Failure? Not Necessarily So

By Michael Krueger

If I had a dollar for every time I have failed at a sport or at exercise, I would have a lot more dollars than I have now. What I wouldn’t have is the wealth of knowledge I accumulated from those experiences. They weren’t necessarily fun, but I wouldn’t trade them for anything.

Exercise Made Easy?

When I was building my home gym, I frequently checked ads, garage sales, and bulletin boards in search of the equipment I desired. I knew that many people start a program with more money than willpower and eventually they want to sell the underused items that are nothing more than a constant reminder of their folly. The best ad I ever read simply and honestly said, “For sale. Nordic Track, used as a coat rack.” To put it politely, an awful lot of expensive exercise equipment ends up as a “multiuse organizational and storage tool” rather than for the purpose originally intended.

When we begin an exercise program, we want to believe that it will work perfectly from the start and last forever. It’s like when you first start dating someone who seems so right. You just want it to work so much that you may ignore signs of incompatibility and friction. You keep at it hoping it will improve, but eventually you decide to break it off and cut your losses.

Many people do the same with exercise. You started running because it seemed so efficient, inexpensive, and simple. Soon you got an annoying pain in your foot, or it got cold and wet outside, or the gym got new treadmills that you hate–all little things, but taken together, they become a deal breaker. Next thing you know, you decide it just isn’t going to work, and you quit.

This is a crucial moment with exercise: Do you quit completely, or do you take a moment, look at what happened, and try a new approach?

Make a Choice

If you choose total failure with regard to fitness, you choose death. That may seem a bit melodramatic, but I believe it is true. Granted, the death of your physical body is a given, no matter how well you take care of it, but that isn’t really the death of which I am speaking. I am talking about the human spirit, the animal in you–that which makes you truly alive. The joy you can get from simply running across a field at sunrise or tromping through a winter storm just for the sheer joy of the experience. The ability to work and sweat and get stronger and better and do it all again tomorrow, that’s living.

The difference between just being alive and living is far from only a semantic one. It is the difference between looking forward to getting out of bed every morning in anticipation of making the most of another day of life or having to call your attendant to get your wheelchair and roll you to the bathroom to change your diaper.

The Learning Curve

When you fail, you have to step back and see why it happened. If you take the time to learn from it, it wasn’t a failure at all. Only if you just complain and quit was it a waste of time. Failure has such a negative connotation when, in reality, it shows that you are stretching beyond where you are now and seeking to improve. Nobody wins all the time, and occasionally you will over reach and land flat on your face; it’s all part of the game.

Assessing what went wrong can be a tricky undertaking. Failing can fill you with all sorts of dark and unpleasant thoughts, particularly if you internalize it and take it personally. Occasionally, though, it might be a good idea to take it personally, particularly if the reason for your failure was nothing more than your inattentive laziness. Most of the time, its cause was just that you were trying too hard. You so wanted to succeed that you made mistakes or you choked and went down in flames. But like the Phoenix, you, too, can rise from the flames and ultimately succeed, but you’ve got to get back into the game for that to happen.

When it comes to fitness, learning from your errors is the best way to make progress. Since we are all individuals, a cookie cutter approach to fitness rarely works. Simple pat answers to what went wrong in your program are seldom found in a book or on the Internet.

First, you need to look to your exercise log to get some black and white answers. The numbers don’t lie. Then look deep inside to see what happened on the ego/emotional front.

Placing Blame

The first thing you will probably do is want to place blame. This is the least useful thing you can do. If you simply bailed on the program, accept it and move on; recriminations aren’t going to change a previous outcome.

The most common reasons for failure are, in no particular order: a bad program, underestimating the time commitment, family and work interference, injury, weather, logistics, nutrition, recovery, incompatibility with the workout, unrealistic expectations, comparing yourself to others, internalizing criticisms, impatience, expense, despair, depression, rationalizations, and being overwhelmed by contradictory information in the media. This isn’t every reason I’ve heard, but you get the idea; if you’ve failed, you certainly aren’t unique. But if you pick yourself up and begin again after rectifying the problems from your previous attempt, then you have joined a more elite group.

Making the Changes Needed 

Changes are never easy, and changing after failing is even harder. It is so much simpler to rationalize that you didn’t really want it anyway, give up, and call it a day. Deep inside, though, you know quitting isn’t what you want. You want to succeed, or you wouldn’t have made the effort to begin with.

You need to be honest about what success is to you. Originally, it may have been running a marathon, but perhaps just noncompetitive fitness running is what you really want. You may have thought you wanted to be the weight you were when you got out of high school, when in reality you just want to feel comfortable and be able to do the physical things you always enjoyed doing like hunting or playing softball. Sometimes our grandiose goals and hard-driving egos get in the way of our achieving what we really want.

I am frequently told by prospective male clients that they want to be “big and strong.” I ask them if they would settle for strong, fit, and healthy instead. We have relinquished much of our decision making to cultural ideals and the visual media; we allow them to “tell us and sell us” what we “should” want instead of deciding for ourselves what we really want. Until you accept that it is 100% up to you to create and live your life, you will fail.

Redefining Success

A totally ripped body with a rock-hard six pack isn’t a reasonable goal for most people. Genetically most of us aren’t suited to it, and even if you are, it is an extremely high maintenance way to live.

Being fit and healthy doesn’t require a lot of time or money. It simply requires a certain amount of self-knowledge and a willingness to try, fail, and try again. Sooner or later, you will find what nutritionally works for you; what exercise program gives you good results and you enjoy doing; and, along the way, you will gain a deeper understanding of yourself and your motivations.

Once you put these things together, you will find that really living is a much better option than just being alive.


 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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