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Why it is easy to train hard but hard to train smart

Joe Friel - author of the Triatlete's Training Bible and highly regarded endurance sports coach at TrainingPeaks - brings it right down to the core when he talks about a physical training exercise regime. "At it's most basic level, training is easy. Whether you are a pro or a novice there are only three things you can manipulate in a workout: mode (run, bike, swim, cricket, curling et cetera), duration (how long) and intensity (how hard)."

Then he adds a tiny addendum to this statement: "The hard part is getting the right mix at the right time". The previous sentence holds the key to the 'art and science' of building a training program that gives you the most bang-for-your-hard-earned-buck. Healthstax helps clients succeed in reaching their goals through tailor-made training plans.

When starting your exercise plan, you want to know you are doing the right 'thing'. You certainly do not want to spend time delving into the intricacies of designing a perfect training plan, most people just want to know that they are doing what needs to be done. The special mix of training ingredients will have to come from a source you can trust.

Much like a master chef uses the same ingredients that I would use to prepare an evening dinner, he/she will be able to present a masterpiece with relatively little effort whereas mine would be hopefully edible and presentable at best. We each have our strengths and the art of food preparation is, to put it mildly, an area of growth for me. However, my cooking skills are not the topic of this post, let's return to the principles of training. Although training principles are the same for all of us, it is the clever combination of these principles that allows to cater for the individual's needs which in turn determines the plan's effectiveness.

Training in a smart way requires a lot of ingredients to be cleverly combined in accordance to the athlete's goals, timeline, physical capacity, work ethic, experience, diet and mindset. Too often, inspired, dedicated and committed individuals start a general training program based around the 'easy' training principles mentioned by Friel earlier. These general training programs work for those who are not afraid to waste effectiveness and efficiency but can be detrimental for those needing guidance or those who want to make sure they are doing things the right way.

Consider this fabricated but potentially familiar example. At some point in your life, after a long holiday, a demanding pregnancy or after just not having looked after yourself for a while, you decide to get back in shape. You have made a commitment that you will no longer allow yourself to get to your current state again. This decision has taken a lot of mental strength and I applaud those who make it. Now that you have decided that this is the first day of the new you, you go online and find a local running event to get you from couch potato to 5k runner and beyond.

You set out on your first run and return exhausted but feeling really good. As a reward you even make a bonus green smoothie to treat your body to some much needed vitamins and nutrients.

The next morning you wake up a little stiff but not too bad. Good job, you think to yourself decide what to do today. You diligently do another workout and notice that this time it was a bit harder to complete the set. "Hey, no pain, no gain" you say to yourself. Day three of the new you introduces you to a novel concept: DOMS (Delayed Onset of Muscle Soreness). The micro tears in your muscles from the first workout are now really bothering you and you aggravated it with your well intended but ill-advised second workout session yesterday. This is where I need to show my dedication, you think. You really don't feel like it but after a stern talk to your inner voice you decide that you are not a quitter and go for it. You don your running shoes and set out to push past this physical barrier. You quickly realise that by doing the mind-over-matter stuff, you ran your already tired muscles into the ground and have turned an inflammation into a running career ending injury. You convince yourself that after this third workout, being a runner is just not for you and you admit defeat as well as check your health insurance for physiotherapy coverage. You say farewell to the new you and wish things would be different as you drop back onto the couch.

The events described above are compressed in time to emphasize the point that individuals circumstances need to be taken into account before embarking on a journey to fitness. It is not uncommon for people to 'kick-start' their running or fitness with some behaviour changing (and potentially injury inducing) workout sessions. There is a real danger of failure when embarking on a fitness journey without any guidance. Even with generic training plans we typically see a drop-out rate of more than 50% within the first month. My only hope is that those who drop out, have done so without developing long lasting injuries but I fear that in many cases it isn't.

Deciding to make a lifestyle change requires courage and commitment. It is not an easy feat to arrive at the point where you decide that change is going to happen. This already puts you miles ahead of those who simply ignore their state. I hate to see the initial hard (mental) work be jeopardized by ill-informed choices and too generic training plans. When making the change, take time to consider how much you really want the new you to succeed. Ask yourself what benefits lie ahead when you are successful in your endeavour. What will you be able to do when you successfully change your life-style around? What goals and dreams do you intend to achieve with your change? If these dreams and goals are worthy enough, consider a tailor-made training program to increase your chances of success.

You can take the training elements of mode, duration and intensity and come up with a plan of some sorts. Alternatively, have a conversation with a professional and see what a masterpiece might look like. I am not that well equipped to serve you a Michelin star meal but I can help you with an artwork of a training plan. Contact me for more information on a training plan that suits your needs.

The title of this post was - to the best of my knowledge - coined by 1996 Tour de France winner Bjarne Riis. His victory is marked with an asterisk label as he later admitted to using banned substances during that time. Victories and doping allegations aside, his phrase of working smart instead of hard holds a lot of truth.