Stop Chasing the Dragon (PRs, Hedonic Adaptation, and being happy with your training)
Stop Chasing the Dragon
For those of you not up to date on your Cantonese slang, ‘chasing the dragon’ refers to burning heroin or an opiate on foil and then ‘chasing’ the vapor with a straw to get your fix. It shouldn’t be surprising that a drug reference would apply to training in the gym when you think of the chemicals naturally released during exercise and when you hit that new PR (personal record). In this case, the ‘dragon’ is setting that new PR.
When we first start training at anything that measures progress in black and white terms (CrossFit, weight loss, martial arts, video games, etc.), we get hooked early on with all of the ‘early wins’. We can measure progress week to week and even minute to minute in some cases!
This can be beneficial for building the habits and routines that will make you better but getting addicted to that hit of dopamine (the neurotransmitter responsible for making you feel accomplished when you get something done) is a dragon that will come back to bite you in the long run if not checked early on.
After you have been training for a while, PRs will become fewer and farther between. They will take more dedicated work and put you at risk for injury as you do more advanced tasks if you try to rush it. If you are constantly chasing that next PR, you will become frustrated by your lack of ‘gains’. You will be more susceptible to try anything to get your next ‘hit’ (new training program, new supplement, new shoes…). You will be pushing yourself into the injury zone because you won’t want to listen to your body when it is telling you to slow down.
The problem is compounded by something called ‘Hedonic Adaptation’. This is the name given to the fact that after we get something new, it’s awesomeness wears off rather quickly and we are back to our baseline state (chasing after the next new thing).
All of those ‘easy’ PRs early on during our ‘Novice Window’ desensitizes us to the high we get from accomplishing something new. This means that when the PRs start to slow down (or when we have a setback), we do not enjoy the progress nearly as much as we should, and we may want to quit because we aren’t getting enough of the dragon that we were hooked on.
Side Note: This is one of the reasons people jump from one gym or another, one program to another, or one diet to another. When the ‘fun’ and ‘new-ness’ wears off, and the grind starts, people will tend to switch to something else, chasing a new dragon where the gains are easier and more frequent (temporarily).
The true goal of our training is to do this for the long haul. To be able to do push ups and even pull ups into our 80s and 90s, and to become really good at some skills that will make life outside of the gym much better between now and then.
Don’t Get Burned
To accomplish this, we must learn how to maximize the benefit of each PR, and to spread them out over a lifetime. Here are some tips to make sure you aren’t going to get burned by the dragon.
1. Log Everything
By keeping track of your progress, you’ll know when you are setting a new ‘best’, by how much, and when to stop (before you go too far). It is also motivating to see how far you have come since the beginning.
2. Recognize Every Gain No Matter How Small
Being able to do two sets of 8 push ups is a gain over doing one set of 10. Doing your old 1 rep max for a second set in the same workout is still a PR. Performing a clean with better form and timing is a PR (even if you didn’t lift more weight). Progress is progress, and we should fill our lives with small gains instead of waiting for huge wins that are few and far between.
3. Spread Them Out
If you are testing a for a new PR or learning a new movement, there is no reason to go to your absolute max every time. If you cleaned 10lbs more than last time, and you are pretty sure you could do 10lb more, decide to ‘call it’ and bank those gains for a later date. PRing by 10lbs and knowing you could do a bit more is going to feel just as good in in the long run as PRing by 20lbs. Going from 10 to 15 pull ups (and stopping a couple short) will feel just as good as getting 17. You will have less of a chance of injury, and you’ll be able to experience the thrill more often throughout your life.
4. Prioritize Gains That Pay Off in Multiple Areas
Being able to squat better will make just about any physical task in life better. Being able to do 40 kipping pull ups in a row (as opposed to 30), isn’t going to improve your life much. Improving your mobility and fixing injuries is going keep you moving and making progress a lot longer than forcing yourself to get that muscle up as soon as possible or benching 3 plates.
5. Use Your Desire for PRs as a Trigger to Stay Consistent
Make sure you know your goals and you have a plan to get there (consisting of routines and habits). When you are feeling the ‘itch’ and need a fix, focus on making more progress on the steps that will get you there. Do the drills, spend more time practicing, do the accessory work. PRs are a result of following the process, not the only goal.
6. Delay Gratification
Do not be in a hurry to hit that PR as soon as you might be ready. Put in some extra work so that you really ‘nail’ it, and the sense of accomplishment is magnified because the work has paid off. Going in and ‘testing’ to see if you have a muscle up every day isn’t going to get you there faster, and it is only going to amplify your frustration. Be patient.
Don’t Chase the Dragon, Tame it.
PRs are powerful motivation to keep you training consistently, but we don’t want them to become the goal in and of itself. Focus on the routine. Focus on the journey. Don’t let your craving for a PR be the reason you get hurt or quit out of frustration.
No matter how you do that day in the gym, just remember that you PRed the number of days in your life you have worked out.
And that is the ‘hit’ you can get just for showing up.