A meditation on the physiological and mental effects of pushing your body to its limits.
I want to explore going into the pain cave, going hard in the paint, breathing fire, or whatever you choose to call it. If you’ve been there, there’s no need for me to elaborate. For my folks that may be new to the journey, it’s the place in a workout that is past uncomfortable, past perceived exhaustion. For those that have dabbled in going dark, you know there is ROI for the investment; after your heart rate comes out of 110% of your max HR, your lungs no longer feel like you’re hotboxing a Marlboro Red, and the battery acid has flushed from your muscles.
So, where is perceived exhaustion? In my opinion, perceived exhaustion usually occurs around Anaerobic Threshold. We will get into the details later, but a general description of Anaerobic Threshold is when lactate starts to accumulate in the muscles. There can be other variables that impact perceived exhaustion: stress, nutrition, recovery from prior workouts, not liking the movements in the workout and even not wanting to do the workout. As the graph below from Strength Matters beautifully illustrates, you can see that there is still some effort needed to get to actual Exhaustion.
Going dark has two components. The first one is going there. The second one is staying there.
Going there is not usually planned. One can flirt with the dragon, dancing at the entrance of the cave. It usually takes a significant effort at the point of perceived exhaustion to enter. That significant effort is commonly a decision to make a burst of effort; increasing your pace, hitting a big set on the movement you are on, or grabbing another gear are a few examples.
Staying there is a different story. As I described scenarios in which someone can enter the pain cave, the decision to continue that significant effort for an extended period of time is a different ballgame. This usually occurs in the last minute of a workout, the last ½ – 1 mile of a run, or similar situation in which you enter and decide to hang on.
What are the physiological effects
When your muscles start to burn like they are pumping battery acid, what is actually occurring is they are running out of oxygen. It IS NOT lactic acid (the human body does not produce lactic acid), it is lactate. Lactic acid and lactate have been used synonymously when discussing anaerobic topics but there is a difference; lactate is actually a base. Lack of oxygen inhibits pyruvate from creating energy for the muscle (ATP). So, in comes lactate. Lactate does a couple things, which I recently learned from Dr. Andrew Huberman’s podcast. First, it buffers the acidity of the muscle, as high acidity is not good for the tissue. Second, it is a fuel source so you can keep going.
Real quick, if you didn’t know, VO2 is related to your aerobic capacity and lactate threshold is related to your anaerobic capacity. A major health benefit to going hard in the paint is increasing your VO2 max and lactate threshold. An article in the World Journal of Cardiology suggests that the evidence shows that aerobic capacity is the strongest predictor of future health. So, going hard increases your body’s ability to utilize oxygen (VO2) and create ATP (muscle fuel) while increasing your ability to go harder longer before your muscles start to lock up, all while potentially adding a few years to the calendar.
I believe another benefit of going hard is learning your breaking point. I would venture to say that most people have not pushed themselves to their limit. David Goggins calls it the 40% rule; when your mind starts telling you you’re at your limit and your body feels exhausted, you’re really only at 40% of your capacity. 40% may not be the exact number, but those that have pushed past that point can relate to the message. As one has to expose themselves to higher volume, heavier weight, more effort to see a positive adaption in the physical body, the same goes for the mental.
I believe that in our current time, mental adversity is not a regular event. Most of our day is fairly cushy. Our basic needs are met with ease, moving from one regulated/safe environment to the next, and what we most commonly perceive as stressful situations are not really that bad. We are lucky to have this, but it doesn’t hurt to practice or training for those times it’s not as cushy.
If you have ventured into the dark on a workout, you are accustomed to the feeling afterward. It feels like the volume has been turned down in your environment. You think more clearly and you’re not as easily agitated. This is a result of two things in breathing fire, it is an empowering feeling to push past your perceived limits and it is a humbling experience to be totally annihilated after a workout. You get to experience that you’re more resilient than you may have thought but are reminded that you are human.
In conclusion, one can see the benefits of going dark in and out the gym/training. It’s not something one needs to do all the time, but dropping the hammer every once in a while can go a long way in building one’s physical capacity and mental fortitude.
If you want to dig deeper on the topic, or other relative topics, I encourage you to post a topic or discussion on our Facebook page. Always fun to learn and grow together.
If you want to get into the weeds on some of the physiological aspects, here are a few articles to check out:
- Lactate, not Lactic Acid, is Produced by Cellular Cytosolic Energy Catabolism
- Physiological Performance Measures as Indicators of CrossFit® Performance
- Anaerobic Threshold: Its Concept and Role in Endurance Sport
- Breese, J. What Is The Anaerobic Threshold: A Beginners Guide. Strength Matters. 2019; 19(6)
- Ito S. High-intensity interval training for health benefits and care of cardiac diseases – The key to an efficient exercise protocol. World J Cardiol. 2019;11(7):171-188. doi:10.4330/wjc.v11.i7.171
As a reminder, this article is my personal experiences, knowledge, and interpretation of information for your entertainment and not intended to diagnose, treat, or cure any disease, midlife crisis, or other health issues. Always consult with a health profession/coach/shaman before doing something you’re not accustomed to.
Mark Braithwaite has competed in Bodybuilding, Triathlon, CrossFit, Weightlifting, and Strongman. He is dedicated to maintaining health and overall wellness while navigating the day to day grind and enjoys helping others along their journey.