Exit the Downward Spiral {Roller Derby & Intelligent Recovery}

Let me set a scene for you; one that I found myself trapped in over and over and over again:

I’m cruising along merrily in my cross training and feeling really good about what I am doing off-skates to improve my playing. I’m occasionally a little tired and my workouts seem to be getting exponentially harder even though I’m only incrementally increasing the difficulty.

Doesn’t matter. I can’t wait for the next bout to see all my hard work come into play.

The next bout rolls around and…I’m not great. In fact, my performance is really disappointing and I’m gassed before I even reach the second half.

Well shit. I must not have been cross training hard enough. I’m going to re-double my efforts at cross training so that I can really perform at the bout a month from now.

Does that sound familiar?

It might. Despite the fact that the scenario above was experienced directly by me, I’ve had an overwhelming number of skaters share the same concerns with me when we talk.

  • Why aren’t I getting any better? I cross train 5-6 times a week. I don’t know if I can do anymore.
  • I’m sooooo tired. It almost feels like adding in cross training has made me worse!
  • It seems like I should be stronger. I’m working so hard. But I’m not feeling any results on the track.

And so on and so on and so on.

Let’s say that you suddenly find yourself exhausted, overwhelmed, and hating the idea of cross training. Not only that, but all the hard work you’re putting in at the gym seems to be taking you nowhere on the track.

So, stop. It’s that simple.


Well…I said it was simple, not easy.


This may sound weird, but I have actually given the above advice to someone I was training.

Why? A decrease in athletic performance despite an upswing in cross training is a huge RED FLAG.

When you find yourself stuck in the downward spiral described above you are solidly ensconced in overreaching veering quickly into overtraining — which you may have already toppled into. And it will probably take something more convincing than a dog with smash face to get you to stop. (I’ve written more in-depth about the reasons why I think this is true HERE.)


Almost everyone, athlete or not, experiences some level of soreness, fatigue, or performance decrease at some point in their exercise program. I’ll be honest, the majority of my cross training sessions end with fatigue and performance decrease because that’s how they’re designed. That’s okay. But you have to manage your recovery during these times intelligently in order to remain at an optimal training level for the next session.

Overreaching occurs when your fatigue (not just tiredness, but legit fatigue) and performance decreases start extending into several days or a week. Overreaching describes decrements over the short term that, when managed well, can be overcome in a few days. You can even use overreach training to come out the other end with significant increases in overall strength and performance.

However, overreaching can — QUICKLY — turn into overtraining if not managed properly. Overtraining lasts longer and is much more difficult to recover from. Athletes that overzealously ignore the signs of overreaching and overtraining can suffer long term complications that effect hormones, metabolism, athletic performance, and mood.

It’s no joke.
Exhaustion isn’t weakness leaving the body. It’s your body’s way of telling you that you’re overdoing it.

You might be overdoing it at work because you have a big presentation coming up. You might be overdoing it at home because you’re raising a toddler. You might be overdoing it at practice because your team is preparing for a tournament. The point is that you ARE overdoing it and your body wants you to know.

Ignore it at your own peril.

We all have finite amounts of energy to use and we need to rest and recover appropriately to replenish that energy so that we can go again. This is true on the track. This is true in your job. This is true in your life.

But here’s the thing: sometimes I just don’t want to cross train. I’m like a kid face down in the grocery line refusing to move. “I don’t wanna!” And I imagine sometimes your inner toddler throws a little anti-gym tantrum too.

So, how do you know the difference between exhaustion and disinterest? How do you determine when you need a break or when you’re just whining?

For me it comes down to the 10 minute rule. On days when I don’t want to exercise, but have it in my schedule, I go through the process of getting ready, warming up, and doing the first 5 minutes of the workout (with the warm-up that’s usually a total of 10 minutes).

  • When I’m just whining, 10 minutes is all it takes to get me fully engaged in my workout and ready to go. I mean, I’m already dressed and at the gym, I might as well stick it out.
  • When I’m burnt out, I usually can’t even make it to the 10 minutes. I’ve fallen asleep halfway through putting my socks on or curled up just inside the door because my shoes made my feet extra heavy and I didn’t want to walk all the way to car. It’s just a *really* different feeling. And one that we need to learn to recognize.

So last week, I was legitimately exhausted. I focused mostly on getting as much downtime as I could to help replenish my energy and didn’t even consider working out. Couldn’t consider working out in all honesty.

I’ve now made it out the other side and you know what? I STILL don’t feel like doing my scheduled workout.** Even after the “10 minute rule”.

I’m not exhausted anymore. In fact, I definitely want to get moving, but the idea of getting under a barbell again makes me grimace.

Here’s the most often overlooked part of Intelligent Recovery: #restcycles.

Most people know that they need to rest each week. But we also need to rest more often in the grand scheme of things.

When I went back and looked at what I’d been doing (Remember one of the big rocks of ICT is #collectthedata!), I realized that I’d been following a high intensity strength program for 2.5 months along with attending practices. That’s a lot! And this sudden bout of exhaustion paired with my unwillingness to return to high intensity lifting tells me that it’s time to cycle into a less intense schedule of workouts.

Rest cycling and intelligent recovery doesn’t always mean taking time off from your cross training. Sometimes it’s about recognizing when the cross training that you’re doing needs to be changed. Not necessarily because you won’t get better/faster/stronger if you keep doing it, but because your body is ready for something else.


  1. Bout Weeks — taper down your cross training significantly when you have an athletic event coming up.
  2. First few weeks to a month of the off-season — take it off, all of it; this is a great time to check in and get worked on by your entourage of care providers. (If you don’t have an entourage, get one!)
  3. Tournament Prep — with multiple bouts in a short time, taper your cross training significantly and focus on prehab and injury prevention
  4. Other times as determined by your practice schedule — I usually train hard for 2-3 months and then take a few weeks off to mess around a bit. For me, with the number and schedule of my practices, I will burn out if I don’t do this.
  5. Signs of overreaching or overtraining — see this blog post. No. There’s not link. I’m talking about the one you just read.

Want more?

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About IronOctopusFitness

Online athletic training and nutrition coach, full-time mom, okay skater, and connoisseur of all things tea, chocolate, and roller derby. I'll help you unleash your inner athlete by building a strong, capable body that can withstand whatever life throws at you.

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