If you know me, you know I like a good food pun. I don’t take too many things seriously, but when I do, I don’t joke around. One of the things that has been on my mind lately is the need to constantly sabotage ourselves with crazy fitness challenges.
Let’s assume that the goal of these challenges is to be fitter, faster, and stronger than ever before. So now what? We pick the most bad-ass, David-Goggins-ish, task to prove to everyone that momma didn’t raise no fool, right? Wrong. We are slowly breading a new generation of impatient, masochistic and self-loathing individuals that only care about numbers (i.e. total miles, push-ups, burpees, you name it). Anything less than success is an absolute failure.
What we seem to have forgotten is how to manipulate our mind to get what we want. Sure, this is something that guys like David Goggins, Jocko Willink and Gary Vee know very well. It IS all in the mind. Mindset and motivation should be the foundation to everything you do in life. However, not everyone can turn their life around just by uttering the phrase “enough is enough”, or “yes. I. can!”. It takes practice and patience to develop the level of mental fortitude that some of these guys have. Selecting your physical training program can be a great exercise to develop this necessary trait.
Now, before you go down the rabbit hole of self-improvement and self-help books and articles, let’s go over why there’s a high chance you’ll be changing programs faster than you normally do laundry and how to fix it.
1) Problem: Too much, too soon. Volume is a key variable in any physical training program. What sets a good program apart from the bad one is the attention to detail when prescribing volume. If someone is designing a program for you, they should be well aware of your limitations and experience before they send you an actionable plan. Too much volume compared to your regular training right off the bat can lead to issue like nervous system burnout and overuse injuries. When training demands go up significantly, your nervous system take a lot of the toll. In a high-performance setting, if an athlete had just gone through a high intensity, high-CNS (nervous system impact) session, he/she would not repeat the same level of effort for at least 48-72 hours to give the body plenty of time to recover. On the other hand, when we take on these challenges with unrealistic volume demands, we are asking our body to recover in less than 24 hours, which eventually leads us to burnout. How does this feel you ask? Well, if you’ve ever felt super fatigued and unmotivated after consecutive hard training sessions, chances are your nervous system is sending you signals of being burnt-out.
The other issue is overuse injuries. These are especially common during running, push-up, or any challenges that require a specific amount every single day. Our muscles, joints, and bones can only take so much stress before they give in to external demands. Going from couch potato to running 5 miles a day will probably increase your chances to suffer a stress fracture by the end of the week exponentially. The same applies to your muscles being used in one of the many challenges out there. Do you think doing 300 push-ups a day for 30 days will make your chest the size of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s? I don’t. As a matter of fact, you have a higher chance to come out with a strained muscle, torn pec, or one of the many tendonitis issues you see out there.
Solution: So how do you avoid nervous system burnout and overuse injuries? Self-awareness. This is another tool in your mental skills toolbox that you should probably sharpen. Being self-aware will help you chose what’s right for YOU. Not a runner? Fine, then don’t decide to run a 5k every day until the end of quarantine. However, if you want to become a runner, starting small and increasing volume over time will give you the highest chance for success. If you have a coach/trainer designing a program for you, make sure they are aware of your injury history, your preferred physical activity and your exercise history to best tailor the plan for you. Don’t worry, Chad next door won’t think you’re a chicken for not doing the “#100for100” challenge. The only opinion that matters is your own.
2) Problem: Too monotonous (boring). Everyone likes variety. We all know that one person who’s obsessed with “muscle confusion”. They go into the gym and they make up their workout on the spot. This guy is probably the one person you see doing Spiderman jumps on the cable machines (don’t be that guy). Although this might be the opposite side of the spectrum, planned variety is a good thing! The biggest problem with workout programs that require you to do the same thing every day is the motivation required to do it day in and day out. I mean, who wants to get slightly better and maintain this over the course of who knows how long? Chances are probably not most of you. If you work a 9-5 at a job you don’t enjoy, you are experiencing the problem of monotony firsthand. Forget what these motivational gurus have told you. Doing the same thing every day will not make you mentally stronger. In fact, this will take thinking out of the equation all together and eventually set you up for failure.
Solution: Use scientific principles, like the principle of specific adaptations to imposed demands (SAID principle), to plan variety around your training program. The body takes an average of 3-4 weeks to adapt to specific stressors. Using this information, try to keep consistency in exercise selection during this time frame while using progressive overload (making it a bit harder week to week) to get even better results. If you are working with a coach who is aware of these principles, they will be doing this part of the program for you! This will keep you motivated and excited for your following workout.
3) Problem: No nutrition plan to back up the training. Now more than ever, sports and exercise nutrition has become a fundamental aspect of every successful physical training program. One of the issues we see when people don’t adapt their fueling strategies (yes, fueling) to their training, is the lack of progress in body composition and perceived exertion. Let’s not kid ourselves. We all want to look good without a shirt on. For most people, this is more than enough motivation to get them started. The problem is that exercise alone won’t get rid of the blanket of fatty tissue you have on your midsection. If you are consuming more calories than you’re burning, you probably won’t even begin to make a dent on your body composition goals. The same applies to perceived exertion. Running one mile at the beginning of your program compared to one mile at the end of it should feel drastically different. You should feel faster, lighter, and less tired if volume and progressive overload were programmed effectively. The issue here lies in your nutrition strategy. The reason why it probably feels just as hard at the end of the program is because you are constantly dehydrated, overly caffeinated, and starving yourself to shed off those extra pounds.
Solution: Eat a balanced, mostly whole-food diet that will prime your body for physical activity and recover your muscles before your next session. Fueling strategies done correctly can have a huge impact on your performance and mood. Most people need help in this area coming up with a plan that’s manageable and easy to follow, so I encourage you to seek professional help with this one. Food should nourish your body. It should fuel your performance and you should enjoy it too. Anytime you feel that food has become another stressor slam the brakes and go back to step 1, self-awareness.
We can go on with a list of problems, but that won’t do anyone any good. If we focus on developing our self-awareness and choosing a program that will effectively get us to our goal, we can begin to forge our mental toughness. In the end, our mind is the strongest weapon in our arsenal. If we use it wisely, we can achieve anything we set ourselves out to be. We will experience failures; we will be overly ambitious. That’s ok. Every failure is an opportunity to learn about ourselves and rectify our actions, so we don’t go through it again. It takes time, and time is the most valuable investment you can make. Now go out there and unfold your myth!