Ok, hear me out on this one. My Coach turned me on to this concept many months ago and I’ve been on my soapbox about it ever since. In my opinion, it’s extremely important for athletes – even recreational, masters athletes – to train and not just to exercise. I’ll explain why, but first let’s start by looking at the differences between the two:
Exercising is generally defined as “activity requiring physical effort, carried out especially to sustain or improve health and fitness”. Basically, exercise means getting up and moving in some way that burns calories. If you walk your dog, go for a run, head to the gym and throw some weights around – all of it is exercising, and that’s great. If you show up for the same cardio boxing class each Saturday just to sweat it out, you’re exercising. If you go to the gym without a plan and decide what you’ll do when you arrive, you’re exercising.
Training however adds in a few elements, specifically:
1. A specific longer term performance goal or goals.
This is the fun part. Pick a goal or even multiple goals – examples could include wanting to hit 20 pull ups by June 30th; finishing the local sprint triathlon under a specific time, rowing 500m under 1:45 by the end of May, qualifying for the Boston Marathon in 2018, or even being able to do 25 kettlebell swings in a row with a 50lb kettlebell by the end of the summer. Just pick one or more goals that will motivate you. I’m a big fan of the SMART rules of goal setting. For maximum effectiveness, the goals need to be:
- Specific – row 500m in under 1 minute, 45 seconds. Not “get faster at rowing”.
- Measurable – 25 kettlebell swings, unbroken, 50 lb kettlebell, by August 30th. Easy to measure.
- Achievable – this is sometimes tough – pick something that will challenge you but will also be possibly within reach in the given timeline. Sometimes a coach or training partner can help you think through this.
- Relevant – pick something that’s important to you or you won’t be motivated to focus on it.
- Time-bound – pick a specific date.
2. A process and a specific plan to reach those goals.
Training is very much about the process. This means you will need a plan that incorporates all that is needed to propel you towards your goal. This means tough days, recovery days, accessory work and periodic testing along the way. I am a huge fan of following a very specific plan, and if you can do it, a coach can also be extremely helpful. You’ll want someone who understands what it is you’re trying to accomplish and who can program, or help program, the various steps you need to get you there. If you don’t have access to a live coach, the internet can be a wealth of information for things like this. There are a ton of programs available for running, cycling, triathlon training, weightlifting programs, etc., all available at your fingertips. Make sure you do your research though, and make sure that the author of the program has some legitimate experience and a history of success. Try to dig up reviews from folks who have tried out the particular program before you jump right in.
3. Measurements and testing throughout the process.
Another key part of training – you need to be able to measure progress and results. If you’ve picked SMART goals, this shouldn’t be too difficult. Remember though, that the process is often not linear. You’ll have setbacks along the way – planned ones, where you’ve maxed out and are just tired, and unplanned ones where your body is just tired or under a lot of stress and not primed for a day or two. This is why the process is so important. A good plan works in the peaks and valleys and ensures that you’re ready for the target date you’ve chosen.
4. Exposure and focus on improving weaknesses.
This is hugely important – and this can also make some people nervous to commit to training. Training is hard. There’s risk. You’ll need to focus on the areas where you are less comfortable. If you want to improve your marathon time, you’ll need to do some speedwork on the track instead of constantly running comfortable 9 minute miles. If you want to do more pull ups, you’ll need to identify where you are weak and work on it. If you want to improve your clean and jerk, you may have to back off on the weight and focus your work on technique for a while. It’s not always fun, and training means you won’t always be doing the things that make you look like a beast in the gym. You’ll need to get comfortable with failing. A lot.
5. An all around effort that will go beyond the physical exercise.
Committing yourself to training means your efforts don’t end with your gym sessions. Recovery, sleep, and nutrition are all very important parts of any effective training plan. You may need to invest a little in some new equipment or gear or a membership at a gym. Training means making constant choices and asking yourself “is this taking me closer to or further away from my goal?” Of course, I’m not saying we all need to stop having any fun at all and go to bed each night at 8pm. But think about how you can best prepare yourself to meet your goal. Maybe this means that you go from having a beer every night so just having a couple on the weekend. Maybe you decide to cut out sugar because you can feel that it’s hurting your performance in the gym. Maybe it’s as simple as making a consistent effort to eat something healthy before your training sessions. It’s up to you, but if you’re serious about reaching specific and challenging goals, you need to have a look at all aspects of your life and figure out what you need to do.
So, why should we train? There are a lot of reasons, but here are some key ones that come to mind for me:
- Training gives you a “why”. Having goals and specific plans to reach your goals can give you the necessary motivation to keep going, even when you don’t feel like it. Crappy weather? Get out there or I won’t progress. Tempted by a pan full of brownies (Me. Tonight). Well, I know if I have too much sugar, I will feel terrible and my performance in the gym will suffer so I’ll skip the brownie for now. Bar hopping? If I have a key workout planned at 8am tomorrow, I’ll have a beer and then switch to something non-alcoholic for the rest of the night.
- The discipline from training can spill over into the rest of your life. When I’m training, I find that I’m disciplined in the rest of my life. To make time to train, I need to be on top of all aspects of my day – I have to do my work efficiently, I need to plan my meals properly, I need to get to sleep at a decent time. Trust me, I’m still living my life, but having a training plan makes me a more organized person in general.
- It’s fun! Anyone who’s trained hard for something and reached their goal, knows that the sense of accomplishment is incredible.
Ready to take the plunge? Some thoughts on how to start:
- Set those goals! As you can see above, I currently have a bunch of them – some specific training goals as well as a defined competition that is coming up. I’ve typed them onto a picture and keep them as the screensaver on my phone so they’re always top of mind.
- Figure out a plan to get you there. Find a coach or find a program that details the steps you need to follow to reach your goals. Be realistic. Can you do what’s needed to stick to the plan? Will it work with your schedule? With your family commitments? Reach for the stars and push yourself but do your homework to set some goals and a find plan that will work best for you. If you find a plan that requires you to drive an hour each way to workouts for the next 9 months, think about whether you will realistically be able to keep that up for the long term.
- Work that plan. Get going! And enjoy the journey.