Monday, February 16, 2015

Don't Settle for Good Enough

Fitness is a journey, not a destination. That's a rule that I think applies in many areas.

When you hear people say something like, "It's easier to lose weight than to keep it off," you know they're not focusing on the journey. I'd wager that these are the people who are most likely to try some brand-name or fad diet. They're looking to fix a short-term problem without any thought about how they're going to sustain it. And if whatever you're doing isn't something you can keep up over the long term, it's bound to fail.

There are other people who set a goal as an arrival point. Perhaps they want to run a 5K, or hit a certain weight in time for a school reunion or a vacation, or even do something big, like a marathon or long-distance bike race. Goals are good. Having a prize to keep your eyes on can be a great motivator. But what happens when you achieve that goal? What's the next step? Another goal? Or at least a plan to sustain your gains?

But today I want to talk about another obstacle on the journey for Regular Guys, including myself: Not pushing yourself. In other words, once you've gotten to a certain point on your fitness journey, what you're doing is no longer that tough. You know you have more in you. So what can a Regular Guy do to move beyond that first plateau?

You have to challenge yourself.

Now, you know how I feel about all those fitness memes and hashtags and fitspo slogans. So when I say something like that, I'm not trying to give you another Nike commercial. I want to get down to the nuts and bolts a little bit.

I believe the next small step on this journey is education. When your starting point is couch potato, achieving a basic level of fitness is more or less a matter of getting a little more active and simply being cognizant of what and how much you're eating. But at some point, that's just not going to do much for you. Your body will reach a point where you're no longer losing fat or gaining muscle. You need to do some reading on nutrition and workout progressions. Let's make this a starting point.

A while back, I wrote about how much protein we Regular Guys need. But what I didn't really talk about much is the concept of macros. When I was first getting fit, I had no idea about any of this. But you need to know a little bit if you're going to get past step one. So let's start with the basics: Your food comprises three macronutrients: protein, carbs and fat. Each performs a specific function.

  • Protein is the building block of muscle. 
  • Carbs aid in nutrient absorption and provide energy.
  • Fats help you feel full and, depending on the type, can help with heart health.
You also need to figure our your caloric baseline. You can dive deep on this stuff, but for starters, there are a few basic variables: your height, your weight, your age and your activity level. This calculator from the Mayo Clinic isn't bad. I probably fall between "active" and "very active," so I calculated it for both and split the difference -- right around 3000 calories a day. 

Once you know how many calories you need, you can figure out the right ratio of macros for you, based on what you're doing. But if you're at all active, I can guarantee one thing: You need more protein than the USRDA. There's a good chance you need more carbs, too. (As FftRG readers know, I'm very much opposed to the anti-carb crowd. I'll do a post about that sometime.)

Bottom line: If you're just looking to shed a few pounds, simply restricting your calories a bit is a good plan. But if you're looking to add muscle, or train for a distance race, or figure out how to shed those last pesky few pounds, you need to delve a little deeper.

Exercise Progression
Simply put, once you get to a certain point, you have to work harder to make further gains. 

When I first began exercising a few years ago, I acquired an old hand-me-down treadmill from a friend. I started out walking for about 20 minutes. I eventually began throwing in some running intervals, and maybe a month later, I could run for about 20 minutes straight. Then it was 30, then completing a 5K, then going longer and longer, eventually finishing a marathon.

Surely I could have stopped progressing somewhere along that timeline and maintained whatever level of fitness I'd achieved. But we're talking about going past that first plateau.

There are all sorts of ways to challenge yourself and build your fitness. Let's discuss a few.

Altering form. I know there are changes you can make to your weightlifting positions, but I don't know enough to talk about that. But I do have a few progressions in my bodyweight routine, and I'm sure you know of many others. 
  • If you want to ramp up pushups, you can set your hands close together, or even make a "diamond" by pressing your forefingers and thumbs together. You can also elevate your feet on a chair or bench to make it tougher.
  • Elevating your feet for triceps dips makes those much more challenging, too.
  • Bodyweight squats are a lot harder if you do a "prisoner" squat, interlocking your fingers behind your head.
  • I do a horizontal leg lift, where I lie on the floor, pull my knees close, then extend my legs out and hold. For an added challenge, I add a crunch when my knees are in close.
  • You can extend an arm or a leg while doing a plank or a side plank. There are numerous variations here. Here are some suggestions from Muscle and Fitness, and some more from Competitor Running, my favorite running website.
Adding intervals. I'm talking specifically about running, but you can adapt any cardio routine to include interval training. The idea is to tax your system so that you get beyond your aerobic threshold. With some consistency, this will strengthen your heart and make it able to deliver more blood, and thus oxygen, to your muscles -- and conversely, allow it to work less when you're at rest. Here are the most common intervals.
  • 400-meter intervals. You'll need to go to a running track for this. You go a little bit faster than 5K pace, but not at a dead sprint, for a lap, then do a light jog for a half lap. Repeat as many times as you can. 8 intervals is a good long-term goal to work up to.
  • Straights and curves. This is a shorter interval protocol. Again at the track, you go all-out on the straights, then take it easy on the curves. You should look to do 8 to 12 laps.
  • Fartleks. Swedish for "speed play," fartleks are unregimented pickups during a run. Set your sight on an object in the distance, then pick up your pace till you get there. I try to make my fartleks at least a minute long, and generally about 6 or 7 minutes apart.
  • Tabata protocol. This can be done on a track or the road. Both the intervals and rest periods are super-short: 20 seconds fast, 10 seconds easy. 
HIIT. We've discussed high-intensity interval training before. The idea is to combine strength and cardio by working hard for a set, then giving yourself a rest period. There are a number of upsides to HIIT, but the biggest one is that you can get a vigorous workout in not a lot of time. Because you work yourself into the anaerobic zone, your heart is pumping hard even during your rest periods, when your muscles are recuperating for the next set. 

Adding distance or time. It's great to be able to go fast or lift heavy. But endurance training has its place in a good fitness regimen, too. My experience is with running, so I'll talk about that. If you pace yourself properly, you'll raise your heart rate into a zone where you're burning a bunch of calories but can keep it going for a long time. Though HIIT is fantastic for burning off a lot of fat in a short amount of time, you can go for only so long. With endurance training, you won't be as efficient, but you will burn more overall calories. There is also research that indicates training for more than 90 minutes in one session builds new capillaries, thus increasing the amount of oxygen your blood can deliver to your muscles. Of course, if you don't have that base already, you need to work your way up to it, and almost every expert out there suggests increasing your weekly mileage by no more than 10 percent a week.

Bottom line: A combination of all these variations is probably the best way to ramp up your routines, but the most important point is not to keep doing the same old thing you've been doing for ages -- especially if you've already taken off significant weight, since your basal caloric output is lower if you weigh less. 

Summing Up
Regular Guys come in all shapes and sizes. And some of us are just getting started on our fitness journeys, while others have been at it for a while. It's easy to get into a rut and hit a plateau, especially if you don't know how to take the next step. But there's no reason why you should settle for just good enough when you know you can achieve more. I hope I've given you some good ideas to do some more reading up on. You know you can do it. So figure out a more nuanced nutrition plan, find ways to challenge yourself when you're exercising, and work hard to be the best you that you can be!

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