It all started when Jef Geys won a race he had been expecting to lose. A promising competitive cyclist with his eye on the Tour of Flanders, he was just 20 years old and his motto was: “The harder I train, the better I get.” Training was never a chore. He believed in pushing himself to his limits and beyond. “If I didn’t do so well in one race, I trained extra hard for the next one,” he says.
So when his sports physician ordered him to rest for two weeks after he had put in a dismal showing on one circuit, he figured that was the end of the season for him. Geys had been overtraining and his blood pressure was so low that he felt faint regularly. So it was a relief to be forbidden to train.
After two weeks, however, he was given the go-ahead to get back in the saddle. So he signed up for a local road race, with every expectation that he would not make it through the first round and would be home in time for tea. "To everyone's surprise, mine most of all, I won the race," he explains in Rest is the New Sport, his book on fatigue and fitness.
That was 1996 and it was the first step on his journey to understanding that when it comes to exercising, pushing ourselves to do more is not always the best way to improve our performance or our health.
Geys, who is now a sports physiotherapist in his native Belgium, began by learning not to ignore signals, such as the desire to rest, and took it from there.
Any good fitness instructor or personal trainer will try to instil in their client an understanding of the value of rest and letting the body recover after training. Geys takes this a step further, however.
Feeling tired at the end of a busy day is normal, he writes, and as long as you recover after a good night’s sleep, you have nothing to worry about. A surprising number of people don’t wake up feeling refreshed, however.
Research conducted at his Primefit clinics in Antwerp and Brussels shows that 70 per cent of his clients are tired in one or more ways. This affects their physical and mental health, and performance.
“A body that is not in balance cannot benefit from a health programme – fitness or diet – and expect positive results from it,” he says.
Part of the problem is that we treat the symptoms alone using meditation, diet or exercise. When tiredness hits, we tend to use quick fixes to keep going instead of understanding the underlying causes of our symptoms and changing our lifestyle. Geys helps clients to overcome fatigue and boost their fitness using a holistic approach that takes in nutrition, exercise, mental relaxation, sleep and rest.
It all begins with asking the question: What kind of tired are you?
“My approach differs in that I start from the premise that we can suffer from four distinct types of fatigue – physical, mental, hormonal, and metabolic – which can occur in isolation or simultaneously,” he says. “From then on, my tips are focused on the type of fatigue suffered. When I say every person is unique I don’t mean it in a cliché kind of way . . .”
The book, which was a bestseller in Belgium, explains how different types of tiredness manifest. Those pushing themselves too hard physically may find they struggle to control their emotions, feel exhausted but have a hard time falling asleep, for example. Hormonal fatigue can manifest as dizziness, recurring sore throats or difficulty concentrating. Those who are mentally fatigued can feel forgetful, apathetic and oversensitive to stimuli. The metabolically fatigued have no energy or appetite, but do have trouble sleeping. There are many more symptoms mentioned in the book.
The four types of fatigue influence and exacerbate each other, he writes, but to begin to get back to full strength you need to recognise which type is predominant. Then you can follow a suitable training programme to get you back to health.
Advice for those who are mentally fatigued includes not setting the bar too high. “Don’t go for any ambitious, intense training programmes . . . if possible, train in a quiet environment, like a forest, where you can enjoy the fresh air. Plan relatively short sessions, lasting between 30 and 45 minutes.”
Those who are hormonally fatigued are advised to get involved in morning training so as to activate the body.
A strenuous gym routine at the end of a difficult day at work may help to make you feel that you are releasing tension, but that is only the short-term effect of the adrenaline boost, he warns. Training or working out is another form of stress, though it is one you can control.
Stress can be caused by issues at work, worrying about bills and relationships but training is also seen by the body as a stressor.
“Stress is not the bad guy,” he says. “Stress is necessary. The point is, how long does it take you to get back to your norm? The tips in this book will help you to follow the advice relevant to the type of fatigue you suffer and ultimately to improve the functional state of your body, so the impact of work or sport or whatever activity you choose doesn’t generate unmanageable stress.”
In his book, which is subtitled Identify your Fatigue, Improve your Recovery, Decrease your Biological Cost, Geys describes the best way to get back on track. Reducing the amount of stress in your life is not as important as building your capacity to adapt and recover.
The idea is to help you to get to a state where you don’t feel exhausted, have more energy to train and recover well after exercise.
"The biggest mistake people make while trying to improve their fitness is to assume that their body is in balance and ready to benefit from a training session," he says. That is often not the case, though most fitness programmes and classes operate on assumption that the client is in relatively good shape. This book can help to address that issue."
Sign up for one of The Irish Times' Get Running programmes (it is free!).
First, pick the programme that suits you.
- Beginner Course: This programme is an eight-week course that will take you from inactivity to being able to run 30 minutes non-stop.
- Stay On Track: The second programme is an eight-week course for those of you who can squeeze in a 30- to 40-minute run three times a week.
- 10km Course: This is an eight-week course designed for those who can comfortably run for 30 minutes and want to move up to the 10km mark.
Best of luck!