Break on Through

By Michael Krueger

There is no question we all like to succeed; it is far more pleasurable than failure. In the weight room or the pool, on the bike or on the track, it doesn’t matter. Life is better when everything is running smoothly.

The real challenge is what to do when you aren’t doing too well; how do you handle that?



If you are a record keeper (and I hope you are), you can go back to any point in your training and compare where you are now with where you were whenever. You can savor the victories and bask in the glow of your improvements. Of course, you may find that in the early years you achieved those lofty PRs early and often, while recent improvements are negligible and PRs are now few and far between.

In the beginning, simply because it was all new, you did something big and great nearly every time you worked out. It may have been a few more pounds, a couple of seconds faster, or another mile farther. It didn’t really even matter that much what you did. Those improvements sure kept you motivated. As time wore on the newness wore off, and the times, weights, and distances began to run together until it was hard to tell if you were better, worse, or indifferent. This blurry gray area is where most people spend the bulk of their training time, at least until they quit.

So what happened to those heady days of success after success? Did you lose interest or get injured, or did you forget why you started to train in the first place? Were those early PRs nothing more than the quick and easy improvements of the beginner and now are you getting impatient in your old age? For most people, the answer is that it’s a combination of all of the above and then some of your own unique problems added in just to make it interesting.


Outside Motivation

All it might take to get things going again is to get some joy back in your training. The easiest way to do that is to get involved in a competition. This can be as public and formal as signing up for a run, a strength competition, or a skills contest such as the Combat Challenge. It can also be as private and informal as setting some new and challenging goals for yourself that no one else need know about. The idea is to get the excitement building again like it was in the early days when you began your quest for fitness.

Spring is coming soon (at least that’s what I heard), and that means for many people softball and golf, among other outdoor pursuits. A good way to jumpstart a fitness program is to focus on getting into better condition for your sport. Just think how nice it would be to get out for the first time and not end up wheezing and out of breath or be so sore that you can barely move the next day. A few weeks spent on basic conditioning can make all the difference in the world. Even if you are fit, focusing on the specific demands of a sport or activity that you haven’t done since last year can help prevent injury and muscle soreness.

If you’re not the public competitor kind of person, then you need to come up with something else to get back on track. Try reading a strength training book by one of the old timers like Pearl, Kubik, or Reg Park. They all have programs of different types, geared to various pursuits and personalities. If you have always focused your workouts on strength, try making an eight-week switch to hypertrophy or endurance. Try making a commitment to changing your body composition by dropping some fat; keep a food log, and focus on nutrition rather than just calories.

Refining your goals and methods can do wonders for jumpstarting a stuck program. In the beginning, through trial and error, you found what worked and what didn’t and you attained a certain amount of success. Now, build on what you’ve learned and fine tune it into something even more productive. Besides, when you start doing new lifts or old lifts in new ways, or at a new lower body weight, you get to set a whole new batch of personal records; it will be just like old times.

If you are a runner, cyclist, or swimmer, try reading a biography of one of the greats in your sport. It’s interesting to read how they managed to break through training and competitive plateaus, and it’s comforting to know that, yes, these same problems also happen to the champions.


Still Stuck?

Sometimes you discover that the problems you’re encountering aren’t so much in your program as in your head, and oddly enough that makes them very real indeed. If you find that you dread just going to the gym, or that you are bailing halfway through your workout with some lame excuse that even you don’t believe, it’s time to sit down and figure out what’s up.

A problem with your energy level or enthusiasm is usually just the “canary in the coal mine” of your training. You may be tired of the same routines. You may have lost sight of your goals or maybe your goals have changed and now the work you’re putting in seems pointless. You may have annoying little injuries that you have been trying to work around for weeks and they’re making you crazy. These are just a few of the possible reasons your workouts have gone stale. Or, it may be “out of gym factors” such as work, family, or finances. It could also be an underlying health issue.

An interesting thing about being fit and aware of how well you function when all is going well is that you notice when something isn’t quite right long before an unfit person would. You just “know” something isn’t right. Think of your body like it’s a car: If you drive an old beater, you’re just happy if it starts and gets you to where you need to be. If it’s a really nice high performance car, you can tell instantly when something isn’t working right.


Learning Curve

If you are in a fitness malaise, at least it indicates that you are in the fitness game. You can’t burn out if you were never on fire in the first place.

Remember that short-term achievements in fitness are cyclical, and long term achievements take time to manifest themselves. The more patient you are and the more you plan for those cycles, the fewer problems they cause. Take the time and learn to recognize your particular pace of improvement and the pattern of peaks and valleys so you won’t be surprised when they occur.

You may learn that you need to take a week-long break every eight weeks, while your training partner can go for 12 weeks with no problem. You may learn that without a major event to train for, you lose your way and your motivation tanks. Or it may be that the pressure of a big competition drives your ego to push past your physical limits to the point of overtraining and injury.


The Long Run

The better you learn to monitor and mitigate your ups and downs, the sooner you will build a database of self-knowledge that will allow you to avoid the physical and psychological problems associated with haphazardly training.

Get to know yourself better; you’ve got to spend the rest of your life with you.


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


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