Originally published on 31 Aug, 2013 on Sportskeeda.
Zinda hai to pyala poora bhar le. That line from Bhag Milkha Bhag resonates deep. It translates to “If you’re alive, fill the cup full.” In the movie, Milkha would take off his vest and twist it on top of a bucket to collect his sweat. Perhaps that’s where that line comes from. If you’re alive, might as well as push yourself to the brink. That school of thought in training has been around for quite a while. It’s called Training to Failure.
Before reading further, understand that pushing yourself too far is not recommended unless you are a serious athlete. Even then, I’d advice you to look up a professional trainer who can help you push your limits. If you want to push your plateau on your own, make sure that you also put as much effort when you stretch, warm up and cool down.
A Phoenix dies in flames and is reborn from the ashes, more splendid than before. There is perhaps no better visualization for an athlete to think of while thinking of training to failure. Training to failure is defined as repeating an exercise to the point of momentary muscular failure. The idea of training to failure has been around forever, along with trepidation of pushing oneself too far. On one hand you want to get better, on the other you want to avoid long term damage. A general rule of thumb says that you are less likely to push yourself too hard than to exceed your limits. Here’s a look at the dilemma.
How do you know that you have reached or crossed your limits? It is only by exceeding them that you can push them further. So when should you stop? Personally, I’d suggest never stopping until the body refuses to go on. Provided that you are not suffering from any ailment, you can generally push through pain in your muscles. It’s when the joints start to ache that you should consider pain as a warning sign, according to an experiment by Dr. Schultz.
Often, effort is equated with time. The more time you spend working out, the more effort you are said to be putting in. “I put in two hours in the morning and two in the evening. That must mean that I am doing it right.” The idea behind working out, be it lifting weights or going on a long run or working on your game, is the same – to push yourself beyond the point of exhaustion. If training to failure, you need to be crawling back home or have to be carried back. Train so hard that your muscles refuse to respond any further.
There are many reasons why athletes may shy away from pushing themselves too far. Maybe there is a big game the next day. Maybe they don’t want to risk injury. Maybe they are not motivated enough. Maybe there is a limit to how hard they should push themselves. After all that’s why they have coaches, to push them within reason. Its different when a coach pushes an athlete to the point of collapse. In that case the athletes can safely think to themselves that they have put themselves in the hands of an experienced coach. You don’t have to worry if you may be going too hard or soft, and if you are then the blame lies with the coach.
The thing is the coach will only push you within reason.The ideal coach is probably one who isn’t out to push you to near death everyday. Without the safety of such tutelage, you can push yourself beyond the point of reason and in doing so extend the point of reason every single day. Until it exceeds your wildest expectations.
Milkha Singh would train to the point of failure on a routine basis. He would faint and have to be admitted to a hospital for recovery. He would spit out blood because of intense training. Routinely pushing his physical and mental limits placed him in a position to win 77 out of 80 races. Conservative thought would have us refrain from gross over exertion. But there are studies which show that unless there’s an injury, one did not need to use pain as an indicator to stop.
Those who lift weights often try to keep going until their muscles don’t respond anymore. Then they do a couple more sets. Blake Griffin has said that he would lift weights which seemed beyond his capability. If someone told him that he can’t lift a certain level of weights, he would take that as a personal affront and proceed to lift it.
Cyclists often push themselves way beyond their comfort zone. They try to push up their lactate threshold to the point where they can just change the gears and their cadence, and recover back after a trying push. Runners do a similar variation of training to failure. It’s a Swedish method called Fartlek training. Fartlek training is designed to push your body beyond its limits. The principle behind it is to go really hard in bursts, slow down and recover, and again speed up. It sounds simple but you have to design the routine in a way to make it challenging and sustainable.
Once again you have to question yourself, “Do I keep pushing myself or should I slow down?” If you’re asking yourself that, chances are they you will slow down. To even consider the question of slowing down is to plant the suggestion in your head that there’s a chance of your body being incapable of going the distance.
To train to failure is to die and be reborn. Not everyone wants to, or should do it. But if you have little to lose, you might as well go for it. Don't rush out to do so without proper medical supervision though.