By Michael Krueger
I’m a great one for pushing hard during a workout. In fact, I’m not certain that I remember how to “go easy” even if the cycle I’m in calls for it. I’m not bragging about this; for the long run, it actually concerns me more than just a little bit.
I’m not suggesting that you avoid working hard and progressing; you don’t ever “get something for nothing” when it comes to fitness training. I’m just wondering where to draw the line between struggling for that extra pound, that extra rep, or that half-second faster while considering the bigger picture of health and longevity.
So, maybe I’m looking at it all wrong. Perhaps the question might be: Do I want a personal record today, or do I still want to be training 10 years from now?
This discussion is obviously geared toward those of you who believe that progression, personal records, numbers, and comparisons with performance norms and averages are the be all and end all of fitness training. I’ll (reluctantly) include myself in that group.
I’m not a particularly competitive person. I don’t compare myself with the performance of others except to get an idea of what is “normal” or “average” for my demographic. This might be considered being competitive by some (at least that’s what my wife suggests), but I’m not completely sold on the concept.
Even when I was running a lot, I didn’t enter races very often. In fact, in 35 years of running, I only ran in three races: Two were charity events and one was a marathon. I’m an introvert, and the crowds and “excitement” of these events simply drain me of energy. Therefore, I avoid them.
When it comes to lifting, I never even considered competing. It holds no allure whatsoever. I can look up the records and see where I fall without putting it all on the line in a one rep max lift in front of hundreds of spectators. Once again, the very idea of it is terrifying to me.
So, does this mean that I’m not competitive? Well, perhaps not so much. I can be (and usually am) very competitive with myself. As you know, I have log books upon log books so I can compare today’s performance to any other I’ve ever done. You want a year to date comparison? I can do that. You want a simple absolute best regardless of age? I can do that, too. Not only can I give you raw numbers, I can even compare my state of mind at the time (yes, I keep track of that, too).
Just today, I analyzed my past two months of rowing. I’ve been working very hard and got a new personal best last Sunday. I was curious as to when my performances had begun to really improve and what might be behind this. I made a few discoveries that I hadn’t been aware of and that somewhat surprised and (sort of) inspired me.
The big one is that it’s only been the past nine weeks that consistent, quantifiable improvement has been the norm rather than the exception. I’ve also lost some weight and have become somewhat obsessive regarding consistency, intensity, and progression. Some might say that this is a good thing, and I would probably be first in line to make that pronouncement; but still, I’m not completely sure.
I train five days per week. Two of those are lifting and three are cardio. I haven’t missed a scheduled workout in well over a year. No vacation, no day off for illness or injury (I guess the illness/injury part says something positive about my diet, training, and lifestyle), and no mental health days either. I’m sort of proud of this, but if I had clients in the same situation, I would be concerned and counsel them to take a week off or at the very least schedule a “de-load” week in their lifting and insert some easy cardio.
When you train hard and see good results, it’s easy to think that more is better. Train harder, and the results will improve even more. Lift bigger, go faster; that’s what it’s all about, right? Often, the harder you train, the better your diet becomes too, because you can’t imagine screwing up your progression by eating poorly; you’re working way too hard to make that kind of rookie mistake. You may even begin cutting yourself off from others because they “just don’t understand.” They want to go out, stay up late, have fun, and eat poorly, and those behaviors aren’t optimal for your progression.
After training regularly and hard for months on end, and even though you know this is not a sustainable way to train, you start to believe that you are different and that you can do what others can’t. You rationalize that so long as you aren’t hurt and you’re making progress, you’re sleeping well and you’re happy, that everything must be OK.
The terrible truth is that you might be right. You may be able to go on like this for a really long time. If you continue to eat well, sleep well, and have a little good luck, you may be able to pull it off. I know people who have daily running streaks that extend into decades, and they’re fine. I know people who haven’t taken a day off from training in years and years and are still going strong. Then again, I know people who have cumulative injuries that prevent them from participating in life in any meaningful way. They can’t put on their shoes without pain. All they can do now is tell you stories about “back in the day.”
If you believe that a 500-pound bench press is substantially better than a 300-pound lift, then I hope you make your living as a competitive power lifter. Because if that isn’t the case, then you are just chasing numbers to no good end. If you spend hours examining and criticizing your physique and you aren’t a competitive bodybuilder, then once again you are on a road to nowhere.
Training to have a strong, healthy, and fit body is something we all should do, but the definition of terms leaves a lot of wiggle room. What’s fit for one person may not qualify as fit to someone else; but does the opinion of someone else really matter?
So what I suggest is that you honestly examine your motives. If you find that you are training for dysfunctional reasons, you may want to reassess what you are doing and why. If the comparison of your strength, endurance, or physique to others is the only thing that’s driving you, then you are more than likely headed for an ugly end.
If you have a dream of being a competitive strength or physique athlete, then you have chosen a difficult path. I won’t tell you that you should abandon your dreams, but I would suggest setting a realistic expiration date on them. Set a goal and go for it. Give yourself a finite time to see if what you are chasing is attainable. Give it your all and see what happens. If you fall short, accept the lesson and reset your sails. Otherwise, you will surely crash and burn in a spectacular fashion and, when you pick yourself up (if you can pick yourself up), you may find that you are physically and emotionally crippled and all alone.
Today… and Tomorrow
As you work hard on your goals, strive to uncover the “whats, whys, and wherefores” of your quest. Understand that some behaviors that start out as healthy and positive can, in fact, turn dark and damaging.
Meanwhile, stick with your fitness routine, but train smart. Focus on useable strength and endurance, take rest days, avoid over-reaching, and don’t compare your performance and your progress with anyone but yourself…
because being the best “you” that you can be is a big enough challenge for anyone.
Michael Krueger is an NSCA-certified personal trainer. He got his start in fitness training while serving in the United States Coast Guard. He works with firefighters and others in and around Madison, Wisconsin. He is available to fire departments, civic organizations, and athletic teams for training, consulting, and speaking engagements. He has published numerous articles on fitness, health, and the mind-body connection and was a featured speaker at the IAFC’s FRI 2009 Health Day in Dallas, Texas. E-mail him at [email protected]