal of achieving a high state of fatigue EVERY session was finally beginning to die out. But, apparently, it’s still growing. People think that if they don’t finish a workout on the brink of vomiting or completely exhausted that they didn’t work hard enough. Even worse, they think the workout was just a waste of time.
About a month ago an athlete emailed me about this topic. Her coach gives her sessions that are continually pushing her to and beyond limits, and she was starting to feel broken down.
She contacted me because she’s feeling discouraged.
She doesn’t look forward to, let alone enjoy, her workouts. She wants to improve her power, strength and speed in the process, but part of her wants to give up because she feels sick every workout, gets incredibly sore, and just doesn’t feel great after completing her sessions.
“I’ve read on your website that you say people should finish their training feeling better than when they started. I want to believe you, but isn’t it necessary to work incredibly hard and finish each session tired?”
No, you do not have to finish every session tired. And, yes, I do think that the majority of the time you should complete your training efforts with more energy and feeling better than when you started the session.
Let’s explore this a bit more.
The Elite Effect
I think some particular endurance athletes have greatly contributed to this idea that every training session is practically a torture chamber with the only goal of getting you to work as hard for as long as you can humanly tolerate.
When things get tough, you push even harder. When you want to quit because your muscles burn and you’re on the verge of collapsing from fatigue, you dig deep and muster up a bit more courage to keep going.
Sure, this makes for entertaining reading, but it’s also sending the wrong message to normal people who want to improve their health, get faster and stronger, or simply begin a fitness routine for the first time. Exhaustion is not the answer to achieving those results.
Why, exactly, is working out with the goal of achieving regular/daily high levels of fatigue unnecessary and, arguably, the wrong way to go about building a healthier body and getting stronger, faster and fitter?
1) It doesn’t produce long-term motivation. Sure, at first some people may be able to handle this gut-busting intensity for a couple of weeks, but more often than not, most people can’t stay motivated to keep performing these grueling workouts. Maintaining that effort every workout, multiple times per week, becomes too much to handle (and rightly so). As a result, many people abandon the routine all together because they’ve been taught that if they don’t go all-out every workout, then they might as well not do anything.
Furthermore, this “go ’till you drop” mindset is a horrible component of the performance mindset.
2) It can be dangerous. These rigorous workouts can cause athletes to injure themselves because they push beyond the point of fatigue, their form and technique deteriorates and they risk getting hurt. There can be other, perhaps even worse, health consequences, too.
And that brings us to the third point, which we’ll discuss separately.
It’s Not about Getting Tired
It’s about Getting Better
Your workouts and strength training sessions should not revolve around achieving a high level of fatigue.
Getting tired does not mean you’re getting better and it certainly doesn’t mean you’re going to achieve the results you want.
Getting better (i.e. stronger or otherwise improving your performance) is what produces the results you want and can maintain long-term whether you just want to compete better or improve your overall health.
That’s why your workouts should be solely about improving your performance whenever possible. After all, this is one of the cornerstones and simple rules to get the results you want that you can maintain.
There are numerous ways you can accomplish this simple goal, but here are some of the most common:
Add more resistance. This is the most obvious, but when you add more weight to an exercise, you’re improving your performance. If you go in the gym, that might take the form of weight on the bar. If you are swimming, that might be wearing drag shorts. On teh bike wearing heavier kit, taking an extra drink bottle or pushing a bigger gear.
For example, if you squatted 60kilos for 4×8 (4 sets, 8 reps) last week and squatted 65kilos for 4×8 this week, you got stronger.
Perform more reps with the same weight. Sticking with the previous squat example, if you squatted 60x4x8 last week and you squatted 65x4x9 this week, you got stronger. By the same token, doing the same hill climb, or same bike commute in one gear heavier and you will feel that extra resistance – you might go slower initially, but it will become easier (and faster) the more regularly you do it.
3) Perform the same amount of work in less time. Once again using the squat example, if you squatted 60x4x8 and rested 90 seconds between sets last week, and this week you only rested 80 seconds between sets, you improved your workout density (same amount of work in less time), thus improving your performance.
4) Use a more challenging variation. This one applies primary to bodyweight exercises. Bodyweight exercises are great for developing stability and strength that will allow your normal endurance muscles to perform better. If you’ve been performing sets of 10 reps of regular push-ups, you could switch to close grip, feet elevated, or use a suspension trainer to improve your performance.
Now you can certainly improve your performance in other ways (e.g. increase the range of motion such as standing on a step for a reverse lunge), but those four are my favorites.As long as you’re using great exercises and you improve your performance gradually and consistently as shown in the four ways above, you will get results.
Furthermore, by improving your performance, you can accurately track and measure your progress. Fatigue is a fickle and unreliable component to measure, so you never know if you’re truly improving. Stick with the four ways to improve your performance above – you’ll know when and how you improve, so there’s no guessing. Remember, conditions out on the road, or in the lake can vary just as much as your physical state, so just watching your GPS isn’t always a reliable reminder! Learn to understand and feel your body.
And finally, but perhaps most importantly, focusing on your performance is a tremendous way to enjoy the journey instead of obsessing over the destination.
I doubt most people love super exhausting workouts, but most trainees love the long-term motivation the acquire from focusing on getting stronger.
Now we should answer an important question:
Should You Never Push Yourself to a Point Where You Reach a High State of Fatigue?
While I recommend people finish their workouts feeling better and more energized than when they began the workout, at least the majority of the time (because, let’s face it, some days are tougher than others), there’s always a place for tough challenges that leave you gasping for air.
Personally, I like to strategically use challenges to test my physical and mental limits. It can be fun (in a sick way) and let you see what you’re made of and definitely allow you to become more awesome.
Take for example a few of my favorite tough challenges: hill sprints near an all out effort (bike or run) and T30 swims (or 3k TT swim) or a 2k rowing erg.
If you push those challenges to the limits, you’re going to be incredibly worn out afterward.
But these challenges are done on occasion, and not every session. Furthermore, the main goal of these challenges is not to simply “get tired”. I always keep track of my performance and try to beat it over time – but not every single session!
For example, if I performed a 3k TT swim at the start of the season, I’ll write it down along with my training times at that time. Then when I come to repeat the test 3 months on and heading in to race season, I know what number I need to beat.
Even though these challenges are exhausting, the goal is still to get a little better. Fatigue may be an inevitable side-effect, but it’s certainly not the goal.
Quality VS Quantity Mindset
How do you feel, the majority of the time, when you finish your workouts? Are you exhausted, or more energized?
If you’re always worn out after a session, there’s a chance you’re focusing too much on quantity instead of quality.
Every session you do should have a target, make sure you know what you are working toward. That should be fairly evident from the session in front of you, but if you’re unsure ask your coach. The more you know what you’re working toward, the better the quality of the session.
Ask yourself this question before your next session: what is the aim of this workout?
Hopefully your answer is something to the affect of, “To do better than last time”.
Then I encourage you to answer that question specifically so you know exactly what you need to accomplish.
Remember what really matters:
Using great exercises
Gradually, but consistently, improve your performance
Adopt the quality-matters-most mindset
Have some fun!
It’s not about getting tired — it’s about doing a little better whenever possible.
Do that and you’ll get the results you’re after.