Fitness Friday: Seven reasons why your training is failing, and how to fix it

A lot of folks started their year with the “new year, new me” vibe, and a good percentage of those people had their eye on fitness. Six weeks into the year, it’s a safe bet that a good chunk of them are already losing steam.

It happens every year. People get excited about transforming themselves. The join a gym. Hire a trainer. Change their eating. Try things like running, CrossFit or something else. And when the initial excitement wears off, they find themselves disappointed in what they’ve achieved.

For most people, there are plenty of reasons why they peter out. The good news is that almost all of them are fixable. Let’s go through it.

You get out of it what you put in… or not

Anyone can move some weights around or lazily move on an exercise machine for a few minutes. Workouts aren’t about checking a box or collecting a participation trophy. A half-hearted attempt at fitness only results in wasted time.

The solution: Challenge yourself. If something you were lifting becomes easy, add weight next time. A 3-mile run no longer taxes you? Pick up the pace. Intensity is rewarded by results. The term “progressive overload” is used to describe gradually adding difficulty in your exercises over time. If you don’t, your body will adapt to what you’re doing, and you’ll actually regress. Don’t let that happen. Put a little more weight on the bar next workout. Increase your speed on your run, on your elliptical session or on the Stairmaster. Added stimulus equals improved performance.

Your phone owns you

By this time, cellphones are ubiquitous. We don’t leave home without them. We don’t leave anywhere without them. We take pics, make videos, check social media and read notifications. They suck us in and exercise our thumbs in endless scrolling. Even at the gym. Between sets, you reply to just this one text. Then check your Twitter. Or Facebook. Again. And again. And again. The next thing you know, it’s been five minutes between your last set and the latest TikTok you just had to watch. And before you know it, it’s time to go. Oh well. There’s always tomorrow to get them gainz. First, lemme take a selfie…

The solution: Leave your phone in your locker. Or in your car. Or at home. With the exception of a few fitness apps, or maybe as a source of music, the phone serves no purpose during your workout, and if the distractions from, say, EVERYTHING ELSE on your phone add up, the benefit of the fitness apps/music is outweighed by what you lost in terms of time and productivity. Trust me. Whatever your phone is trying to tell you, it can wait an hour while you get your work done.

Speaking of time-sucks, you’ve got a bad case of the chit-chats

You meet some cool people at the gym. When you see them, you talk about training. And your kids. Or maybe last weekend’s hot Tinder date. Or the latest serial killer show that’s now streaming. And as the babbling rolls on, the time between sets grows. Productivity? Gone, like a fart in the wind.

The solution: It starts before you walk in the door. Make up your mind that you are there to train. There’s nothing wrong with a little chit-chat but keep it short and get to business. If a longer conversation is to be had, catch up with your buds afterward. If someone keeps talking to you, acknowledge them, but go on to your next set. And if you’re the person holding someone else up, apply a little self-awareness and let them do their work.

Your diet sucks

You’re working hard. Sticking to the plan. But dude, those cookies aren’t going to eat themselves. Or that pizza. And lemme have a couple more beers before I turn in for the night. But will someone please tell me why the scale isn’t moving, and why I don’t have a six-pack?

The solution: You can’t outwork a bad diet. Do you really want to change your body composition? Athletic performance? Overall health? Eat foods that are better for you. Eat what you need to stay fueled and build, but don’t let that be an excuse to order the richest item on the menu at Cheesecake Factory. And while I dig a beer every now and then, alcoholic drinks are empty calories. They don’t call it a beer gut for nuthin’. Be smart about what you put into your body.

You’re grinding down

Sleep? I’ll sleep when I’m dead! Coffee will keep me going. Or a Red Bull. And I’m doing a 90-day runstreak! And a 30-day challenge! And if this amount of working out is good, then more is better! CrossFit 6 days a week! Yeah baby! But… <CRASH>

The solution: This ain’t hard. Get your sleep. Take a weekly rest day. And remember that more isn’t necessarily better. Work hard but work smart. Understand that as you accumulate fatigue over time, your body will eventually grind down, you’ll get injured, you may get sick, and your gains will cease. Recovery is just as important as the training. Don’t be a bonehead. Learn when to let off the gas.

When it comes to training plans, you’re all “Squirrel!”

Yeah, your training plan is cool, but then you saw this guy’s article in Musclehead Mag. And then there was this super-hot Insta-gal and her take on some sort of squat challenge (I mean, she’s got 100,000 followers!). Mr. Olympia does this! Hafthor Bjornsson does that! I’ll try it all! And then you go… nowhere.

The solution: Identify your goal. Find a plan that will help you achieve that goal. And then, with monkish resolve, stick to the plan. What’s that? You didn’t hear me? STICK. TO. THE. PLAN. Bouncing around from one idea to the next is a ticket to mediocrity. See your plan through, ya knucklehead.

You can’t find motivation, and you need an inspiration fix

You’re scrolling through Instagram looking for your daily dose of fitspo. “Please, someone give me a meme! Or I’ll never make it to the gym!” And on and on it goes as you hunt for the next thing to jolt you into action. Every damn day. But just like a drug, the effects weaken over time until eventually you become one with the couch. Netflix binge, engage!

The solution: Inspiration and motivation are basically the sugar rushes of fitness. The occasional kick in the pants will get you going, but you can’t rely on either for the long term. Instead, you must build discipline. Discipline takes time. It’s boring. It requires (gasp!) compliance with your training plan. But if you commit to being disciplined in your training, guess what it builds? Strength. Endurance. Form. Muscle memory. Habits. Add those together, and what do you get? Results. Comply with your plan over the long haul and leave the fitspo memes behind. You’ll be better for it.

That should cover the bulk of it. Cut the crap, keep your eyes on the prize and achieve your goals. Let’s get to work.

Bob Doucette

Fitness Friday: More ways to use interval training for conditioning

Go to any commercial gym and there is a good chance you’ll have a lot of tools you can use for interval training conditioning.

I’m a fan of interval training. It’s a way to get a lot of work done in a compressed amount of time. And the method works: Performing intervals will build cardiovascular capacity and help burn excess body fat.

But going back to last week’s post, I knew that I’d need to follow it up with some ideas that do not involve running longer distances. Not everyone is a runner, either by choice or from physical limitations. What I want to do here is give you some ideas for interval training that do not involve “running” workouts.

As a refresher, let’s talk about different forms of cardio. The type you see when someone plows ahead on some machine for 30-60 minutes at the same speed is called steady state cardio. The same is true of someone out for a run or on their bike who travels at pretty much the same pace the entire way.

Intervals involve an activity where you switch speeds from a slower, easy pace to progressively higher speeds, then drop back down to the original slower pace. Another version of this involves working at a high, intense speed (think sprint), then slowing way down to a recovery pace and doing that for multiple rounds. This is sometimes referred to as high-intensity interval training (HIIT).

The up-and-down nature of intervals tends to have greater fat-burning qualities than steady state. And you can generally get that benefit in a shorter amount of time with intervals than you can with steady state workouts. The latter has its place, but for most of us, interval training has more value.

So let’s get to it. I’ll break it down into inside and outside forms of interval training you can do.

INSIDE

If you have access to a gym, there is a good chance it has a variety of machines like treadmills, ellipticals, stationary bikes, stair climbers and rowing machines. Although I’d much rather get my work done outside, there is a benefit to having these tools at your disposal.

One of my favorite machines is the stairmill. One of my friends calls it the “stairway to hell,” and I know why. It’s not pleasant. But it can give you a great workout. And it is very interval-friendly. I’ll start out at an easy speed, and then every minute, go up one level for four minutes, then drop it back down to the speed where I started. Five founds of this and I can climb 1,000 feet in 20 minutes and burn a few hundred calories:

Minute 1: Speed level 8

Minute 2: 9

Minute 3: 10

Minute 4: 11

And than back down to 8 to start the next round.

Ellipticals have the same feature: a speed level, or in some cases, speed is measured in RPMs. In that case, the intervals would look like this:

Minute 1: 55 RPMs

Minute 2: 65 RPMs

Minute 3: 75 RPMs

Minute 4: 85-95 RPMs

And then back down to 55 to start the next round.

A similar path could be forged on an exercise bike using miles per hour as your guide. And so on. Do five rounds of this, and make sure that hardest interval (minute 4) is one in which you are really working hard. You need to be gassed when you take it back down to the slow interval on the next round.

You may have a couple of machines that are more conducive to sprint intervals. Two that I can think of are the spin bike and the rowing machine.

In this case, the goal is to work as hard as you can for a minute, then take a two-minute break before doing the next sprint. Do this for 6-10 rounds. It’s important to remember that your sprint pace is going to feel rough. You’ll need those rest breaks. And when you’re done, you’ll be trashed.

If you’re lucky enough to have a place where you can push a prowler sled, you can do sprints with those, too. Load the sled with a weight you could push at a walk pace fairly easily. Get behind it and sprint behind it as hard as you can. Do 6-10 rounds with a 1-2 minute break between sprints.

As with any form of cardio, I recommend doing your conditioning after you lift and not before.

This grassy pitch is small, but if you run up and down it enough you will get one tough workout.

OUTSIDE

If the idea of indoor exercise is a no-go for you, then you still have options. Probably not as many, and you may need to go back to running a bit. But the distances will be short, so it won’t be anything like longer steady state runs or cross-country style workouts.

Hills on the bike: Find a hill that has a moderately steep grade and is long enough that you can get a 30-60 second ride uphill. Ride as hard as you can up the hill, coast back downhill to recover. Repeat for 10 rounds.

Hills on foot: Find a moderately steep hill that is at least 50-100 yards to the top. From the bottom, run hard uphill, turn around, jog slowly back downhill. Repeat this for 10 rounds.

Wind sprints on foot: Depending on your fitness level, find a stretch of level ground anywhere from 50-100 yards. From a full stop, explode at full speed for the distance you choose. Walk back to the start line, and give yourself a 1-2 minute break between sprints. Do this for 6-10 rounds. Word of caution: I wouldn’t do wind sprints if you are just starting out in your exercise journey. The potential for injury is higher for an untrained person, and if that’s you, build up to sprints by doing other forms of conditioning first.

What I hope you get out of this is your toolbox for conditioning is fairly extensive, especially if you have access to the tools or the places that have the tools to get you there. Not every conditioning workout has to involve running for miles and miles. And if you use intervals and work hard, you’ll see results.

Coming up next week: We’ll take a look at one of the most important (and undervalued) part of training: Recovery.

See you then.

Bob Doucette

Fitness Friday: Running intervals to build speed, torch fat

Good-ole running is a solid way to work on your conditioning goals.

The last couple of Fitness Fridays have been heavy on the weight training side of things, so I wanted to go in a different direction this week. Let’s talk conditioning, and then go over a couple of run-based plans that will definitely up your fitness game.

Fitness is basically two things: strength and conditioning. Strength is the ability to produce force. Conditioning is the ability to produce work capacity. If that sounds nebulous, let’s get down to brass tacks. A strong person can lift and move heavy things. A conditioned person can carry out rigorous physical activity for prolonged periods of time. A good athlete is a person who exhibits high performance in both areas.

And this even includes people in very specialized areas. Strongman champion Eddie Hall, who set a world record deadlift at 1,100 pounds, used swimming to make him better in competitions. Elite marathoner Jordan Hasay can deadlift twice her body weight. The two are nothing alike as athletes, but respective to their fields they are both strong and well-conditioned.

And they set a good example for you. It doesn’t matter if you want to be strong as a bull or able to run long distances at a good clip. If you have a good balance between strength and conditioning, you will be better at what you choose to do, and healthier overall. I went through some basics of strength last week. Now it’s time to talk conditioning.

Let me say at the outset that running is both the default exercise of choice for conditioning (or “cardio,” as you’ve probably come to know it) and a much-maligned activity in some fitness circles. It’s the default because it’s a natural human movement. You ran around as a kid. You ran laps in PE class or for whatever sports program you were in. Aside from running form techniques, running is about as intuitive as it gets.

It’s maligned because some folks see it as a way to get hurt (I think that’s overblown) or believe that other forms of conditioning are superior. Run too much, they say, and it will inhibit strength gains. There are grains of truth to all of this, but generally speaking, a good running program with moderate distances and different types of workouts offers a lot of bang for the buck, and without nearly as much downside as detractors would have you believe. Yes, it will be hard to build strength if you’re running 30, 40, or 60 miles a week. But we’re not going there, at least not in this post.

One last note before I get into the meat of it. The workout ideas I’m going to throw out there in this post will be for people who are already doing some running. If you’re a beginner, you’ll need to start slower and much more modestly and build up your running base before trying what I’m going to present here. A solid Couch to 5K program is going to be right up your alley. Tackle that and you’ll be ready to go to the next level.

Now for the rest of us. You can get fit running 15 to 20 miles a week. But your body will eventually adapt, and when it does, you’ll find your fitness levels stagnate or even regress. Adaptation is a bummer. So that’s why we must challenge ourselves by making things hard.

And that’s where intervals come in. What are intervals? For running, intervals are when you run at a challenging pace for a specific distance or time, then slow down to an easy recovery pace for a short time. Once that recovery period is over, you ramp up the intensity again.

A basic interval run might look like a “race pace” 400-meter interval, followed by a 200-meter slow jog or walk, and repeating this process for about eight rounds. That will give you about three miles of movement. A “race pace” speed should be a hard effort, akin to running but not being able to hold conversation during the effort. Your rewards: torching excess body fat, improving your cardiovascular capacity and gaining experience running at challenging paces that might have made you pause. Try it and see what you think.

400-meter warmup

400-meter race pace 200-meter recovery walk or slow jog, x8

400-meter cooldown (light jog)

As you get accustomed to this, try kicking up the speed on the race pace intervals.

Here’s a place where you can work on some speed.

Too easy? Let’s kick it up a notch. But I’ll just warn you right now:  It’s hard. It’s called a ladder, and it’s a whole lot of no-fun work with big rewards.

How it works: After a moderate warmup, you’ll run a certain distance at a challenging pace, or maybe a desired race pace. Then you’ll slow down to a light jog for 400 meters. When that recovery interval is over, you do a longer race-pace run, then slow down to the light jog. And the next interval has you go at an even longer race pace interval. When you reach a peak distance on the “fast” intervals, you’ll then shrink their distance until you reach the “fast” interval distance that you started with.

If you’ve never done this before, start with a “baby ladder.” It looks like this:

400-meter warmup

400-meter race pace 400-meter recovery jog

800-meter race pace 400-meter recovery jog

1200-meter race pace 400-meter recovery jog

800-meter race pace 400-meter recovery jog

400-meter race pace

400-meter cool-down

The first time I did this, it trashed me. And this isn’t even the full monty!

Here’s the full ladder:

400-meter warmup

400-meter, race pace 400-meter recovery jog

800-meter race pace 400-meter recovery jog

1200-meter race pace 400-meter recovery jog

1600-meter race pace 400-meter recovery jog

1200-meter race pace 400-meter recovery jog

800-meter race pace 400-meter recovery jog

400-meter race pace

400-meter cool-down

That’s a lot of work, a lot of intensity, and a decent amount of mileage, to boot. It’s important to remember that during this workout, you never stop for a water break, never stop to walk. You’re always running. As you adapt, increase the speed on your race pace intervals.

The best places to do this is either on a track (one lap is 400-meters, so it’s easy to keep track of distances) or on a treadmill (distances are going to be on the control panel). It will be a little harder to track your speed on the track, though most sports watches can help. On a treadmill, you can set precise speeds.

Do this speed workout once a week, mixed in with your regular runs or other conditioning routines.

Your weekly run schedule might look something like this:

Monday: 3-mile-run

Tuesday: 5-mile run

Wednesday: Speed work (ladders or other form of speed interval)

Thursday: Rest

Friday: 3-mile run

Saturday: Long run

Sunday: 30-minute cross train (bike, swim or some other form of conditioning)

Next week: I’ll get into some other ideas for conditioning, and not all of them will involve running.

Bob Doucette

Fitness Friday: Basic strength, work capacity, and a blueprint for continued strength gains in the squat, deadlift and bench press

Getting stronger in the big lifts has huge benefits. And it can improve over time if you do it the right way.

I’ve done some research over the years to find things that work in terms of strength training. Two methods come to mind: the 5-by-5 rep scheme, and the importance of volume training. The former is something promoted by the well-regarded author of the book “Starting Strength,” Mark Rippetoe, and the latter is something I picked up from listening to Westside Barbell founder Louie Simmons.

Let’s look at that 5-by-5 first. What it has you do: Using the “big lifts” – bench press, squat and deadlift — you’re going to start by selecting a weight you can comfortably do for five reps. Do the set, then add some weight for the next set, and do five more. You keep doing this until you’ve completed five sets of five, and that last set should be a struggle – one where you’re probably not going to get all five reps. Once you get to the point where you can complete all 25 reps, it’s time to move up the weight in all the work sets. Repeat this cycle for 12 weeks, and you’ll pack on some strength on those lifts.

Now for a curveball: When you’re working with rep ranges like five or less, your body will tend to grind down. You’ll keep progressing, but it will slow and eventually stall. That’s my experience, anyway.

Enter Louie Simmons.

If you don’t know who Simmons is, here’s the short of it: He founded the Westside Barbell Club in Columbus, Ohio, and using what he learned from American and Eastern Bloc strength coaches, he came up with a system that helped his gym produce more world-record powerlifters than just about anybody. Simmons knows his stuff.

One of the things he said he discovered is that when his athletes would get to the end of a training cycle, they’d grind down and, to paraphrase his words, walk into a meet with a lack of conditioning.

What he meant by that is they’d be stronger at the end of the cycle, but not as strong as they should or could be. As their lifts got heavier, their total reps per workout got fewer. Sometimes, they’d miss their lifts at the meet – a fate no competitor wants. So, he split his lifters’ workouts: One day would be heavier weight/lower reps, and the following workout with the same lift would include lower weight, but a lot more reps.

And that’s how the legend of Westside Barbell was born.

So how would that look for you? Let’s set up some squat workouts combining these two methods. Say your leg day workouts are Mondays and Thursdays. I’m sure you’ll have other leg exercises besides squats, but I’ll let you figure out what those are (I provided some examples in last week’s post). You’ll be doing them after you squat anyway. All weights I’ve listed below are used only as an example. You’ll have to figure out what works best for you/challenges you and go from there, but remember, that last set of five should be at a level where you won’t get all five, and when you do, it’s time to move up in weight on all of your work sets.

Monday squats (5-by-5)

Warm up:  Empty bar, 10 reps; 135, eight reps.

Work sets (5 reps each) 185, 205, 225, 245, 265

Then do the rest of your accessory leg work.

Your Thursday routine will look at lot different. Lighter weights, more reps. It’s volume all the way, baby. How I’ve been doing this for leg day is a deal I call “death by squats.” In this routine, you’re going to pick a weight that is light for you. You’re going to do 10 sets of 10 reps, and you’re going to rest precisely one minute between each set. Use a timer to keep yourself honest. Again, the work set weight is just an example. You’ll need to figure out what’s “light” but doable for you.

Thursday squats (Death by Squats)

Warm up: 10 reps, empty bar.

Work sets: 10×10, 135 pounds, 1-minute rest between sets.

Now catch your breath, get a drink of water, go find your spleen, and continue with your leg day accessory lifts.

Why does this combo work? For starters, you’re getting good volume on both days. You’re getting 25 reps of work set weight on Mondays, and a whopping 100 reps on your high-volume day. That’s a lot of squats! But importantly, you’re getting a good combination of reps with heavier weights AND a bunch of volume with the lighter weights. The variation will boost strength AND work capacity (a term Crossfitters know, and a trait all of us should emulate, even if you have an aversion to Crossfit).

You can do similar plans on your bench day (I call it a “press” day) and on your deadlift day (my “pull” day). I’m not sure I’d do “death by bench” or “death by deadlifts,” but you can find a way to use lighter weights with high rep ranges to give you a similar effect. On my volume bench day, I’ll do a couple of warm-up sets, and then do four sets of 15, adding 10 pounds to the bar with each set. On my deadlift day, my volume workout has been doing 3-4 sets of Romanian deadlifts at 12 reps a pop. And if Death by Squats sounds a little too extreme, feel free to use a different combination of sets with lighter weights and higher reps. In the squat, I’d advise something like four sets of 15-20 reps with lighter weights on your high volume day. In any  case, I’m using much lighter weights than what I use in my work sets during my 5-by-5 days.

Bottom line: Get some good volume with heavier, challenging weights. And then in your next workout, dial back the weight and jack up your volume.  And let the gains begin.

Next week: We’ll get into the weeds of running, and a form of speed training that will blast you into shape.

Bob Doucette

Fitness Friday: A basic workout plan to kickstart your fitness goals

It’s the new year, so let’s stop screwing around with our fitness and have some fun, shall we?

Something I wanted to do at the start of the new year was a series of posts about fitness. January 1 seems to bring about a desire for change in that area of life for a lot of people, so I figured it would be worth spending some time on.

This week, I want to talk weight training. Strength is always useful, and maintaining strength is a major component to living a longer, healthier life. If you follow me on Twitter or have read some of this site’s older posts, you know what a big proponent I am of strength training. That’s what I want to go into here.

Too many people go into the gym with no real plan. Or maybe they’re rehashing something their high school coach did. Or mimicking something they read in a fitness mag. My idea: Forget all that, keep it simple, and put together some workouts that will help you do something useful, like building strength and conditioning.

I’m a big fan of what are often called “splits,” or workouts that focus on a particular area. Now I’m not talking about “arm day” or “shoulder day” or any of that. Instead, I like my splits to follow three basic movement patterns: The squat, the press, and the pull.

So, what the heck are these? Quick explainer…

SQUAT: This you know. From a standing position, break at your hips and knees, descend to at least to the point where the tops of your thighs are parallel to the ground, and stand back up. So, this could be a squat with a bar on your back, or a front squat, a goblet squat, or even bodyweight squats.

PRESS: This is an upper body movement where you are pushing against the resistance of a weight. Think bench press, military press, seated dumbbell presses, and standing barbell or dumbbell presses.

PULL: This is broader. But it’s basically what happens when your body’s musculature is contracting to pull a weight. The pull family can be divided into two parts: the hip hinge and the upper body pull. The hip hinge includes all deadlift variations and things like hip thrusters and kettlebell swings. The upper body pull includes pull-ups/chin-ups, barbell and dumbbell rows, cable rows (standing or seated), face pulls and lat pulls.

You might be asking, “Where are things like curls, flies, and tricep presses?” They’re going to be tacked on as accessories. But the truth is, if you major in the three main movements, you’ll get strong arms, shoulders, and so forth. We’ll get to accessory lifts in a bit. The reason I like movement splits better than body part splits is that if you focus on movement patterns, you’ll be doing compound movement exercises. That means instead of focusing on a couple isolated muscles, you’re working a whole bunch of muscles all at once. More bang for the buck, more calorie burn, and better response in terms of gaining muscle and getting stronger.

So, when you’re planning a workout, I’d advise programming two squat, two press and two pull workouts a week. So yeah, you’re going to be working out six days a week. Make your lifting sessions last about an hour or less. At the end, take care of your conditioning, like running, bike work, stair climbing, swimming and so forth. If you can keep your conditioning to 20-30 minutes (and make sure those are INTENSE minutes, not just playing around on an exercise machine), you can be done with the whole workout in 90 minutes or less.

About those accessory lifts: Too many people major in the minors and spend way too much time in isolating exercises. You know the types, the dudes who will spend 30 minutes doing curls or whatever. Piece of advice: Fewer curls, more pull-ups. Trust me. But accessory lifts can be a good way to round out a weight training session.

A basic weekly workout might look like this, with some of the exercises listed here added to the foundational lifts (italicized):

MONDAY: Squat (Squats, lunges, leg extensions, leg presses, hamstring curls, calf presses).

TUESDAY: Press (Bench press, overhead press, tricep extensions, dumbbell lateral delt raises, push-ups, dips)

WEDNESDAY: Pull (Deadlift, pull-ups, barbell rows, loaded carries, bicep curls)

THURSDAY: Squat

FRIDAY: Press

SATURDAY: Pull

SUNDAY: Rest.

Play around with this but be sure each day is anchored by a squat, a press, and a deadlift of some form. I’d also say that some form of a pull-up needs to be included, and if you can’t do a pull-up, there are variations and substitutionary exercises that can help you get there (future post topic!). These compound exercises build strength and are bricks in the foundation of any fit person. Tack on the other lifts, plus some quality conditioning, and you’ll be well on your way toward reaching your fitness goals.

In terms of weight used and reps performed, that’s all dependent on where you’re at physically, and what your goals are. Lower reps with heavier weights build strength. Lighter weights with higher reps tend to build size. But those are generalities; sometimes strength athletes will use both methods to reach their performance goals. We’ll get to that in due time.

Next week: We’ll examine some more detailed ways to make the most of the exercises that are at the heart of the squat, press and pull movement patterns.

Bob Doucette

Looking back on a season of race training

Race day is coming.

Right around the time when people are set to run their goal race, there’s a lot of looking ahead. And I’m doing that, too. I have expectations that I hope I’ll meet Sunday morning.

But what I really want to do, at least in the moment, is look back.

This has been an interesting training season. I run year-around, but the miles go up significantly in the fall. That’s just how I roll. Spring and summer races aren’t for me. So here are some random thoughts of what the last 16 or so weeks have looked like.

I remember the heat – and the humidity – of August and September. Lots of slow running, the sun baking me dry, and the most disgusting piles of dirty laundry you can imagine. Heat training pays off, but it’s no meadow of rainbow-farting unicorns, let me tell ya.

I remember seeing progress on 5Ks. A slow one in September. As faster one in October that actually earned me a second-place finish in my age group. That doesn’t happen often with me. By the way, I’m still not fast.

I remember seeing progress and disappointment at the Tulsa Run 15K. Progress in that I ran it faster than the year before. But I expected better.

I remember seeing an eagle soaring above me on a midweek training run, riding the air currents looking for some fresh fish in the river below. That NEVER gets old.

I remember runs in which I heard the beat from African drums and the strains of Mexican folk music. That also NEVER gets old.

I remember getting confronted by a mama pit bull last week. She backed off when I looked at her, but my guess is she had puppies nearby. I don’t fault her one bit.

I remember betting a college cross country runner I could beat him to the top of a hill, saying I’d give him all the cash on me if he won. He asked, “How much ya got?” I confessed, “Not a dime.” Levity, people. It matters in the midst of the grind.

I remember a bunch of cross-training bike rides on Sundays, and how all of them seemed more like play than training. And I’m good with that.

I remember the grueling weekly speed workouts. Oh man, those sucked. But they work.

I remember when my running went from zombie shuffle to a respectable clip, that moment when the switch gets flipped and my conditioning says, “I’m back!” Always a good feeling.

I remember what dinners were like after my weekend long run. Dude. All the calories were mine.

I remember going out for a 5-mile run when the winds were blowing out of the north at 25 mph, and the wind chill was 14 degrees, and noting that it was the best training run I had all fall. Funny how that works.

Lastly, I remember one really important fact. I don’t have to do this. I GET to do this. Health and fitness is a privilege, and it’s a privilege that’s earned. But never to be taken for granted. There are times when I’ve been sore, wiped out, and just over it. But in the end, I’m grateful that another year has passed and I can still run.

I don’t know how Sunday’s race will turn out. I’ve put the work in, and I think it should go well. The weather forecast looks good. I’m hoping for a happy finish line crossing.

But looking back, I see a lot of good already earned. Most of the hundreds of miles I ran were time spent outside. I dropped some junk pounds. I ran with friends, and I ran alone. I laughed at myself a lot, for putting myself through this, for lumbering along at my midpack pace, and generally looking like anything but an athlete. But when you hit that sweet spot, those training runs where you feel like you’re gliding through the air, flying over the pavement, slicing through the wind – ain’t that just the best? A PR would be sweet, but really, the feeling of being a runner is what makes it worth it.

Bob Doucette

Running the Tulsa Run, and learning to trust the process

Me and a coworker, Corey Jones, after the Tulsa Run 15K. He’s a lot faster than me.

I’m eight weeks into the fall training season, and the thing I need to keep telling myself is this: Trust the process.

I say this a little less than a week after running the annual Tulsa Run 15K. There’s a lot to like about this race — its long history, its penchant for attracting costumed runners, and the fact that some really fast runners come out every year (it’s the host race for the USATF Masters 15K championships).

The race goes through cool neighborhoods, into scenic parks and finishes on a long, uphill stretch that goes right into the heart of downtown. Tulsa firefighters park ladder trucks on either side of Boston Avenue, the race’s final stretch, and hang a huge American flag that you run under just a few blocks from the finish. The city embraces this run as it has for more than four decades, Tulsa’s first “long” distance endurance event, the race that all other local races are built on.

While the Tulsa Run doesn’t hold the place it once did in terms of distance (there are numerous half marathon, marathon and ultramarathon-length races in town now), thousands still come out for it. For those of us running the half and full races at the Route 66 Marathon, it’s the last tune-up before November’s big show.

I came into this one with high hopes. I’ve been training hard, not only with the distances, but also with speed work. I’m lighter and faster than I was at this time last year.

That doesn’t mean I’m fast, but I really thought I had a shot at breaking my 15K PR, a 1:28 showing in 2013 when I was training for a full marathon.

Long story short, that didn’t happen. Not even close, really. I clocked in at 1:34.33. Just two years ago, I was three minutes better than that.

When it comes to running — or anything, really — unmet goals are a good time to reassess. What went right? What went wrong? What could be different? As far as I can tell, I went out to fast and underestimated the course. It could also be true that on my training days I’m not pushing hard enough. My speed days are plenty hard — more strenuous than any speed workouts I’ve ever done. But those other runs? Maybe I need to pick it up a little.

But as is usually the case, there are silver linings. For starters, this year’s Tulsa Run finish was almost a minute-and-a-half faster than last year’s. That’s a great sign, seeing that last year I snagged my second-fastest half marathon ever. I’m way ahead of the game, by that standard.

And then there are the peripheral things that make it all worth it. There is satisfaction in doing hard things and seeing them through. Weekly bike rides — installed in the training program as cross-training — are a joy. Plus little things — running past parks as some dudes embark on a drum circle jam session, or a Mexican band throwing it down at a block party-style event, or spotting a bald eagle soaring above, searching the waters of the Arkansas River for a meal.

When you take up running, most people don’t quantify these as benefits, but they are.

And running has a way of making you laugh at its minor hardships. On Tuesday, I was set to pound out eight miles before work, but a cold front with scattered rain was in the mix. Fine mist fell on me most of the way, but for about a half hour on the back end of the run I got the indignity of running in the rain. A cold rain, mind you. By the time I got back to the house, I was soaked pretty good. I got a chuckle out of how much all my drenched clothes weighed once I stripped down. Part of the deal, I guess. A hot shower never felt so good.

Anyway, the end of Saturday’s race featured free beer and a massage, along with some conversation with a couple of coworkers who ran that day, too. Both faster than me, by the way.

But I guess we all run our own race, learn from it what we can, and move on to the next thing.

I’m in the heart of my training season, when the miles are piling up and the workouts are getting harder. The next thing, in three weeks, is that half marathon. Until then, it’s time to put in the work, enjoy the ride and see what happens on race day,

Bob Doucette

Regaining fitness: Hard work and a few wise words that did me some good

Near the finish line. I’ve dropped some weight and improved my times, but I can get faster. And as you can see, I could stand to lose a few more pounds.

I’m just over halfway through training for the Route 66 half marathon this fall, and let me tell ya, motivation is a funny thing.

Over the summer, I liked where I was going in terms of strength. But conditioning? Not so much. In late July, I made a change. A commitment to not just train for the race, but regain my fitness that I let lapse so badly over the year.

Ringing in my ears were the words of my friend Bill, who under somewhat similar circumstances called it a “forced refocus.” I liked the sound of that.

A lot of it has been things that are familiar to me: Intermediate runs, long runs, bike rides and strength training. But I’m taking speed work more seriously now. It used to be that I dreaded the long run the most in any given week. Now? It’s definitely the speed days.

What I’ve been doing: Run a specific distance at a goal race pace, then take it down to a slow jog for 400 meters. The workout is called a ladder, or in this case, a “baby ladder,” because it’s not quite the whole enchilada. I warm up for a quarter mile, then get going: 400 meters at race pace, then 400 meters at a slow jog. Then 800 meters at race pace, 400 meter jog. Followed by 1,200 meters at race pace, and a 400 meter jog. After that, it goes down to 800 meters, then 400 meters, then a quarter mile cool-down run. You get the drift.

It’s tougher than I imagined, and any time I add speed or another race pace interval, it trashes me.

But it’s also paying off. For starters: I’ve lost about 10 pounds since summer. This is good, considering I’m still eating a bunch. And my speed is improving. I’ve never been a fast runner, so take these numbers for what they are.

Back in September, my gym did a treadmill 5K fundraiser. I signed up, got a T-shirt, and finished it in 28:48. Not a great time, but faster than what I did last year.

Last weekend, my training schedule called for a 5K race. I entered this thing called The Wizarding Run — a Harry Potter-themed 5K that drew a bunch of people dressed in Hogwarts garb who were there for the theme as much as for the race. It made for a mellower field, so when I crossed the line at 27:30, it was good enough for second in my age group.

A rarity for me: Placing in my age division. I took second.

I took it with a grain of salt, but the improved time in a course where the last 2K was almost all uphill was a win in my book. And the slower field gave the mid-pack runner that I am the chance to see what it’s like to hang out for the awards portion of the event to hear my name called, collect a medal, and snap a celebratory photo. Runners like me don’t get this pleasure often.

All the while, I took some wise words to heart. Des Linden, the 2018 Boston Marathon champion, said that training is the building of fitness while racing is the test of fitness. And really, that’s how I took it. I’ve got goals for the half marathon, and I can honestly say I haven’t worked this hard at a race since the 2013 Route 66 Marathon. The little gains — the weight loss, the improved training pace, the better race results — are encouraging. It’s also a good reminder of how bad off I was in July, and how difficult it’s been to come back from the consequences of my own making.

That’s the thing I love about training. A lot of it isn’t fun, but the juice worth the squeeze. You make a plan, follow the plan and test the plan. And barring injuries or illness, the results of hard work are usually positive.

So for another five weeks, I’ll follow the schedule and its five runs per week. I’ll do the speed work and endure the long run. I’ll lift some weights and do a weekly bike ride. My mid-pack quest for speed will continue.

Why? Because for now, I can. We’re not promised tomorrow. May as well make the best of it now.

Time on the bike. It counts for half marathon training.

Bob Doucette

Five things I learned about coming back from a serious illness

Me a few days before pneumonia had set in. I weighed 180 pounds in this photo. Now imagine that person with 18 fewer pounds on that frame. Coming back from the illness and the damage it caused was a long process.

A little over ten years ago, I had what was one of the most eye-opening sessions I’ve ever had in the gym. Following a weeks-long bout with pneumonia, I finally felt healthy enough to get back into the weight room and rebuild what I’d lost.

When I’d fallen ill, I was 180 pounds and in pretty decent shape. And then I dropped 18 pounds in a span of just 10 days. It would be several weeks later before I felt good enough to return to training.

I knew I’d be weak, and I was. But what was most stunning was how I looked. I was ridiculously skinny. And from the side, I looked like I was barely there, like a gust of wind could carry me off. It was almost like I was completely starting over, back in high school when I was a scrawny little twerp with more hair than muscles.

But I had a few things going for me, namely, a lot of knowledge built up over years of training. Still, it was a long road back. And I learned a few things along the way.

If you’re coming back from being sidelined because of injury or illness, then this one’s for you. Let’s start:

You’re going to be weaker. Don’t expect to move nearly as much weight as you did before. I remember doing bench press sets with 225 pounds before I fell ill. Coming back several weeks later, 165 pounds felt like I was trying to lift a Buick. So don’t push yourself past your new limits because of pride. Ease back into it.

Your conditioning is going to suck. Strength ebbs more slowly than conditioning. If you’re a runner, a cyclist or some other form of athlete that depends on a high level of conditioning, be prepared to feel almost like you’ve never ran/biked/swam before. Yes, it can be that bad. Once you accept that, you can get on with regaining your form.

It’s going to take some time. Maybe you squatted 500 pounds or ran a 20-minute 5K when things were good. But now that you’re two months removed from your training, please understand that Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was that squat/deadlift/5K/marathon PR. Or whatever. It took a long time to build up to all of that, and rather unfairly, a short time to lose it. Rebuilding it will be an exercise in patience.

But eventually, muscle memory will take over. Too often we see our past athletic performance as purely exercises of strength and conditioning. It is all that, but it’s also skill. Lifts are skills. Running is a skill, at least if you’re doing it at a higher level. Your brain hasn’t forgotten these things, and once you get back to it, your cranial neurons are going to fire up and tell your body what to do. That’s going to help in your recovery process.

This is a great time to learn new things. Often, we get stuck in our routines when things are going well. When you’re not chasing PRs (because you’re a shadow of what you were), this lets you take a new look at training and methodologies. Things you may not have tried before might be worth looking at now since your ego is solidly held in check. You never know what secret sauce you’ll unlock to eventually make you better than you were before.

I won’t lie, there’s nothing fun about being in the middle of a comeback. But once you’re healthy enough to start down that long road, there is opportunity. You might become stronger. Faster. Able to go further. It’s hard to believe when your fitness is in its nadir, but there is always a chance that you might climb out of that valley to a higher peak than the one you fell from.

Bob Doucette

Switching things up for a new season

My master for the next 12 weeks.

The start of September tells me a couple of things.

First, it’s not really fall. Not here, not now. I’m looking at sunny skies, high temps in the mid- to upper-90s, and no sign of that alleged crisp cool air of autumn anytime soon. So that means I’ll be sweating plenty on any given run for at least a few more weeks, if not longer.

Second, it’s the beginning of the fall race season. I don’t race much in the spring or summer, because frankly, I don’t do fast when it’s hot. I like it cool to cold. But getting ready for longer races takes time, so training for those distances (a half marathon in this case) takes a little time.

I was stung a bit by my underwhelming performance in the Rockies back in July. My pride took a hit from not being able to manage even one alpine summit. Just the nudge I needed to jump on that fall schedule and get cracking.

It’s nerdy, but I really got into making up my training schedule. Figuring out distances, where to schedule races, and when that blessed taper week rolls around just before my goal race. I made a grid of sorts, with each day’s workout planned to the exact mile, and even included a weight training schedule with specific exercises to be performed. I’m experimenting with speed workouts. Basically throwing myself into this thing, temperatures be damned, because I don’t want the year to end having accomplished nothing.

I know I shouldn’t let a leisure activity define me. No one cares if I summited zero peaks this summer or a hundred. They don’t care about how fast or far I run, or how much I lift. But it still drives me. I suppose the things I do in my free time just matter to me more, at least internally. Goals are useful if they make you better in some way, either by achieving them or at least trying.

And maybe that’s the real value. I’ve met awesome people in the running community and on the trail. Some real bosses at the gym. People who inspire me, who teach me, who push me to do better and be a little more.

The only negative of the fall for me is that as I run more, I have to lift less. Again, no one else really cares about this, but I’ve been a gym rat for decades now, and strength training is a familiar discipline to me, a companion that has been as faithful as any other. I’ll still lift over these next 12 weeks, just not as much. That puts strength gains on hold for a bit.

I picked this up. It was heavy. 10/10 recommend.

But I did get a last hurrah in. While I’m not where I want to be, I’ve been able to load up the bar pretty good lately. A couple of buddies at the gym were doing their deadlifts and pulling some decent weight. It lit a fire under me.

So a few days later, I did the same. I warmed up, loaded the bar and did my lifts. I pulled a moderately heavy weight just fine. Then loaded it with what was, to that point, the heaviest deadlift I’d ever done, 350 pounds. It popped right up. So I added 20 more pounds, just to see if I could. Sure enough, after an initial grind, I stood with the bar in my hands, the rep complete. It wasn’t too far from twice my body weight. I’m not going to brag on a 370-pound deadlift – it’s OK, but not great. But it’s a PR for me. And a win during a year that’s been mostly devoid of them. It gave me a pick-me-up just as the fall race season ramps up.

The truth is I love this stuff. I bitch about running miles when it’s blazing hot, or walking funny after leg day. I cuss myself in the middle of some epic Type 2 fun. But I’m not getting any younger. Time is slipping away. I can still do hard things, and maybe get a little better, and it’s best to make hay when the sun’s still shining. Maybe by the end of the year I’ll have a few more in the win column. I’ll just have to keep grinding and see.

Bob Doucette