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Beyond Exercise

This last December (yeah, just a month ago), I was struggling with some motivation and a direction for my 2020 athletic season. Many people might think that's pretty normal. December is a super hard month for working out when you consider the holiday parties, the abundance of sweets, and the end of a long year of training and racing. 2019 had been a pretty big year for me athletically. I raced 11 times in 2019 including my 5th Ironman in 26 months. It's normal to feel a bit unmotivated and crave some downtime. Except, I wasn't feeling either of those things. I took a solid break in November, slept in often, and had time off. It was December again and I WAS motivated to train for something. The problem was that I didn't know what.

My coach, Kurt Perham, sent me a podcast last week. Uncle Rip said two things that stood out to me. First, "strength is force production and force production is strength." It is a good reminder that getting STRONG does not mean sport-specific strength training. Getting strong is getting strong. Once you're strong, then you apply that strength to whatever discipline you are training and racing.

The other thing Uncle Rip addressed was the difference between exercise and training. He explained exercise as a bunch of random activities or events you do to maintain some general semblance of health. That's an idea that captured me. I realized that I REALLY love training for something, but I have a hard time getting motivated to exercise. Exercise means that you can eat that extra piece of pizza, drink an extra beer, or look better on the beach on your next vacation. Exercise doesn't have a purposeful end goal or date and there is ZERO progression built into it. Think CrossFit. I know CrossFit is a pretty polarizing subject in the athletic world, but in its truest form, it's totally random. CrossFit is pretty famous for popularizing the "WOD," or "Workout of the Day." What's a WOD? Well, it's different every day! Sometimes it involves distance running, sometimes squats, sometimes a million and a half burpees. There isn't real progression or building integrated into the WOD. (Sidenote: I think there are a lot of good CrossFit gyms and coaches out there. I'm a big fan of lifting heavy under proper direction and supervision. CrossFit definitely has a place, even for endurance athletes).

Exercise is also doing spin classes, trail running with friends, showing up to your local group ride, and trying out different aerobic or strength classes at the gym.

AND THERE'S NOTHING WRONG WITH THAT. Exercise is great. I'm a big fan, but I do think there lies a bit more fulfillment and improvement beyond the simple act of exercising.

But why do we exercise?

First, I think we all want exercise to enhance our quality of life. We want to live longer, look better, eat more, etc. Taking care of our bodies is a really good thing. I'm continually impressed by people in their 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s I see at the gym. They are tremendous examples of what a regular exercise routine can do for health and longevity.

Second, most of us want to be stronger or faster. Getting better at something is super rewarding and fulfilling. Always being the same speed or lifting the same weight isn't fun. We want to be better today than we were yesterday. And that's where I think training comes in.

TRAINING is when we make the jump from maintaining to actually pursuing a goal or objective. Training for a marathon has a specific end date and often a time goal. Any basic marathon or triathlon training plan has a progression of volume and intensity built into it. It provides structure and a framework to build your exercise habit around. It gives you purpose and that is super meaningful. Exercise can be part of a good training program. There may be a time and place for a random gym class or group ride. That's when having a coach or someone to consult with is most beneficial. They can help advise and recommend the best places to fit in those random exercise habits.

Why is exercise one of the only areas of our lives that we approach without a plan, purpose, or goal? If you are planning on having a baby, you don't just randomly have one one day. Even if it's somewhat of a surprise, there is still a 9 month preparation period built into that process! Usually, that involves some planning around finances, location (is your house big enough?), scheduling, a name, and much more. We are forced to have 9 months to plan for this big event and that's probably a good thing.

You plan and prepare to buy a house. You plan and prepare for retirement, marriage, college, etc. So why do we treat our health in such a random way when the rest of our lifestyle and financial decisions typically require a lot more thought and planning? I'd argue that health and vitality is possibly our greatest asset when it comes to our productivity, enjoyment of life, and longevity. We should treat such a serious subject with careful consideration and focus.

Training for something is much more fulfilling and rewarding than simply showing up to the gym and checking a box 2-3x a week. Is it harder? Yes, without a doubt. Most things that are rewarding in life are hard. Training for a big goal takes sacrifice. It takes lots of early mornings and focus for many weeks and months. It's not going to happen easily, BUT, I firmly believe that training with purpose makes it all worth it.

You see, I love to train. I enjoy being healthy, opting outside, and exercising, but I really, REALLY love training. I love having some big goal that's really far out there and scares me just enough to get out of bed in the morning. The idea of going faster than I've ever gone before is super tantalizing. It doesn't always happen and it's definitely not a linear path. My FTP still isn't as high as it was in 2015. I'm not as fast swimming, riding, or running as I was back then. But I'm still training hard, enjoying that process, and chasing goals that might be a little far fetched.

As we look into 2020, form new habits, and create new goals, I encourage people to look at the year ahead craft some training-related goals to pursue. If you're already exercising regularly, DON'T STOP. You don't necessarily need to do more. The idea of training isn't related to volume or time, it's related to having an objective and a purpose. If 5 hours a week is your maximum time commitment, then stick with that. That's where having a triathlon coach or a training plan can help at times. People think you need to be able to train a lot to have a coach but I'd argue the opposite. If you are training for something, your need for direction and guidance actually goes up when you're short on time.

Pick something that inspires and scares you a bit. Train hard. Recover harder. Eat well. Sleep a lot. Getting faster is simple, it's just not easy.

Happy New Year.

-Mark Saroni

If you're interested in learning more about our Ironman Tri club, coaching services, or triathlon training plans, feel free to contact us and we'd be happy to talk to you about your options.

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