Where Should I Begin?

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Starting a new training regimen or returning to training can be a scary thought, but as we said before, fear is a liar.

After a long break from training or when starting to train for the first time, many athletes have a hard time knowing how to start while avoiding injury or excessive soreness.  Breaks from training greater than six months can lead to significant detraining and muscle loss as well as weight-gain due to accumulation of fat.  Many times athletes try to regain their lost muscle mass and shed their gained fat tissue by diving back into the training regimen they had just before their break.  Most often this leads to injury; physical, psychological and metabolic.

You can’t rush perfection

Drastic changes in physical activity and diet tend to be temporary or very difficult to maintain for more than a couple of weeks.  After that, most people will either take a break and then try again with the same methods (yo-yo effect,) fall off the wagon completely or become injured and end up worse off than they were when they started their new program.  As if that weren’t enough, during a long break most people fall into a daily routine that doesn’t include training or thoughtful food preparation, making it difficult to re-establish an effective training and diet regimen.  Many of the small things that make a rigorous training program effective such as adequate sleep, nutritious diet, consistent training and deliberate recovery are overlooked in favor of overtraining and starvation diets in order to see results quickly and regain the physique, strength, stamina, and overall good health and fitness of their previous diet and training program.

The process of change

As with any lifestyle change, including long breaks in training, the effects of the change take place gradually.  Generally, when training is concerned, it takes about six months for new or replacement behaviors to become habits.  This means that it will take about that long before you can really call a new behavior or state (i.e. training, nutrition, sleep patterns, and metabolic homeostasis) integrated into your lifestyle.  This has less to do with physical adaptations, and more to do with psychological ones.   Enter – The Transtheoretical Model.

The Transtheoretical Model of Behavioral Change (TTM,) better known as the Stages of Change, provides five benchmarks or “stages,” by which we achieve sustainable behavior change.  I will discuss the TTM in greater detail in a later article, but for now it is important to know that changing your lifestyle, (i.e. the collection of behaviors and beliefs that make up your daily living experience,) is a process and not an event.  Therefore, the most effective approach to change is a procedural one.  Gradually introducing or reintroducing behaviors that are consistent with your desired lifestyle will increase adherence, decrease change-related anxiety, allow for the behaviors to be adequately reinforced, and ultimately lead to a healthier, more sustainable lifestyle of fitness.

Here are a few tips to get you started.

1. Set Goals.

Setting realistic, challenging, and achievable goals is undoubtedly the most effective strategy for any change.  It is hard to figure out how to go from here to there without knowing where “there” is, or how to get “there.”  Effective goal setting takes some time and deliberate thought but is well worth the effort.  People who set goals are nearly twice as effective at achieving them, and nearly three times as likely to maintain the changes made as a result of their goal achievements!  That’s a figure too significant to ignore!

2. Write it down.

Awareness of your behavior is the first step toward changing it.  Documenting your food and drink intake, bedtime and hours of sleep, training activities, and any other aspect of your lifestyle is vital to identifying the patterns that already exist in your daily routine.  For instance, on days when I go to bed before 11pm, I generally eat 250-350 fewer calories because I am asleep when I would otherwise be eating a late-night snack.  Over the course of a week, that adds up to 1750-2450 calories.  After a month of going to bed at 10:30pm, I may save myself from consuming up to 10,500 calories, that’s the amount of energy in 3 pounds of fat!

3. Reinforce.

Giving yourself a reward for consistently adhering to your goals and tracking your progress will help motivate you to keep going.  Pick some activity or item you want or like to do and make it a reward for consistency.  However, in order for you to get your reward your behavior must be consistent with your goals, otherwise it will lose its effectiveness.  Take as many opportunities to reinforce your good behavior as possible.  For example, use a reinforcement statement like this; “For every meal I meet my dietary goals, I will read a chapter in my favorite book.”  Or this statement that adds the element of accountability; “Every week I don’t miss a workout or cut any of my workouts short, I will go to a movie with my spouse.”

At the heart of the matter of change is a gradual and consistently progressive approach through goal setting, documentation and reinforcement.  Whether you are just starting out as a beginner, or getting back into training after a long break, with these tools you will be back in the training saddle in no time.