By Michael Krueger
It’s easier to focus on exercise when you perceive it as being fun. In fact, some people focus only on enjoying themselves. These are the ones who like to play sports but don’t like to train for their sport. The concept of “playing yourself into shape” has been the staple of the weekend athlete for as long as rec sports programs have been in existence, and it still doesn’t work.
This behavior is a case of doing what you want to do rather than what you need to do, and it can lead to disaster in terms of disappointing results, sub-par performance, and injuries.
So, the question then is, How can you get yourself to focus and work on what you need to work on, even if you would rather play?
Some of us have the advantage of actually enjoying hard work in the gym or on the track. We plan our workouts to address the issues that we feel are lacking and aggressively train toward improvement. We find enjoyment in the fatigue and anticipate the reward of continuing improvement. I think that fun is where you find it, and this is where I find it; but that’s just me.
Long-term success requires that you find your training to be enjoyable, or there is little to no chance you will stick with it when it gets tough. The problem arises if you focus only on having fun rather than training. Not addressing problem areas because it’s “too hard” or straying from a balanced workout because you “really like to bench press” will eventually catch up to you and destroy any chance for long-term success.
It’s normal to want to focus more on lifts or activities that you are good at rather than those that take more time and effort just to bring up to adequate levels. For example, having a weak back but not doing rows because they are hard is a recipe for major injury, particularly if you are good at bench pressing and focus on that instead.
Say you like to play basketball, but your endurance is poor. Because of this shortcoming, you won’t play full court and will only play one on one. Not only are you ignoring a major weakness (and one that will affect more than just your ball game), but you are actually decreasing your enjoyment by not playing to your full potential. Some off-season conditioning would not only improve your endurance but it would free you up to improve your game, in part because you’ll be able to practice harder and longer.
The concept of focusing on your training is referred to as deliberate practice. Obviously you’ll get better at what you work on, but it’s tough to work on something that you may not be very good at rather than focusing on excelling at something you are.
By setting some specific goals and the process of improving and working toward those goals rather than lamenting that you just aren’t good at something will help to keep you focused. Then, as you improve, you may reward yourself by doing what you like to do–but only after doing what you need to do, the focused training.
Even when you completely understand deliberate training, it is tough to keep it up because while you may learn to enjoy it (or at least tolerate it), you would still rather do what you really find fun and what you are really good at. So a reward system might be just what you need. The hard part of instituting rewards is that you need to set the rules of the game and then play by them. It’s hard because you are the referee as well as the participant, and you need to call “foul” if you aren’t playing by the rules. If you aren’t willing to do that, this will not work.
First, determine what you must to do to achieve your stated goals. Once you have that figured out, then you can decide what an appropriate reward will be for getting it done.
As in the previous example, say that you really like to bench press and you have been doing it to the exclusion of all other exercises. For you to allow yourself to bench press (your reward), you’ll need to first do two pulling exercises. Only when you do those two pulling moves properly and progressively may you bench press.
Or say you need to lose weight. The first thing you do when you get to the gym is weigh in. You must have met your goal, or the workout for that day will consist of 90% calorie burning cardio training rather than strength training and you will need to review and modify your diet. If you made your goal, lift all you want and have a nice lunch.
You can apply this system to virtually any training goal. First, define what you need. Then set up a plan to achieve this goal. Then have a measurable way to determine if you are making the desired progress. Last, decide on an appropriate reward.
First write down the behaviors or weaknesses you want to address. You’re looking for anything that is taking you down the wrong path, anything that is taking you farther from your goals. This might include food, motivation, discipline, attitude, overtraining, or who knows what. This list will be uniquely yours, since you know yourself best; just be honest.
Next decide on an appropriate reward. Obviously, this should not be something that directly opposes your goal. For example, don’t give yourself an unlimited food reward when your goal is weight loss. Find something that will make you happy but something that won’t sabotage your progress either short or long term.
The best-case scenario for a reward will be something that will continue to take you toward your goal, only it focuses more on your strengths and enjoyments than on your needs. For instance, if you hit all your running interval times, you may finish with an easy run through the woods rather than a timed cool down on the track.
If weight loss is your focus, treat yourself to a higher-quality protein for dinner such as organic grass-fed beef or Gulf of Mexico shrimp. If sweets are your Achilles Heel, try having a snack of fruit and Greek yogurt with a drizzle of high-quality balsamic vinegar or a little honey or grated dark chocolate as your reward. A slightly higher calorie meal made with fresh natural ingredients can be an incredible indulgence and very satisfying as well while not messing with your weight loss progression. Just choose wisely, and don’t blow a huge amount of calories on some fatty, sugary, processed carb monstrosity.
It won’t take long before you see that a reward that drags you down physically, emotionally, or psychologically isn’t a reward at all. I’ve seen new runners who train diligently for their first 5K only to “reward” themselves with a week off after the run. That week turns into a month, then three months, and then a year. All their hard work was lost because they forgot to focus on the process and foolishly rewarded themselves for achieving one goal, which could’ve been the stepping stone to achieving many more.
I know people who will reward themselves with excessive amounts of beer, wings, and French fries in celebration of lifting or running well and then they see their next workout suffer, if they do it at all. I also had a client who “rewarded” herself with ice cream because she had finally achieved a long-sought weigh loss goal. The calories weren’t that excessive, but the emotional toll was high. She went back to some of her old habits, her self-esteem took a major hit, and she never got it back together; it wasn’t long before she was no longer (by her choice) my client.
The High Road
Rewarding yourself with what you really want, rather than what you were previously conditioned to want, is the greatest reward of all. Adjusting your training to focus on the process of achieving your specific goals and then rewarding yourself in a way that enhances that progression will leave you feeling not only rewarded but happy as well.
So, what’s your goal, what’s your plan, and what’s your reward?
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 MKPTLLC@gmail.com.