It might be time to stop trying to run faster and lift heavier…
Is lifting heavier or running faster the only form of progress you count in your workout routine? It’s understandable if so: a lot of the messaging in the fitness world is that our worth comes from our physical ability. But what if there were other ways to measure progress that aren’t about speed or strength?
While keeping note of the number on the barbell might be less toxic for people than, say, tracking the number on the scale, it can still feel like a big burden. Just the other day, a friend told me she had given up chasing a new PB when running – surprising, given that she was the sort of person who would complain about feeling defeated when she didn’t run as fast as she had planned.
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But she told me that the pressure had been ruining her workouts. The expectation of shaving seconds off of her 10k time every week made her resent the runs, particularly as she was never meeting that goal. Instead, she realised that she just wants to exercise because it feels good, rather than making it something she has to continuously improve.
We may live in a goal-chasing world, but the truth is that always improving is really, really hard. That’s particularly true for those who have been exercising for a long time; we all experience ‘newbie gains’ (the quick progression you make at the start of your workout journey), but after that, it takes a lot of effort to improve your performance.
The science backs this up, with a study published in Sports Medicine showing that there’s less pronounced muscle protein synthesis (the process involved in muscle building) in those who are experienced exercisers than in those who are new. It means making fitness improvements gets way harder the more you work out, and you have to work harder at it.
That might mean more sessions, more exertion or just a lot of effort going into making a smart workout plan. Many of us don’t have that time or energy right now, so does that render exercising pointless? Not in the slightest. Because if we stopped seeing ‘progress’ as only getting stronger, faster or more muscular, then you can notice all the other ways you’re getting better.
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Progress can look like an improvement in technique – a deeper squat or a safer lunge, even if you’re not using any heavier weights. It can also mean fewer aches and pains in your everyday life, like your back hurting less at your desk. You may have noticed less anxious periods over the past few months even though your 5k time hasn’t improved.
Or you might be like my friend and simply notice how much you are enjoying your sessions, even though there have been no measurable changes in your fitness. Seeing the benefits of exercise outside of what we’re told is important might be the most freeing thing you can do this summer.
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