At the start, a new fitness program or a change in your diet is exciting. You’re convinced this change will get you to your goals and it feels good to be actively taking charge of your health. So you decide to ramp it up.
You think, if running 3 days a week and strength training 2 times a week is good, running 5 days and strength training 4 days must be better! You started with a 30 minute strength training session but after adding an exercise and set here and there, you’re suddenly doing hour long strength training sessions and just signed up for a half-marathon and are determined to beat your best time.
You may enjoy this challenge for some time. I know I enjoyed working hard towards my half-marathon goal last spring. It was hard, but it was over in 12 weeks and I crushed it! This type of intense training is completely appropriate when training for a specific and time sensitive goal. But, if your goal is to improve your health and stay generally fit, intense and lengthy workouts are not the ideal approach.
The Hare Approach
Like in the fable, the hare has two speeds; hard or nothing. Generally, people can maintain this intense training for only so many years. “Years?” You’re thinking, “That’s so long, I’ll worry about it later!” If you enjoy your time-and-physically-intensive training, that’s great! But what do you envision happening in 10 years, in 5 years, next year, next month, when you can’t keep it up.
Maybe it’s because you mentally burnout, maybe you start seeing signs of overtraining, or maybe you have a major life change – a new career, a baby, a move. What now? Your training may have gotten you in great shape, and keeping up with this training for 8 years is impressive. But what good does that do you 10 years from now? How does this approach to fitness benefit you when you’re 75?
Enter The Tortoise
The hare tactic can work, but it’s (relatively) short term. Think of an Olympic athlete. True, they are in top physical condition, and you may reach your peak fitness as well, but when you learn an athlete is 38 you probably think, “Wow, that’s old!” (Fun fact: according to TeamUSA.org the average age of the 2014 USA Olympic team was 26.)
The tortoise tactic, however, can keep you healthy and in a routine for life. The tortoise approach doesn’t mean slow and doesn’t mean easy. The tortoise approach means consistent. Training that comfortably fits into your lifestyle – as opposed to training that forces its way into every time slot and uses every ounce of willpower – is training that will be a sustainable habit. The tortoise isn’t daunting. If your current routine leaves you wondering how much longer you’ll have to keep it up, it’s too much. For a fit and healthy life, it’s much better to train 2-3 days a week into your 80s as opposed to 6 days a week for the next 5 years.
Action Step: Think Short Term, Think Long Term
What this looks like in action is a meld of short term and long term fitness goals. Training hard for something can be a powerful tool. Pushing yourself past perceived limits and boosting your confidence in and out of the gym.
Setting short term goals for intense training is a great way to use this tool, and not wear it out. Think of training for a marathon. You’re signing up for 12-16 weeks of intense cardiovascular endurance work, a great short term goal. Your goal isn’t to run this intensely the rest of your life, but to train hard, race and resume a more moderate training schedule.
Your short term fitness goals will – and should – change, depending on your interest at that time. Training to; run farther, faster, lift heavier, learn a different sport, etc., are all areas to chose a short term goal. Right now, my short term goal is a 9-week treadmill program (Ultimate Treadmill Workout) which is 3 days a week of intense interval work. I am loving it! After it’s over I will scale back a bit before I pick another short term goal.
Your long term fitness goal is your big picture goal. Where do you want your fitness to be when you’re 75, and how can your exercise routine get you there? I realized my long term fitness goal years ago, and I keep it in mind everyday. Running on the lakefront in Chicago, I pass a variety of runners and I crossed paths with a gentleman at least in his late 70s (but, he’s a runner so he could be 95!). He had his large headphones on and was plodding along. Instantly I thought,”I want that to be me.” I don’t have to be fast, I don’t have to go far, but to have the desire and ability to lace up and head out for a run in my 70s, my 80s and, God willing, beyond, is my long term fitness goal. I see this man regularly – always around the Monroe curve for those Chicago runners reading this – and always smile and nod in appreciation.
Your long term goal is something you keep in your back pocket. On days you don’t want to do certain exercises, when you feel in your gut you’re pushing to hard, when you think warming up and balance work are a waste of your youthful precious time. Get out your long term goal and ask yourself if your current path is leading you there.
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