Taming the stimulus junkie – The not so sexy path to peak performance with Joseph Brigham

Human beings crave stimulus. Our ape brains go wild over shiny, flashy, loud, and pleasing tactile experiences.We are not unlike overgrown lab rats that continually push the button for pleasure instead of the button for nourishment, in the process starving ourselves metaphorically of the ability to thrive or make our lofty potential a reality. We are a slave to our inner stimulus junkie.

How many times have you done the thing that was pleasurable rather than the thing that would put you on the path to leveling up?Stayed out late drinking and missing training the next day, ruining a week of good intentions in the kitchen with an outlandish binge at the weekend, or messing up a good relationship by doing the wild thing with your co-worker. Life is meant to have pleasurable experience but when the pursuit and capturing of it spirals out to negatively effect the more wholesome lynch pins of your life – you are in the grip of a stimulus binge.

Being a junkie means being a slave to a form of stimulus to the point where your life revolves around the chasing and fulfilling of your need to scratch that particular itch. You are being controlled by it to the point where your rational thought is being side stepped and you gain more negative effects than good. There are more ways this can take hold of a human being than is in the scope of this article but the one in particular I want to touch on revolves around the stimulus of exercise and how it is detrimental to athletic performance.

That might sound like a paradox or contraindication. Surely to attain your peak you need to chase the stimulus of training, work hard, and devote your life to your craft?Yes you do need to be committed to your journey and work hard, but you also need to tame the stimulus junkie.The stimulus junkie manifests itself in athletes in the form of the PB/PR chasing, going all-out all the time, training multiple times per day, super-competitive, playing through the pain, win at all costs warrior.Go hard or go home, death or glory, chicks dig scars, walk it off, and brag about it.

This part of the athletes mindset can be very useful in the right situation – on race day, in a cup final, in the ring when a belt is on the line. It is the part of the brain that is a beast – like king-kong or godzilla – very handy in a fight but if you let it loose at the wrong time the result is less constructive. Better yet – you need to think of your stimulus junkie part of you as The Hulk, and you are Dr Banner. Sometimes you need to be smart, rational, and think things through.

In real terms this means that most of the time your training is not going to look like the montage from a Rocky movie filled with ball-breaking workouts, sprints, plyometrics, and showiness – in short, high stimulus training modalities. Most of the time you need to punch the clock and do the stuff that you need to be a robust, highly functioning, athlete with all the tools and energy in the tank to make it to the line at a peak in one piece. This means putting time in for mobility work, activating your weak muscles, putting in easy miles and building an aerobic base,  and grinding out the same fundamental movements every week to build mastery and strength. Taming the stimulus junkie means working on your weaknesses and maintaining your strengths – doing things you may not want to do and improving upon them to be a more complete athlete, rather than just hitting the things you enjoy in a workout.

Lets put this all in the context of today’s budding OCR athlete or Spartan Racer. The thing that makes the sport of Obstacle course racing so attractive for many is it is not just running. You get to break up the distance with tests of agility, strength, muscular endurance, and skill which are all generally quite a lot of fun on their own and will give you a buzz on completion – because of this it is often the Obstacle part of the acronym that is focused on. In reality this only makes up a small portion of what you need to work on to be good at the sport, the real focus for the competitive racer should be running because when you are racing you will be doing this more than anything else. You can work on all the obstacle technique that you like (which is the fun part of training for OCR) but if your running is not hitting a certain level you will not be competitive. Time to tame the need for stimulus and do the thing you need to do.

Even within getting better at running we need to tame the stimulus addict. Some may think you need to go out and run like you stole something in every training session in order to progress and get faster. This may work for a little while but the wear and tear on the body this causes means an overuse injury or burnout will be landing in your lap like a hand grenade before long. Here we see stimulus addiction being not just about the exercise you choose to do, but the intensity at which you choose too do it. This could be in part due to the mentality of “go hard or go home” that postures itself through athletic pursuits or because the athlete needs to feel like they have walked through hell in order for a workout to be defined as good. When you get stimulus addiction in check and focus on a sustainable path to a goal you will find that more often than not good workouts are the ones you can do week in week out without getting busted up. Just look at the 80/20 training principle that is popular and highly successful among runners.

The 80/20 method means performing 80% of your training at an easy intensity (Zone 2 or less if we are talking heart rate zones) and 20% of training at a moderate/high level. When applied to running this means at 80% of the time you are working at low intensity that is easy to recover from and allows you to build a strong aerobic base and perfect the skill of running while putting in more miles than you would be able to sustain at a much harder effort. Combining this with 20% of your work involving hard efforts, tempo runs, Vo2 max efforts, hill sprints, and track repeats means you get to work on high quality and high speed work in a ratio that won’t destroy you but instead make you faster for longer – something every runner wants.

For your gym work you may find yourself doing the same movements every week. Performing the fundamental human movements over and over again to get stronger, more powerful, or improve muscular endurance (depending on your training phase) – this often does not involve a lot of variety and is very much like punching the clock every week. This is not very glamorous and the desire may be to go to a crossfit class or boot camp where you are going to get beasted and do lots of fun movements with workouts that change every week. In reality this need for the workout to be fun is in part the stimulus addict inside craving a hard and interesting session. Be very wary of anything that will pull you away from working on what you need in favour of what you want. Achieving peak performance requires specificity – specific to your sport but also more importantly specific to you and your individual needs. Classes will only get you so far – a class workout is designed to be fun, stimulating, and get as many people as sweaty as possible. Does this sound like a path to excellence? To really unleash your potential you will need to quell the need for the stimulus of a beasting and the company of others (unless they have the same needs as you). Any class that claims it will build muscle, get you fitter, leaner, faster, stronger, and a selection of other diametrically opposed athletic gains is aimed at beginners because it is only beginners who can illicit these broad training responses from group training. 

So the majority of the time you are going to need to take a focused, workmanlike, clock-punching, and holistic approach to your training and have a program that meets your needs, improves weaknesses, and maintains strengths – but is there any time when the stimulus addict can be let out to play? The answer is yes – sometimes you need to blow off steam and let your inner animal hunt, fuck, and feast (maybe not just metaphorically speaking at times) in order to keep you sane as well as sharp. In pure training terms I achieve this by a monthly hard benchmark workout that involves an all out effort and some race simulation. You need to do this now and then to remind yourself you can fire on all cylinders and tap into that place where you are in zone 5 the whole session like you are competing for a podium place, you need to know you can handle the fire of competition and fucking hard efforts. The reason this is only once a month for me is because this allows me to tune my mindset for that workout as if I was coming up to a race, it is also because acts of real high intensity take proper rest afterwards to get back to your norm, and most importantly if you do too many high intensity efforts like this week in week out your ability to express a max is actually reduced as you water down intensity with more volume – thus the desired effect of the session is reduced dramatically with frequency.

Everyone is different though and depending on your mindset you may need more stimulus in your training in order to adhere to a program that will improve you as an athlete. You may need a couple of weekly group workouts for the sheer fun and camaraderie to give you a fix for your addict so you can punch the clock in those less sexy sessions you have to punch the clock with. Sometimes you need to find a trade-off and be flexible in order to make things work. OCR is not a professional sport where we get paid and ones life should be spent doing some things you enjoy in order to get the best out of it. This is a bigger picture approach you need to take as a coach especially because being competitive means different things to different people and as such their commitment to a program will come in at different levels. Not all athletes are the same and not all of them have the same awareness and control over their inner stimulus addict.

The fact is that we all crave stimulus in different ways and that this is not necessarily a bad thing. If you have ever seen a greyhound chase the electronic rabbit you can see that sometimes champions are born from that instinctual desire to fulfill a stimulus addiction. We can also see in cats chasing a piece of string how that fast agile hunter becomes a docile and disinterested animal once the string is not being made to move anymore and it is sitting firmly in its claws. The key is balance – you need that inner beast in order to stay hungry and exert performances at the top of your game (and sometimes just to simply be happy) but letting it have what it wants all the time takes away the potential power it has locked inside and it – control it, hone it, keep it hungry, and when it is time to unleash it you will be formidable.

3 ways to stay in charge of stimulus addiction

  1. Look honestly at your current training  habits and drives – do they work for or against you in the pursuit of your goal? If the answer is no – what would you need to change in order to clear a path to where you want to be? Once you know this you can make a plan of how to implement the new habits and how to avoid the outdated ones that don’t help you.
  2. Hold yourself accountable or get someone else to – set tasks and targets that you need to reach to help keep your new habits on course, or get a coach to help you do this and to help you stay the course.
  3. Schedule in times in your program to “let the beast out of its cage” – knowing that you have a time to let loose and let the addict out to play can help you stick to the more boring but helpful stuff you have to do. There is a time and a place for everything.

Coach Joe Brigham is a certified Strength & Conditioning & Spartan SGX Coach based in Hertfordshire.

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