Breaking The Chain

I have many alter-egos, one of which enjoys flying airplanes. One thing to know about pilots is that we are almost obsessed with accident reports. Not from a morbid point of view, but from a “you’ll never live long enough to make all the mistakes yourself so learn from someone else’s misfortune” standpoint. About 99% of the time, accidents are the last link in a chain of events that began usually before the plane ever left the ground. In some cases, things that happened days or weeks before the final flight play a role. Investigations therefore can take months and by that time, the 24 hour news cycle has moved on, leaving the public to assume that the immediate “OMG THE PILOT DIDN’T FILE A FLIGHT PLAN” speculation of what happened was the actual cause.

In the exercise world, things are much safer, but the long link of an “accident” chain can still affect you. Injuries are often the culmination of bad form over time, or a distraction combined with lack of sleep, or maybe rushing to finish by a certain time. Using aviation styled investigation methods, you can probably go back at least 12-24 hours to find a whole host of factors that conspired to result in you sitting on the floor in pain wondering what happened. Here is an example of how innocuous these factors can be.

Last week one of my clients wasn’t feeling well and cancelled our appointments. Today was the first time I had seen her in close to two weeks due to her work schedule. In that time the daily temperature had gone from mid 60s to high 80s and very dry. She showed up ready to work as she had 5 sets of squats to get through before doing some lighter lifts. After a couple warmup and reorientation sets (drive through the heels, feet a little wider, now it’s coming back, you’ve got it now), she went to her first working set. The weight for the working set was the same as it was the last time she worked out, however the number of reps was lower to compensate for her absence. After her second set, she leaned into me and said she didn’t feel right and was slightly dizzy. That and her arms felt very weird, like they didn’t belong to her. Knowing that out of body experiences during exercise is generally not a good thing, I immediately took her into the hallway where there was a breeze from the air conditioning unit and had her sit on a bench. Needless to say the rest of her training was cancelled and I made sure she sat for a long time and drank plenty of water before sending her home (with a mandated stop to get food on the way). What went wrong? A conversation with her revealed a lot of things that played a role:

1. A week before she had a stomach virus. That depleted energy reserves and also reduced the number of calories she ate for that week. So her body was still playing catch-up by the time she got to the gym this week (2 causes).

2. She did not sleep very much the night before our workout (1 cause).

3. Our training time was at 5pm. The last time she ate was breakfast at 6am (1 cause).

4. The gym was extra warm due to the 5pm rush of people. We forget how much heat a human body can generate, especially when it is expending energy (humans at rest generate roughly 70-100 watts, those working out can output anywhere from 500-3000 watts depending on intensity). Collect 50 people in a small space, add in big windows and Texas afternoon sunshine and the air conditioning system that worked fine at 1pm can quickly be overwhelmed (3 causes).

5. Her workout attire was heavy, which I should have noticed and made adjustments for. The last time we worked out, the outside temperature was at least 15 degrees cooler. She admits to buying her moisture-wicking pants during the winter so she could go on long runs without getting cold. This morning she just threw them in her bag without thinking about the weather. The same held true for her shirt, which was a thick 100% cotton t-shirt (technically 2 causes).

6. Her breathing was very shallow on her sets. This is something else I have to be more proactive in correcting with everyone since just saying “deep breath” doesn’t cut it (1 cause).

There you go. At least 10 separate causal factors led to her not feeling well. Just like an aircraft accident, the initial response of untrained observers would simplistic and incorrectly obvious like, “You pushed her too hard!” or “See? Squats are evil!”. The fact that her workload was lower and she felt the effects early in the workout show that it wasn’t the exercise alone that caused it. It took some Ed Bradley style investigation to backtrack and discover the true genesis. There is a good chance the situation could have been avoided if I had demanded more details when I asked how she felt before we started working out. I always ask my clients if they feel good, but the way I say it probably sounds more like a trainer greeting than an actual inquiry.

In aviation, we use checklists to make sure that important items pertaining to aircraft operation are not forgotten. The widespread use of checklists has prevented thousands of accidents over the years by reminding pilots of what needs to be done when memory alone would be unreliable. We also use checklists to verify that our own bodies and minds are ready to assume the responsibility of piloting an aircraft. Having a solid way to measure risk can be helpful when determination, ego, inexperience or scheduling issues are trying to force you to do something that your body is quietly protesting. The most popular one, IMSAFE can easily be applied to workouts.

Try using this checklist for yourself the next time you train. You may be surprised but I guarantee there will be at least one item on the list that you are deficient in. That’s not a problem, as long as you know ahead of time and make appropriate adjustments in your program. If you have a lot of items marked, that’s a sign that you may want to defer the workout to a later time (sometimes having a light meal and waiting a couple hours can make all the difference in the world).

As we head into summer it is critical to pay attention to our environment and our bodies to ensure that we are indeed ready to exert ourselves. Being diligent can stop the accident chain from progressing to an undesirable conclusion. I encourage my clients to cancel if they don’t feel right and you should too. Despite what many trainers will tell you, you don’t HAVE to workout…at least today…if you don’t feel right. Wars will not erupt, tsunamis will not inundate the eastern seaboard and comets will not bombard the earth if you skip your lifts. When you only got 3 hours of sleep before working a 10 hour day with no lunch, its better to go home, eat, sleep and do the lifts on a day when you’re fully alert and fuelled. Going in exhausted means that at best, you’re half-assing it and at worst it means the ambulance shows up.

Oh and if your trainer makes you keep working out after you get dizzy, nauseous or otherwise disoriented, fire them.