Over the last 20-ish years, I have had a number of ups and downs in my training career. Some years I have trained like a beast for months on end, some year’s life gets in the way, and some years you get an injury that side lines you. I have learned a number of behaviors that have helped me stay active, regardless of what life has thrown my way, and while they may not be ‘scientific’, they have been very helpful to me. As a coach and practitioner, I have seen one very disheartening thing over and over: students who stop training when life throws them a curve ball. When the waves are calm and life is easy, they are dedicated and consistent. But when life gets hard, their training is the first thing that is eschewed. Unless someone has at least 2-3 years of consistent training, I still consider him or her to be ‘new’ and thus vulnerable to abandoning their training at some point.
There is a point in time, somewhere around 3+ years, when training is what you do. Your life and day just aren’t the same without it. As I have said many times, the hour a day I spend training make every other day better, and no matter the state of my mind, emotions or body, I will make the effort to get my training in. In a metaphorical way, your training becomes like a rock in your otherwise tumultuous life. I remember vividly many years ago going to the gym on a particularly bad day, and realizing that the weights didn’t care one bit about my day, and that no matter what else happened that day I could come in and push myself to a positive accomplishment.
When I see students drop out, especially those with 6+ months of training under their belt, I am most disappointed because they have not yet made this realization. Once you have made this association, no matter where you are in life, you will return to training. In my own practice I have seen all types of obstacles appear, and having a solid method to restarting my training after taking a break has been key to being active for all these years.
Problem 1: Work, work, work!
Working is a key part of all of our lives. Whether it is being a parent, a student in school, or having a full-time career, pretty much all of us have a daily responsibility that consumes a good part of our day. As a school owner, I realize that by spending an hour or two training with us, you are trading some of the very few free hours you have each day (something we do not take for granted!). Try as we might, ‘work’ will get in the way, sometimes for extended periods of time. A family member may get sick, you may transfer to a new job position, or you may take on a large class load that prevents you from training as often as you would like.
Tip 1: Try to make your workout a permanent part of your schedule. This isn’t always possible, but if you determine that a specific time (for example: 7:30pm – 8:30pm M/W/F) is dedicated to training, you will be more likely to maintain it. People that try to fit fitness into their lives, rather than fitting their lives around fitness, will have a harder time maintaining their training over the longer term. You will constantly be juggling priorities, and in the end working out will often get left off because it isn’t an emergency to get done. You can always workout ‘tomorrow’.
Tip 2: Be mindful that your workout is as important as your ‘work’. Of course work will supersede your workout from time to time. But over the long term, will you want to look back and see memories of yourself sitting in a cubicle or enjoying the activities that make you happy? Five to ten years from now, do you want to have a healthy body? After all, you have to live in it 24x7. Many of us find life long friends at the gym and we bond with those people through the various experiences we share and look back on. Years from now I will bet you will remember those experiences with more fondness than the extra hour you spent working instead.
I have had a very long career in technology, and there have been times when I couldn’t get to the gym for days, or even weeks. However, I have never quit. I kept my memberships active, and got right back to training when I was free enough again. Is it hard? Yes. But it was worth it.
Problem 2: Emotional stuff
This is a big, broad category of ‘life stuff’ that gets in the way. It could be as small as just not feeling up to it that day/week/month, to going through a loss like a divorce or a loved one dying. It could also be something great, like getting married or having a baby. There are almost endless things that can cause us emotional distractions, both good and bad, that can impact our working out. You might think that only ‘bad’ things draw people away, but I have found that both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ things tend to pull people away.
Tip 1: Be mindful that your workout is an anchor of neutrality. Whether your life is going really well, or really awful, your workout doesn’t care and won’t go any easier or harder on you. It can be a humbling anchor to bring you back to earth when things are going well, and it can be equally helpful to bring you back up when everything else is going bad. This is why it is so key to keep training regardless of how your life is going. Your workout will have its own unique goals that you can set, making you accountable and grounded.
Tip 2: Yes, you can use your emotions to your advantage during a workout. Having a hard day? Use it to fuel your workout. Feeling awesome that day? Be a BEAST that day? Feeling tired and useless? Go to the gym, have a mediocre workout, and you will still leave feeling better knowing that you made some progress towards your goals.
Problem 3: Injury recovery
If you are going to use your body in any physical activity (walking, lifting, swimming, fighting, bowling, etc…) you run the risk of injuring it in some fashion. Bodies break, sometimes badly, but they will almost always recover. It may not be in the time or fashion that you want, but in general recovery happens. I have had some rather severe injuries, and whole list of minor ones. One rule I have personally lived by is: don’t train an injury, train around it, and above all don’t stop training completely. Obviously your condition may require some medical guidance from a doctor, but in general you can usually workout parts of your body that are not affected by an injury. For example, if you have a lower body injury, try doing as much as you can with your arms, shoulders and core. You may not be able to be as intense as you once could, but that is really more of a mental adjustment, not a physical one. When your body changes, it gives you the ‘opportunity’ to workout in new ways and with new goals. If you give in mentally because your old goals are no longer attainable, you will ultimately stop working out completely.
Tip 1: Keep working out, as long as it is safe to do so
Injuries WILL happen and they will set you back. They are part of the deal, so get used to it. What you need to do is keep with the schedule, and keep training to the greatest degree possible. If you need to completely stop, then do it. But there is almost always something that can be done, whether it be just stretching or extremely lightweight modifications, we can usually come up with something.
Tip 2: Be realistic with the time it takes to get back to 100%
This is an area I have down to a science for myself. If I take a few days or a few weeks off, I have a rule of thumb: it will take 2x as long the time taken off to get back to where I was. So for example, if I take 1 week off for vacation, I should plan on 2 weeks of progressive training to get back to where I was when I left. I will proactively scale back the weight and times I was training (~25%) and then scale it back up over the next couple of weeks. That gives me a safe ramp up back to my training weight, and gives my body the time it takes to recover and prevent injuries. I see students trying to get to 100% the minute they get back, and then complain how much they hurt the next few days. (Side note: I see the same thing with new students. They feel they are way behind and want to kill their bodies on the first day to recover. I try to steer them wide and clear of that pitfall if I can).
The Big Picture
I view working out as a life long endeavor. I want to be the 80 year old guy doing pull-ups, not the one in a wheel chair. I want to continually learn new activities and learn how to be more efficient and safe while doing them. I want to push myself as far as I reasonably can go given the various restrictions in my life. Having a strategy for recovery from time off is a key part of a life long pursuit of physical activity. You will need to figure out what works for you by listening to your body. As I say at the school: what is the alternative? Not improving? Not being in shape? Sadly for many it is, but with a proper strategy it doesn’t have to be you.