The yin and yang of exercise
by Ian Craig
in Blogs

We used to think that lots of exercise was good for us. We were wrong. High volumes of endurance training, whether it is oriented towards aerobic or resistance training, can be very hard on our body.

It demands large quantities of energy, it can break down muscles, it releases stress hormones, it can suppress our immune system, it increases injury risk and it can even use up our much needed nutrients. There is even some suggestion that high volume endurance training can age us quicker. When I refer to these stresses on the body, I’m not talking about heading out for a family bike ride on a Saturday, plus gymming with mates during the week. I’m talking about people who push hard several times per week with the goal of shaving a few seconds off their best time, somebody who is doing CrossFit style training, or somebody who is trying to do an ultra-endurance challenge, such as a marathon and beyond, an adventure race or one of the long triathlons.

I am also not just talking about elite athletes who devote their life to training - they at least have time in the day to recover. I’m actually more concerned about ‘recreational’ athletes who do a full working day, have family commitments and push their training hard.

Exercise physiologists understand this whole-body stress that athletes place themselves under, but sports people who are not educated in the science of sport, mostly do not. The 'more is not better' philosophy has been around for a while – I see a lot of very keen recreational athletes in my sports clinic in Johannesburg: cyclists, runners and triathletes mostly. If you simply look at their actual training volume, it often doesn’t seem excessive, but when you also consider their lifestyle, with a full working day, family and social commitments, insufficient sleep patterns and lousy nutrition, they are actually overdoing it.

Some people who follow this excessive regime become frequently ill or injured, whereas others burn themselves out, become tired and have to slow down. Some individuals unfortunately end up with ailments such as glandular fever, or in a stuck energy situation, such as in chronic fatigue syndrome. Prior to such physiological imbalance, there have been many months (and possibly years) of subtle overtraining. It’s like the male executive who drops dead of a heart attack at age 50 – according to medical records, he was previously ‘healthy’. Medically, however, he was ‘sub-clinically’ sick for many years because it generally takes 20+ years to build up to a heart attack. Endurance athletes are no different, and yes, there are cases of heart attacks in so-called healthy athletes. We can be gradually digging a health hole for ourselves over a long period of time by unwittingly embracing the daily grind of training.

Introducing the yin-yang balance

Like almost everything in life, it’s all a matter of BALANCE. The harder you train and the harder you ‘do’ life, the harder you must recover. According to many learned coaches, there is only one thing that’s more important to an athlete than training and that is recovery. The job of training is to break-down your muscles and push all the physiological systems involved in the endurance activity. The job of recovery is to allow time for these systems to be built-up to a stronger level than before. So, the clever athlete can have his or her cake and also eat it, whereas the over-motivated or obsessed, but not necessarily un-intelligent, athlete may simply run their body into the ground.

Chinese medicine uses the words ‘yin’ and ‘yang’ to indicate opposites. This could be hot and cold; expansive and contracting; dry and wet; hard and soft, thick and thin, dark and light etc. Yin and yang are complementary opposites that interact within a greater whole, as part of a dynamic system. Everything has both yin and yang aspects: for example; light can’t exist without darkness and darkness can't exist without light, but either one can ebb and flow in intensity over time.

Within the context of the integrative nature of the human body, yin and yang provide us with a lovely analogy for obtaining the balance between work and rest. Yang is characterised as fast, hard, solid, focused, hot, dry and aggressive, whereas yin is characterised as slow, soft, yielding, diffuse, cold, wet and passive. In a general sense, we can therefore label training as yang and recovery as yin. As long as the two aspects are in reasonable balance most of the time, we can retain our healthy and vibrant status as an athlete, but as soon as yang becomes dominant for a prolonged period of time, we are diminishing our yin (or recovery) opportunities.

But, yin is not just the act of not training - we can actively rebalance our body with activities such as yoga, tai chi, relaxed walking, breathing exercises, therapeutic massage, time in nature and interaction with like-minded people. Performance is not all about gaining a hard edge - without the soft yin balance, we become brittle….

yin yang