By Michael Krueger
People like to be recognized for a job well done. Like a chest full of medals or a plaque on the wall, the outward trappings of awards lets everyone know that you have done something special. We give ourselves rewards for all sorts of things; sometimes they are positive and sometimes negative. After surviving a tough day, some people reward themselves in a negative way and go hang out at the bar or eat fatty and sugary foods. Others, after the same type of day, go for a run or workout at the gym and cap it off with a healthy meal.
The way you choose to reward yourself says a lot about your self-image and self-esteem.
If you go back to when you were a little kid, you were probably bribed on occasion to elicit a particular behavior. This is like a preemptive reward. Your parents might have said, “You may have dessert if you eat your vegetables.” So you learned that sweets were the reward for the ordeal of eating your vegetables. This is not a good way to develop healthy eating habits in children and certainly isn’t a sustainable model for a healthy adulthood.
Even if you enjoy what you are doing now, you still may look forward to doing something else. We look ahead to weekends, vacations, and retirement. We are taught that everything has a reward outside of and beyond itself; just get through this and it gets better. The key to success, particularly in fitness, is to find the reward in the activity of the moment.
There is no doubt that exercise, if done right, is hard work. In the short term, you will mostly sweat, strain, and get very tired. In the long run, you will get stronger, faster, and healthier and the long run lasts for as long as you do. It is a never-ending cycle of work and rest, and that can cause problems for people who are constantly looking ahead to when they can quit and get their reward.
The problem with the currently hot 90-day fitness regimens is the “What do I do once I make it through the 90 days?” question. Some people believe that once you get through the initial 90 days, you’ve made it; you are done–sort of like passing a course in school. The fact is that you simply start over and do it again, harder and better than the last time. It is an unpleasant surprise to many people, but it makes total sense; it’s that “long run” thing again.
The reward of doing well in fitness is that you get to do more. We have all heard a variant of this maxim at some point in our work life, like when your supervisor gives you additional work to do because you actually do your work and you do it well. This type of “reward” doesn’t usually come with any tangible benefit and doesn’t feel like a reward at all. Because of this paradigm, I frequently get some major eye rolls when I tell trainees how well they are progressing and next time they get to do more weight or more intervals. More work is not the reward most of us are looking for.
The upside is that in fitness, the benefits of all the hard work are real, and they all come back to you. In the short term, if you are in the moment with exercise, you feel your muscles working and your heart beating regular and strong. You feel alive, you feel powerful, and you feel good. In the long term, you are the one who gets stronger; you are the one who looks and feels better; and you are the one who lives a long, productive, and enjoyable life. So aside from the exhilaration of working hard in the moment, you are making an investment in yourself with a guaranteed return.
The Gifted Ones
Enthusiastic exercisers are, for the most part made, not born. There are a few people who are natural athletes and, therefore, do enjoy playing games and participating in sports. These people don’t always appreciate expending the effort needed for effective training; they would rather be playing or competing. Throughout their life, most physical endeavors have come easy for them. They might not understand the struggle that most of us experienced when competing in sports. Often, these people don’t put out a maximum effort when training, simply because they never had to. They always ended up on top even when expending only minimal effort in training or during practice.
For those to whom physical prowess comes easily, it is still very important to train hard. Because they begin far above where most of us do, they can achieve rather amazing things. The problem is that they often train only as hard as is needed to be better than those around them rather than to be the best they personally can be. They coast while the rest of us bust our butts just to keep up.
The short-term benefit for the gifted folks, who don’t bust their butts in training, is that practice is easy and they get to perform at a relatively high level with minimal effort. The long-term consequence of this mindset is eventual failure. This type of thinking breeds arrogance and a lack of mental toughness. When they finally run up against a real challenge, they will choke; maybe not today, or tomorrow, but eventually. Without having worked hard to achieve their success, they haven’t developed the mental skills needed to rise above adversity.
To be fair, I have seen a few gifted athletes who are always the first in the gym or on the track and are always the last to leave. These people never quit. They are often head and shoulders above the competition yet continue to train and practice relentlessly. These people are always there to help and encourage those who are struggling. They understand that they have a gift but that possessing this gift doesn’t give them a pass on hard work and practice. They expect a lot of themselves. These are the champions, the leaders, the heroes, and the stuff of legends.
The Rest of Us
The middle cut of the bell curve is where most of us reside. We are of average strength and endurance, with average potential. So what does that really mean?
Well, it means that you need to work very hard to achieve exemplary levels of fitness. It means that nothing is going to come “easy.” It means that you have the most to gain by working harder in the gym and on the training ground than anyone else. It means that heroes are made, not born.
The average person can gain what most people would think of as extraordinary levels of fitness. This is born of the fact that most people are in such sorry physical condition that anyone who trains appears to have attained amazing things. This isn’t to say that they haven’t, but the gulf between the trained and untrained in this country is huge.
Better Than the Rest
If you are willing to eat moderately well, get enough sleep, put in some moderate cardio three times per week, and lift weights on a well-designed program twice per week, you will look, feel, and perform better than 90 percent of the population.
You, on the other hand, have chosen firefighting as your profession. Because of that choice, you don’t have the luxury to relax simply because you are fitter than 90 percent of the population. You want to be at 100 percent of the potential that you possess. You want to work harder, eat better, and train smarter today than you did yesterday. You know that to be the best of the best you will choose to be the first into the gym, onto the training ground, and into the classroom and be the last to leave. You will do your best today, tomorrow, and every day.
You may not be a natural athlete, but you possess the desire, the drive, and the toughness to do what must be done to excel–no excuses. You, your department, and your community deserve nothing less.
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.