Getting Fitter: Quality Not Quantity
OK, you seem to be doing everything right: a balanced diet, regular aerobic exercise, a steady regimen of resistance training and stretching. Why, then, are you resting firmly on a fitness plateau? Is this the fittest you can be? Have you peaked? Or is your routine limiting your fitness level?
First of all, relax. Many regular exercisers and athletes face this barrier at some point in their training. It's a common source of frustration, but it's one you can overcome.
Defining your maximum fitness level is a difficult task. Measuring absolute potential is complicated and costly. Most people don't have the time, money or inclination to be poked, prodded and pushed to their maximal output to test their aerobic capacity or muscular strength and endurance. But although you may never know your precise fitness limit, this should not lessen your expectation of periodic improvements.
Does this mean that with the right training you can improve the time it takes you to run a mile by two minutes? Probably not. But as you refine your exercise program, you may trim those last five pounds or increase your bench press by 10 pounds.
The level of challenge provided by a given activity is affected by three interrelated factors:
- Frequency — how many times per week you participate in the activity
- Intensity — the level at which you participate
- Time (duration) — how long each bout of activity lasts
As you become more fit and grow more comfortable judging your level of exertion, you can manipulate these factors to keep your exercise routine from getting stale. You can increase your intensity, which will usually limit the duration of your workout, or you can maintain your normal intensity but increase your duration or frequency.
The way you react to changes in performance can sometimes make things worse; a decline or plateau can trigger a series of events that further undermine your fitness goals. Frequently, when physical performance declines or fails to improve, people respond by increasing the duration, intensity and/or frequency of their workouts. This plan of attack is ultimately counterproductive because rest may be what is needed, not more exercise.
Often one of the most difficult things for a fit person to do is rest. A week away from the gym or off the road may seem unthinkable, but periodically it is necessary and tremendously beneficial. The body is frequently described as a machine, and this is true to some extent: It needs fuel to function and can be tuned to run more efficiently. However, unlike machine components, body parts used to the point of failure cannot be replaced. The best alternative is to prevent the initial breakdown. If you've already sustained damage, you need to take time to recover.
Many coaches and athletes believe that if exercising for 25 hours is good, 45 must be better. This is often not the case; sometimes more is just more, particularly if your workout is the same day in and day out, week after week. Your best defense against both boredom and overuse injuries is a well-planned exercise routine that varies in intensity, volume and activity in accordance with your fitness goals. A good general plan is to alternate hard days, in which you tax your body, with easy days of either complete or relative rest.
Any bout of rigorous exercise requires a recovery period. When you exercise, your body creates waste products, breaks down muscle and uses stored-up fuel; rest enables you to eliminate waste, rebuild muscle fiber and replenish your fuel storage. If you allow too little time for rest and recovery, your body will not recharge or will recover at a lower-than-necessary level.
Be alert for the following warning signs:
- Decreased performance
- Feelings of fatigue, even after a day of rest
- Depression, anxiety or another mood disturbance
- Increased resting heart rate
- More injuries than usual, with a longer recovery period
- Loss of appetite
Your body will adapt to the exercise you do. For instance, if you continually use the same amount of weight when you lift weights, you'll initially see an increase in strength, but eventually you will plateau. Unless you use more weight or challenge the muscle with a different exercise, you'll maintain the strength you've gained, but your strength won't increase. This principle also applies to aerobic exercise. If you always run five miles at eight minutes per mile, you will maintain your aerobic capacity but won't improve it.
Changing your routine is frequently helpful in breaking through a plateau. Consider an athlete who runs five days a week for 40 minutes at a time, covering pretty much the same five miles. This routine will benefit his or her overall health and wellness, but most likely it will not help him or her improve racing time. Making one of these days a speed workout or a longer run would not only break up the monotony, but it would also improve performance. Remember, if you change your routine by increasing the intensity or duration of one workout, balance it with an easier workout the following day or, if necessary, a day off.
When you learn a new skill or activity, you use new muscles, which decreases overuse injuries, relieves boredom and makes it easier to adhere to your schedule. Learning new skills can also improve your confidence and your performance.