I was inspired to write this blog by my client, let's call her Joan, after she said that she loved how I had trained her as an athlete even though she only runs five kilometres. Sounds like an innocuous enough comment, but it got me thinking about how Joan's identity as an athlete is one of the reasons she sticks with her exercise routine.
Identifying as an athlete informs many of her positive life choices. It helps her stay committed to exercise, make healthy lifestyle choices, eat well and get enough rest.
This is not atypical. I know that becoming more athletic was part of how I managed to grow out of the unhealthy, unfit and unhappy teenage version of myself. I see this same pattern in many of my clients. The ones who have managed to make long-term lifestyle changes have all, in one way or another, found their "inner athlete."
I don't mean that all my successful clients have started training 20 hours per week, nor do they push their body to the limits in the way many serious athletes do.
What they have done is in some small way -- whether it is through goal setting, proper fuelling, identifying with the physical activity that they participate in or understanding the importance of strength training -- implemented strategies that are utilized by athletes.
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Tips to finding your inner athlete:
1. Take an offseason!
Serious amateurs and professional athletes take between two weeks to two months off between their training seasons to recharge physically and emotionally.
The offseason is not an excuse to sit on the sofa all day and become totally lazy. It is simply a period of less structured training. In my off-season I don't do pre-structured interval workouts. Instead, I run, bike and swim by feel and for fun.
Take away: Doing the same routine over and over can be draining physically and mentally. Switch up your gym routine regularly and give yourself a few weeks each year where your workouts are less structured.
2. Eat to fuel!
Athletes know that they have to eat intelligently because a well balanced diet can improve mood, performance, alertness and energy levels.
Take away: Try to change your mind set around food. Don't think of food as the enemy, think of food as fuel. Stay away from foods which have low nutritional value. Don't starve yourself, or try to exist on low calorie, nutritionally vapid "low fat" foods like rice cakes or zero fat yogurt. Fill up on foods that will help stabilize your blood sugar and fill you with energy throughout the day. Eat foods that pack a nutritional punch! Think chicken, vegetables, whole grains and nuts and seeds.
3. Train for strength!
Athletes know that strength training helps maintain joint integrity, limit injury, improve athletic performance and increase muscle mass.
Take away: Don't prioritize cardio workouts. If you love your elliptical, that is great, but supplement your elliptical workout with strength training.
4. Establish short and long term goals so that your workouts have a purpose.
Athletes have short and long term goals. In order to achieve the goals, workouts are planned in advance. Even easy days have a purpose. Easy workouts are considered "active recovery." They allow you to recharge physically and mentally. I find having a specific purpose attached to each workout ensures I am invested in the workout, which makes me less likely to skip training.
Take away: Do some research, or talk with a fitness professional and develop a program. Your plan does not have to be as detailed as a professional athlete, but having a program will help you establish goals, stay motivated and will allow you to track your progress.
5. Recover like an athlete.
Athletes train hard, but they also recover well. They focus on proper post-workout nutrition, proper hydration, stretching, getting massages and sleeping. They have to recover because although working out is healthy, it stresses the body and causes tissue breakdown. Muscles repair and get stronger during recovery.
Take away: Don't underestimate the importance of recovery. How you treat your body when you are not training is just as important as what you do to your body during training.
6. Athletes establish physical, performance-based goals, not just aesthetic goals
If you read my work regularly then you know that I am not a huge fan of the emphasis that tends to put on the aesthetic benefits of exercise. I find that when people have purely aesthetic goals their self confidence and body imagine can be negatively effected. The emphasis on looks can lead to poor nutritional choices and ultimately doesn't lead to long-term sustainable lifestyle changes.
Athletes know that to be successful at their sport they have to make goals connected to how their body moves, not just how the body looks.
Take away: The benefits of exercise extend far beyond weight loss. The positive effects of exercise include improved sleep, energy, mood, long term health, mobility, strength and athletic achievements. Try to establish health, wellness and athletic goals based on these factors, not just aesthetic goals.