COV-erload, underload, and the sweet spot: Which one are you?
Throughout these challenging times of COVID-19, we’ve all experienced significant changes in our day to day lives. Social distancing, gym closures and the cessation of sport has seen a worldwide impact on physical activity levels. We are finding a delineation in our patients between those doing too much (COV-erload), not enough, or just the right amount of movement. Let’s discuss each of those, and you decide which of these categories you fall into, and how to get where you need to be!
The term COV-erload has been popularised recently and is a term we use when someone has done more than what their body can handle during COVID-19. Working from home, or perhaps not working at all, has left many with extra time on their hands. Some have used this spare time to increase their activity levels. Whilst this is certainly admirable for wanting to improve fitness, the old saying of “too much too soon” rings true here. A favorite saying of ours from sports scientist and researcher Dr. Tim Gabbett is “It’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s the load you’re not prepared for”. In other words, if you do more than what body is used to, injury can occur.
This COV-erload may have occurred by significantly increasing:
the frequency (more runs in a week),
intensity (running harder),
distances of your runs,
doing a lot of a particular type of exercise (for those working out from home, maybe it’s been push-ups, sit-ups, skipping or air squats).
Commonly this overload results in sore shoulders, wrists, knees, and backs. These ailments will often appear gradually over a period of time, and there can sometimes be a lag of a few weeks between the onset of pain and the offending activity (e.g. all those air squats you did 2 weeks ago, and only now you are starting to experience sore knees).
This is the basket we are seeing most of our patients fall into currently. Physical exercise is not only necessary for physical health, but also has profound impacts on mental health. And at a time in which many are suffering significant financial hardship, and the resulting mental stress that accompanies, physical exercise has never been so important. One of the side effects of self-isolation and working/studying from home is that we see a reduction in what is called “incidental exercise”. Incidental exercise is any activity built up in small amounts over the course of day. It tends to be less structured than a planned singular bout of activity, and can occur in many forms, for example walking from your home to the train station, walking around your office throughout the day, walking from classroom to classroom at school/uni. With many now working from home, this incidental exercise is almost non-existent.
One month ago, wearable activity monitor brand “Fit bit”, posted a blog here about the worrying global trend they were seeing in those wearing their devices. They compared averages from the previous year, and not surprisingly, saw a global reduction in step counts as seen in the image below. Australia wasn’t faring too badly at this stage (22nd March) with only a 4% drop in step count, but this was before a considerable number of restrictions were enforced here, so we would expect that in April this figure would be different.
How we see this underload present in our patients are more people presenting with aches and pains, flare-ups of previous issues that relate to them being UNDERMOVED (and overstressed!). Just like overload can hurt us, so can a lack of movement. Increased time working on the computer or laying on the couch watching Netflix, we often see back pain, neck pain and headaches increase.
The “Sweet Spot” and how to get there
Finally the sweet spot, and this is where you want to be. This is the balance between doing too much and too little. The chances are, if you're experiencing a flare-up of your pain, you are more than likely NOT here.
The term "Sweet Spot" stems from the research of Dr. Tim Gabbett, and in its very simplest sense (there are a lot of complexities with load monitoring), by comparing what you’ve done in the previous week to the average of what you’ve done in the previous 4 weeks, you can determine your “Acute:Chronic workload ratio”, and then your injury risk. Ideally, you want to have an Acute:Chronic workload ratio between 0.8 and 1.3.
So for example, if the previous week you totaled 120mins of exercise, and the previous 4 weeks you totaled 400mins of exercise (averaging 100min per week), this would equate to a ratio of 1.2 which puts you in the ideal range. However if you decided to do 210 mins of exercise in a week, and the previous 4 weeks total was 510mins (average 127.5) your Acute:Chronic workload would equate to 1.65, putting you at higher risk of injury. On the flipside if you had a week of doing very little exercise (only 30mins) and your 4 weekly total was 400mins (average 100), then your Acute:Chronic workload would equate to 0.3, again falling outside the ideal range.
You may have heard of the 10% rule, and we tend to recommend increasing your week to week training volumes by 10-20%. For example, if the previous week you did 100mins of exercise, then the week after you could do between 110-120mins.
What to do if you are overloading?
If you have done too much and feeling the effects of it, you rarely need to completely stop exercising: this will put you in the underloading category! Whilst continuing some exercise, focus should shift on to recovery: both physical and mental. Some examples might include increasing sleep, improved nutrition and meditation, but to read more about recovery head to our previous blog here.
What if you are underloading?
Get moving! We’ve written numerous ways you can do this in our blog here but the easiest way to get more movement into your day is with “movement snacks”. These are regular 10-15min bursts of activity spaced throughout the day. These could consist of walking, or more strenuous exercises like push ups, air squats, lunges, skipping. These daily, regular movement snacks are a sure way to increase your activity levels. And for the winter sport athletes out there, don’t forget to do these two things to keep you in shape for when the season starts in our blog here.