4 Tips On (Successfully) Quick-Starting an Exercise Program
Joe explained that one day in the future, when I lived in a house with a family, I’d look back at this time living a solitary life in a barn, where I did nothing but train hard in austere conditions and work on a project I loved as if my life depended on it, and I’d miss it.
The above paragraph is Jason Jaksetic’s retelling of a conversation he had with Joe De Sena back in the “Good Old Bad Days” when he lived in a barn in the earliest days of Spartan. Jason was wondering when all the untempered hard work and sacrifice would pay off dividends. As recalled in the article, Joe predicted a future that would ultimately prove to be true.
I’d miss the simplicity. I’d miss the straightforwardness of life. I’d miss the craziness. I’d miss the adventure. I’d miss the hardship. I’d miss the trenches. I’d miss living on the edge where you felt truly alive because you were desperately clinging to life. I’d miss being cold and hungry because those were the conditions that let you know you were alive and needed to keep crawling forward to better things.
I was reading Jason’s piece when I had some things going on in my life. My wife and I have a one-year-old daughter who had been through revolving door of pneumonias all winter and the various complications that come with it. There also the discovery of a peanut allergy that prompted a 911 call. Lots of trips to the doctor, a few to the ER, one by ambulance, IV’s and nebulizers, overnight stays. Barred from daycare.
This was a stress dump into the daily grind of winter days in Boston, marked by shoveling, strobe-lit snow plows, ice-melting salt, Boston drivers filtered through pot-holed snow routes, subway delays. My mind would drift into the stress, thoughts devolving into an excuse to skip exercising. No time, I would assure myself, reaching for snacks with supernatural amounts of sugar. This was the state I had stranded myself in when I read the column, including this line:
My message to you is to embrace the hardship you find yourself in, because I promise you that it might be the best time of your life. You just don’t know it yet.
Bam! That snapped me awake. Asked this question: Are you doing your best? My answer was no. I was guilty of making excuses in the present. I allowed the gravity of it all slow me down rather than attacking. I wasn’t embracing the hard times as a way to become better at being a dad, a husband, becoming more efficient with household jobs. Supporting all the hard stuff my wife was handling on the medical front. We have a four-year-old boy counting on us, too. If I let my health and fitness decay, my ability to do any of this stuff would decay with it.
Jason’s article called me out the excuse. It also reminded me of a Nietzschean affirmation sort-of-thing. Get your mind right and the moment, even during hard times or especially during hard times, opens up to you. You live it rather than just shut down and wait for it to pass. At worst you’re more present in the moment. But the thing is you may just learn something or become better at it all.
At any rate, right now I find myself out of shape. I’ve been in shape. Now I am not. So whatever! What do I do about it? The obvious answer: Get my health and discipline back.
As famed and fascinatingly-named running coach Dr. Jack Daniels, PhD, has lectured and written about, when starting out or starting a comeback, be it from injury or layoff or just a first time thing, why not embrace it? Embrace the proverbial suck. Rather than dreading it, embrace the fun of improving fast. Improvements come much faster at the beginning than they do when you’re fit.
The starting point to making it fun, hinging on Daniel’s advice, is to get started and get some momentum. Here are tips on quick-starting a fitness program (of whatever type) that I’ve collected from various coaches and experts that I have found practical and work.
1. Let the past go
This is essentially from Daniels. If you’re setting out to get back into shape after a layoff, it’s important to let go of what you were capable of when you were a hotshot. Don’t let memories get your ego involved. One, if you (for example) are checking your watch for your per-mile pace when you’re running, or counting pull-ups against a previous PR, the stark reality of what’s been lost might be so dispiriting that you find yourself easing up onto a cushioned barstool.
The same can be said from the simple reading of a scale.
Secondly, if you try and keep up with a former fitter or lighter version of yourself that exists in the data of an old training journal— without putting in the right build-up, some piece of connective tissue might give out. Hence, the bar stool awaits. Daniels says that there’s a time warp with our memories in this regard: If we’ve been in really good shape in the past, we tend to forget how long it took and how hard it was to get there. Best just to let it go rather than tear a hamstring.
2. Become the discipline
I’ve become a big fan of the Jocko Willink podcast. Willink is a co-author of the book Extreme Leadership and a retired Navy SEAL officer. He puts a lot of prep work into the podcast — not just reading books that he talks about but mowing through them with a highlighter, thinking them through.. When he talks about either a new book or a classic military history work he speaks with both the authority that comes with having led SEALs in combat and also someone who has seriously performed his homework for an interview. He has opened doors for me into, as one recent guest put it, “First world bullshit,” and to vivid and uncomfortable truths about the real world today when it comes to war. For example, through several of Jocko’s recent shows, I have a better understanding of why so many of our vets (20 per day on average according to 2016 VA study; 22 per day according to a 2012 study) commit suicide. He goes into some dark places. Anyone doubting that evil exists in the world should listen to Jocko’s podcast. Anyone who doesn’t appreciate how good Americans have it should listen. In a simple but cogent example of how things are taken for granted here in the First World, Willink talked about about one of his favorite things: An ice-cold bottle of water. I’m sitting at my desk typing, I know if I wanted a bottle of cold, clear water I could get one within five minutes. As servicemen and women returning from certain deployments can tell you, there really are three billion people on earth who live in poverty. They’ve seen up close what the UNICEF numbers report: 22,000 children die each day due to poverty. Willink brings to light how ridiculous First World bullshit and entitlement are. My point here is: If you’re looking for an option to cable TV distraction and want something real, listen to the Jocko Podcast.
The foundational theme in Jocko’s podcast relevant to getting into shape fast is this: Discipline equals freedom. It’s also the title of his new coffee table book. Specifically he’s talking about self-discipline as compared to external discipline. It’s one thing to wake up every day at 0430 hours when a drill sergeant blasts a whistle two feet from your skull. It’s another to spring out of bed at that time on your own and “get after it,” to put it in Jocko’s words.
From Jocko’s book:
If you don’t think you are disciplined: It is because you haven’t decided to be disciplined. YET. It is because you haven’t created it. YET. You haven’t become it. YET.
Make the commitment, he writes.
Become the discipline—embrace its cold and relentless power….It will make you free.
Some days, doing the daycare scramble along with getting to and from work, making sure there’s food in the refrigerator and then, there you are at night, 9pm, washing dishes or finishing up some work project or both, the phrase ‘prison without walls’ comes to mind. You can feel chained to unending responsibility. Seems like a good time to recall Willink’s counter-intuitive axiom:
Discipline equals freedom.
In connecting dots between Jason’s column and Jocko’s book and podcast, when I’ve become stuck with the idea that my situation isn’t ideal for (fill in the blank: eating right; working out every day) is to take a step back and rethink things. Look at the problems to be solved as opportunities to wield discipline like you might a pair of side-cutting pliers.
So the takeaway here for getting fit fast: Don’t think of discipline as an accessory. Make it the focus. One of the reasons I like this is that if discipline becomes the core of the program then when the goal is achieved or the finish line is crossed and the t-shirt and medal collected, it’s not over. It’s never over when discipline is the deeper goal.
Get control of it. Impose your will to make it happen. Solve the problem. Relieve the stress.
Become the discipline, says Jocko. Those are the three words to tape to the mirror.
3. Initial action
A tool that Spartan founder Joe De Sena offers in his upcoming book, The Spartan Way, is on the potency of simply taking an action. When it comes to anxiety, action is the antidote.
There’s also an affirming value of following the decision to commit to a goal with a concrete action. Setting a goal and writing it down on paper and all is fine. Wonderful. But the freshly planted goal exists in a state of extreme vulnerability. Taking a first action toward making it happen is akin to giving a small plant dirt, water and sun. One way to put off that first action is to deliberate endlessly about what the optimal first step is. Don’t research and debate it to death.
Don’t wait anymore. Don’t think anymore. Don’t plan anymore. Don’t contemplate anymore. Don’t make any more excuses or justifications.
Take action, he writes. It is time.
4. Break it into pieces
When it comes to sports psychology, I’ve been wary. In my endurance racing experience, my degree of mental toughness and grit and all was corollary to how well trained I was. If an injury undercut my training for a marathon and I raced anyway, my sensitivity to the discomfort went off the charts. Or if I was too lazy to train right — same thing. By comparison, when training had gone well and I had been smart about tapering and all, my tolerance for race pain went way up.
But there’s one practice that falls within the category of sports psychology worth emphasizing. Segmenting. I think experienced endurance athletes tend to segment without ever studying the concept in a book or hearing about it in a lecture. If you spend enough time doing long runs or racing long events, you naturally gravitate toward narrowing your focus. You break up a 20-mile training run into the first five miles, the second, and so forth. Break it up mentally. You confine thinking to whatever segment you're working on and block out the future until you've finished the present five-mile task.
On the starting line for a marathon or ultra-marathon, to think about the whole race at once is overwhelming. It's a spirit-killer. But break the whole thing into more manageable pieces and it becomes doable. Focus on the first five or 10 miles as if that’s all you had to do today and put the rest out of your mind. In a Spartan Race, you confine your thinking to the first third of the race. Or break it up into groups of obstacles. Then chip away at the larger goal piece by piece.
Andy Stumpf, a retired SEAL and former BUD/S instructor, has asserted his belief that a critical difference between those who would make it through Hell Week and BUD/S were those who used the segmenting technique. It was something he used when he first earned his Trident. In his Cleared Hot podcast he has explained how — when he was going through BUD/S and its notorious attrition rate — he narrowed his universe to whatever ordeal he was engaged in in the moment to the next meal a few hours or less away. Beyond that he disciplined himself not to black out from his mind. As an instructor, Stumpf often interviewed those who quit the training to get a better understanding why someone who had dreamed of being a SEAL for years would give in when the proverbial going got hard. Often, Stumpf observed, it was that the trainee slipped into thinking about the long, cold, hard future had in store for him. The energy and courage to keep going drained away like blood from an open artery.
"I could get into your head and manipulate how you think about time," he says, talking about his role as a BUD/S instructor, particularly during the relentless torment of Hell Week. If you're the trainee, and you've been cold and awake for three days and once again holding a log over your head, and if Stumpf could get you to think about how long and endless things are going to be, it was likely you'd drop out. However, "If they could keep the world small and only focus on the next thing front of them, they were very likely to continue on to get through."
You can apply segmenting to any goal that can overwhelm. Let’s say you just graduated from high school and want to be an MD. That’s a long haul if you think about undergrad, medical school, interning etc all at once. Narrow it down to the first semester of college and set appropriate goals. Your first week of classes. Focus on the next thing in front of you, then the next after than, and one day finals are over, then look up and set the next subset of goals.
When you think about the Death Race, where you don’t know what the race is going to be or how long it’s going to last or even where it’s going to be, I can only imagine that if you finish the thing you’re going to be a master of segmenting. You could drive yourself nuts trying to get a mental grip on all that could happen or when it might end. Breaking it down into small segments — like the very task you face in the moment, say carrying a bag of concrete mix up a mountain or eating an onion or whatever — is the kind of thing that keep you sane and moving toward finishing.
For someone (like myself) embarking on a Get Fit As Fast as Possible project, segmenting is a helpful tool. You feel rusty, you feel heavy, what should be easy has you heaving for air. The ego takes a beating. I’m going to start a 4-week program. Just starting out that seems like a long time. Break it down and focus on the first week, or first day.
In my case, I’m going to think about things in six-hour increments. That includes whatever exercise I need to do for the day, but also not ripping open a bag of Chips Ahoy for that time period and screwing it all up. Committing to not eating a cookie for the rest of my life brings with it all sorts of certainty I’ll fail. But six hours? Sure. I can go six hours without a grabbing one of the donuts I’ve been told are in a box here in the office on the fifth floor. I can hold back that weakness in my brain that might try to tempt me into succumbing.
“Hold the line,” Jocko warns, against “the Sugar Coated Lies!” Hold the line, he says. Get angry, get aggressive. “Exercise your will as a human. Which I promise is stronger than the will of a donut."
5. Burpees are always there for you
About a year ago, when things were busy, I asked Mountain Strength CrossFit founder and longtime Spartan Racing coach, Rich Borgatti, for some advice on what to do if I couldn't make it to the gym. "Burpees and lunges," he told me. Over the course of the next couple of months that was all I did. Mostly on the burpee side of it. My mainstay workout was to pull my car over to the side of a park or patch of grass, maybe right after doing a daycare drop-off, and do burpees for 10 minutes. Sometimes 12 or 20 minutes, but 10 was usually the deal. When I was behind schedule it would be five minutes: Just a max effort, no rest.
That was it. No other structure or equipment. Not even a dumbbell or pull-up bar. I could have made the pull-up bar happen but I kept things as simple as possible. In what was a demonstration to me of the secret power of burpees is that in August I made it into a workout at Rich's gym. They happened to be doing the benchmark workout Cindy. A workout where you do as many rounds of five pull-ups, 10 push-ups and 15 air squats as you can in 20-minutes. To my utter bewilderment, I set a personal PR for the workout. Better than my previous PR when I was unmarried, not a dad and went to a gym five days a week.
So sure, this wasn't much of a scientific study. I definitely don't understand how I was able to do the kipping pull-ups. Burpee power, I guess. Anyway, if you're in a time-crunched situation, absolutely slammed, it's hard to manufacture an excuse when it comes to five minutes of burpees. They aren't exactly as fun as surfing or a dance class. But they deliver.
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