T Nation

Training and Mental Health

Hey coach,

I had a bit of forced lay off last week and thought I’d check out some of your back catalog of work. So I went to your web site to lift-run-bang.

Whilst I was there I read your bit on Michael Phelps and depression. I found it fascinating. And I wondered if you have any thoughts on the sort coaching changes you’d need make for guys (and gals) with metal health issues.

I’ll explain why I’m asking. I have a long standing metal health complaint. It’s caused lots of training holidays. Every time I make a bit of head way I stop for a year as I implode.

But little by little I have made changes in to my attitude towards training and nutrition. And it’s paying off. I’ve had recent setbacks that in the past would have caused me bottom out and call it quits. But fortunately this time I feel more able to keep plugging away. Its no silver bullet but I’m doing better than I ever have been.

This thing is – I’m aware my “tool box” is still very small. And I wondered if you have thing you’ve used to help people with either chronic or acute mental health issues carry on where once they might have failed.

If that’s too open ended a question – hypothetically: a client comes to you and said “I have depression. It’s quite bad. I’m staying off meds for now as I want to try and work though this – but life is a struggle”.

Where would you go with that training wise?

Like what? If you don’t mind talking about it, of course.

Sure – I don’t mind talking. I can’t really start a thread like this and then get coy about a few questions. I’m happy to share.

FYI – I’m cyclothymic – think bi polar “lite”. The way I explain it to my wife and friends is – if the normal emotional range is between 1-10. I go from 1-20. Bipolar is 1-40. And there is not always a logical reason behind it. I can fall from 20 – 0 and back to 20 in a moment. Or I can get stuck at a level for days, weeks or months. Good or bad. No reason.

With regards to the resent “would be” set back: I started the year with a new job and with it the ability to train again. I had plans of where I wanted to be and when. I started well. I lost 8 kg in 9-11 weeks and got a bit of strength back. However injury and illness and have set me back. To be fair in the last 3 months I’ve been very stagnant for one reason or another. I’ve missed several targets and dates.

In the past this lack of progress and failure to hit dates has caused a deterioration in mood, especially towards food and training. This in turn limits my effectiveness during training and increases calorie intake. And as I’m using training and good nutrition as a way to improve mood, you can see how the spiral starts.

In the past this stagnation might have caused me to call it quits and walk away. I know that might sound “dramatic” and plateaus and injuries are something everyone deals with, however it’s the truth. Having to deal with my screwed up head space with regards to family, work, money, mates ETC is enough. Let alone trying to process why I’ve failed my exercise regime… And that’s how it felt. I had failed. Injuries were a failure of my body to cope with the demands of an active life. And by default I was just not cut out for it.

I’m not sure I capture exactly want I wanted to say. Writing out this stuff is kind of difficult. I think it’s close enough though.

Just for clarity – not all of my good or bad phases are dictated by training. But it seemed on topic to link them.

And BTW – this is not me saying “I’m low – please help”. Genuinely in a good place. Pissed at being a few months behind where I wanted to be. But who’s got nothing to moan about?

Are you on a mood stabilizer?

Err – nope. I was on an SSRI about 16 years ago. But I fall well short of needing medication. I have ways of tracking my mood though. I also have ways to leveling out the good and bad swings.

Just a note – I feel the conversation is now very much centered on me. Which is cool and all and I’ll answer any questions. But I feel like you’re doing a welfare check. Which is again cool, I see why, and I really appreciate it. However that was never my intention. And honestly not needed.

I was hoping to pick your brains about the relationship between mental health and exercise in a very general sense still. And how one effects the other. And as such – how to manipulate one to improve the other.

Things like CT’s neuro type training and how different intensities and volumes effect mood, the interplay between the medical and exercise world in the prevention of ill health (physical and mental), right down to the seemingly increasing use of sports psychologists really interest me. And I have my own thoughts on some of it. And I wondered if you had any insights.

However – if this is a conversation you’d rather not have, just say. Mental health is a sensitive subject, with lots of scope for people to get the wrong end of the stick. I can appreciate this. So if you’d rather not go down this road I’ll not take it personally.

no worries my man, I was just wondering about the severity of it and other means by which you might be coping.

There’s actually quite a few studies that talk about the mental health improvement with exercise, but the ones that always stick out to me are the ones done where cardio was performed outside. The “greenhouse” effect is very real.

So if there was one area I’d be cognizant of, it’s WHERE you are getting your training done as well. The environment can play a big part.

When I went through my own depression a few years ago, I got out of my house, got a new place, and a new gym and all new surroundings. That helped immensely. From recovery to becoming emotionally whole and healthy again. And being outside is a big part of that.

It’s been shown that outdoor cardio helps to reduce anxiety, alleviate depression, and improve cognition.

So during times you feel lulls find new places to do cardio, and possibly even have a backup gym that stimulates you a bit.


Vitamin D from outside exercise should help. Plus getting in the jungle away from western bs has helped me. Get back to nature. The modern world is full of crap.

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Yeah – I get where you are coming from with checking in. And sorry if I got a bit “pissy”. But the moment I tell people I’ve had struggles, pretty much all I get it “are you okay”. I know it sounds glib but I’m 34 years in to life and I’m doing okay. I guess its not a big deal to me.

But that does not excuse rudeness. So I’m sorry if that how I came over.

I was aware they people that spent more time outdoors during treatment for depression had a speedier recovery however I had not thought about linking this to exercise. I guess if both are treatment you are just doubling up. Changing environment is good idea. I can see the sense in that. Luckily I have somewhere I can go. And will keep this in mind if needed. Thank you.

With regards to the type of exercise that might help, you mention CV work outs but not weights. Do you think the type of exercise someone does is important? I ask as during an assessment about 8 years ago I was encouraged to stop all weight training. And take up jogging. Something I ignored as I cannot jog (injury). I tried cycling as a replacement, but I’m crap at cycling. And didn’t really like it. But mainly I was crap.

So I carried on dropping in and out of weight training.

I have my own thoughts on mental health and exercise. I think slow, long distance CV work is a simpler solution. Start at a walk and then start jogging at some point.

Whereas weights and HIIT can have a negative effect on mental health if improperly managed

Oh yeah sir.

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If you’re asking me if there’s a certain “style” of lifting that helps to alleviate depression or anxiety I’m not aware of one. I know there’s several studies that show lifting does help to do those things but it’s basic lifting stuff.

I would simply back off the heavy stuff or high effort training at times in order to allow the para-sympathetic nervous system to return to baseline. Remember that turning on your fight or flight too often will cause a suppression of the PSNS. That could be related but it’s out of my scope to answer that intelligently. No one can “know” that.

This resonates massively with me. Thanks for this man, much appreciated.

After I split up with my fiancee a couple of months before our wedding it was weight lifting what kept me sane. I was a broken man for about a month, but then a buddy took me to lift weights and another one to the boxing gym. Its been a wild run since then. I ve been waking up at 6 am to go to the gym almost every morning for the past 18 months.

Not sure if the anecdote is related to your problems. Just stating that doing sports helps cope with some mental problems.

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I find heavy volume makes me worse but light volume better.

Agreed. If I’m feeling shity, I drop to a 5x5 full body every other day. And I work at 60-70% of my 1 rep max. Depending on my mood. I find this gets me feeling good and I can face it. 5x5 at 60% is pretty sedate. Maybe at 70 % you work hard. But again it’s a sliding scale of what head space I’m in.
Junk volume also helps my mind though.i know its not any good for my body but knocking out 5 sets of 10 at 50% 1rep max. It’s too easy to make progress. But just enough to judo my hand in and improve my mood

For me it’s too heavy load that make me worse when I’m not feeling good, and pump/light stuff makes me better

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100% agree.

Guys that’s feedback you should be having “AH HA!” moments about!

The more neurally taxing a type of training it is, the less likely you’re recovering from it optimally.

This is why the whole “if you’re feeling great and making progress, work harder” stuff is complete bullshit. That’s a great way to make sure progress comes to a screeching halt.

Optimal training should be about minimizing neural taxation and maximizing muscular stimulus and adaptation.

If you’re training heavy as hell all the time in the low rep ranges guess what you’re doing?

Yeah, creating a metric butt ton of neural stress that you have to recover from systemically, which is the hardest kind to recover from.