Einstein said that ‘”the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” This was once me, wanting to get fitter, running longer and HIIT-ing harder, but only seeing diminishing returns. If this sound familiar, perhaps reading about the 7 things that happened when I traded cardio for weights might encourage you to consider a new approach, too.
At the end of 2017, I wrote a post about 4 wellness habits that delivered serious results for me that year. They were habits I’d become consistent with, and are now a regular part of my every-day lifestyle. One in particular, the shift in my fitness focus to strength training instead of long endurance cardio, ha been coming up a lot in conversation lately.
Last week, I was having breakfast with a friend. She shared that despite New Year health resolutions being fresh on many minds right now, she was struggling to find the motivation to make improvements to her holistic wellness. She knew she had areas she wanted to work on, but was admittedly afraid to let go of existing routines because they’ve been her norm for so long. She cited about 5 popular online media sites where she’d been reading about the ‘best’ ways to go about achieving her goals to lose a few inches and develop some muscle. When I asked what she was going to pick as her plan of choice, the answer involved a whole lot of cardio exercise -long running, spinning, HIIT, and a few weight-based group exercise classes per week. Listening to all of this reminded me of where I was at with my own health a few years ago.
I briefly described some of the things I’d noticed as a result of this specific change – trading LOTS of cardio for weight training – a long overdue change for many reasons. Today, I wanted to take some more time to go into the details because quite frankly, it gets me frustrated when I hear other women assume that they have to run endless miles on the treadmill in order to look the way they want to look, or to be considered “fit”. Having been very much in that place myself in the past, I’d love for my experience can be looked at as an example of how trusting the process and giving change a chance can have plenty of positive (and somewhat unexpected) results.
First, a disclaimer…
My intention here is NOT to say that I believe cardio is “bad”, or that strength training is THE best workout for everyone. I talked in this post on breaking out of fitness ruts about my situation and reasons for scaling way back on cardio exercise, but everyone is different and that’s a beautiful thing! I’ll always agree that the best kind of fitness for you is the one you’ll actually do and enjoy. Please read this, keeping in mind that it’s my personal experience. My hope is that if you too, have found yourself in a similar situation as me, you might feel encouraged to make some changes.
And with that, let’s get to it!
1. I wasn’t ravenously hungry all the time
There’s no question that the amount of calories I was burning on my long runs was way higher than what I burn in a typical workout today, but as you may have already learned for yourself, it’s not just about calorie burn. While those big numbers on my heart rate monitor might have felt like badges of honour at the time, I was the classic endurance athlete with a seemingly bottomless pit for a stomach. Yes, I was eating squeaky clean back then, but the sheer volume of food (and the fiber in vegetables, specifically) meant my digestive system was constantly at work. I was also in a state of perms-bloat – NOT fun. This leads me to my next point…
2. My digestion improved
Once I got my portions under control and actually let my digestive system rest in between meals and overnight, it was amazing how quickly that bloating went away. I started to think of it just like muscle recovery: after a meal, my digestive system was “working out” to process the food I’d just inhaled – or in physics terms, it was under stress like muscles would be if they’re being worked. Because I no longer felt so ravenous, I was able to reduce the volume of food I was eating and still feel completely satisfied. (Note that I didn’t reduce the caloric value, just the volume of food.) This allowed more time in between meals post-digestion for things to just rest and recover. I also slept better because the digestive process wasn’t trying to happen all throughout the night.
3. I got injured less
My chronically tight hamstrings and hips finally had a chance to loosen up because I started putting in the time I should have all along to work on mobility and stretching. Hot yoga became a regular part of my weekly routine, and still is now. I’ve found the heat helps me to not only lengthen my muscles more easily and get deeper into poses, but yoga has also been a great way to offer my nervous system some time to recover while still moving and challenging another aspect of my fitness (and mental focus, too.) In my lifting workouts, I’m able to work through longer ranges of motion while still staying in control of the weight and maintaining good form. My formerly uber-tight hips have never felt better!
4. My body composition changed
No, I did not put on body fat. In fact, it was exactly the opposite. I wasn’t an overweight endurance athlete by any stretch of the imagination, and probably weighed what the average 5’10” runner or triathlete weighs. My cardiovascular endurance was awesome, but I lacked muscle BIG time. Like many runners, any time I went to the physio with an injury, it was suggested the injury stemmed from having weak glutes. I consciously started working on this, as well as strengthening other parts of my body where I knew of weaknesses or imbalances.
As I developed a stronger foundation and started lifting more weight, I immediately noticed changes in my body composition. Muscle mass went up, body fat percentage went down, and the muscle tone I thought I’d have as a triathlete finally started to appear. Had you told me that would happen in any of the years prior when I was too afraid and stubborn to give up the hours on the treadmill, I wouldn’t have believed you.
5. My iron went back up
I don’t attribute my anemia reversal solely to reducing my chronic cardio habit – there’s 3 related factors at play, and one is cortisol. This applies to ALL of us, so even if you’re not iron deficient, there might still be some interesting takeaways here.
For some quick background context, I was diagnosed with severe anemia in 2013 (ferritin less than 4 ng/mL), then spent 1 year finding a supplement that actually made me feel better. After that, it was 3 more years of hoping to see my ferritin rise to within the normal range for females (12-150ng/mL) on said supplement. While it seemed to be doing a better job than any other form of iron I’d tried, I was still super reliant on regular doses. If I missed one, I felt it.
The first part of this equation was diet. Trying to maintain an open mind after having been a non-red meat eater for so long, I reincorporated hormone-free, antibiotic-free, grass-fed beef back into my diet once a week. I noticed this made me feel stronger and more energized in and out of the gym, and if I happened to miss a day or two on my supplement, I didn’t notice a dip in energy like I did before.
Ok – now the second part, which was exercise – specifically, far less cardio. In addition to getting more heme (animal-based) iron through my food, I’m pretty confident that the sheer reduction in repetitive stress on my body from running also helped my ferritin to rise. Footstrike hemolysis (or runner’s anemia) is a type of anemia I read a lot about when I was first diagnosed, and while many doctors I spoke to hadn’t heard about it before, my own n=1 experiment seems to support that it is indeed a thing.The gist is that pounding (from a lot of running) crushes red blood cells faster than they can regenerate, which results in iron deficiency. I don’t mean to say that I no longer stress my body with workouts – I still love to push myself hard! But by trading cardio for weight training, I’ve also reduced that repetitive pounding of my feet on the pavement/treadmill.
The third part of this equation was cortisol. With heme iron in my diet, reduced cardiovascular exercise, and conscious efforts to reduce stress in my life (yoga, giving myself a bedtime, etc) my logic is that my cortisol was finally able to come back down. (Cortisol isn’t just a stress hormone, but a fat storage hormone that can make it difficult for anyone to change their body composition when chronically high. There are plenty of other hormones involved in this as well, but let’s save them for another post.) Our bodies don’t absorb nutrients well when under stress, but with cortisol lower, my logic is that I was in a better state to absorb more nutrients (ie iron) from my food and iron supplement.
6. I had more time to spend outside of the gym
The workouts I do now (and have been doing for the last ~2 years) are about 1 hour long, including a warm-up and cool-down. On the weekend I like to take my time, so I might be in the gym for up to an hour and a half. Compare that to my cardio bunny days, and 1 hour was usually the bare minimum I’d run before even thinking about stretching or weights. By that point, I’d have spent most of my energy on running. In retrospect, while I went through the motions of strength training, it was never with a significant enough amount of weight to change my body composition.
I didn’t mind those long, multi-hour sessions back when athletics was one of the most important things to me. But today, I’ve got my priorities spread out more evenly across other aspects of my holistic health. It feels better knowing I can get down to business in the gym for a high-quality hour, then get on with my day with enough energy to show up for other things and other people I care about.
7. I stopped seeing fitness as a way to lose/maintain my weight, and started focusing on getting stronger (which was a LOT more fun!)
This is my favourite result of them all, which is why I’ve saved it for last.
As I think many of us did/do as twenty-somethings, I ultimately saw fitness as a way to stay in shape – a specific shape that I wanted my body to be. My athletic activities had social benefits too, of course – I made tons of great friends through my training and racing, the fitness blogging community, and in gyms and classes over the years. But back in those chronic cardio days, there was a fear in me that if I didn’t log the miles, I couldn’t maintain my level of fitness, maintain my weight, or become a better athlete. My education had taught me otherwise, but I was still too stubborn to believe it. I wanted to shave time off my half marathon PR and inches off my waist. I wanted those long sought-after flat abs to finally show.
Finally, with enough first-hand experience and several injuries behind me, and by simply getting a little older and wiser, I realized shifting my focus to being stronger was SO much more motivating. The desire to take up less physical space and look like magazine portrayals of ‘fit women’ faded, and was replaced by a desire to live more on my own terms. It felt great the day I was able to squat and deadlift more than my bodyweight. Hitting new PRs now makes me feel even more empowered, fit, strong and accomplished, and no matter how you choose to move your body, I think we’d all agree that those are three pretty awesome feelings.
Alright, that’s enough for today. I’d love to turn it over to you, and ask about any changes you’ve made in any aspect of your holistic health (not necessarily just fitness), and how they impacted you. Were any of the results ones you didn’t expect?