Bad Workouts, Blame Reflexes, & Better Angels

We’ve all experienced it. We start that metcon, or get into the strength portion of a WOD, and we realize it’s going south. Maybe we feel like a “weak little kitten” instead of our usual strong selves. Maybe we just can’t catch our breath, or we feel like we’re slogging through molasses. Whatever the sensation, it’s familiar to us from at least one “bad workout.”

And it’s tempting, in those times, to blame someone. Ourselves, the coach, the boss who yelled at us, the partner we argued with, the kids who wouldn’t get ready on time. But here’s a little secret you might not realize — 

That won’t do you any good. 

Blame goes around quite a bit in our culture these days. And it’s seductive to cast blame, even when it’s on ourselves. It gives us a sense of control, of feeling like we can manage things so that experience doesn’t happen again.

But here’s the thing — it’s gonna happen again. And also? You’ll be okay in the end.

See, the reason we have “bad workouts” is actually multiple reasons. There’s nature — meaning the genetic parts of you that contribute to your response to a workout’s stimulus. There’s nurture – meaning the environmental aspects of your life, your day, and your past that come into play with that response. And there’s also just random chance. Some days you just trip on the box. We can’t control it all.

In more detail, “nature” aspects are anything from your anatomy and its relation to the movements at hand, to your brain wiring in response to stress (and hard workouts are a form of stressor), to how your body processes lactic acid buildup, to your endurance, to your cardiovascular capacity, to more things than I can list here without boring you. 

The “nurture” aspects are also sometimes the past things that caused some of your physical response (injuries, stress, trauma) and also if you got enough sleep the night before, eat well that day, are hydrated, or felt stress during that day (and did or didn’t process it appropriately).

So as I always say in a situation like this — where there are SO MANY contributing factors to how we “got to here” — sitting inside a bad workout (for lack of a better term) it makes me wonder…why in the world are we interested in assigning blame? 

Oh yeah — that control thing. Riiiight.

The human need for order and control is innate. We seek to order the world around us to understand it, as a way to better manage our own survival. When we were still roaming the plains hunting and foraging, pre-modern-mathematics and language, etc. this all made sense. Survival was dependent on understanding and ordering things like animal behavior, weather, etc. to the extent that we could predict things and make decisions based on those predictions. It’s why our brains developed frontal lobes — the parts that are responsible for logic and reasoning.

But there’s another part to this story — we developed that part of our brain LAST. It’s relatively small in comparison to our limbic system or emotional brain. Humans are emotional beings with the capacity for reason, and not the other way around (trust me, it’s science and we can get into the weeds on that if we want to). We mask our emotions by thinking we can assign blame as a method to order the world around us — but really, it’s too complex to explain away that simply. A lot of factors got us to here. Figuring out what’s the single source of blame? Unlikely to make a difference.

This is not to say that coming to an awareness of what contributed isn’t important. Awareness seeks to notice and adjust. Blame seeks to explain away and control. Our better angels seek awareness and compassion. 

So before you beat yourself up (or go on a negative dialogue cycle) about a “bad workout” – remember. Some days you just trip on the box. We can’t control everything. So treat yourself (and others) with the compassion of someone who knows that the world is complex, and control is not possible. Breathe in, breathe out, maybe locate a little awareness if possible, and keep going forward. I promise you’ll be okay.

– Megan Nolde, communications specialist and owner of SAGE RVA, LLC, a creative consulting firm in Richmond, VA.