Reading Biofeedback

We all know, or have been, that person that slashes their calories (and carbs) stupidly low, then embarks on hours of cardio every day, with lifting on top.

For the first couple of weeks you might feel good (hello adrenalin), see dramatic fat loss and believe you’re on the fast track to looking jacked and lean for life.

Then all of a sudden, you’re farting like Satan is inside your anus and trying to escape.
You can’t eat anything without blowing up and looking 6 months pregnant.
You can’t sleep longer than two hours at a time, and you feel most alert when you should be asleep.
You rely on caffeiene to keep yourself alert, and you can’t focus on anything.
You have dropped a lot of scale weight but you don’t look any leaner, and you can’t get a pump if your life depended on it, and
As soon as you start eating normally again, you seem to accumulate bodyfat and weight overnight.

This was me quite a few years ago, after following the advice of my very first “coach,” and pushing my body over 12 weeks to the point where it took me literally years to recover.  Sadly, this is not uncommon and often people who have little experience of nutrition and training will dive into a dramatic diet and exercise regime thinking it’s the best approach – only to give up in a few weeks (best case scenario) or carry on with it for months until they’ve totally fucked their bodies up (less common, but far more detrimental).

A huge part of my role as a coach is to educate my clients to understand how their bodies work, but also to empower them to be able to make adjustments based on how they are feeling and what changes they are seeing. 

If you know what signs to look for when you’re under recovered – you can reel your intensity / frequency back in and/or eat a bit more food and get more sleep.  You can stop underfeeding or overfeeding yourself, you can prevent injuries in the gym, you can prevent mental burnout.

If you can see that you have some more capacity to increase training, or can safely reduce or increase your calories further – you can do so knowing that you will see results and that your body is receptive to fat loss or mass gain. You can know how to adapt your approach to see a better result.

Understanding what biofeedback you need to pay attention to can thus have a huge effect upon not only your results, but also your concept of self-efficiacy.

Being confident knowing what to do, and feeling more empowered to do it has a huge impact on your performance, fat loss, muscle gain and success long term.  You can coach yourself.

So what is biofeedback?

Biofeedback is data.
It’s a series of things which you can track, both objectively and subjectively, that give you insight into how the stimuli you are giving your body (your diet, training methodology and rest) are working or not working.

All diets, all training programs and all recovery factors are a stimulus from which our bodies adapt. They are physiological and biological information from which we will ilicit a response.

The adaptations we seek might be fat loss, strength, performance increases or muscle gain, and by adjusting those three stimuli biofeedback will adjust up and down. They track your health, give clues as to what training style we need to select and provide insight into if your diet is sufficient for your goals.

Biofeedback indicators;

Waking Heart Rate:
Provides an insight into your level of physical fitness and conditioning.
Can indicate the level of overall stress on the body and the balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system, AKA the “rest and digest” system being active / balanced with flight or fight.

Stressed, under recovered and unfit people will have a higher waking HR due to levels of cortisol, adrenalin and other stress hormones such as CRH.

Ideal waking HR is between 50 and 60. It will go up if you are stressed, getting poor sleep, are not recovering from your workouts or undereating calories. People who lift heavy but neglect cardio will have a high HR, and a higher HR implies that tolerance to training intensity is low.

A lower resting HR can imply that you are physically capable of handling more volume, can recover faster between sets, and can train to a higher level of intensity. Over the course of a periodised program, you may find that your HR starts low and then progressively increases. If the intensity of your training has also increased and recovery has remained consistent, this shows your body is going through the alarm phase of a stress response and can be a good sign, provided you are able to recover from the increased stress.
Knowing when to pull back and when to train harder is critical to longevity in performance and body composition, and HR is a great tool to use for this purpose.

Waking Heart Rate (and HR during training) is an excellent way to get an idea of your overall health and ability to recover, tells of the loads you can manage and gives insight into choosing the right training style.

Digestion:
Indicator of overall stress on the body due to the connection between the sympathetic nervous system (ie flight fight / rest digest) and the gut. Gut cells can die under periods of prolonged stressors such as underfeeding, overtraining etc. CRH is a stress hormone released by the brain and directly affects the immune system and inflammation.
If you are experiencing intolerance symptoms to foods, getting more bloating, wind and irregular movements, it can be a sign that you are not recovering optimally and that your environmental stressors are too high.Elimination diets are helpful if you have GI issues but will not work until stress is managed (sleep / HR / fitness / food choices etc).
Feeling faint during training can be a result of glucagon induced hypoglycaemia and high stress levels. Checking your poop is an important way to assess the quality of your diet.
Take note of any changes to your gut and bowel movements, particularly if dieting and training very hard (particularly for a long period of time) or experiencing distress.

Blood Pressure:
Stress causes lack of blood flow to limbs and increases blood pressure. If high, it is very important to focus upon cardiovascular fitness, sleep and stress management. Reduce really heavy weight lifting / high % 1RM and get cardiovascularly fit. Ideal 100-120/70-80.
Don’t neglect cardio.

Weight:
Your weight will be affected by factors other than fat loss. Swelling, water retention, food volume, the amount of fibre in foods, the point you are at in your cycle, water intake, sodium intake, gut health and hormonal factors will all affect your scale weight.
Weight gives us a clue as to the energy balance you are in, but should be looked at in line with other factors ie health indicators, energy density and the ability for your body to sustain its current training regime on a calorie deficit or surplus. Large increases in weight after an increase in carbohydrates can show receptiveness to glycogen within the muscle cells.
It matters but needs to be looked at in reference to other biofeedback measures. Do not use as a singular measure of progress for mass gain or fat loss.  

Strength:
Important performance component. Can show if current diet is sufficient, if correct method of training has been chosen, recovery levels are good and if you have applied yourself to a program consistently. Good for mental health and self esteem to keep track of non visual accounts of your success, also an indicator for early mortality.
Strength losses can reveal weaknesses in other areas. You may need to increase your calorie and carbohydrate intake, and manage stress better if your strength goes down.

Muscle Pump:
If you are fit and healthy, you will have good blood flow and an increased capacity for storage of glycogen within your muscle. GLUT 4 more active and helps shuttle carbs into your cells. Those training for hypertrophy should take note as it can indicate muscular recruitment, isolation of specific movement patterns and sufficient load / intensity to create muscular damage.
If you’re trying to add or to prevent loss of muscle, it’s important to see this when you train. Lack of muscle pump during training can indicate the need to replenish glycogen. 

DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness):
If you’re not sleeping, your HR is up, you’re sore all the time and constantly getting weaker, that’s a big problem. Some DOMs are to be expected when doing a different training style or exercise, but it shouldn’t be debilitating. Being sore all the time is not a badge of honour but an indicator something isn’t right with your recovery. I really only like to see DOMs when I want to know that someone has recruited the right area(s) at the start of their programming block or where you’re learning a new technique.
You should be sore when doing something new / more challenging, but not sore after every session.

Hunger:
Provides insight into the quality and volume of your food, also on your overall stress levels and the adequacy of your current diet in regards to total calorie intake and macro split. Hunger shouldn’t be confused with psychological drives to eat for pleasure, which is appetite. Increases in your appetite are more likely to occur when food intake is set too low, you’ve lost a lot of weight, you eat habitually / mindlessly, you are stressed or you do not chew your food sufficiently.
Aim to eat slower and without distractions, and stop when reasonably full. Learn to distinguish between hunger (physical) and appetite (mental/emotional).

Sleep:
Exceptionally important for overall health, affects literally every aspect of your biofeedback. Lack of sleep can increase hunger and appetite, increase BP, resting heart rate, increase digestive problems, reduce recovery, reduce strength, reduce muscle mass. Even mild reductions in sleep will cause other biofeedback to change. Typically strength, digestion and resting heart rate will be affected first if you are not getting sufficient sleep.
Sleep loss will impair your performance and your enthusiasm for eating well / preference for convenience over nutrients.
Just as important as diet and exercise, and will affect the quality of  them, and our ability to adhere with consistency.

 

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