Thursday, February 09, 2006

DF Tip #6: Eyes on the Prize

God bless my hardworking fitness clients: they sweat buckets, they do gut-busting sets of Bulgarian split squats, they do all the hoisting and twisting and jumping and skipping I ask of them, the whole time looking wistfully across the gym at other folks doing forearm curls and machine glute squeezes, wishing they had it so easy. Though they occasionally complain about it, my clients work as hard as anyone in the gym, and it makes me happy to see them losing fat, getting stronger, feeling and looking better. And if they’re being consistent and watching their diet and resting adequately, they bound to keep making progress.

But occasionally, inevitably, they hit a wall: a plateau of some kind, or even a backslide of a pound or two. And that’s frustrating for both of us, of course. I mean, if they’re not getting better, surely it means we’re doing something wrong! Right?

Well, maybe.

I’m not infallible, and I can’t police my clients 24-7. But the reality is that for all the sweat you put in, for all the careful measuring of food intake and calories burned, sometimes you just have to be patient, hang in there through a plateau while the body makes the internal changes necessary while prepping for the next surge in progress.

graphI’ve seen again and again that linear progress—absolutely rock-solid, straight-up-the-mountain improvement with no plateaus and no switchbacking—is a myth. It doesn’t really happen. We like to believe it can and does, not only in fitness but in all aspects of our lives: career, finances, living situation, family. On some level we believe that everything should be constantly improving, and that those trends just go on and on until we DIE, fabulously rich and famous, running 3-minute miles and benching 1500 pounds, surrounded by beautiful supplicants, a trunkload of Most Improved Player awards in the back of our each one of our seventeen Ferraris.

Far be it from me to critique anyone’s ambitions. Some people want to get in shape to get back at their exes, or so they can intimidate a guy at work, or to flaunt their new fitness to someone they can’t stand. I’ll work with anyone, because hopefully at some point along the way they start to enjoy the process and their gradual progress towards these goals becomes a by-product rather than the driving force behind their new fitness habit. And if their ex ever does encounter them and sees the newly radiant glow of fitness in their skin and the sleek, trim physique they’ve build for themselves, and suddenly regrets leaving them, well, so be it, but hopefully it doesn’t spell the end of exercise for them (…Martha.)

The point is this: long-term goals are essential. Without them, few of us would ever get to gym.

When I started training for triathlons last year, I was so terrified of not making it through the swim portion of the race that I always made my early morning workouts, despite having to get up before 5:00 AM sometimes. My long-term goal got me out of bed, but once in the pool or on the road, my enjoyment of the activity took over, and I just enjoyed whatever swimming, biking, or running workout I had planned for myself that day. By keeping a ‘soft eye’ on my long-term goals while enjoying the day-to-day ‘nothing special’-ness of working out, I had a great time, met some great friends, and even managed to pull off fairly decent rookie season as a triathlete.

Now I’m no psychologist, sports or otherwise, but I’ve recognized that everything I’ve accomplished that’s worthwhile in my life has been the result of a balancing act between a long-term goal and a day-to-day commitment. On one hand, you’ve got to choose a goal that fires you up; on the other hand, you’ve got to have the stomach for the day-to-day work as well.

It’s the everyday thing that sabotages so many fitness promises. Now that we’re into February, lots of people will find themselves flagging on their programs a bit. You may have hit a frustrating plateau and decided maybe this isn’t your year to get in shape. Or maybe your life is busier than you thought it would be and there’s not as much time or energy as you thought there would be way back in December.

Don’t waste any energy beating yourself up for these lapses. Just ease yourself back onto the horse and get yourself moving again. Add up enough days when you choose to exercise instead of watching TV, where you choose to eat well instead of poorly, where you choose to drink water instead of soda, and pretty soon your long-term goals will be well within reach.

Best of luck, and have a great week—


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