The “2 Hour Rule”

Rules, rules, rules! 

Okay, don’t leave me yet, this rule is actually quite useful. I promise.

People always ask me a very important question, which goes something like this:

How do I know if what I’m doing is hurting me or helping me?

It’s a great question because, if we can remove the worry, we can usually remove the pain; and improve health. 

And that single question gets right to the heart of the problem.

So I teach people the “2 hour rule” to calm their fears and give them a strategy that applies to almost every area of injury recovery. 

Here’s the basic concept.

When we have pain or injury, or even when we’re trying to regain our fitness, there is a dose of that activity that helps us, and a dose that doesn’t. 

Even as a Coach and Therapist I’m never able to know what that dose is at any given time for a client. 

So we use an iterative process of – Test, Gather Feedback, Adjust, Re-Test – to narrow down what is right. 

And the 2 hour rule is a great way to “Gather Feedback”.

The basic concepts of the 2 hour rule are as follows:

  1. Know your baseline.
  2. Exercising to ‘discomfort’ is okay, but to ‘pain’ is not.
  3. You should be back to baseline within 2 hours.

So let’s break these down.

Know your baseline.

When I say “Baseline” I mean the level of discomfort you are feeling generally, without introducing exercise. 

Usually this is a low number on a 0-10 pain scale (0 being no pain, 10 being “call 999, NOW).

Most of the time, people’s ‘baseline’ is between 0 and 3 when they’re at rest. 

Now this may change as soon as you stand up, or even move your little toe, but at rest the number should be low(ish).

N.B. Baseline numbers are often inaccurate initially because people give a number that represents an average of the ups and downs of the day, or the high points of the day (or even week). 

What I’m looking for though, is the number it reverts back to at rest. 

This is what the discomfort is like without activity increasing it. 

We use this rest baseline because it represents a stable point – a “control” –  like a well designed science experiment.

So now we have our baseline number, when we do any given activity that increases it, we should be looking to see how well we return back to this baseline afterwards. 

Exercising to ‘discomfort’ is okay, but to ‘pain’ is not.

In my business we look for the language people use to describe when things are getting “Painful”.

The higher the number, the more intense the language becomes. 

So for example, we might go from an, “Ouch, please stop that” at a 5, to a searing, stabbing, “Why me. Pleeease. Make it stop!”, at a 10.

And usually your facial expression matches this pretty nicely.

Image by brgfx on Freepik.

The higher the number, the more contorted the face! 

And you’ll typically see flinching and guarding behaviour too. 

Below a 5 we tend to refer to the sensations as “levels of discomfort”. 

When people describe these levels they don’t tend to use strong language or be particularly emotional about the sensation. 

There’s no flinching, guarding or change in facial expression, therefore we know it’s a low number on the pain scale chart above. 

So, with the pain scale sorted, let’s decide we are going to do something to improve our situation. 

Now, let’s say, for argument sake, that our baseline is a 2/10.

And we’ll try to remember that exercising to ‘discomfort’ is okay, but to ‘pain’ is not.

We can therefore elicit a 4/10 (discomfort) during the exercise and know we are being pretty safe.

Which then brings us to the 2 hour part of the rule.

You should be back to baseline within 2 hours.

This is where the rule gets its name (and it’s awesome power for giving feedback). 

When you’ve exercised, and possibly taken your discomfort level up to a 4/10, you need to get back to baseline asap. 

We give 2 hours for this to happen. 

What does that mean as an experience? 

Well, your discomfort increases to a 4/10, then slowly (or quickly) comes back down to the pre-exercise baseline number. 

How do we interpret this?

1. Well, if ‘baseline’ at rest is elevated for several hours then you can assume the effort you put in was a little too much. 

So you should ease off a bit next time.

2. Sometimes people come back to baseline quickly (often because of endorphins) but their baseline rises again in the hours following. 

This is obviously not ideal either, so we did too much there too. 

3. And the third way it can go wrong is that you come back to baseline within 2 hours but the next day your baseline is elevated. 

This last one is a bit more complex to assess, because it may have been some other influence within the day, or even the day before, that caused your baseline to rise, not necessarily the exercise. 

In this situation I’d try to list all the possible influences and then work out a way to test them. 

For example, I might say, “Okay, next time I want you to do the same exercise when otherwise you’ve had a quiet, restful day (or two). 

If we get the same result then maybe we change the exercise or intensity. 

If not, then it’s likely something else raised your baseline, or it’s an accumulation effect.

Unfortunately, ‘baseline’ is a bit of a moveable beast sometimes, but you can simply use the 2 hour rule to figure out what overall daily activity level you can tolerate.

That’s the power of this rule!

So there you have it.

The 2 hour rule can be used to judge whether an exercise intensity is doing you good, or holding you back. 

If you break the rule, then ease off a little in some way. 

You could reduce reps or sets, ease up on the load, reduce the distance, choose another exercise altogether etc. 

This process of – Test, Gather feedback, Adjust, Re-test – is how we coach our clients to find the sweet spot and build confidence. 

It means we are learning about YOUR body and how IT responds. 

We therefore don’t assume anything or put you in the same box as everyone else. 

The 2 hour rule is a really simple way to self assess any activity that affects your pain or injury to know if it’s doing you good, or not. 

And, as always, if you need help figuring this all out with a real life problem, then we are here to help coach you through. 

Have a great day. 


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