Several years ago, a friend of mine came back to Melbourne for a visit. At the time, he’d recently been on Australia’s national squad for long-track ice skating, narrowly missing out on representing the country at the Vancouver Winter Olympic Games, and he’d transitioned into coaching the Danish junior team.
Knowing that he not only had first-hand experience of elite-level training, but that his inquisitive nature and University education in science and mathematics meant that he would have investigated the sports science behind the training, over a beer and some dinner, I asked what his prescription for a “general fitness” training routine might be.
His response was intriguing, and is best detailed on his blog (which I highly recommend!) – but what I remember from that conversation are two points:
- He was baffled by the idea of training with no specific goal, and
- The importance of flexibility workouts in a training program (“…flexibility is free speed!”).
I have, of course, given the first point a great deal of thought since then. The problems I see are:
- I fly a desk most of the day, and when it’s not a desk, it’s a chair or a sofa;
- The nature of academic research means that finding regular training times is difficult, as deadlines, travel, and inspiration take no note of my desired schedule; and
- I recall what I could do when I was a teenager and I don’t want to admit that I can’t necessarily perform that way at the drop of a hat any more.
The first can be combatted by all the usual methods: walking up and down stairs instead of taking the elevators, forcing breaks every hour by walking to get water or talk to someone instead of emailing them – or just asking about their project for interest’s sake. I’ve even been known to resort to commuting by foot (when practical) or more recently by bike in an effort to (almost) seamlessly fit extra exercise into my days.
The second is discipline, time management… and some degree of flexibility in my desired activity types, lengths, intensities, and timeslots. It also means paying more attention to the overall weekly content — I can’t always rely on a comfortable, static recipe of workouts.
The third harks back to what I meant when I asked for a “general fitness” program, and needs some definition.
Ideally, I’d like to be able to run 12 km in an hour, 3.2 km in 14 minutes, swim 3.5 km in an hour, 100 m in about 1:20m, cycle 50 km, do a couple of hours of rockclimbing, lift my own bodyweight in a clean & jerk, and play a game of indoor soccer (or other team sport) without being too sore the next day. Not all at once, of course – but I used to be able to do most of these things at the drop of a hat. The distance running I’ve only managed in those times after sustained training, but I’d like to get back to it as well.
I figure that if my body is capable of handling these activities, it’s probably capable of doing other tasks like loading/unloading a trailer (or several), and performing the various parts of home maintenance that crop up from time to time that at the moment leave me sorer than I’d like the next day.
I guess that takes care of the goals.
As far as flexibility goes, I have to say he was right. Whenever I convince myself to stretch regularly, I definitely notice the benefits. However, I come back to the discussion we had at the time: whether it was better to stretch before a workout since that’s how the coaches used to train and that’s your habit now (even though the current wisdom is that you just warm up before workouts and do the stretching after, and intensively on rest days), or not to stretch at all since breaking that habit is unlikely… and requires more time.
His point of view was largely, “If you’re going to do it, do it right.” Mine was, “What is the cost of doing it wrong, and am I happy to pay it?” After all, I’m not an elite athlete, and if gaining more “free speed” comes at the cost of increasingly significant time investment, at some point my value judgement will be different from an Olympian’s. Then again, if I have the time, I always feel better after an hour of limbering up.