Working out with amazing consistency comes down to two things:
1. Enjoying your workouts
You’ve got to figure out what’s really meaningful to you. There’s a combination of learning and progress that hits the sweet spot for everyone. Especially when your mind is fully occupied with the task at hand. Full immersion in a task is downright therapeutic.
2. Avoiding obvious mistakes
This is one of the first things you should do in learning any new skill. Whether you’re learning to sprint, play chess, or argue with people online, the best way to become competent—and competitive—is to avoid making obvious blunders.
What are the big mistakes that people make with exercise?
- Ignoring skill development
- Following the how-to instructions for someone else’s body
- Ignoring pain and other physical signals
- Prioritizing intensity over repeatability
- Making big jumps (e.g. jumping from 5K to 10K runs)
That last bullet really takes a lot of people out. Sometimes it’s ego but I honestly think that it’s more often a combination of enthusiasm and grit. These are great qualities! However, they can also get us into trouble when applied haphazardly. The issue here is capacity. In other words, how much can you safely throw at your body?
One of the most useful concepts for measuring and managing this capacity is the acute to chronic workload ratio. This compares your chronic workload (a four-week rolling average of your exercise volume) to your most recent week’s volume. Multiple studies have applied this model to predict injuries in team sport athletes. It also makes sense intuitively; if you are used to running 20K a week on average and suddenly double that to 40K, your risk will go up.
There’s a physical and a mental component to this increased risk. Physically, you may exceed what your tissues can handle under fatigue. The human body is incredibly adaptive, BUT it needs time and recovery for adaptation to happen. On the mental side, you may just not know all the markers of safe execution. For example you may not have had the opportunity to adjust technique or check in with your body in these specific conditions.
Two weeks ago, we talked about technique. It’s relevant here because good technique will lower the acute load of a given exercise. Just imagine a deadlift with amazing technique versus a deadlift with terrible technique. The former definitely has lower strength and recovery demands than the latter. It is safer, more repeatable, and prettier in general.
Last week, we talked about awareness. Here, you can step beyond simple tracking and ask yourself—in real-time—how an exercise feels. Your ability to accurately assess training load and safety means making informed decisions about when to hit the gas and when to hit the eject button.
We also discussed some wearable tech that may help you bridge the awareness gap. Heart rate variability, for example can be a useful measure of your recovery and readiness. Sleep and stress data can point toward the same. Especially when they are contextualized through the lens of acute: chronic workload. And how do you quantify that? To keep it simple, I recommend tracking your high effort sets sets only. Don’t worry about the easy stuff. Ask where you really pushed your own boundaries and then compare your feelings with the data.
And when in doubt? Make smaller jumps. As long as you can repeat your session, you can always bump it up another notch the next time.
I hope that I’ve made a good case for things to prioritize before intensity. It would be hard for me to imagine consistent training at high intensities without all of the above in place. Once this hierarchy is in place, however, going hard in the paint makes sense.