12 days of fitness, Day 3

Beware of the performance trap.

We typically expect that as we get in better shape, our workouts will feel easier. We’ll feel stronger, we’ll get less winded, and we’ll be able to last longer. We’ve all experienced it, and that’s the way it works…right?

BUT, there’s a mistake–and a trap–in this thinking that I want to point out.

A quick personal story: when I was running track in college, I was a reasonable runner, but I had never been able to swim well. I always particularly hated treading water–this was exhausting torture to me. So once some water polo players showed up at the track to challenge runners and see who was faster. After one lap of the track the water polo players were exhausted and miserable; they hadn’t even kept up for a short distance. Were they somehow suddenly out of shape at the moment they came to the track? And had I been suddenly out of shape at just the times I went swimming?

What we’re seeing here is that a big part of performance in any activity is due to skill. Improved skill allows you to perform an activity more efficiently. The better your skill, and the better your efficiency, the less energy is required to perform any task: running, swimming, or even cooking.

Being in better shape does help your performance, but the contribution of skill is not a minor issue, but a major one. Dr. Doug McGuff (author of Body by Science) tells the story of being in basic training and watching an overweight, out-of-shape fellow soldier pass a physical fitness test with flying colors–by simply practicing for a handful of times the exact activities they’d be doing during the test. The kicker is that at the same time an extremely fit and active soldier failed the test.

One more example: when I learned to juggle as a boy, I was uncoordinated and had to work hard. I recall dripping with sweat and panting out of breath every day soon after I began to practice. I practiced for days like this–I was determined to get it. Once I got the skill, I could juggle almost effortlessly. Something similar can happen with jogging, hiking, swimming, and almost any activity.

Now, my point here is not to give you a party trick to enable you to appear more in shape than you are by practicing an activity a few times. The point is for you to not fool yourself that you have a great workout going simply because an activity that was initially tough to you has become a lot easier.

The benefits of exercise come from challenging your muscles, not from letting the challenge to your muscles decline as your skill improves. If you think you’re getting exercise benefits from an activity that requires relatively little effort, you might be spending a lot of time fooling yourself.

This raises one reason I love using weight training to exercise: I can easily, precisely control the situation so that I’m always challenging myself. I can challenge myself ever more as I become stronger and more skilled at any exercise.

Remember: the degree of exercise you’re doing is proportional to the degree of challenge you’re experiencing.

Be prepared to face the trap of thinking an improvement in your performance means your workout is more productive. If the effort you’re putting in has decreased, you’re exercising less.

As you look forward to what your exercise routine you’re committing to this year, be sure you’re thinking of exercise, as opposed to simply getting good at a skill…and then practicing that skill with ever diminishing exercise benefits.

What do you think? Let me know on facebook, here: www.facebook.com/myogenicsfitness


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