The Pain of Tech | Brian MacKenzie

Issue #32

I co-wrote a book several years ago on technology and the fitness world because I have had a long fascination with using technology to guide athletes and myself to make more optimal decisions about training. The most critical word in that last sentence is fascination. Before explaining how I use technology, I’d like to lay the framework for leading ourselves far away from the well by not picking up on our obsessive tendencies.  


Each of us obsesses about certain things we do from time to time. This becomes a pattern we adopt; before long, we claim it as an identity. Example: I use a heart rate monitor every time I train and won’t train without it. Another Example: I must look a certain way when I do X or go out into public, or it affects me negatively. Another Example: I must be in bed at a particular time, or it must be perfectly dark, cool, and quiet to sleep or fall asleep. It may not look like a disorder, and maybe it is. This is something you are the judge of. The point is, often, we aren’t paying attention to what is draining us because we believe it to be who we are or “just what we do.”


When it comes to technology, we are an interesting lot. So many of us, like me, crave the newest things that can do X or help us get more of our time back as if time outside of a practical sense existed. In our obsessive worlds we have glued ourselves to information we not only do not understand, but we are willing to let a significant portion of our lives be dictated by this lack of ability to understand how this information is genuinely relevant to us. For instance, many clients like me have used the latest peripheral HRV devices (wrist/fingers) to navigate how our training day should work. With these technologies, an HRV or Readiness Score gives us a number correlated with how much we are ready to get after it or not; simplified. Some of you might use a non-technology-based tool like the Exhale Assessment (CO2 Tolerance Test), and that’s your guidance tool. These are both two good examples of metrics for understanding adaptation. Typically, what we’d do with this information is correlate it (triangulate) with something like how well we slept or how much we did the other day.


While there is nothing wrong with anyone using these tools for what appears to be guidance, unless we are taking the time to understand how the totality of our lives impacts these things, we are probably just spinning the obsession wheel as I have. Many of us are simply spinning this wheel on a training program without ever taking the time to understand our emotional system’s impact on an entire 24-hour period.


Chronic stress is the leading cause of disease globally, and it has tentacles in cardiovascular/heart disease, cancer, diabetes, mental health, neurodegenerative diseases, and more. Our problem with chronic stress is it has a dual or biphasic nature to it. We either ignore it, or we obsess about it by thinking if we eat perfectly and train/work out every day the same, we will avoid the consequences of the pain we are hiding in this behavior. Yet, exercise is the number one way of avoiding the pitfalls of the health crisis by improving your health, and this is how the paradox becomes real.


We continue to leverage and put too much weight on the medical industry to prolong our suffering because we fail to look in the mirror. While gathering stats and using technology is fun, it has yet to make us healthier. We live longer while suffering in pain, pretending it’s normal, and that we are fine. How often have you answered the phone or a question when someone asks how you are doing, “I’m great,” or “I’m good” when you are not? This is not only culturally shoved down our throats, but our familial lines continue to pass on the depression. For what it’s worth, there is no depression gene or anxiety gene; these are sensitivities passed on genetically and ultimately show up emotionally. They are suppressed or reactively expressed through addiction and obsessive or suppressive behaviors. All of this–every last bit–impacts our physiology and if we come back to HRV (or the Exhale Assessment) and our nervous system or adaptability.


“I just want to train and be healthy man.” Then, lose the watch and start paying attention because we don’t have the time for the data. Here is why. Where professional athletes differ from the rest of us here is that they live on Groundhog Day for everything but their core training for the day. This means food, activities, sleep, and anything but training rarely, if ever, changes. 


For this reason, gathering data and directing it at performance as an indicator of success can be a great way to measure how well this program works. It is not, nor should it be, the sole thing for the professional. You and I, however, are the more elite athletes in terms of navigating information due to our lives constantly changing daily with the people we interact with, the job, the kids, the spouse, the family, the sleep, the time off, and the time on. And while professional athletes deal with some of this, performance for you and me is a terrible idea as one of our top indicators of success. Technology cannot help us with the leading indicator for us: contentment. The calm, clear, creative contentment that says whatever I am doing works. The paradox is that many of us believe happiness comes from our obsessive behaviors and struggle to understand the difference between neurosis and true joy. 


How I use technology today is vastly different from yesterday because I learned if I were going to be collecting information, I would want to understand enough variables to make the right decision for myself and my clients. Physiology does not lie, and while I use several tools to measure things (metabolic carts, muscle oxygen, SPO2, hemoglobin, HR/HRV, core/skin temperature, CO2TT, Step Assessments, Breath Holds, Altitude/Hypoxia), none of them means anything without the communication I have with the client on what is going on. Did you fly today? How was your sleep? Did you eat late, stay up late, drink, etc., etc.? How is your personal life? Yeah, there’s that one too.


I can say confidently that no single person I’ve spoken with or worked with doesn’t realize emotional stress is the biggest culprit in our day-to-day fluctuations in how we feel and our health in general. However, I can also confidently say that 100% do not accurately understand how our attention impacts our emotional stress and, ultimately, our lives and how we should be altering our daily lives. It is not the same way every day. This is why it is essential to understand the technology trap. In most cases, we cannot have the attention required to understand the data we are looking at because of how much we take on. 


If my HRV is higher and over-reaching more parasympathetically, do I just go easier, or can I do something to help my body get the rest it is asking for? Just because my readiness score reads 65%, that doesn’t mean we don’t move. Is it Yoga? Is it a walk? Is it Zone 1 or Zone 2 work? Or maybe some Strength & Conditioning Recovery. Is it hypoxic/altitude work? While this may be even more confusing, and you may not have the answer, that is fine. When in doubt, drop the tech and start your regular warm-up; pay attention to how you feel during and after that warm-up. If you’re feeling better, approach the workout with your feelings, not your thoughts. If it’s strength and asking for a rep range, you should know real quick in moving weight if you’re going to hit numbers you would if you weren’t fried. There is excellent research on grip strength and readiness. So if moving weight isn’t something you’re used to for gauging things, hang from a bar, and if your grip feels weak, you can bet your central nervous system is crying. If it’s crying, go for a walk instead of training and see how you show up the next day. Or do a few leisurely rounds with lots of rest between some push-ups, pull-ups, sit-ups, and lunges. Then, see how you feel the next day. Play this game with your training to learn where these things can have big returns, as one is bound to set you up to feel much better the next day. 


I’d be remiss (ha) if I did not address the elephant in the room on this one, and I know if you’re still reading, this wasn’t a short one, so if you are still here, I will wrap this up. While you and I can play these games of piecing together how we use tools and tricks to rebound our physiology into a place where we think it is functional, it is not if we are not addressing the torturous underworld we live in. The one where the self-esteem of some 5-year-old kid is living itself out in an adult body, pretending the discomfort of not communicating, protecting, avoiding, and trying to know as much about nothing as possible while just trying to earn a living doesn’t affect us at all. Nothing has affected every one of us more at this stage of civilization. Living longer is the cruel joke we’ve played on ourselves through this compensation pattern. Avoiding the truth that our attention is on far too much to have a strong enough opinion based on real-time information on data we can’t possibly make sense of. This is why we teach awareness as the foundational tool of all tools, including technology. You and me having the awareness of our behaviors and where we can modify them is the ultimate goal. If technology is helping you do this, keep going. If it simply prolongs confusion and exacerbates more neurotic control issues, walk away and free that mind! Your heart and your physiology will thank you.