You don’t have to run a marathon to understand running 26.2 miles is hard. The same goes for racing an Ironman triathlon, training for an Olympic sport, or doing any of the athletic exploits that make headlines or make you wince in sympathetic pain.
The great news is all of us who may never train for and do one of those outrageously difficult events can benefit from learning these 10 amazingly helpful lessons from those who do:
- Eat to fuel your body. The day you start seeing food as fuel is the day you begin making better decisions about what you eat. No one runs 26.2 miles on Twinkies, and certainly, no one will survive the training for an Ironman race without paying close attention to the types of calories they consume. You may have heard about “carb loading” or some other such thing distance athletes are known for, but that’s a small part of the story. Getting strong enough to do an Ironman race (2.4 miles of swimming, 112 miles of cycling, and 26.2 miles of running), doesn’t happen without eating plenty of healthy lean proteins balanced with carbs and vitamin-rich fruits and vegetables. You can still enjoy your food. Seeing food as fuel doesn’t have to take all the pleasure out of it. The lesson is to see each bite you take for its effects on your body.
- Getting stronger or fitter requires pushing your limits, and that has to be done a little at a time. The easiest way to being forced back onto the sofa after you’ve started more challenging physical activity is to do too much too fast. Whether walking, running, or whatever, successfully ramping up your distance, increasing the time you spend at your activity, and doing it at ever higher intensities takes time. Patience is key. A great rule of thumb is to increase your time or distance (whichever way you choose to measure it) no more than 10 percent per week. And if you increase your intensity (walk or run faster or uphill more than you did previously), take that into account, too, and decrease your miles or time investment accordingly. Otherwise, you’ll almost certainly end up sidelined with an overuse injury.
- Your rest days are actually more important than your work out days. During workouts, you’re effectively tearing your body down, and it’s during rest that your body recovers and makes itself even stronger in order to better tolerate what you will put it through next. So, be sure not to skip your days off from working out. A seasoned athlete should have a minimum of one complete day off per week. More if you’re just starting. And more if you’re older. Our bodies need that recovery period.
- Get your sleep. This is separate from your rest day. Your body needs plain old fashioned sleep to perform well and stay healthy. Get your eight hours, and don’t skimp. In doing so, you’ll better be able to maintain your weight, keep up the good work, keep your mind sharp, and stay the course. Your entire body will thank you for it.
- Technology is great, but it doesn’t do the work for you. Buying a watch that tracks your steps is a reasonable thing to do. It’s important to track what you do. In fact, a device will help you ensure you’re pushing your limits without over-reaching. But, buying a watch is a) not a requirement, so don’t use not having one as a reason for not doing the work, b) no substitute for the actual work itself, so focus a little less on the watch and more on the work, and c) not all workouts/walks/runs are created equal, so be aware of where and how you’re getting your work in. Hills make you stronger. Uneven surfaces, like trails, too, challenge your muscles in ways walking hallways cannot.
- It takes a few sacrifices. Here’s another rule of thumb: something will always come up. Life has a way of getting in the way of your plans for getting fit and healthy. And far too often those things, large and small, win out over working out. Being successful doesn’t mean you have to eliminate valuable family time or housework or anything else. But it does take a few sacrifices, and getting your workouts in will definitely force you to make choices. Advanced planning can make a big difference. So can commitment. Find a way. Make it happen. Try looking at every workout (and your perseverance to make it happen) as though you’re setting a strong example for your family and for others to follow. Be that role model.
- Your friends make all the difference. Spending time with others who also value a commitment to working out and being healthy will give you a regular boost. Friends can provide valuable support. On the flip side, they can also provide negativity and can distract you from what you really want to accomplish. The best friends are those who champion your cause and inspire you to do more or be more. Even one person on your side who understands and supports you can make an important difference in your success.
- You’re capable of far more than you give yourself credit for. The human body is an amazing machine. Though some people are naturally more gifted than others, you should never automatically assume you can’t do something. And there’s no need to compare ourselves to others, especially with Olympic athletes and Ironman triathletes. Without exception, we’re all capable of achieving tremendous things, and each of us has a unique set of talents, experiences, and needs and wants. So whether you set your sights on vigorously walking 10 miles a week or have decided to run a half marathon, setting the goal is the first step. Set it and go for it.
- It’s easy to do what people expect you to do; harder it is to do what’s right for you. There’s tremendous social pressure to conform to the standards set by the people in your life at work, at home, and among your friends. That others around you are NOT doing what you want to do is far too often a major obstacle to self-improvement. Pay them no heed. Decide for yourself what’s right for you, and don’t allow the opinions of people who aren’t concerned with their fitness to deter you from achieving everything you want.
- See more of what’s around you. Walking vigorously, running, cycling hard and hitting the gym can be intense times for us. It’s often referred to as “working out,” but it doesn’t have to be all work. If you’re working out outside, take a look around you. Feel the wind in your face and experience the day in all its glory. If it’s raining, feel that rain. If it’s hot, you’ll enjoy that cool drink of water even more. If you’re in a gym, say hello to people around you. Consider leaving the headphones at home. Your workout can be an opportunity to unplug from the electronic world, giving you a time for you to reconnect with the environment and the people around you. Rather than allowing your workout to add stress to your life, use it to proactively ease your burdens. And that may help make all it that much more worthwhile.