I don’t believe success is achieved in a Rocky Balboa montage of blood, sweat, and tears. The path to success is far more sober, humane, calculated and consistent over time.
Patience. Long term focus. Consistency. Little by little. Progressive. Stress management. Rest and recovery.
Most people will read these words and agree that they are a sound approach to achieving goals. But in a culture that prizes the myth overnight success, we often forget goals take time to nurture. Physical training can teach you this important life lesson if you let it.
Take the crawling pace of elite Kenyan recovery runs for example, which have become legendary. Eliud Kipchoge, the best marathoner in the world right now, takes his easy runs at a 5 minute per kilometer pace. This is the pace I run my easy runs at. This tells me I’m running my easy days too hard – even if it doesn’t feel like it.
Bear in mind that my marathon pace is about 4:10 per kilometer, compared to Kipchoge’s 2:50. He’s in a completely different world. A 5-minute kilometer must feel like a stroll in the park. For me, it’s still work – even if it’s not very hard work.
Why do the Kenyans run so easy? In part because keeping easy efforts dead-easy leaves you fresh and ready to push when it’s appropriate. We should not feel guilty about taking the time to relax and restore. The current paradigm is to work a little too hard when we shouldn’t. The fatigue we accumulate leads us to hold back when we should be pushing.
I’d wager that many of us don’t even know what it feels like to be fully fresh and restored on any given day.
It could be a cultural difference that leads to this kind of approach. I’ll not profess to be particularly knowledgeable of Kenyan culture. Most of what I know is from reading Adharanand Finn’s, “Running With The Kenyans”.
But I’d be right to assume that our grind-yourself-to-a-pulp culture is very different from rural African life. Who among us has not felt pangs of guilt when resting or taking it easy? We think of the body’s need to rest and recover as a weakness to be overcome rather than a signal to heed. We see it as laziness.
The irony is that a more laid back approach seems to produce better results. Most Western trainees are sabotaging their key workouts by not resting enough.
It’s not just a philosophy though. There is a sound physiological basis for it.
I would suggest Matt Fitzgerald’s 80/20 Running as a great primer on the physiology of easy training. Fitzgerald shows that, without exception, the programs of all great running coaches prescribe 80% very easy work and only 20% of work at higher intensities. It’s not that we don’t understand the science, though. It’s our mental attitude that keeps us from holding back. If some hard effort is good, more effort must be better, right?
Western education tells us hard work will always pay off – even when we can see that it doesn’t. By striving too hard for the goal we achieve none of it. Injury, burnout, and decline await those who cannot balance effort. Working so hard for a goal that you sabotage your ability to actually achieve it could be the definition of insanity.
It’s not only running. As a trainer, I’ve seen all kinds of fitness trends. But nothing defines the futility of working too hard than Crossfit. I’ll take flack for saying it, but I challenge you to find a fitness trend with more injured and overworked athletes.
Compare this to uncomplicated the Simple Strength program designed by Dan John and Pavel Tsatsouline. This back to basics routine prescribes an almost laughably low workload. It is a basic approach to strength training compared the balls-to-the-wall Crossfit approach. But it works.
Simple Strength is a “just-enough” approach and not an ounce more. A trainee holds back when tired. When they feel strong, they push the weight a little bit. It requires one to be in-tune with their body. The last rep of every workout is performed with the same quality and intensity as the first. Little by little, you build strength. This isn’t lazy. This is intelligent.
Short, focussed, and to the point. No grunting, no showboating, no throwing weights around. There is no blaze of glory. You won’t be able to brag about how you blew out your shoulder crushing your Fran time (Crossfit staple workout). It’s a program that you can grow with for life.
As a young personal trainer, I assumed that clients were paying me to push them to their limits. Over the years, I learned that my value was not in shock and awe, but in intelligent program design. Building clients little by little to a new and sustainable level of health and fitness.
Trainers must balance what clients expect with what is sound for the body. Clients are often surprised at how humane a well-designed workout can feel. But why should it be a surprise that a workout shouldn’t always take you to the edge of complete exhaustion? Should it be a surprise that you can walk down the stairs without pain the day after a workout?
Wisdom isn’t something you are born with. It comes from analyzing your own experience and learning from it. I’ve done the hardcore thing. I’ve got no one to impress, and I’ve got to live in this bodily vessel that I’ve punished so hard in the past.
It’s time to question our tendency to strive too hard. Not just in physical pursuits, but in life. We all need to be our own coaches.
I’m far from perfect. But as I learn to balance my own training efforts, I find myself with a sounder approach to living. I have my own small business now and a baby due in September. As life conspires to make me busier I find I must grow with my circumstances. I no longer have the luxury of pushing too hard and exhausting myself.
I’m finding that by striving a little less, I’m enjoying life a little more. I’m experiencing a little more happiness and success as a result. I’m no longer looking towards the goal or the final result. Instead, I’m enjoying the moment.
When I slow down on those easy runs, I’m amazed at how enjoyable they are. Letting go of the type-a guilt allows me to experience gratitude for what a healthy body can do. To explore my environment on the power of my lungs and my own two legs is a profound gift. Lost in the moment, almost without trying, I find myself getting closer to my goals.
One step at a time.