The two biggest struggles I’ve found in keeping a fitness commitment are time and motivation. As I mentioned in the first part of my marathon training series, a peak week could include up to twelve hours of running. Add time at either end of each workout for transportation, changing, showering, eating and the like and suddenly you’re looking at up to twenty hours out of your week during the peak of your cycle! So you’re not just trying to trim your mile time, but like a triathlete in transition, there are ways to find time efficiencies by both planning ahead while also having alternative options so you can be flexible when necessary.
While lots of people see fit to wander around the city wearing their workout gear, some folks would rather not be caught in public wearing anything with an elastic waistband, myself among them. Also, as you get more lean (if that’s a goal), you will start to feel cold! So, so cold. For this reason, I’ve been known to wear my workout gear under my clothes, which I like to call the “Andy Kaufman” after the late comedian’s habit of wearing his professional wrestling costume under his street clothes.
Of course, Superman was also in the habit of making a costume changes on the fly, and even Drag Race finalist Roxxxy Andrews has been known to wear a tear-away under her tear-away. It also saves some time packing and carrying separate gear for warm-up and cool-down periods, since jeans and a light sweater will work just as well as a track suit for the purpose.
Of course, you won’t want to put your clothes on over sweaty gear on the way to work! Besides, wandering around in warm, wet underthings is a recipe for the kinds of fungal infections that cause jock itch, athlete’s foot, and ringworm. If your office has a shower, then turning your morning commute or lunch break into a workout is relatively easy. Just leave the house in the morning, shower after your workout, and save yourself some time. If it doesn’t, think about arranging one nearby through a gym or club membership.
I like having access to a pool, since all you really need is a quick rinse after your swim — at least, if you have short hair and don’t wear much makeup — making it a great mid-day exercise. Or schedule your workout for after work, since once you get home, who cares what you look or smell like? It’s also a great stress-relief substitute to “happy hour” for shaking off the day.
One of the most important components to any fitness regimen, and one of the ones that busy, working athletes often have the most trouble with, is getting enough sleep. I know I struggle with this! While you’ll be hard pressed to add two hours into your day, one technique that some find effective is improving the quality of the sleep you do get by increasing the amount of sensory deprivation and decreasing the amount of possible interruptions. This means blackout curtains on the window, eye masks, ear plugs, and the most comfortable bedding you can afford to splurge on.
It also means learning your own sleep cycle so that when you do get up early to go for a workout, you wake up during the REM stage of the cycle to reduce the groggy feeling you get when you roust yourself from deep, stage four sleep and can get going a little faster in the morning.
Brief naps and meditation can also reduce the feeling of frayed nerves and help keep your sympathetic nervous system from being triggered during activity, which can tip stress-relieving exercise into stress-inducing overtraining.
I’m not encouraging you to start eating your meals at McDonald’s or start chugging Muscle Milk, though there are times when any dose of macronutrients is better than nothing — for instance, it can be critical for muscle recovery to consume good sized portion of protein within half an hour of your workout. But spending a day a week channeling your inner apocalyptic Mormon housewife by putting up ready-to-reheat meals in the freezer for the days when you’re too busy to even fry an egg can make a big difference in helping you to meet your nutrition goals. And packing a lunch for work to eat at your desk frees up your lunch hour for a workout. It can also save you a lot of money!
If you haven’t figured it out, all of these tips are going to be a lot easier to take into account if you’ve planned ahead. Knowing what you’ll need, where you’ll need to be and what you’ll be doing when you get there will significantly cut down on the inefficiencies of indecision. Here, using periodization principles can help you craft your calendar well in advance and maximize your progress in a minimum of time.
Though as I mentioned there, unless you’re living in a state-sponsored bubble that allows for exacting regimentation and focus, you’re going to have to be flexible. That might mean anything from leaving a change of clothes and a set of workout gear at the office to sneak in a run before returning to your desk to work late, or re-arranging a week of workouts on the fly to compensate for a missed day.
Many Americans have such a low activity level — bed to car to desk to car to couch to bed — that any increase in activity is going to be a positive change. I’m not suggesting that one day a week you go all out, since going from no activity to intense activity is a recipe for injury, but consider ways in which you can add moderate physical demands into your day. Even something that doesn’t approach your aerobic threshold is active recovery that helps your body clear lactic acid from your muscles, reducing soreness from more intense sessions.
Maybe that means taking a flight of stairs instead of the escalator, walking to your destination instead of riding Muni (which might be faster, anyway), inviting a date out dancing instead of to the movies, or taking a leisurely bike tour down the coast rather than driving to Wine Country. Remember, even marginal improvements compounded over time can make a big difference!
The quality of your training may be more important than the quantity, especially when it comes to skill sports like basketball or tennis. Having all the time in the world to practice tired and with bad form doesn’t really help. On the other hand, trying to “cram” an equivalent amount of effort into a shorter time is also a bad idea. If you’re pressed for time and can’t complete a full hour of weights as planned, for instance, don’t increase the weight and reduce the reps just to lift the same amount in a shorter period.
Instead, reduce the reps per set or total sets, maybe reduce the rest period between sets just a little, and since you know you’ll be strong throughout, focus on perfect form. While you might not make as much strength progress as you would in a full workout, training your muscle memory in proper motion will pay real dividends by reducing your risk of injury the next time you can do a long session that pushes you to the edge of exhaustion.
When you’re evaluating activities to focus on, take into account the calorie cost of different options. The busy person looking to lose weight, for instance, might benefit from giving priority to sports that burn the maximal number of calories per hour of effort. Generally this means intense cardiovascular exercise, but maximizing the size and number of the muscle groups engaged in a strength program will also increase calorie intensity. You can test for yourself what works best for your needs by using a heart rate monitor in conjunction with software that will calculate your burn based on age, weight and intensity.
This is what I like to call getting two workouts for the price of one — by combining training activities. For instance, one of the reasons I continue to practice Iyengar yoga is because it’s great resistance training to promote strength that simultaneously helps improve balance and flexibility. Or if you’re doing circuit training, think about starting with some cardio to get your heart rate up and then move through the high-rep, low-weight motions quickly to keep it up. CrossFit is another program that looks like a pretty efficient means of getting both strength and cardio work done in a minimal amount of time by combining elements of both.
I know I just said “don’t rush,” but what I mean here is that the more progress you make, the easier it should be to maintain your fitness. More muscle mass means a stronger metabolism, so you’ll burn calories faster even while seated. Relieving stress and giving your mind a break during the day means being more productive in the hours you aren’t working out, making eight hours of work and an hour of running potentially more effective than a nine-hour work day.
Remember, fitness is not an objective standard, but means being fit for the things you enjoy and the goals you want to accomplish. And if that means choosing bowling over running because you like bowling but hate running, then have fun bowling! Cut back on the beers while you do, and your ratio of calories in to calories out might end up the same in the end, anyway.
Photo by William Warby.