Fitness Makeover: Sticking with your fitness goals

Credit: Vincent Laforet/Allsport
Understandably, the year-end mailbag of Fitness Makeover requests was full of inquiries as to how to maintain a consistent fitness routine in the coming year, and stick with it past February.

Ed Krupa of New Jersey seemed to cover this predominant theme most succinctly, writing:

I would like a program that will keep me motivated.

Having completed his first marathon last November (the New York City Marathon), Ed would like to break the four-hour barrier this year in the same race. In the meantime, hes been inspired to cross-train and mix it up a bit by competing in his first triathlon this May.

Hes joined a local YMCA and is intent on practicing all three sports. Weight-training a few times a week is on the agenda as well. His obstacle?

I live in New Jersey and commute to NYC which takes about two hours each way.

How does this self-described goal-oriented person maintain sight of his goals without succumbing to the daily pressures of traffic, time management, and fitting it all in? Ed has asked me to outline a specific program to help him stay motivated and achieve his goal of dropping his marathon time, but hes already on the right track, given that hes cross-training.

What is more important for Ed (and many of you others who wrote in) is building a consistent and realistic program that he can stick with throughout the year.

What follows are a few general guidelines to creating such a plan, and tricks for both Ed and yourself to use to stay on the road to self-improvement.

Be specific with yourself!

Ask yourself what your ultimate athletic goal will be this year: For many of you it may be completing your first triathlon, marathon, or open-water swim. Some of you may simply want to learn how to do a particular sport. Others may want to lose weight and adopt a fitness-oriented lifestyle. Whatever your goal, be specific with yourself.

For example, in Eds case: I want to finish a marathon by November in under four hours.

Or, Id like to lose 22 pounds by May 1 by swimming at my local pool three times a week.

Or, By the end of this summer I will have done a marathon, a triathlon, and an open-water swim.

In no uncertain terms, identify the goal, the date youd like to achieve it, and any other specifics such as the finish time you want in a certain race distance. If you are wishy-washy and unspecific, you will not have the initial aim that is necessary to pursue a future accomplishment. Consider your goal proclamation a compass that points you in the right direction.

A few common examples of wishy-washy goal-setting:

This year, Im going to lose weight.

I want to do a marathon sometime.

Id like to try and go to the gym three times a week.

Well, OK, fine. But how? When? What sacrifices will you need to make?

Once you make a specific claim to yourself, you can work backward and figure out what you need to do to get there. In Eds case, dropping a few minutes in a marathon should be a given if he sticks to the training schedule he adopted for last years race, with modifications.

  • Cross-training will help condition him into better shape.

  • Speedwork on a track (400 repeats at faster than marathon race pace, once or twice a week) will help develop the speed he needs to get under four hours next November.

  • Bi-weekly six-mile tempo runs at a faster race pace can also condition Ed to a faster sub-four-hour marathon.

    The importance of being specific with yourself stems from the fact that you will be able to figure out exactly what you need to do to achieve your goals by a certain time, and you will be more motivated to do it in these gradual timeline-specific terms, bit by bit.

    From time to time, I use a helpful method for sticking to a routine once I get started. Ive dubbed it the checks and balances system: For every workout I miss, I promise myself to make it up before the week is over. For instance, in preparation for a major ocean race, I might set a goal for myself to put in 14 hours a week at the pool. I can either go a single workout, two hours each day, or two one-hour daily workouts (morning and night).

    Suppose I miss a day due to an office meeting or unforeseen circumstances. Rather than shrug and consider it a lost opportunity, I do the missed workout over the weekend, in addition to the workout I have planned for that given day. So I can either budget my time as well as possible during the week, or I end up doing make-up double workouts over the weekend.

    It may sound extreme, but I keep myself honest, while not skimping on my initial training commitment. Consequently, I dont lose interest or confidence in my goals because I am living up to the specific expectations I set for myself at the beginning of my quest.

    Be creative!

    Eds grueling four-hour commuting schedule will put his athletic endeavors to the test: Will he have the willpower and the stamina to stick with his ambitious program in light of the fact that hes traveling for an eternity each day?

    One way he can combat this potential stumbling block is to be creative with his schedule and think outside the box. Perhaps he is accustomed to training in the early morning at a gym close to home before braving rush hour. He has been doing this routine for years, and would never dream of altering it.

    However, it might be wise to transfer his gym membership to the city, do the commute in the early-morning hours, and then work out close to the office before heading into work for the day. Conversely, at the end of the day, he can have a bag of running clothes handy and hit Central Park or a local trail for a sprint workout or aforementioned tempo run, avoiding the evening rush hour before returning to New Jersey.

    Can he work out during lunch? A 30-minute cardiovascular workout to raise the heart rate at midday is not only a great energy-boost and break from the office pressures, but it also helps curb an appetite that can run rampant during corporate lunch hours.

    Another creative way to add some spice to a routine is to split up workouts into daily doubles, doing a short workout in the morning and another short one later in the day. This helps break up the daunting notion of spending up to two hours in the gym before the sun rises (or late into the night), and in Eds case it can help him avoid gnarly commute times both in the morning and early evening.

    Another advantage of double workouts is that you can use the morning session for cardiovascular training to wake up and get the blood flowing, and the evenings for weight training or more specific technique work or drills. I have always preferred and recommended doing weight workouts at night, since your body isnt awake or properly warmed up enough in the morning (thus being more prone to injury).

    Shorter daily double workouts compel you to work harder and more explosively because theyre not as psychologically numbing as the prospect of an hour on the treadmill can be. You may actually get more out of splitting up your daily routine into two separate sessions.

    The right reward

    All this change may be alarming at first, and without some sort of incentive it will be hard to stick to the program. Many people make the mistake of promising themselves a day off if they stick to their weekly workout goals. Unfortunately what ends up happening is that they miss a few days during the week anyway (due to unforeseen circumstances surrounding their jobs or their domestic responsibilities). Then, in the end, they still take their allotted day off (usually Sunday)!

    What is really problematic to this approach is the negative conditioning that goes on inside ones head. By rewarding yourself with a day off from working out because you made every workout you intended to that week, the very action of training is subverted into a form of torture or penance. This system defeats the purpose of working out in the first place, doesnt it?

    Instead, reward yourself in other ways that directly have to do with your athletic self-improvement. If you stick to your regimen for a week without missing a session, allow yourself a massage at the spa that will help in your recovery for next weeks training routine. Or maybe take a yoga class as a way of stretching fatigued muscles and clearing your mind. Again, think out of the box, but dont turn away from your athletic goals; embrace them.

    Of course, there are times when your body really will need a day off because its broken down from intense activity. So take the day off, but call it a recovery day instead (sometimes language can make all the difference). Treat yourself to that massage or a healthy special meal that you normally wouldnt make for yourself (a grilled ahi tuna steak and an exotic salad, for instance).

    The trick is to live for your goals even on the days that you arent training; it becomes a lifestyle and gets you that much closer to what you want to accomplish.

    If your rewards massage, yoga, a healthy meal are designed to help you achieve your goals rather than shy away from them (with a day off), you will find yourself that much closer to making them a reality. Working out will become the reward, and you will learn to appreciate the time you have to exercise because it will ultimately give you the results you wanted in the first place.

    To design an effective long-term program that achieves results is not difficult. The challenge is to get started, and to get started correctly.

    If your body is the compass, you need to point yourself in the right direction first. And to do so, you need to be specific, creative, and rewarding to yourself in positive and encouraging ways.

    If you are interested in being the subject of a Fitness Makeover, please e-mail your questions to Alex, and include a phone number where you can be reached upon your selection.

    Get advice for getting back on track with Alex's Fitness Makeover column

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