I’ve gotten a lot of great feedback on the last blog post about “relentless forward motion” as a metaphor for how to approach New Years resolutions and life in general. (I’m always really talking about life in general!) Since we’re still leading up to the New Year, I thought I’d take another post to talk more practically and specifically about exercise resolutions and the plans we spawn.

Matt Fitzgerald wrote a terrific book for runners called RUN: The Mind-Body Method of Running by Feel. He demonstrates that rather than following a daily plan, elite runners pay attention to their effort level, mood, and enthusiasm and interest in their workouts, to tell what is most valuable for them to do on a particular day. He advises the rest of us in learning this method of training. As one marathoner on Amazon says:

Most of the books I’ve read have strict training programs that seem to just wear me out. So I find this book to be refreshingly different. Wow, I can actually go by how I feel rather than “got to get in that 20 miler today” or “got to meet my target of 55 miles this week”. I now refer to my “adaptive” running schedule rather than “training” schedule. That’s what it’s really all about, adapting the body to new levels of running performance & not beating it up.

A four-mile run or hour of Pilates or circuit training might be right there on your plan for today, and not at all what your body needs or wants. Those are the days that pushing yourself feels worse afterwards instead of better, and you stop wanting to do it at all (see my discussion of “exercise aversion“). A plan assumes everyone’s body responds the same way to exercise and with the same timing; or that you know weeks ahead of time how your body will respond. Obviously, this cannot be true. A plan is really there to help your mind — to give you a framework instead of a free-for-all. The problem is when the plan starts to hinder your mind, becomes a mind game itself , until your body’s needs and responses are lost as a priority.

Remember: the plan is not your goal; your health and fitness are your goal, and the plan is a helpful but imperfect instrument.

Let’s say you haven’t been working out. You’ve decided to change your daily routine, getting up at 5:30 am instead of 7:00 am to hit the gym before work. Are you a morning person? Can you continue this without bludgeoning yourself, once the initial two days of excitement wear off? Maybe you’re not sure; maybe you need to try it out. Personally, it’s not my strongest time of day, but other people thrive on it.

Maybe you’ve decided five days a week sounds good. Every single day before work is a nice round number. You want to get “in shape” fast. Before Spring and Summer fashions show up would be best. (If you’ve been reading this blog, you know what I think about “fast“!) You have a picture in your head of a Self that is perfect, the Self you’re trying to Resolution yourself into being, and that Self definitely has no problems going to the gym every morning!

Here’s the thing: You’re not that Self. You’re you, the same not-in-shape, un-resolved you that went to bed on December 31. That’s the Self that you need to work with. Perfect Workout Self is somewhere off in the misty future, and the only bridge is time and habit and subtle changes in today’s course of action.

I’ve been exercising exactly five and a half years as of Saturday! Tomorrow I’m finishing the 3-week Best Sports Workout in The Women’s Health Big Book of Exercises. It was fun to follow this plan and I’m proud of myself for finishing it! In this case, I did all the workouts on the assigned days, which isn’t always true (nor do I always expect to). But I also modified exercises I couldn’t do any other way, like chin-ups with a rubber band and hanging rows with my knees bent. That’s a big part of how I keep going.

The plan is always there to serve you, not the other way around. You will need to try things and tweak them. You will miss workouts because your body needed it, and you will miss workouts when your mind was lazy or didn’t plan well (or, of course, when life intervenes — I’m just assuming that one!). You will need to look back at each week in terms of what worked and what didn’t, and plan each new week accordingly. You will need to make time to work out, and you will need to change times if it doesn’t work. You will need to adjust your workouts downward when you take on more than your body can handle; and you will need to adjust them upwards when they become too easy. You will need to change your plan or route when you become bored. You will need to find out what you enjoy, and what motivates you. You will need to learn from messing up, not stop from messing up. This is not a resolution — this is relentless forward motion on an exercise plan.