What Is Circulo-Respiratory Distress?

How do you get tougher? Before I give you tips on how to increase your toughness in your training, let me go a bit more deeply into what it means to be tough.
How do you get tougher? Before I give you tips on how to increase your toughness in your training, let me go a bit more deeply into what it means to be "tough."

There are basically two types of toughness: physical and mental. Physical toughness refers to the tissue's resistance to failure: how much can it absorb before meeting ultimate failure point and tear. If you're de-conditioned, your chances of choking, tanking and quitting increase. Mental toughness refers to your ability to resist failure when faced with hopelessness, overwhelming odds, surprise, or shock. Mental toughness builds upon the physical, as Lombardi reminded us long ago: fatigue makes cowards of us all.

If you've ever done high volume training with Clubbells, sandbags or even your own bodyweight, you're intimately acquainted with your mind's little gremlins which invade to stop you from your course. All strength endurance activities undergo this process.

I believe my first notice of the phenomenon came in years of grappling multiple times throughout tournaments. But it was only when sprinting with a weighted backpack up a mountain for year straight that I saw the repeating pattern. I ran that beast every morning and chronicled my internal experience of it each time I arrived at the summit.

In my journal after aggressively scaling to the top every morning that I began to recognize a reoccurring theme: I referred to it in different terms such as "hitting the wall," "puncturing the membrane," and "encountering the resistance." Surrounding this 'resistance' timed perfectly a host of excuses to shroud itself: not enough food, too sore from yesterday, too early, too late, too tired, et cetera. In my journal I noticed that these mind hobgoblins always appeared immediately preceding my recognition of the 'resistance.'

I remember having a discussion with my wife that training feels like an endless cycle of starting over. Life isn't that one long dreamy increase of gains, but rather an upwardly spiraling development. From the top view it looks like we're just running in circles. Everyone wants to extend the gains one achieves after having pushed beyond the initial two weeks of resistance when one returns from an injury, a period of recovery, a vacation or even a different type of training. When you return, you receive that not-so-warm welcome from 'Resistance' telling you that it was pissed by your absence. And so you must begin again to confront and overcome that wall.

Have you ever returned after a break and found your mind says that you're not "in shape for this yet?" It's at that point we must realize that you will not be "in shape" until we move beyond the mind's utterance of that resistance.

What Is Oxygen Debt?

When you push the threshold of your activity, you expend more oxygen in your muscles than you have taken in, popularly called Oxygen Debt. To repay this debt, your body implores you to heave heavily to replenish your system with oxygen. If you continue to push by and through this debt, you cause a sub-cortical adaptation which adjusts your circulo-respiratory process.

This shift enables you to continue strenuous or prolonged physical activity with renewed vigor and greater comfort - often referred to as second wind. You may transition with dramatic suddenness or subtly unnoticed until somewhere in the activity you realize you're no longer in distress and actually enjoy the groove you've found.

This phenomenon is called Circulo-Respiratory Distress (CRD), something scientists still cannot explain though some neurologists surmise that the cerebrum adapts to the physical distress of exercise by facilitating more efficient neuromuscular coordination. Basically, your wind gets better because your body grooves the activity to use less effort for the same motion.

I prefer the term gear over "wind," because I believe that you can encounter multiple (increasingly more efficient) levels of distress in one activity. You can encounter layer after layer of resistance in an activity, like gears on your vehicle's transmission: as you wind out the RPMs the engine strains until the shift occurs and engages a new level of performance efficiency. The most gears I've ever detected were four in a 42-mile run - my longest and most grueling.

Each membrane punctured creates a new level of neuromuscular coordination. Are there limits? If there are, they are well beyond the conventional levels. There are physical cults surrounding this phenomenon such as the "marathon monks," Buddhists who run for 100-day self-exploration odysseys - and the whirling Dervish of the Sufi tradition who will spin in a circle endlessly chanting.

Why do you push into this level of discomfort? Why do you do such a thing? Your life is not threatened. And not threatened, your body creates all manners of phantom pains, nausea, emotions and thoughts imploring you to STOP!

In sport psychology, it's called your threshold ? your Mental Toughness. If you push through distress, you create a neurological adaptation and you become one increment tougher. By pushing the envelop you allow your body to overcome the resistance by adapting to it.

Your toughness can be defined as your threshold of pain (though here we're discussing C-R Distress.) How much can you take before you quit, how resilient are you, how resistant are you to failure? In my course FLOW-FIGHTING: Mental Toughness for Martial Arts and Combat Sports, I described your threshold of performance as equals your threshold of pain - a concept introduced by Dr. Grigori Raiport, M.D., Ph.D. former Soviet Olympic sport psychologist in his book, Red Gold. Basically, your only limit is how much you're willing to endure.

The ultra-high reps of Clubbell swinging could easily be the toughest strength-endurance sport in history. Iranian strongmen, called Pahlavan, swung record thousands/day, such as Pahlavan Alireza Solymani - the 6-time winner of Pahlavani armlet and former heavy weight world free-style wrestling champion (who defeated Bruce Baumgartner in the 1989 finals).

This is why I denote this level of training at the top of the 3D Performance Pyramid.

You will experience this distress at the level of GPP, and every level in between, but only at the Mental/Emotional Skills level does it become a conscious battle - for by that time you've repeatedly encountered CRD and all of the aches, feelings and thoughts it creates. After repeated exposure, you need to see that finding your "wall" and surpassing its resistance is the ONLY and TRUE goal of fitness and athleticism.

People become obsessed with the external expression of this: the iron put on their dead-lift, the seconds shaved on their 100 meter-dash, and the reps on their Clubbells?. But these are just shadows of the real victory. Why in competition do some break their personal records, then in the same day, break their new records, then again with even better records? Simply, because the numbers are a distraction. Once they find their groove and overcome resistance, the walls of limitation crumble. In other words, surpassing your threshold of pain is the real triumph.

What Can You Do To Facilitate The Adaptation To CR Distress?

I tried to introduce this in my article on Intuitive Training, but I suspect it will require future installments. Your intuition notes the distress as the goal, and as something POSITIVE. The discomfort you feel should be a signpost that you are approaching the real goal, and that it's just right around the corner waiting for you ? neurological adaptation.

Coaches often arm themselves with tricks to help athletes go around that corner. My first training experience in Russia had me running 30km at 0-dark-30 with about 40 Spetsnaz instructors from around their country BEFORE morning combat practice began. We were so jet lag in that pitch black frozen "trot" that we were told that the training barracks was "right around the next bend" for about the last 15km. Fun, fun.

Coaching is a difficult task, because athletes sometimes "project" their level of distress on the coach - associate the 'cause' with CRD. They misunderstand the discomfort as unnecessary and certainly don't recognize it as the GOAL. When people don't take responsibility for monitoring their condition and following safety regulations, they may strain themselves and then rabidly blame the coach. Sad, but true.

But you don't need a coach to push yourself to neurological adaptation beyond CRD, if you use tools such as these:

Tools To Push Yourself

Performance Breathing With The Control Pause:
Next time you experience CRD, decrease speed but continue the activity while exhaling hard and deep in short bursts. When you fully exhale and nothing remains, hold that compression for 2-3 seconds without inhaling. Typically, it will only require 10-15 repetitions to rapidly facilitate your CRD adaptation so you can resume normal speed. The science behind this is explained in my article Counter-Conditioning Dysfunctional Breathing Patterns.

Role-Model Dignity:
You are what you pretend to be like the old saying goes, "if you want to be happy, smile." It's the first technique we were taught for H2H fighting in Russia: have no expression on your face to prevent excess emotional arousal. If you're bent over heaving your guts into the Earth, you will worsen CRD not better it. Remain calm, pretend to be in no distress, keep your face relaxed, breath easily, keep form and keep moving. You will adapt much more rapidly to CRD if you keep your dignity even if you only feign it.

Performance Mantras:
I introduced this phrase to the public last year in my articles and it's really latched on. A PM is a memetic phrase you repeat in your head during the activity to ensure that you focus upon your performance and not any of the distractions caused by CRD. An effective PM efficiently integrates breathing, movement and structure (the definition of proper "form.") For instance, in each snatch you repeat, GRIP, SNAP, FLOAT, DRIVE: a technique you've honed so that your breathing coalesces with the movement and your alignment. Bear down on your PM when CRD approaches. With every increasingly "louder" objection CRD creates, allow that to push your focus deeper upon your PM.

This technique was developed by Dr. Raiport (in his book Red Gold: Peak Performance Techniques of the Russian and German Olympic Victors) in working with Soviet athletes, and involves reframing your imperative desires upon external goals to declarative intentions upon internal experience. For instance, rather than saying to yourself, "I MUST get these final two sets," say to yourself, "I finally created my tiny wall. I want this distress. I have succeeded!" Think or say these while smiling. Smiling produces endorphins, pain killers which will carry you through CRD.

Such mental declarations echo through all of your subsystems, and "attract" positive adaptation. Basically, the more that you impose upon your organism and seek to bend it to your will, the stronger the CRD resistance you create. However, if you embrace it, mentally, being NEURO-muscular coordination, you hasten the sub-cortical adaptation to the CRD.

This is only one aspect of Mental Skills, doesn't address all of Mental Toughness Training and doesn't address Emotional Control; the other half of development interwoven into the top of the 3D Performance Pyramid.

Keep working the top of the Pyramid!

Be sure to check out my article:
Double-D: 8 Minutes Of Delicious Torture!

Faith Matters.

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