Do what you love – most of the time. But don’t only do what you love – mix it up, try new things, try old things, and even do things you’re not good at. Why? Because exercise variety is good for you.
“But, I Like To Run”
People ask me all the time “what is the best exercise to do?” I then ask them what they like to do. Then I tell them that they should do that, most of the time, but not all the time. If you love running, run. If you love the elliptical, elipt. But, if you love running you should also dance, lift weights, do yoga and Pilates, then run again. For best results, your body need exercise variety in order to improve.
If you like doing something, you will do it more often, for longer and with more enthusiasm. However, the body becomes very efficient at what it does frequently and the person will plateau, or cease to improve. That is one reason why it is important to have variety in your physical activity. Keep the body guessing and it will rise to your demand and become stronger and faster at what you do. Also, the variety of doing something other than your primary activity, will give you a break and allow you to come back stronger and better.
Variety Is The Spice of Life
Variety gives your mind a break and makes your activity times more interesting. It is also good for the brain to learn and do different things as it is more of a challenge, which is exercise for the brain. This is especially true for brain/physical challenges such as learning new dance steps or trying a new sport. Variety exercises the brain.
Variety is Good for the Brain and the Muscles
Variety is good for the muscles as they will be used in a different manner and therefore grow and strengthen to meet these new challenges.
I know runners that love to run. They feel their best when running and they don’t want to do anything else. They will even rationalize that they don’t do other things because they are afraid of an injury. This is a fair fear, but there are risky activities like soccer and less risky activities like indoor cycling, rowing or a Zumba class that are great or cross training and are relatively safe.
People who like cardio, or endurance, activities usually don’t like to lift weights and vice versa. I’ve noticed with myself that when I am in a cardio phase I don’t like resistance training. And when I’m in a weight training phase, cardio workouts don’t feel as good to me. So I understand when a runner tells me they don’t like lifting weights, but I want to stress the importance of doing just that. Exercise variety will help you excel in your primary sport or activity.
Weight Training for Runners
If you are an endurance athlete you probably don’t want to put on any extra weight, whether it comes from fat or muscle. However, weight training can be beneficial without being bulky. I’m a cyclist. I love riding my bike. I love it so much, one summer I rode 3,500 miles in 6 weeks from Alaska to California. Another time I rode for 39 hours consecutively in a 535 mile race. I ride when I have a cold and when it is cold. I ride when it is dark or rainy or hot or windy. I do it because I love it. But I also lift weights. (And, between you and me, I don’t love weight training.) I lift weight because it is good for my body and it improves my cycling strength.
When I go too long without any resistance training I can tell by my general energy, mobility, and posture. On the day after a workout I have better posture, attitude, and strength to open doors and climb stairs, and most importantly, pedal my bike. I have more energy to work and think and even walk. It allows me to be stronger on the bike and ride longer with less fatigue. It is noticeable. Plus, it is a great way to strengthen my bones and keep fat from gathering.
What I do
As a cyclist I don’t want to put on body weight. In fact, it would be nice if I weighed 20 pounds less, and kept my strength – but that would not be healthy. The types of workouts I do are different than what I would prescribe for someone who wanted to gain weight. I do a lot of body weight exercises, with higher repetitions, and small bouts, frequently. For example, I do one or two sets of something when I first wake up, then 2 to 4 times throughout the day I will do a few other exercises.
I like functional training because the body rarely moves in isolation in the real world. When was the last time you saw somebody lift a milk carton at the grocery store using a biceps curl move? Yet, walk in to any gym, any time and you will see people doing biceps curls. Why? (Don’t get me started on that ridiculous exercise.) The body is used as a whole. When you pick up a suitcase, carry it upstairs or put it in the trunk of your car, you are using all of your muscles.
Functional training movements encourage more than one muscle group to work at the same time. As an example of this, a pushup uses the triceps and all of the muscles on the front side of your body. My short bouts of exercise do not take much time. I might run up stairs (to get somewhere), and an hour later I would do squats while on the phone. After lunch I will take a walk and do a set of pullups as I pass by a playground. All the time I spend during the day exercising doesn’t add up to an hour, yet it keeps me fit.
Why Would a Runner Benefit From Pushups?
If you think about the movements the body makes while running, you will see that the legs are not working alone. The legs are attached to the pelvis which is stabilized by the core muscles of the midsection. The swinging arms are attached to the shoulders, the chest and back then coalesce at the core. The core ties everything together. If the core is weak, the runner (or cyclist, or dancer or swimmer) will be weak. A movement is only as strong as its weakest muscle in the chain. Also, the motion of the arm swings generates momentum for the forward movement of the body. If you are unsure about this, try running (not on a treadmill) with a light (1 lb) weight in each hand. I’ll bet you run a little faster and a little easier at first–until you get tired, anyway. Over long distance and uphill the weight would be detrimental, but the momentum that it creates is helpful. For the other side of this experiment, hold your arms straight down while holding the weights and run. How useful is arm movement now?
Pushups provide an excellent arm, shoulder, chest, ab, and hip flexor exercise. They will strengthen the muscles that you need to run (cycle, swim, dance) with strength and endurance. Having a strong core allows you to use your leg muscles for running without having to use some of that energy stabilizing the core.
Functional Training Serves a Function
Functional weight training is good for the body and useful for endurance athletes. Cross training is good to keep the body strong and still allow for a break from your normal sport, but both of these have a secondary benefit, and that is giving you something else to do if you are injured. If you are a runner and only run and you injure your knee, what do you think will happen to your fitness? I’ve seen it many times. An injury, especially one preventing you from doing the activity you love, very frequently causes a bit of a depression. It may just be a funk or a lack of motivation, but that depression can keep you from seeking out new activities. If your knee is injured and you cannot run for a few months, a shift to rowing, using an arm ergometer or weight training that does not harm the knee, is a perfect way to stay fit and make your transition back to running much easier.
The alternative is doing nothing, gaining weight, losing fitness and running before the knee is ready and re-injuring yourself.
My advice to everybody is, move and be active in a variety of ways. Do what you love – most of the time. Having that thing that you love is great, you are lucky, some people don’t have that (and that is a subject for a different article). If you have it, enjoy it, but be well versed in other activities. Practice doing other things now. They will enrich your life and make you a stronger, fitter person at your activity and enable you to roll with the punches should you need to.
Do what you love – it’s good for you. And do other things too – it’s better for you. Using exercise variety will keep you fit and ready for any number of activities, but most of all it will make you better at what you love.
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