It seems like an easy concept, but, somewhere amidst all the hoopla of life, it gets a little, I dunno.... murky.
The most important thing to you is ______, so your goal is, no matter what, to be able to do that thing, or, better yet, to optimize the way you do it. And you proceed accordingly.
I think where some folks get lost is in that last part.
Actually, come to think of it, some people never get past the first part either....
I heard skier/CrossFitter/trainer Eva Twardokens on Robb Wolf's podcast a while ago and she said something like this (quotation marks for effect, not accuracy; I am paraphrasing): "The single most important thing to me is surfing. It's what I love to do most. So everything else that I do in training is done with a simple thought in mind: 'If I do this, is it going to help or hinder me at surfing?'"
Seems easy, right? You have a goal, and, every time you come to a fork in the decisional road, you ask yourself a simple question: "Which choice furthers, or at least doesn't hinder, reaching my goal?"
And I'm not really just talking about exercise. But let's start there.... With an example of a goal and then a plan from there. For me, I have two overall goals, and they aren't perfectly compatible. I want to generally be healthy, fit and live long, on one hand, and, on the other, there is no single thing that I do for fun that is more important to me than drumming. I love making music with a band.
So, on the general scale, even though I am a CrossFitter, when I exercise I don't do things that are geared solely towards, say, "training to be a really good CrossFitter" that potentially come at the expense of general health and longevity. Put differently, CrossFit is not a competitive sport for me; it is simply a way to be really freaking fit and healthy for my age. And on the more specific end of things, I don't do things that will mess me up for drumming. So.... a lot of kipping pull-ups? Or, more extremely, doing butterfly pull-ups at all? I don't do them. You can't be a really good competitive CrossFitter without at least a lot of kipping pull-ups, and, more likely, without butterfly pull-ups, but I am more interested in the long-term health of my shoulders. So I subscribe to the Greg Everett theory: "Kipping pull-ups? I like to think of them as kipping labrum tears."
Another example: heavy overhead Olympic lifts. Again, you cannot be a really good CrossFitter without them. But they further destroy my right elbow that drumming has already done a pretty good number on for the past 30-some years. If I want to drum well, my arms cooperate a lot more if I am not spending my free time catching overhead O-lifts with an arm that simply does not lock out. So I O-lift a little. It's fun, but I don't go very heavy, and don't do it very often. I save pushing really hard for deadlifts and squats.
That's easy to understand, right? Know what you really want, and then make choices that complement reaching that goal, rather than tripping yourself up at every turn. It's all about making choices with full awareness of how that choice affects the goal. There's rarely a "right" answer to the question, "Should I do X or Y?" until you set the goal.
And, like I said, goals are sometimes contradictory. *How* contradictory they are will determine whether you can pursue them at the same time. My health/longevity goal is at partial odds with my drumming goal. The condition of my right elbow at, say, age 75, is going to be worse if I keep drumming. But I don't care -- to a degree. So I have, on one hand, continued to play, but, on the other, backed off the continuous high-speed thrashfest that really wrecks me, and just plain effing hurts. It's a choice, and my exercise decisions are made in keeping with that choice as well. I am trying to live long and be happy... with a moderately (but not extremely) wrecked right elbow.
Other goals may be *so* at odds with one another that the choice is more of an either/or one. For instance, take the classic example: dude joins a CrossFit gym, significantly unhappy with body composition. He's fat, metabolically messed up and not very strong, and he wants to change that. Under the theory that all exercise is better than the slothful life he has been leading, he dives in, full-on, into an unlimited membership at the gym, doing long metcon work, taking few rest days, and, yeah, there is some initial progress, but then fat-loss stalls because his exercise has become so unfocused, haphazard and constant that he is actually stressing his body into retaining fat. (If this sounds like you, read The Paleo Coach by Jason Seib. Now.) This guy needs to stop training like he is being chased by a pack of wolves, and settle into a fat-loss-oriented regimen. Why? Because fat loss is his goal!
Or maybe you have started competing at powerlifting and want to be the absolute best powerlifter you can, and, at the same time, you want to be the best CrossFit athlete that you can and compete at CrossFit regionals. Both of those things are probably not going to happen simultaneously. You have lots of options -- doing OK at both, one over the other, whatever; it's your call -- but *both* together at a high level? No, that doesn't work.
And, remember that I said that I wasn't just talking about exercise? Yeah, food, sleep and stress-management all involve choices too. Eating gluten, vegetable oils, all the stuff that isn't paleo? Getting seven-plus hours sleep? Meditating to relieve stress? Understand the choice, make it, and go with it whichever way furthers your goal. Or say, "Screw it! I can't live without ____," but understand exactly how *that* choice will hamper (or fully impede) reaching your goal. Another example... This guy: "I love drinking alcohol regularly" *and* "I want to qualify for the CrossFit Games, or even regionals." He is going to need to shelve one of those, because the behavior (regular drinking) and the goal (qualifying for high-level CF) are contradictory.
So, how do you do better with this stuff?
First you have to have to have a goal. Second, you have to *actually* have a goal -- i.e., something, in the future, that you want to achieve. It can be general -- live long, healthy, happy, stress-free, with full mobility and cognition at age 80 -- or really specific: like making CrossFit regionals, or running the fastest you can in a particular race on a particular day. But it can't just be a haphazard amorphous blob of "whatever, dude" like: "I just want to go really hard with fitness" or "I just want to see what my body is capable of." Those types of non-goal "goals" either don't really mean anything other than "whatever I feel like that day" *or*, taken quite literally, they mean: "pushing myself right to the limit to see what happens."
I think we know what happens.
That isn't to say that you can't have a goal that is damaging to your body. Let's be serious: training for a marathon is, frankly, a fairly effed-up thing to do if your goal is basic health and longevity, but it makes perfect sense if your goal is to see how fast you can run a marathon.
But then.... being a modern person, you are likely going to have multiple goals. You have to organize them so they either: (1) aren't contradictory, or (2) aren't attempted simultaneously. So, yeah, you can run fifteen half marathons this year, but if you are significantly fatter than you want to be and fat-loss/body-comp is your primary goal, half-marathon training is not going to be the optimal way to get there.
Realistically set goals. Your goals. Not someone else's. Know what you want.
But then there's the next step: living your life in a way to reach your goals. Once you have the goal(s) in mind, you can tailor your training, food, sleep and stress management. Or you can say, "The hell with it," and never get there. That's your call.
But whichever road you take, make sure you do it with full awareness of how what you choose to do affects your ability to reach your goals. Because, as far as I am concerned, the sad thing isn't when someone doesn't achieve something in the gym, or in the fat-loss department, because he or she throws in the towel and makes a fully-aware choice to opt for gluten, booze and crappy sleep. That's just an adult running his or her own life. The bummer is when someone wants something really badly -- you know, has a real goal -- but doesn't know *how* to reach it, or is making choices about food, sleep and exercise without realizing the negative affect it is having on ever reaching that goal.
So... don't feel bad for the person who willfully scraps a good-health/fitness goal for beer, popcorn and good times. What bums me out is the woman or man who is working hard toward a goal, but unwittingly is doing all the wrong things to get there. Or the person who thinks he or she has a goal, and it's not really a goal at all, just an idea to "go hard" or "see what happens if I push my exercise limits." Or the person who has valid goals, but those goals conflict so much that pursuing them simultaneously guarantees failure.
In the end, it all revolves around a pretty simple concept: learn. Set some real goals, and then start finding out how to best reach them. We live in a pretty cool time, with web resources galore dedicated to paleo food, smart exercise, even sleep and stress management. And there are scores of smart trainers and others willing to guide you when you can't quite figure it all out. Your ability to tailor your life to get you where you want to go is greater than it ever has been. What are you going to do about it?
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