Unraveled by impatience

The biggest enemy of achieving fitness goals is impatience. It's hard to pitch the concept of patience when we live in a world where information and services are available instantly, driven by customer demand. People are willing to pay a premium price to have what they want, when they want it.

Fortunately, the body doesn't work that way. Changes in diet and exercise don't produce instant results. Imagine what would happen if you overate today and a golf-ball sized lump appeared on your butt tomorrow. Or you miss a day of strength training and your arms appear Olive Oyl-like the next day.

It is in our best interests to have bodies that make long-term adaptations over several weeks and months of training because those changes last for an extended period of time. Even when we are forced to take time away from exercise, those that have a history of fitness can make gains and return to a previous level of activity faster than people that have not exercised at all.

That begs the question: how fast can we get fit?

Fitness gains

Researchers at Laval University in Quebec conducted a study to determine how much variation there would be in fitness gains in people who followed the same training program. In this study, 24 similar subjects (initially sedentary) followed the same training program for 20 weeks.

At the training program's conclusion, researchers found significant changes in some participants' oxygen levels when exercising at their maximum capacity (also known as VO2 max). The average gain in VO2 max was 33 percent, though one person in the group gained an incredible 88 percent. Unfortunately another individual, sweating on the same plan, increased VO2 max by a mere five percent.

Within the same study, scientists measured power output on a bicycle ergometer. Subjects pedaled for 90 minutes while their mean power output was measured. The average power improvement over the 20 weeks was a respectable 51 percent. One person gained a substantial 97 percent, while another gained only 16 percent.

Why do some people make big gains and others only minimal gains? Are these gains at equal rates?

Individual training response rates

The studies at Laval led researchers to believe there are "responders" and "non-responders." Those who are considered to be responders make big improvements in aerobic capacity and power through training, while non-responders barely show a gain, even after 20 weeks of hard work.

The scientists estimated that around five percent of us are high responders who can make improvements over 60 percent, while about the same number are low responders who may only expect a five percent improvement.

In addition to responders and non-responders, the studies revealed a difference in response rates. Some people made significant gains after just four to six weeks of training, but seemed to plateau and made minimal gains in weeks seven to 20. Others were late bloomers: at a stand still for six to 10 weeks, then blossomed, improving their aerobic capacities by 20 to 25 percent after 10 weeks of additional training.

The point is, given any single training program, not all individuals will react exactly the same. Some people will make big gains, while others may make marginal gains. Some will make their gains quickly, while others will make gains after more time has passed. Learning how your body responds to training and how to make adjustments will help you optimize performance.


The process of discovering how your body responds to changes in workouts and nutrition takes time -- certainly more than just a week or two. If you want to make gains in your fitness, don't let your goals get unraveled by impatience.

Gale Bernhardt was the 2003 USA Triathlon Pan American Games and 2004 USA Triathlon Olympic coach for both the men's and women's teams. Her first Olympic experience was as a personal cycling coach at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. Thousands of athletes have had successful training and racing experiences using Gale's pre-built, easy-to-follow training plans. For more information, click here. Let Gale and Active Trainer help you succeed.

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