Written by Coach Caleb Kostynuik
It’s been a long day. You just got home from work and have a workout planned this evening, but you’re exhausted, starving, and your neck is sore from sitting all day. Every part of your body begs for the sweet relief that comes from skipping your workout, sinking into the couch, and the soothing sights and sounds of your favorite show on Netflix. It’s been “one of those days”.
You’re not alone — we’ve all been here before. The dreaded fork in the road at the end of the day where you either push through and do what you need to do, but don’t want, or you pull back and do what you want to do, but might not need. This decision isn’t as easy as the last sentence implies because what you think you want might be what you need, and vice versa.
One part of you says: “Have some discipline! You can’t achieve your goals if you negotiate with yourself”, while another part of you tells you: “Be gentle with yourself; you need to rest.” Which part of you is telling the truth? And how can you tell?
This dilemma is exactly what this article is about: whether or not you should skip your workout when you just don’t feel like doing it. Unfortunately, there’s no stock answer to this question. Rather, we must learn to develop a balanced approach between having discipline and having discernment to be able to determine what is needed each time we face this situation: do we push forward or pull back? If we don’t develop this skill, we may end up either pushing too hard and end up burnt out (or worse) or pulling back too much and not making progress at all.
Table of Contents
Important Lessons & How To Discern Them
As with everything, the dosage makes the poison. By striving to find a balance between pushing through and pulling back, you are effectively finding the correct dosage. And make no mistake — either pushing or pulling excessively can result in a cascade of difficulties that can slow your progress.
Too Much Push
Depending on which corner of the web you look at, it seems to me that discipline is all the rage these days. It’s become the solution to many of your problems, especially in the realm of fitness. Can’t lose weight? Be more disciplined with what you eat. Can’t improve your 5km time? Be more disciplined with your running schedule. You get the idea. But as you’ll soon learn, you must choose the right actions to which your discipline is applied or you can run into a plethora of problems. When you don’t feel like working out because you’ve been pushing too hard, but you continue to push forward in the name of progress anyway, you may find yourself face-to-face with one or more of these problems. The most common of these is a perpetuation of the symptoms of pushing too hard, which can lead to feelings of burnout, and eventually physical injuries.
So when you approach this fork in the road and you fail to see the warning signs that you’re pushing too hard (the primary sign being the fact that you’re facing this dilemma in the first place), if your default behavior is to exercise your discipline, you can start to see these symptoms perpetuate themselves. Today you feel a little tired, but tough it out! You’ve got this. So you go to the gym and the endorphins spike and you feel great. But tomorrow night comes and you’re tired again. Then the next night, it happens again. And so on. But how long can you keep this up? If you want to find that out by experience, you may run into feelings of burnout.
At this point, you’re successfully executing on your willpower to overcome this fork in the road almost every night. But now, you also need that willpower to wake up on time each morning, and that’s also getting more difficult by the day. A pattern is emerging: what started out as a desire to stay home rather than go to the gym has become a full-fledged revolt against getting up in the morning, spending time to cook proper meals, and clean up afterward, which can even leach into simple things like personal hygiene. Each of these seemingly easy tasks firmly entrenched as a habit is starting to require willpower; and as we know, willpower can ebb and flow, and sometimes feel like a finite resource.
Let’s say that you’ve managed to continue to push through and have made it this far. You’re burnt out, but so are many successful people. You’ve been told it’s the cost of admission. So you keep pushing. A brief reminder is required at this point: your body does not care about your bank account, your responsibilities at home, or the way it looks in the mirror — it cares about survival. In order to survive, your body will first ask you to stop, using progressively worsening symptoms to do so, and then it will make you stop. When you use “mind over matter” to override your body’s signals for rest, your body will begin using inflammation as a signal to 1) slow down and rest, and 2) call for more resources. This is how overuse injuries occur, such as those nagging aches and pains that require 45 minutes of warm-up before you workout. Finally, if you continue along this path, these injuries can become more severe, resulting in strains, sprains, or even tears.
With all that said, I’m not knocking discipline. Discipline is an important attribute that does indeed help foster success in fitness, as well as in other fields. But like most things, discipline, when taken to its extreme, can become counterproductive. This also occurs at the other extreme, which can be seen when you pull back too much.
Too Much Pull
Just when I’ve got you thinking you can throw discipline in the trash with your gym shoes, slip into your favorite sweats, and throw your feet up to watch Netflix every night, you see the section heading Too Much Pull. Yes, just as you can push too hard when you need to rest, you can also pull back too much when you need to get to work. In fact, as you’ll see, you already know many of the problems commonly associated with too much pull: lethargy, poor mood, stiff and aching muscles, and in some extreme cases, metabolic issues. And it’s this knowledge that causes us to pathologize these issues. Can’t lose weight? That’s because you’re lazy with your food choices. Can’t improve your 5km time? That’s because you’re lazy and just sit on the couch all day. While these may be valid truths in some cases, they are mere half-truths at best and completely reductionist falsities at worst; but what they succeed at is clearly demonstrating the negative connotations that are attached to rest and rest-adjacent behaviors. Regardless of whether or not these negative connotations are true, the dangers of pulling back too much are real. If you come to the point where you just don’t want to do your workout because you’d rather stay home (and not because of a real need to rest), you may step onto a slope made slippery by creative excuses, new time constraints, or more immediately satisfying activities. But those are just rationalizations of a changing attitude that begins with one night off, can create an internal struggle, or “paralysis by analysis”, which can then halt momentum and motivation to get back on track, and ultimately result in simply not taking appropriate action when you should.
So you’ve arrived home from work and you’re standing in the entranceway with your coat still on and your gym bag within reach, but the couch presents a convincing argument to stay home and relax. And who are you to argue? So you slip your coat off, order in some food, and kick back. Giving into this temptation is normal and happens to all of us – and that’s okay! Where it can prove difficult is the next time you’ve had a rough day, you may think back to this moment and remember how good it felt to just relax and turn down. If you’re inclined toward your goal, you may have a bit of internal back-and-forth: do I go or not? If you’re lucky, you can cut this loop short; but for the rest of us, that loop can be exhausting, making the path of least resistance more appealing by the minute. So either you live in that loop until the time passes where the option to go to the gym takes itself off the table, or you just decide not to go. In both situations, the end result is skipping your workout.
Once these skipped workouts start to accumulate, you may notice a habit forming. How can you tell? Well, your default behavior has shifted from dropping your work bag at the door, grabbing your gym bag and working out, to arguing with yourself the minute you step in the door, taking off your coat and settling in for the night. Your food is on its way before you even think about the gym, and it’s just too late. If you’ve landed here, momentum has started to shift away from working out and toward quiet evenings at home. This is often the point where I’ll hear a client tell me “evenings just don’t work for training anymore”, or something of the sort. This is a good indicator that momentum has shifted and motivation to the gym has been overtaken by other, usually easier and more immediately rewarding tasks.
Once this happens, you are battling a hierarchy of priorities, where working out has fallen below others, and you are facing an uphill climb to simply take action. This is where discipline is helpful, but you may find you require more than mere discipline to get back on track. In fact, this is often the state from which a coach is sought out: the client has been here for some time and the coach is the catalyst needed to break old patterns.
So now you know that there are pitfalls to skipping your workout, and doing so can lead down a path that can prove difficult from which to course correct. And you also know that there are dangers associated with never listening to your body’s cries for rest and recovery, and always pushing through. So what can you do? Fortunately, what may feel like annoyances, or weakness of mind and body, at the time are actually messages being sent from our bodies to communicate something. The key is to learn to hear those messages and understand the “something” they are communicating.
Learn How To Listen To Your Body
Take a moment to recall the last time you got really, genuinely, excited about something. Now, think about how your body reacted. Perhaps you felt flutters in your chest or your heart rate quickened or your breathing picked up. Now ask yourself the following: did these changes just happen or did you consciously choose to make them happen? The answer, in all likelihood, is the former: it just happened. And this isn’t restricted only to acute moments of high emotional charge, like excitement, fear, anxiety, or bliss. It occurs every second of every day. You don’t choose to digest your food; your body just does it. You don’t convert fuel into ATP; your body just does it. And you certainly don’t run all the repair processes of your body while you sleep; your body just does it!
While it may feel as though you have complete control over your body, the truth is you don’t. Your body mostly runs on its own. It is autonomous and unconscious. So the next time you feel a nagging pain or fatigue, don’t jump to conclusions and berate yourself for not being how you idealize yourself to be (untiring and always on), but rather accept that this is what’s happening and perhaps something is being communicated. You’ll find that this lack of control is not negative, but positive: your body, which is infinitely wiser than you in how its autonomous systems work, is communicating with you and asking you to make conscious decisions to help it recover and thrive. That’s pretty cool!
So you start with acknowledging the fact that your body can communicate with you: pain, tiredness, mood swings, etc., are all means of communication.
When was the last time you had a stomach ache? Did it come completely out of nowhere or was there some event beforehand that coincided with it? I’d wager that the latter is most often the case. For example, maybe you ate an entire extra-large pizza followed by a pint of ice cream before you had a stomach ache. Is this a coincidence? Probably not. This is your body saying “this is too much food at once!” or “that’s a lot of dairy that I can’t handle right now!”. Finding out exactly what is being communicated is the tricky part and is ultimately up to you to discern.
It should be clear at this point that our bodies do communicate with us. But it’s not enough to know that it’s communicating; we must know what it’s communicating. Once we know how to listen and discern the message, we can act in accordance and develop a relationship with our bodies that enhances our results, regardless of whether you’ve chosen to skip your workout tonight or not.
Learn How To Optimize The Push & Pull
There are many methods by which you can learn to listen to your body: meditation, yoga, tai chi, or even somatic-based therapies, to name a few. Of course, these methods will do the trick, and with the right teacher/professional to guide you, can certainly help you to develop an ability to effectively listen to your body. However, the limitation of these methods is that they require consistent practice (and discipline) over long periods of time, and often involve “feeling your way through it” (I imagine someone slowly moving through a pitch-black room with their arms outstretched tentatively in front of them). While these methods can improve your ability to listen to your body, they may be needlessly difficult for the purposes of optimizing your training frequency. In most cases, for most of us, I would assume stopping at the door to meditate when the thought of skipping your workout comes into your head will result in a workout skipped – especially if you meditate on the couch. So what is the right method here? It’s a combination of being inquisitive to yourself and tracking the answers (as data) to reflect on past decisions and ultimately inform future ones.
How does this look practically? Next time you don’t feel like working out, start by asking yourself why not. Are you tired, hungry, angry? Do you feel ill? Did you have a bad day at work or an argument with your spouse on the way home? You get the idea. Now write that down. Then make a decision.
Let’s say you’ve chosen to push through and go to the gym tonight. Great! Once you’re done, ask yourself how you feel immediately after? The next morning? And occasionally monitor how you feel until the next day when workout time comes – how do you feel? Write it all down.
That’s the process of collecting a single data set (single because it’s associated with a single workout decision). You felt tired after work but went to the gym anyway. Immediately after, you felt invigorated and empowered mentally and a little tired physically (as you should after most workouts!). The next day you hit the snooze button five times and dragged your feet through the rest of the day. Based on this data set as I’ve described it, you start to see the back and forth communication between you and your body, and you can see that in this instance, rest might have been ideal.
But don’t you have to catch this beforehand and make a decision? Yes and no. First off, you don’t necessarily need to catch it beforehand every time; in the above example, you can just learn your lesson and rest the next day. No harm done! But if you continue down the path of ignoring it, over time you could see some of the negative effects we’ve already touched on. However, the ultimate goal in all of this is to learn to listen to your body so that you can proactively manage when to push and when you pull. And you become less reactive and more proactive by consistently tracking your data over time (“data” sounds needlessly professional and technical – a simple journal or mental note can accomplish this). This is why you often see coaches asking you to track metrics such as mood, daily energy, energy during workouts, difficulty waking, and so on. A single occurrence of low energy or a rough sleep is normal for most of us, but it’s when these single occurrences turn into multiple occurrences, and then ultimately become trends and patterns that they can become problematic. Consistently tracking, or bringing conscious attention to the way you feel, can help you see patterns and make decisions accordingly.
Now, when it comes to optimizing push and pull, what we’re really trying to do is correct trends that are moving too far in either direction. So mistakenly skipping a workout once or twice is fine, as is pushing yourself to train when you should be resting. What you are trying to avoid is creating a trend of data that says “rest” progressively more loudly each day that goes by because you’ve been ignoring it. So the final piece to all this is to be patient. If you are consistently inquisitive with yourself, and you track the results of these inquisitions, you will be able to use the resultant data to inform decisions and optimize your recovery. But what about today? If you’re just learning this approach now, you probably don’t have any data. So if you’re reading this article at your front door in a desperate attempt to decide whether or not you should keep your commitment to go to the gym, there are some questions you need to ask yourself.
The Questions You Should Be Asking Yourself
We’re back to where we started: standing at the front door, longingly gazing at the ever-inviting throne that is your living room couch. You don’t have any data or information to help you make this decision wisely, yet. For now, ask yourself the following questions:
Is this the first time you’ve felt this way recently (the past week or two)? This question helps to determine right now if this is just another occurrence in a recent pattern or if you are really just tired today, right now. If it is the first time, you can proceed with your workout and push through! It might make you feel better and be just what you need. If this isn’t the first time, and you’ve been feeling a desire to skip your workouts or a bit tired lately, you need to dig a bit deeper.
Now ask yourself, how long have you felt this way? This question helps to establish a timeframe in which to investigate further. For example, if you’ve felt this way for a week, or your last four workouts, use that timeframe as the basis for the following questions:
Have you been getting good sleep?
Have you had any new or increasing stressors in your life?
How has your training changed?
Has your performance in your workouts suffered/declined?
Are you in a calorie deficit? If so, how long has it been?
What you’re looking for with these questions is a trend, but rather than over time, you’re looking at a small time frame (a few weeks to a month) and seeing if multiple indicators are flipping in one direction. If you have been sleeping poorly, your stress levels are skyrocketing, and you’re making a big push in your training while deep in a calorie deficit, your body may be telling you that it needs some rest. However, if sleep is good, stress is good, and you’ve generally felt good with your training, you are likely able to push through and do your workout without any cause for concern.
Putting It All Together
The key to this all is that there’s no right or wrong decision at any single moment in time. Rather, there are decisions that can move you slightly toward your goal or slightly away from it, but without sufficient investigation, we can’t just assume that pushing through is right for you today, nor can we assume that rest is right either.
The right decision changes daily and the way to enhance your ability to choose it is to bring conscious awareness to the hints that point to it. You do that by being inquisitive with yourself, with your body, and eventually accumulating enough information to make informed decisions over time. The longer you do this, the greater your ability to assess will be, and the more you can optimize your own push and pull.
One final note, on the use of the word “data”. As I mentioned earlier, data is a needlessly technical term. So how can you conceptualize the same thing without using that word? Think of it this way: you are simply getting to know your body. It’s the same as you getting to know your best friend or your siblings. You don’t necessarily have an Excel spreadsheet telling you that when you speak a certain way to this friend or sibling, they may feel upset. You have just learned, over time and repeated exposure, that this is the result of certain actions. So this data isn’t hard and fast, and need not be maintained in a spreadsheet (although it can be), rather it is simply the accumulation of knowledge of how your body may or may not react to a given set of circumstances.
So the next time you drag your feet up to your front door and are hit with the dread of an impending workout at the end of a long day, pay attention. Ask a few questions, note it down (mentally or physically), and try to make the decision that most aligns with what your body is telling you, and not what some previously held belief holds as absolutely true. Because this won’t be the last time you feel this way, and by learning to listen to your body, you’ll be much more equipped to make these types of decisions in the future, thus optimizing your training, recovery, and health.
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Written by Coach Caleb Kostynuik