Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Emotions of Training (and WOD: Ouch)

Today's WOD: Ouch

3 rounds for time of:
4 jumping muscle ups
10 KB snatch 5 left 5 right 12 kg
10 push-ups
4 jumping muscle ups
5 push jerk 58#
10 boxjumps (short box)
5 push jerk 58#

Time: 16:43. I know I just used Ouch as a post title, but this WOD is actually called "Ouch". With good reason, I suppose. It was bad enough way scaled down. My jumping muscle-ups were very very bad, and I missed way more than I got, but I guess such is the path to learning the muscle-up. I agree that it is very useful and very cool, and best done in a tiara.

Today I find myself thinking about the mental aspect of training, in particular, frustration and the emotions that go with it. Lately I've been feeling frustrated, angry, even sad after workouts and stuck, short of my goals. Several people (near and far) have commented that they've had a similar experience. A few of us talked about it a little bit after the "estrogen hour" workout today, and it really got me thinking. We all feel good about what we're doing, supported and encouraged, disciplined and focused. But there are times (workouts, days, even weeks), when it just all falls apart, when you just feel crappy about how you're doing. It's a strong emotional response that just overwhelms you, that gives you that tight feeling in your chest, that makes you snap at your family, that makes the tears well up out of nowhere.

I think one of the reasons for this is that people who are attracted to CrossFit (or similar training regimens) are extremely goal and performance oriented. We're high achievers and we put a lot of pressure on ourselves. When we don't achieve those goals or when we experience a setback, we feel that we are failing, not trying hard enough, not learning fast enough. It's just in our personalities to blame ourselves when we don't reach our goals, even when those goals are admittedly ambitious.

But what exactly underlies this overwhelming emotional response? I think it is useful to understand the brain's low-level, instinctive drive and motivation system. Sometimes this is called the "reptilian brain" because it's basically the same system in simpler forms of life (like reptiles) as it is in us great apes. To put on my neuroscientist hat, it all comes down to dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter critical to the brain's reward system. When you experience something rewarding, the level of dopamine in the brain spikes, which makes you feel good. (Think of the feeling after a great workout where you feel proud of yourself and in a great mood afterward.) When dopamine levels drop, you feel sad, down, angry, cranky.

The tricky thing with dopamine is this: what matters is not the overall level of dopamine, but the change in dopamine. That all boils down to expectations. Someone once described this to me in terms of going to see a movie. If you expect the movie to be bad, and then it's actually okay, you're pleasantly surprised, and you feel very positive about the movie, better than if you had gone in with no expectations. On the other hand, if the movie is hyped and you expected it to be great, and it turns out to be just okay, you actually feel pretty negative about the movie, worse than if you had gone in with no expectations. It's not about how good the movie actually is, it's about how your experience differs from your expectations.

The dopamine system is even more relevant in a physical experience like training. When you go in expecting to meet a goal and don't make it, it feels bad because your dopamine drops. When you surprise yourself by doing better than expected on a workout, or making a goal that you thought was still far off, you feel especially good because your dopamine spikes. I think this goes in cycles too. Sometimes achievements will cluster - say you make 2 goals in a week. Then you set higher goals for yourself, and it's going to take time to make them. But your expectations have been raised by the 2 achievements per week rate, and now when you don't meet them right away, your dopamine will drop and you will feel not just disappointed, but that whole flood of reptilian-brain emotions that you basically have no control over. And this lack of control is particularly frustrating to us high achievers!

So what do we do? First, I think it helps to understand the mechanisms underlying this response and understand that they are at least somewhat out of our control. Sometimes emotions are just going to take over, and there isn't much we can do about it. We certainly shouldn't feel guilty about feeling bad when it's an actual physical response. Second, we can adjust our expectations to try to get that dopamine to spike. Even though it's important to set our goals high, I think that sometimes, when we're stuck and feeling down, it's useful to come in with a low, achievable goal and just try to smash it.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, we can talk about it. It helps immensely to know that other people are going through the same thing, that we're not alone. We high achievers tend to try to take on the world by ourselves and are reluctant to seek the social support we need. That is why I am so glad I have made such kind and supportive friends through the gym and through this blog. You all keep me going, and I hope I can help keep you going too.


Bluescaptain Joe said...

I think that what you get from working out, I get from making music. Granted, you're more dedicated to working out than I am to music, but maybe if I wrote more music, I'd be happier.

claudia said...

Amy, thanks for your post today. I've been feeling less excited about my weight workouts recently. In part, I think, to having moved out of my true "beginner" period where I made gains pretty quickly, to a point where the gains will be harder-fought.