The Key to Sticking to an Exercise Program? It’s Supposed to Feel Easy!
Exercising hard is hard. We romanticize the grind, the glorious effort that it takes to drag ourselves out the door for our morning run or trip to the gym. We equate the feeling of exhaustion and the sensation of sweat as signs that we had a good workout. Want to lose weight, increase fitness, run a faster mile, or lift heavy weights? Train hard. If there’s no pain, there is no gain.
But as a lifelong runner, someone who spent much of his life running 100 miles per week (not a typo) in pursuit of getting a second or two faster, I have a confession: If running, or any exercise for that matter, was as hard as we make it out to be, I wouldn’t have done it then and I wouldn’t still be doing it today. The idea that exercise should almost always be hard is a myth, one that harms beginners far more than anyone else.
If I go for a run, eighty to ninety percent of the time it’s pretty dang easy. My breathing is under control. I can have a full-on conversation. If I’m running with others, the banter is often endless. When I’m in shape, going for an easy nine-mile run is the equivalent of going for a walk. Yes, I’m moving, yes, my heart rate is up a bit, but, for me, it’s comfortable.
And that’s the mistake novices often make. When I talk to friends who start training, they often lament how difficult the exercise is. That every day they walk out the door and it’s a grind. They trudge through their run, swim, gym session, or group cycling class. They feel good completing it, but it took a lot of mental effort just to get started because they knew the suffering they were in for.
And therein lies the secret. Thanks to the work of sport scientist Stephen Seiler, we know that even the best endurance athletes on the planet spend about eighty to eighty-five of their time training easy. Yes, the other fifteen to twenty percent is the kind of training where suffering and pain are real. But experienced athletes know that they have to save up their mental and physical energy for those days. If they tried to train at that level all the time, they’d burn out.
So, when a friend starts running and complains about how difficult it is, I agree. What they are doing is difficult. But the way through isn’t to keep grinding. It’s to stop making the majority of it difficult! If you find jogging for thirty minutes every day tough, then slow down and walk, which all the science in the world says is one of the best exercises there is!
If every day I was going out the door knowing my breathing was going to be labored and my muscles were going to ache, I’d probably quit. I’m just being honest.
When it comes to developing a lifelong exercise or movement practice, don’t fall into the trap of grinding. Even the best of the best are moving along comfortably, at a pace where they can chitchat for hours on end, during the vast majority of their training. Copy them. Lots of easy movement combined with a dash of hard work goes a long way.
(For more related to this topic see: We Make Fitness Too Complex and That is Dumb; The 9-Word Ultimate Fitness Manifesto; Quit Trying to Get Your Kid to Work so Hard; and The Power of Movement and How to Develop a Personal Movement Program.)
Hi Steve–does this “mostly go easy” rule of thumb apply to things like weightlifting that really emphasize max strength over endurance? Could a person ballpark what percentage of one rep max would be appropriate for focusing on developing max strength without killing themselves every time they lift? And would a base of lower-intensity strength endurance support max strength development, or is it not really relevant? I’d love to hear your take on all this. Thanks in advance.
Read this again. This article is something more people need to know.
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