Do we wear out, or become stronger with repetition?

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There seems to be a common belief that if we just do something long enough we will wear ourselves out.  As in, “I did so much hiking and now my knees can’t take it anymore.”.


Which is interesting, because it’s also well known that the best way to get really good at something is to practice it a whole lot.


A question came up for me just the other day.  What’s the difference between a repetitive strain injury (RSI) and the adaptation that occurs in athletic training (specific adaptation to imposed demand)?


One thing I found is that RSI is associated with the workplace.  While the same sort of thing, if it occurred in an athletic training environment would be called overtraining.


In both cases the mechanism is the same.


The difference between repeating an action and gaining strength, skill and resilience as one’s body adapts to demand over time, versus repeating an action and accumulating micro trauma, inflammation and other painful and limiting symptoms, is largely due to the degree to which we honor the need for rest.


Our bodies are very capable of adapting to imposed demand, but that adaptation takes place during the period of rest that follows specific work or “load”.  If the body does not rest between its exposure to work then it cannot repair.  It’s this process of repair that is what causes us to get stronger and more resilient.


I should also note that it’s the willingness to build our strength and resilience gradually that also keeps us from damaging ourselves.  If we don’t have a capacity, and push ourselves to do it anyway, then we are likely to end up exposing ourselves to so much load that we require an extended period of time to recover from it.  For instance hiking up and down a mountain at the beginning of the hiking season after a winter of sitting around working and watching netflix.


In the case of RSI the load is usually small, but so persistent that no adaptation can take place because the rest period is lacking.  This can be fixed by changing the environment (the need to hold a funny posture, or just how far we have to reach) which reduces the load, which can give the tissue a chance to recover.


It can also be fixed by changing the way the body distributes the load by increasing the capacity of a related part of the body.  For instance if there is an upper trapezius (top of shoulders) strain, load could be redistributed by increasing strength in the low trapezius and serratus anterior and other muscles of scapular stabilization.


And finally, this can be fixed by deliberately honoring the period of rest.  


We need rest as much as we need work.  There is a time for each.


But what is restful?  That probably depends on what the demand is that we’re resting from.  If we’re talking about a novice trainee resting between workouts then rest is roughly 48 hours with no heavy resistance exercise in the area being trained.


If we’re talking about a mom who is juggling employment, family and domestic organization, then we’re talking about something that allows low external stimulus and some self reflection, like a long soak in a bathtub, or maybe physical training in a calm environment.


Our own inner compass can likely point us in the direction of what we need for rest.  And if it doesn’t, or you’re drawing a blank, you can talk to someone who has travelled that road ahead of you and get their ideas, then pick which ones resonate.





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