It has to be one of my least favorite “good for you” things to do. Yet, by all accounts, planning is a crucial component of success. However, the KEY is following the right plan.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated with training. Whether it was for sports tryouts in high school or for getting ready to travel to South America to climb Mount Aconcagua or for preparing to enter Marine Corps boot camp, I liked getting fit and ready. In other words I “trained,” or so I thought I did. Unfortunately, what I called training was not training in the true sense of the word. It was more like running around with a goal tacked on the end. And it wasn’t until my mid-thirties, when I began to learn about and to appreciate the difference.
Let me quickly explain…
Exercise vs Training
Though not everyone may agree on the following definitions, for the purposes of this article they will meet our needs. Plus, they provide a suitable framework for distinguishing between different types of physical activities.
Exercise is any physical endeavor or activity without the expressed purpose of improving future performance. In other words, if you head out for a jog or join a high intensity interval training class to blow off steam after a hard day at the office, then that’s exercise.
Training, on the other hand, is any physical endeavor or activity with the expressed purpose of improving future performance in a given activity or endeavor. For example, when you specifically target leg strength by doing sets of squats or deadlifts so you can run or bike faster, then you’re training. Similarly, when you run a series of sprints all under a certain time limit and with prescribed rest intervals in order to improve your capacity to work harder for longer, you’re training.
Now, you may be wondering why such a distinction between training and exercise is necessary, arguing that if you go out for a run then your future performance is bound to improve. First off, the distinction being made is not one of value, but of intent. It certainly is possible that blowing off steam through physical exertion will improve your physical fitness, though it is not guaranteed. Similarly, following a strucutred training program may lead to strength and conditioning gains, but they are by no means certainties.
Simply stated, exercise (or working out) tends to be present focused, while training is almost always future oriented.
There’s another big difference big difference between exercise and training and that’s following a plan, or a program.
Two Marathons, Then and Now
In my late 20s (I’m now 52), I did a lot of trail running. One day in August of 1997, a friend I ran a lot with back then suggested we run the Breckinridge Trail Marathon together. It sounded like a fun thing to do so I agreed. It just so happened the race was taking place the following week. In other words, although we’d been running a lot, we’d not planned on running the marathon or structured our trail running to prepare for such an undertaking. We merely saw it as an opportunity to do a long run.
Now compare that to running the Moab Marathon, which I did in November 2017 at age 49, a little over 20 years later. Over the summer earlier that year, I’d been running some and it was feeling really fun. The previous few years I’d been doing a lot more mountain biking and hardly any running. But for some reason, I don’t remember why now, I decided to do a little running that summer of 2017. Spurred on by those good feelings and my wife’s encouragement, I registered for the Moab trail marathon. With plenty of advanced notice, I followed a twelve-week program to prepare for the run. The plan laid out how much I was to run from week-to-week in order to be ready for race day. In short, I trained for the marathon.
Given that the races were twenty years apart and conducted on very different courses, it’s not possible to compare outcomes. The point is for the first marathon there was no premeditated training that happened. I’d been running a fair bit and so went for it. In the second marathon, I wanted to be as ready as I could for the run, so I followed a training plan designed for that purpose.
(For those who are curious, I successfully completed both marathons. At the end, I was tired and glad they were over.)
Plan Your Work and Work Your Plan
Here are two ways to approach your fitness.
Scenario One… you decide to begin running. You set aside three days a week to run and you plan on running 30 minutes on each of those three days. At first, it’s difficult to complete the 30 minutes without walking. But as time goes by you’re soon able to complete your 30 minutes without breaking a sweat. At last you’re enjoying yourself and for the next ten or twenty years you religiously work your “plan” of running three days a week.
But here’s the thing, you most likely achieved your current level of fitness in the first few weeks or months of your new program. All of your subsequent effort has not added one iota to your overall level of fitness. In fact, it’s likely you’ve actually experienced a decline in your fitness. In the fitness world, that effect is known as accommodation. In short, accommodation means your body will adapt to a given training load, and without additional loading your body will fail to make further gains. Plus, if the magnitude of your training is insufficient, then you may even experience a decline in performance and fitness.
Scenario Two… you decide to begin running. After a bit of research and some thoughtful consideration, you settle on walking or running each week for a predetermined length of time. In Week 1, you walk or run just 30 minutes. In Week 2, you add 3 minutes to your total time (approximately 10 percent) and walk or run for 33 minutes. Likewise, in Week 3, you add another 3 minutes (again, approximately 3 minutes) and walk or run for 39 minutes. Then in Week 4, satisfied by your progress, you walk or run for a whopping 16 minutes (half of Week 2’s total walk or run time).
In Week 5 you start over again. But this time you begin your 4-week cycle by walking or running for a total of 33 minutes (the number of minutes from Week 2 of the preceding 4 week cyclce). Then, for the foreseeable future you methodically follow the above four-week format, increasing your weekly (and monthly) running volume by 10 percent each week (and month). Plus, you diligently take a well deserved “rest” week every fourth week in which you do half the number of minutes from Week 2 of the same month.
Pretty soon you’re weekly volume has reached 150 to 200 minutes. Furthermore, you’re able to run all of those minutes at an easy pace. In fact, you feel good enough to try running a little faster. So instead of increasing your volume (total minutes run), you elect to increase your per mile pace (or your total mileage) by just a little bit. At the same time and because you’re feeling so good, you begin incorporating some skills practice, interval training (bursts of higher effort exertions), and some resistance training into your program.
As you implement those changes you continue to improve your fitness and your running performance. In essence, you’ve continually adjusted your training plan to match your improved level of fitness with the ultimate result being ever increasing overall fitness. Plus, you’re running faster.
In the second scenario, you’re fitness continues to develop because you gradually increase your work load, forcing your body to adapt to the new demands. In addition, you expand your training to include other elements. In other words, you stave off accommodation (the fatal flaw of Scenario One) by consistently modifying the training stimulus to which you expose your body. If you continue doing so for the next ten or twenty years, you will retain a youthfulness and level of fitness unattainable by the you in the first scenario.
In both scenarios, it may seem as if you’re following a plan meant to improve your fitness, while in actuality only Scenario 2 provides you with increasing levels of strength and conditioning.
The Curse of Getting Older
There are many benefits of getting older. One of those is a greater sense of what and what not to do. There are unavoidable pitfalls, too. Regrettably, the seemingly bottomless well of energy and vitality of youth we so enjoyed at some point begins to dry up.
That is to say, when young it didn’t seem to matter what I did to stay fit. As long as I remained active (that is, exercised), my body seemed to respond positively. Then, almost as is if a switch got switched, my regular level of activity failed to maintain the standard of performance to which I’d become accustomed. For many, that can happen as early age thirty. For me that unavoidable decline appeared at about age thirty-five.
Whether we like it or not, at some point a more laissez-faire attitude towards exercise and fitness will fail to keep us healthy and fit. Such an unfocused approach must assuredly be transformed into a conscious and more formalized effort in order to advance, or even just maintain, our current level of strength and conditioning so we can continue enjoying all of our favorite activities.
A properly structured and implemented training program is the best method for facilitating that change.
What’s Your Plan?
Following a plan, does a few things. It structures your individual workouts so you know what to do on any given day. It incrementally increases in difficulty so you continue to improve your strength and conditioning. It makes room for rest and recovery. And it provides an opportunity to gauge improvement in performance.
When it comes to your fitness, the bottom line is this: if you want to consistently get better at whatever it is you’re doing (or at least maintain your current level of strength and conditioning), then having and following a plan is your best (and quickest) path to success. In short, plan saves time, energy, and frustration while producing superior results.