As wonderful as moving our bodies and being active makes us feel, sometimes our relationships with fitness can be frustrating. One minute you’re getting the results you hoped for, and the next, they stop and leave you wondering what the heck happened. Sound familiar? If so, read this, learn from my mistakes, and be sure to answer the questions at the end as a first step towards kissing that fitness rut goodbye!
Just like in the nutrition world, there’s been plenty of debate about which types of workouts are “the best”. As a former fitness instructor, and someone whose fitness philosophy has evolved a LOT over the last 10 years, I’ve certainly done my fair share of experimentation. Does anyone really know the answer?
If you’re a long-time reader, you’ll know that I used to be all about endurance sports – half marathons, full marathons, trail running and triathlon. After about a year of experiencing minor injuries here and there, one day I ended up with an adductor muscle strain that had me out of commission for several months. It made running and cycling – and even some walking – really painful. In the past, my stubborn type-A self who had learned to push through pain would have just found ways to ignore it or adjust for it – perhaps through running a little more slowly or switching to a similar alternative like the elliptical. But that injury in particular, was different.
My head was in a different space, and one where I guess I was more open than ever to trying something new. I’d completed the bucket list item of a half Ironman, and on the fence as to whether I wanted to invest the time, money, mental and physical energy in training for another. I recall feeling a bit unhappy with the fact that after all that training, I wasn’t looking as fit as I anticipated. I knew that as a runner, I had weaker glutes and tighter hip flexors than the average person. This made me more susceptible to typical “runner injuries”, of which I was experiencing plenty from a tight IT band to Achilles tendinitis. Was my body trying to tell me something?
If I’m being honest, it had probably been trying to tell me a lot of things for quite some time. But again, in most cases, the highly disciplined and goal-centric me ignored the messages and deliberately keep the blinders on. I had a training plan to adhere to! And even when I didn’t, I still wanted to hold myself to this self-imposed standard of hours, miles, speeds – a bunch of numbers. In some situations this laser-like focus is beneficial. In others (like when it comes to health), it’s not always the case.
The adductor injury (about 2 years ago), for whatever reason, happened to be the event that finally convinced me to switch up my approach to fitness entirely. I knew I’d developed a lot of muscular imbalances throughout my endurance athletics years, and to make matters worse, always prioritized running another mile over any sort of strength training. Cardio always came before weights, hence the reason I never saw any significant strength gains during that time. (Not a surprise in retrospect – my muscles were always too fatigued to lift anything that would have made a significant difference!) Finally, I decided I was ready to change that.
In all honesty, while part of me enjoyed the thrill of competing in races and earning new PRs, a big driving force behind my training efforts was simply vanity. I lost a significant amount of weight in my late teens, and I think there’s always been this subconscious fear that one day I’ll wake up and it’ll be back. Cardio was my way of controlling that. Despite all the studies, seminars and education I consumed that touted the merits of strength training, I never fully trusted that it could be prioritized over cardio without weight gain. Well, until my injury completely ruled out my much-loved cardio. As an endurance athlete I was fit, but what many would probably call “skinny fat” – a healthy weight for my 5’10” frame, but with no real muscle to show for all those gruelling hours of training. If there was ever going to be a time to trust the process and just give it a solid try, that was it.
So what happened?
Dedicating the last 2 full years of training efforts to strength-related goals, complimented with mobility and small doses of cardio, has led to more positive results than I’d ever expected. Outside of finally being able to gain some lean muscle, get stronger and sustain far fewer injuries, the perks carried over into other areas too.
For starters, the anemia I’d been battling since 2013 finally started to show signs of improvement, so much in fact, that I was able to drop down in my iron supplement dosing. My blood work started to look better and has continued to improve (specifically ferritin, which was pretty much non-existent in my body back in 2013.)
Digestive health-wise, the bloating and discomfort I’d come to accept as normal gradually went away. Other health markers, including a few related to my thyroid and cortisol, began to improve. I also found myself with more hours to spend doing things outside of training since my sessions became shorter and more efficient. Don’t get me wrong – being sweaty and challenging my body to new things is something I absolutely love, and the gym is very much one of my happy places. But there’s a lot more to life to be enjoyed in addition to that.
(If you’re interested in reading more about the results I noticed in this experiment, be sure to check out this post.)
In case you’re wondering, no, I didn’t gain weight or get fat. In fact, I began to get fitter and stronger than I’d ever been. And instead of my goals and motivations being concentrated on weight and being slim, they shifted to being about getting strong and physically resilient. These improvements are still happening, and the progress – even the littlest bits – is incredibly rewarding.
So why am I telling you this?
Firstly, because I know many of you are new readers who might not know about this part of my story yet. And second, regardless of how long you’ve been reading, each of us has a relationship with the physical fitness component of health. Just like with food, the relationship can be a frustrating one. One minute, you feel great and you’re seeing exactly the kind of results you want. You’re convinced you’ve nailed it. You’ve found the answer to the question of “what workout is the best?” But then the next, you plateau and feel like all that progress seems to be undoing itself. You’re tired, confused, and perhaps trying to work out even harder or longer to chase more of those results. What the heck went wrong?
My hope is that the story encourages you to consider different approaches. If something’s not working now (and this doesn’t just apply to fitness) there’s nothing stopping you from experimenting with another strategy. For me, it was the shift from being a cardio junkie to picking up some weights – heavy ones. For you, it might be the same, the opposite, or something completely different.
As frustrating as feeling stuck can be, I like to think of challenges like this as a game, and part of the fun is creating unique strategies and tactics for winning – whatever that looks like to you. It’s never too late to reassess your goals and consider new ways of getting to them.
With that, I have a few questions for you to work through if you’re stuck in a fitness rut. Feel free to answer them in your journal, or just in your head.
- How would you describe your current routine?
- What are your fitness goals?
- Is your current routine supporting the goals? (Be honest!) Outside of any physical benefits you hope to achieve, is it allowing you to feel the way you want to feel? Does it allow you to show up as the person you want to be to others? Ultimately, does it allow you to spend enough time and attention on the other things you value?
- If your routine isn’t getting you the results you want, what would? What would more supportive training look like that gets you there? (If you’re not sure, who could you turn to for help with figuring this out?)
There’s a follow-up to this post coming next week, and it’s all about what I wish I’d known about high-intensity interval training (aka HIIT) in my early 20s. Whether you’ve tried HIIT in some form as part of your own regimen, are curious about it, or really don’t know much about it at all, hopefully my learnings will save you from making some of the mistakes I did, and achieve the results you’re looking for.
Until then, have a wonderful week (and do something sweaty!)