CrossFit workouts are hard. If you’re really working, you’ll be at your physiological limit. You’ll have a deficit of oxygen, a surplus of carbon dioxide, and your respiratory drive will be amped up to try and suck in as much air as possible. Your muscles will fill with acid as metabolic energy systems red-line to produce energy. Every system in your body is straining to hold it together, to not shit yourself and perform.
When you finally finish, it feels so nice to simply lie down on the ground and rapidly suck air like a fish out of water. Besides, that’s what all the cool people in CrossFit do.
I used to do it too. I was wrong. (circa 2008)
Let’s ignore the fact that lying down is symbolic of giving up. Let’s ignore the fact that flopping on the ground and showing your belly is an act of submission. Let’s also ignore how there’s zero practicality in it since you would never do this in an emergency situation, a fight, or a combat scenario. Let’s just focus on it’s physiological shittiness.
By the way, yes, I’m saying if you flop after a workout or WOD that you’re symbolizing giving up, submitting, and not training yourself to recover on the move.
What’s Going On During Peak Work Output
Let’s review “conditioning”. It’s a term I use to imply “WOD”, “met-con”, “energy system development”, and other fancy terms. In FIT we even say “high intensity endurance training” since that’s what is (we’re consistent with endurance research terminology). Conditioning the body occurs in two ways: physically and metabolically. In my chapter in FIT, I talk about how conditioning the structures for various movements is important, and then I explain conditioning the energy systems. It’s a multi-purpose term, but all of its definitions are important in programming training. Here we are talking about high intensity conditioning workouts.
Generally speaking if you impart an efficient sub-lethal stress on the body and allow proper recovery, the result is an increase in performance (AKA super compensation). We use conditioning to improve work output performance.
The paradigm Dr. Kilgore and I developed for conditioning is the high intensity forces a deficit in substrates, and that deficit is the stress that the body isn’t used to that forces the adaptation. Substrates are converted into energy. If you make the body use up a lot of those substrates, it has trouble converting them to energy. The body says, “Holy crap, I need to be able to handle this better in the future,” so it adapts and improves performance.
But this high intensity has side effects, and I briefly alluded to them in the first paragraph. Let’s focus on the lactic acid build up as a result of pushing muscles to their limit. Generally speaking, the pH of blood is relatively neutral, yet having a lot of acid get into the blood stream will lower the pH and make it more acidic.
What’s The Result
Changing the pH of the blood is something the body isn’t used to, and buffering the pH back to normal levels is part of the body’s adaptation. This is just one small element to a complicated metabolic system, but I’m focusing on it for the sake of discussion.
Let’s say you’re doing a lot of stuff with your legs. You’ve been doing thrusters, sprinting, and box jumps. Your legs feel feel useless, like you physically cannot move them on your next sprint round. It’s because they are engorged with acid and blood as a result of the physiological changes. They are likely in a deficit of oxygen and maybe glucose (both are substrates). Their entire physiologic environment is disrupted to a point where they cannot function properly.
Now, you may notice that after a short recovery, about three minutes, they will feel good enough to exert again. But sometimes you’ll finish a workout and you just feel completely fucked up. I remember feeling this way the first time I did “Fran” and “Cindy” or most summer football workouts.
The reason you feel so shitty after an intense workout is they have a local effect on muscles and structures, but also a systemic effect. The systemic effect is why these workouts are effective at increasing fitness, but it’s also why so many people get injured or burned out because they do too much and the system can’t recover.
To Flop Or Not
Think about the two minutes after finishing one of these hellacious workouts. The body constantly aims for homeostasis, but instead it’s experiencing a hurricane. CO2 levels are high, O2 levels are low, acid is rampant, blood vessels are dilating, the heart is wildly pumping, breathing muscles are on overdrive, the alveoli of the lungs are stressed due to the rapid breathing — the whole fucking body is going crazy.
And then the brain decides to just lie down. It’s cool bros, we just need to have ourselves a sit down.
Everyone reading this is aware their legs are on the bottom of their body and that their heart is near the top. You intuitively know gravity pulls straight down into the earth. This poses a problem for venous return to the heart, so natural selection developed one-way valves in the veins to prevent a back-flow of blood. Also, when skeletal muscles contract, they squeeze the veins to help push blood up and back to the heart (since the pressure from the heart is too weak to do it alone).
Imagine those legs are full of acid and CO2 and lack oxygen. If the body listens to the brain and lies down, the muscles aren’t helping to pump the acidic blood. No flow means no O2/CO2 exchange and no acid buffering.
This means that for the entirety of lying down, your legs are not dealing with the chemical environment that caused them to not work properly. This means that you’re exposing them to this chemical environment longer than they need to. This means that you’re potentially causing more and/or unnecessary damage to this area. This means that you could be delaying your recovery and limiting your performance increase.
The amount of detriment is arbitrary; there’s not a practical way to quantify the debilitating effect of lying down. The point is that by putting your body flat on the ground and remaining still only means your body isn’t recovering as well as it could. And if you give enough of a shit to do this to yourself in the first place, then why not do everything you can to recover well? There’s a reason track coaches include a cool downs in their programming; it helps take bad stuff out and the circulation brings good stuff in.
Instead, Do This
Stay on your feet and walk around. Yeah, I know it sucks, but the pain fades away. Put your hands over your head or grab onto something, and go through the “frantic catching of the breath” process, but start walking around as soon as you can. I’m not in the “Tommy Tough Guy says, ‘Don’t be a pussy,'” clan, but you shouldn’t train yourself to be one. Lying down is defeat, it’s submission. It also says, “I’m not ready for what’s next.” So stay on your feet and keep moving. You’ll recover faster and you won’t look like a diva who feels sorry for himself.