Training vs. Working Out and the Divergence of Fitness and Health

During my run yesterday it occurred to me that this is the first time in almost ten years that instead of training, I’m just working out. What I mean is that, for example, that run was my “only” workout for the day (four miles). There was a not so distant past in which I would have considered that a straight up rest day, but because there’s no race, or competition, or Army school on my radar… it’s fine. I want to compete again, but for now I’m just happy to be getting closer to full function, and that made me take some time to reflect on the situation, what has changed, and what hasn’t.

What’s the difference, really, between training, and “just working out?” Mainly that if you train, you had better train with a purpose – and there will probably be a goal with a deadline attached. Discrete workouts make up a training plan… but if you’re just working out it’s not that important if, say, your pace per mile has slipped because you’re recovering from an injury, you haven’t been tracking your nutrition or prioritizing protein above all else, or you just don’t feel like trying to squeeze a workout in this Saturday because there are just too many errands to run. And as much as I want to get back in Training Mode, at the moment I enjoying the freedom of just working out to stay healthy and happy. Forget double (or triple!) sessions – it makes me nervous, still, but my workouts are coming in around an hour including stretching and warmup and I still seem to be regaining strength and stamina from my Holiday Season at the Physical Therapist’s. What’s more – since I know many of us harbor this particular insecurity – I look just as good as I did last year when triple sessions were a thing. My composition might even be a hair leaner, since my body isn’t so incredibly stressed – and I’m writing this a week and a half after New Years.

Now, I am not trying to preach mediocrity here or anything. My current routine wouldn’t cut it for a professional or high level athlete – and although I want to be competitive again, to get there, when I feel recovered enough, I will need to ramp back up and pay closer attention to nutrition. (Sidenote – I never thought I’d be GLAD not to be trying to eat MORE all the time but you do eventually just get sick of food, who would have thought?) So, I’m not saying that this will get me to the best performance of my life (although, who knows? It may make for better recovery.) I’m also not saying there is anything wrong with pushing yourself to the limits of your performance potential – it’s my favorite, after all. But I’ve learned that that shouldn’t be an all-the-time lifestyle thing. Athletes have seasons, and us wannabe’s need to work in cycles too. And when we’re talking about 30-something mere mortals with chronic injuries, the “off season” training cycle in a competitive program may not be “off” enough – at least not coming out of a period of utter crazy in the training department. Looking back, I spent my 20s progressively pushing the envelope of how much work was “too much,” and I got away with it right up until last year, with the three-a-days, up at 3 to ruck, on top of a competitive CrossFit program. I had a great time, and I don’t regret having done it (I wouldn’t have forgiven myself for NOT doing it) but although I certainly hoped I wouldn’t feel after effect for a whole darn year when I put it into he context of the 8 or 9 years before it when I operated basically by seeing how much more I could pile on and get away with it… it’s not exactly shocking that I felt run down, uninspired, and battled injuries almost all of 2015.

By the holidays, I was stuck backing way off whether I wanted to or not, where with the spring and summer injuries I really kept trying to push it… and it was good in the end. I’ve reestablished my relationship with the warmup and stretching (another “well what did you think would happen?” factor in my struggles), established a maintenance physical therapy routine to address my injuries, and most importantly had a chance to remember that I DO like to do things other than workout. Now that I’m getting up to good (if not full) speed again, the time away and less intense spot that exercise is currently occupying in my life have finally relieved some of that pressure. I had gotten convinced, even if I knew rationally it wasn’t true, that to get stronger and stay “in shape” I HAD to keep training two or three times a day, for over an hour at a time, and do EVERYTHING, ALL THE TIME – all the while wondering what the endstate was because I no longer had a goal to train for other than the vague and unhelpful feeling that I needed constant improvement.

It is here that I could clearly see my path to fitness and a path to health diverging. Ten y ears ago when I started running and juts seeing each week how much farther I could go, I admit I hoped to lose a little weight, but mostly I knew it made me feel happier and healthier, and I was having fun. Likewise, when I began lifting and gaining muscle, I was having fun, I was more confident and capable, and my body felt better than ever. Motivation to eat more nutritiously came naturally with those things, as did a desire to rest and recover properly so that I could keep enjoying myself. Training for marathons and competitions ramped this desires up – and there’s nothing wrong with that – but somewhere along the way the motivation to do more took over and I pursued increased fitness not in tandem with the pursuit of health, but in spite it and honestly to its detriment. I became the person who took advantage of a high pain tolerance to train through injuries, the person who sacrificed too much sleep for more workouts – and for someone only doing these things as a “hobby,” like Casey tried to tell me – that doesn’t make sense. Even training for a school, which you could say was part of my job – there’s a point where you have to step back and wonder what the impact of your choices will be in another ten years, and whether the payoff is worth it.

For professionals, the answer may be yes. For the rest of us – it’s a personal choice, but it’s a good one to make consciously, instead of focusing only on the task immediately at hand. I’ve always prided myself on how tough and stubborn I can be. I still believe those are good things, but they need to be spent wisely, with consideration for the future.

That’s not to say I won’t push myself as hard as I can in the future, or even that I will never go back to multiple sessions in a day to train up for something – but I won’t go back to thinking I should STAY in that mode long term just because I “have to do enough!” Enough is a relative term – we shouldn’t lose sight of what it is relating to.

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