My (Improbable) #1 Exercise Rule
Posted on September 30th, 2011
You know how in fitness advice articles, they often tell you to “trick” yourself into exercising by telling yourself you only have to do it for five or ten minutes, but then you’ll feel so good and so into it that you’ll keep going for another half an hour? I never, ever, ever do that anymore.
It will totally work the first time. You’ll get finished and think how good you feel, and it wasn’t bad at all, and why don’t you exercise more often? And then, a funny thing will happen.
You won’t go back.
At least — I wouldn’t. I could never figure out why not.
As I wrestled at first with my five-year plan, I began to perceive that splitting my consciousness and being dishonest with myself in that way, pretending to be less of a hardass than I was going to be, was a problem. Personally, if I tell myself I only have to do ten minutes of something difficult and then make myself do it for another half an hour, I won’t trust myself the next time. It’s like when your significant other tells you that you only have to stop in at some awful party with their boring coworkers for a few minutes to put in appropriate face time, then makes you endure hours of conversational wasteland around someone’s hors d’oeuvres table. The next time they say that, you just don’t believe them.
I ended up creating a nonsensical rule for myself, only it totally worked: I only have to do the workout I’ve planned for the day, or less. And I’m never allowed to do more than I planned, no matter how good I feel.
My number one priority, above everything else, is not to create an exercise aversion in myself. I’ve had a hard time explaining this to other people when I’ve tried. They, too, may struggle with exercising consistently, but they don’t see what I mean by an aversion. I took the term directly from behavioral psychology (of which I’m not a particularly big fan, but it really worked here). Basically, if you, or any other animal, comes to associate an activity with a negative experience, you won’t want to do it anymore! Exercise has to not just have long-term benefits — it has to be an enjoyable immediate experience. And because it’s effortful, it’s so easy to become associated with pain and discomfort.
My trust in myself that when I’m done with today’s plan, I’m really done, and if it hurts too bad, I can stop, is what has allowed me to continue. Paradoxically, most days I do exactly what I set out to do.
But take the last two days, for example. In general, I’ve been feeling overly fatigued since going directly from the triathlon into an ambitious running program. Wednesday I was supposed to go to Bally’s and do a couple of strength circuits, but I was still fried from a hard threshold run the day before. (A threshold run is run at a specific pace just below where you go out of breath; it increases your capacity to hold a hard pace for many miles during a race — and I find it a killer workout.) I decided to eliminate my biking/cross-training workout on Friday, take an extra rest day Wednesday, and spread the rest of my week’s workouts out.
Then yesterday, I was going to do some speed work at the track for either 3 or 4 miles, and those two strength circuits I still hadn’t done. My legs were still fatigued during the run, so I cut it short after my minimum 3 miles, and I reduced the number of circuits to one for maintenance. I’ll try to do more circuits on Saturday, but if that doesn’t happen, it’s fine, too.
What I can’t answer is why this rule of mine doesn’t implode into doing absolutely nothing at all. But it never does.