How many times has someone told you to just listen to your body?
There are a lot of health coaches and trainers out there, self included, who use the phrase “just listen to your body” as a go to response with clients.
How do I know whether I should take a rest day or do my workout as originally planned?
Just listen to your body.
Should I push through this exercise today and go heavier with load? Or should I keep it lighter?
Just listen to your body.
Should I continue eating? Stop eating? Have the glass of wine? Pass on dessert? Go for a walk? Go to bed early…?
You guessed it. Just listen to your body.
We are told to listen to our bodies ALL the time, but do you ever want to just scream when someone tells you that and say, “okay, great, but HOW?”
I don’t blame you! Listening to your body is one of those super vague concepts that looks a little different for everyone and is open to a lot of interpretation. Does it mean listening to a physical sensation? An emotional response? Both? The word “just” also implies that listening to your body should be super simple to do, but sometimes it’s not! I don’t know about you guys, but sometimes I feel like listening to my body means that I’d be skipping out on a lot of activities that make me sweaty, tired, and sore in the first place… and instead drinking wine over delicious apps somewhere on an outdoor patio. 🙂
Last week, one of my clients brought this exact topic up during a coaching session. I’ve been coaching this gal on how to navigate rest days for proper recovery and how to find a happy medium between planning workouts (an action that keeps her on track each week) versus recognizing when her original plan may need some tweaking on the fly (an action necessary if our bodies indicate they’d be better served with a different activity than what we planned for them on Sunday night). My client asked me how I decide whether to continue with a workout as originally planned, choose a different activity, or take a rest day all together, and today I’m here to shed some light on this for you guys! I am going to tell you exactly what listening to my body looks like in the moment for me, at least when it comes to exercising. The nutrition piece is a whole different topic and requires a conversation about emotional versus physical hunger, so we’ll save that for another day.
When it comes to deciding on what kind of workout I’m going to do or whether I’m going to take a rest day, I assess five things that I refer to as the five S’s:
- State of Mind
The five S’s keep me honest about listening to my body because they provide me a list of tangibles to actually consider. Considering these five things help me not only on days that I’m trying to decide whether a rest day is needed, but they help me when I’m feeling unmotivated as well.
Before I break down the five S’s for you, I want to note that I do try to plan my workouts ahead of time! I try to make at least a tentative plan for the week with varying workouts to prevent overtraining and/or overuse injuries. In general, I prioritize my strength training sessions over anything else. I aim for 2-3 lifting sessions each week that fall on non-consecutive days so my body has ample time to recover between lifts. If it happens to work out best for my schedule to lift on back to back days, I will either do upper body one day and lower body the next, or I will divvy it up by push and pull movement patterns. Aside from my 2-3 lift days, I’ll sprinkle in the cardio, classes, and recovery stuff from there. Again, I try my best not to do the same type of cardio or classes back to back (ie minimal bootcamp type classes surrounding my lifts, minimal back to back spin or sprint days, etc.). If it happens it happens, but I try to minimize it as much as possible to keep things varied and more importantly, safe.
While I do my best to roughly plan my workouts in this way at the beginning of each week, I inevitably end up switching at least something around every week, and this is where my five S strategy comes in.
The 5S Strategy for Listening to Your Body
I go into almost every day/workout with a quick assessment of how sore I am, if at all, from previous workouts that week. Not every workout will make you sore, nor should they, but when they do, that’s when it may be necessary to adapt.
For example, if you feel sore from a heavy leg day on Monday, perhaps you skip the class on Tuesdays where the instructor is known for doing a lot of squats and lunges. Yoga or some light cardio is probably better suited here. If you had some pretty hard workouts over the previous weekend, I’d probably take a rest day Tuesday instead.
Or perhaps you plan on bench pressing on a specific day, but a different activity has left your shoulders and chest really sore. If that were me, I’d decide to do either a different main movement as part of my lift, or maybe a lower body metabolic resistance circuit is more up my alley that day.
Being sore doesn’t always have to mean doing something totally different from you’ve planned though. For example, my legs were very sore at the beginning of last week, but I still wanted to go to Monique’s boxing class on Tuesday night with my gym friends. I told Monique at the beginning of class that I would not be doing squat jumps and jump lunges during her plyometric sets. Instead, I did air squats and bodyweight reverse lunges at my own slower pace. I modified appropriately for how I was feeling that day, but I still got my original activity of choice in.
If I’m sore to the point where I can’t even think of an alternative activity or viable way to adjust, it’s probably a good sign that I need a rest day or some leisure walking instead. Also, a non-negotiable for me is that if I have any pain or nagging discomfort, it’s always a no go. I know from too many past issues that something weird nagging at you is an injury waiting to rear its ugly head.
The second thing I assess is how rested I feel by thinking about how much sleep I’ve gotten in the past couple of nights. If I haven’t gotten adequate sleep, but feel generally okay, I will usually still go to the gym because it often energizes me and gets me out of a slump. I’ll start with my priority or favorite exercises first and remember that I can always switch to stretching or foam rolling if need be.
However, on days you feel extra fatigued and just know bad sleep is the culprit, listening to your body should result in skipping your workout to get some extra shut-eye. I promise you’ll have an even better workout once you are back at it and more rested!
I remember driving home from a long day at the office a couple of months ago and feeling indecisive about whether or not to go to a hot yoga class as planned or just go home. I wasn’t sore, but when thinking about my sleep, I realized that even though I got 7.5 hours the night before, I had a really crappy night’s sleep the night before. This is an example of how listening to your body isn’t so black and white, right? I decided my energy was probably feeling low from being computer bound most of the day, so I ended up deciding to give the class a shot. I told myself it would be okay to take it down a notch if need be and that this particular yoga class didn’t have to be my best one ever. I ended up taking more child’s poses than usual that night, but I was glad I went.
The third S in the 5S strategy is stress. For normal and manageable amounts of stress, sweating it out with higher impact workouts might be exactly what you need. However, there’s a delicate balance with this one because while exercise definitely releases feel good endorphins that help alleviate stress, it’s important to remember that exercise by definition IS technically still a stress on the body.
If you have high stress levels to the point where the stress is manifesting in other ways on your body (ie making you irritable, interrupting your sleep patterns, giving you a constant headache, causing forgetfulness, etc.), high intensity exercise may not help you in the ways you want it to. It might even make your stress levels worse! In these cases, you may be better off with a simple leisure walk or gentle yoga class for the stress relieving benefits they offer without adding too much extra physical stress to your body.
For example, a couple of weeks ago I was feeling completely overwhelmed to the point where thinking about going to the gym was stressing me out more. As you can see from my post on the Achieve with Athena Facebook page, I listened to my body by prioritizing a leisure walk, and I ended up feeling a lot better.
Something similar happened last weekend too. I was planning to get to the gym on Sunday after taking a rest day on Saturday. When I woke up on Sunday, I realized I hadn’t had a big chunk of time where I could relax at home and have a leisurely morning with my husband in a long time. I decided to sleep in, make waffles, and enjoy a homemade breakfast and cup of coffee on the porch. We even ended up booking our vacation (heading to Napa Valley and San Fran this fall!), something that’s been on our to do list for a long time. I’m happy I skipped the gym to prioritize this me time and engage in self-care methods that didn’t involve exercise.
4. STATE OF MIND
The 4th S is where I will assess my state of mind. This is the one that usually helps me when I feel unmotivated to get to the gym or I’m procrastinating doing my workout. Almost any time I’m feeling down or cranky, getting a good sweat in makes me feel better mentally and puts me in a better mood. It generally helps me feel less blah! On occasion though, my mood will dictate the type of workout I end up doing. For example, if I’m feeling annoyed with people, I usually prefer to zone out while lifting on my own or getting some sprints in. If I’m being particularly hard on myself or negative though? Trying to get a PR on a heavy lift or trying something brand new is likely not going to go so well for me because my mindset just won’t be there. In this case, either I’ll stick with something familiar, or taking a class or doing something with a friend will usually cheer me up!
Finally, the last thing I will assess when listening to my body is the satisfaction factor of my workouts. This one doesn’t necessarily come up each time, but there have been times when I’ve tried a program, and it just wasn’t for me. For example, last summer I remember being so excited to try the Omega Body Blueprint program, only to feel so frustrated with each workout because of how long each one was taking me. My workouts can’t have me in the gym for over an hour, they just can’t… so no wonder I never wanted to go to the gym for those OBB ones! There have been other times where I’ve felt “meh” over and over again, and I know it’s because I’m bored and need something new to switch things up.
If this is you, please reach out to me! I offer customized online training and can help you navigate what’s going on so you can find the right balance of exercise and fit for you. I also am now offering one time coaching calls if you ever just want to talk any of this out. Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested! I would love to help you.
I hope these make sense and give you some ideas as to exactly how you might be able to listen to your body from day-to-day and use the signs it gives you to navigate your #stressfreefitness. It’s worth noting again that this is very much an individual thing, and this is what works for ME. I used to be someone who absolutely could not stray from the plan and went balls to the wall with every workout, even if it meant doing five days of the same types of high intensity movements in a row. I’ve learned to listen to my body’s natural cues for when to move and when to rest because I simply grew sick of wearing my body down to the point of injury and overdoing it. And trust me, it feels so much better to honor and listen to my body than ignore it when it’s trying to tell me something.
What about you guys? How do you listen to your bodies? What do you struggle with? Leave a comment telling me what your strategies are!
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You may also be interested in checking out these posts:
Four key pillars to stress free fitness
Four reasons rest days are just as important as time in the gym
This old post from my F&F days! My rest week recap