Several years ago, I restarted my fitness regimen after a decades-long hiatus. It was a tough road back.
I had been active as a kid, competitive as a teen, and still involved in fitness as a young adult.
But other priorities took precedent as a married mom of two boys. Plus, I lost interest in athletic pursuits because I believed I could never excel. When younger, I hoped and strove for excellence, despite evidence that I would never be a world champion (or a state or national one for that matter). Later, as a grownup with a more realistic perspective, I lacked motivation and inspiration because I figured I’d never become a standout athlete.
However, when even moderate exercise proved to be tiring, I decided to make changes. And I became somewhat fit, which seemed to be good enough, especially considering my former state.
You may have landed at the same place as I did. And, you may have started an exercise program that improved your condition. But now you’re stuck in a holding pattern. You say your current state is fine. But you would like to get better, just without becoming a fitness snob.
Here are some ways to transform your fitness level while remaining your humble self:
- Believe you can get better. Positive thinking has never been natural for me, as I have preferred to exceed low expectations rather than project that everything will go my way because I believe it will.Honestly, I bristle when I hear an Olympic athlete attributing his or her success to positive thinking. Really? I get that these folks have worked extremely hard to reach a world-ranked status but their natural physical state (for example, a height of 6’5″ compared to someone like me who is 5′) is typically a factor in their performance. The edge that gets them to the finish line a hundredth of a second quicker than their peers could be attributable to a positive mental state but is also due to extra-long arms, legs, hands, and feet.Still, I have learned that just because I will never stand on the podium at the World Olympics doesn’t mean I can’t get faster. Even though I am getting older, I am not yet too old to stop getting better. Though a positive outlook won’t help me to win a gold medal, a better frame of mind can influence my level of fitness.
- Add interval training or sprints to your training regimen when you are ready.Interval training sessions or sprints may sound sophisticated and complicated but are not that mysterious. In their simplest form, they involve going faster for specific periods of time, from a few seconds to several minutes, accompanied by warm-ups and cool-downs, and interspersed with rest.Do some type of intervals or sprinting in your training regimen when you are ready.My early training as a swimmer and runner involved interval training. As an adult, I abandoned speed work in favor of long distance, endurance efforts.
But when I trained for a sprint triathlon, my coach re-introduced the idea of interval training. Later, when a fellow cyclist close to my age with a busy work schedule and an active family mentioned that he focused on fast workouts, not distance ones, I followed his advice. I was amazed at how improving my speed benefited my overall performance and even my endurance.
The precise technique for interval training is not critical to improving fitness. The important thing is that you run (or swim, cycle, walk, etc.) quickly for a brief period of time: fast enough to elevate your heart rate but not so fast to trigger a cardiac event (consult your physician if you have questions). Some folks wear a heart monitor to make sure they are pushing themselves enough but not too much in order to maintain or improve their fitness level.
If you are getting ready for a 5K, for example, you might do a short workout that involves warming up for a mile at an easy pace, running a few 440s around a track (that’s one lap) or doing a series of 4-5 half-mile runs at a quick pace, and then cooling down with a mile run at an easy pace.
- Push yourself.Even if you are not ready to adopt sprinting into your training regimen, you can still push yourself harder.Start by measuring your performance during a workout and then going faster or longer or both.For me, a breakthrough in pushing myself came when I bought a Garmin Forerunner at the recommendation of a friend. I had mentioned to her that I had trouble keeping a decent pace when I ran. My tendency was to cover a certain mileage at an uncertain pace.
But the Forerunner displayed my mileage and pace and how my heart rate responded to various levels of speed and endurance (it’s a sports watch with GPS tracking capabilities along with an optional heart monitor that captures your heart rate). Using this guide, I was able to improve my training speed and then my race-day performance.
- Improve your diet. Eating healthier food is a simple way to improve your fitness results.Now, I am not talking about taking supplements or following a special diet. Just exercise common sense in your nutrition. Here is what works for me:
- Avoid fast food
- Eliminate processed foods with trans fats
- Eat fruits and veggies
- Remember to eat protein
- Don’t skip carbs
This technique is probably one of the most overlooked ways to get stronger. Basically, a heart-healthy diet improves your performance because your cardiovascular system is performing more efficiently plus you are able to train harder and get more out of your workouts since your body can handle more intense training.
- Learn a new sports-related skill. The person who can easily integrate multiple new skills into their fitness regimen is the exception. Sure, I’ve seen people who can walk into a bike shop, come out with a new road bike with clip-in pedals, and go for a great ride all within the span of a few hours.But I couldn’t handle that much newness in one week, one month, or even one year (I’m a slow learner).I have found that instead of pressuring myself and struggling with trying to process loads of new information and techniques, it’s easier (and safer) to learn or improve one skill at a time. For example, in cycling, I have focused on climbing, sprinting, riding in a paceline, or memorizing routes, not all of these skills at one time.
Many people get overwhelmed by trying to master multiple skills simultaneously. Tackle one skill during each workout or over a period of time. As your competency grows, your performance will improve.
- Get the gear. If you are like me, you resist getting special gear. That’s generally a good move if you are not ready or don’t even know what the proper gear is yet. You definitely don’t want to have A list gear with a D list fitness level.But at some point, you need to spring for the gear that will help take you to the next level. Your purchase might be the running shoes fit by the experts at the running store, the road bike for the sprint triathlon, or the compression shorts that help your legs fight fatigue.Even if your fitness level is not directly improved with new gear, your overall performance will most likely get better with proper-fitting shoes, clothes, and equipment.
- Stop thinking that moving to the next level will make you a fitness bully. One of the reasons I didn’t pursue excellence was because I didn’t want to become someone who valued performance over kindness, being a good sport, or pure enjoyment of athletic endeavors. And I didn’t want to link my self-worth (or my regard of others) to athletic prowess.But I realized that many of the sports bullies or the fitness snobs encountered in adulthood are the average performers.Many of the fast and strong folks (not all, but many) understand the challenges of reaching a higher level of fitness. They have experienced defeat as often as they have experienced triumph but they value and embrace both types of experiences. And instead of reveling in reaching greatness, they revel in the pursuit of greatness.
And refreshingly, the more accomplished athletes are willing to help me (and others) reach a new level of fitness. They are generous with advice on everything from gear to planning a race to adjusting diet to fuel greater performance.
Don’t let the fear of becoming a snobby athlete make you hold back in improving your fitness. Remember that the better you are the more options you have for hanging out and working out with folks of varying fitness levels.
Since I restarted my fitness regimen, I have run my first 5K and then shaved minutes off my time.
I love to tell the story of that first 5K. It was billed as a cross-country course. I liked the idea that I didn’t have to run on the road but had no idea that I’d be running on a trail, dodging tree roots, and huffing and puffing up hills. Yes, now I know that a cross-country course is in the woods but I didn’t realize it then. My time was just under 40 minutes.
Several years later (and that many years older), I finished my most recent 5K in less than 27 minutes. I had signed up for the race because some friends were supposed to be competing but then they couldn’t make the event. On the day of the race, waiting for the gun start, I talked to someone who was a casual runner like me whose youngest child had grown up with my oldest son. We ended up running side by side for much of the event, pacing each other and silently challenging each other to perform better. It was my best time ever.