Fitness vs. training: Why the difference matters

Training is temporary, fitness is forever

It used to be that whenever I would re-embark on a fitness regime I would get carried away with quantifying everything. Whether it was laps in the pool, kilometers walked, or meters climbed on the bike, if I could count it I did. By quantifying everything I was able to track how much work I was doing, and since improvement was, at least in my mind, directly related to how many reps I did, how far I swam or pedaled, or how hard I worked then it was easy to gauge the success of what I was doing. If I walked five kilometers a day one week I wanted to make it six by the end of the following week. This is not a typical fitness mindset but I think it is quite common for many of us currently or previously involved in sport to think about our fitness activities this way. I felt that if I wasn't turning in ever increasing numbers then I wasn't improving and was wasting my time.

I have since changed the way I think about fitness. I still track some things but my main goal is to exercise everyday. I no longer worry about the training aspects -- how far or how hard -- I just do it. I let my mood determine intensity. If I feel like hammering the bike on a climb I do it but I never get on the bike feeling like I have to challenge every hill. That would be too much like training and, as has happened so many times in the past, would eventually spell the end of my fitness program.

It's not unusual for former athletes and coaches, or other sport practitioners to think of fitness in terms of training. Training programs are built on the improvement paradigm so when athletes leave their competitive days behind or when coaches design their own fitness regimes it's normal to mirror what they're already used to in terms of physical activity. We know how to train so it's easy to assume that we also know how to build fitness and maintain it. By this way of thinking, training and fitness become the same thing; fitness regimes that occur after competitive careers are just training programs without the competitive goals. Or are they?

While constant improvement is an important goal in training and athletic performance it is a mind killer when it comes to fitness. Always improving performance -- more reps, more distance, more weight -- will eventually become physically impossible. But long before anyone reaches that point the psychological dread that would accompany a regime focused on ever increasing numbers would bring an end to the program. Which might help explain why many former athletes struggle with health issues related to lack of physical activity.

The problem that most of us face with fitness programs is their start and stop nature. Just like diets, fitness plans begin with good intentions but often face headwinds. This problem is rooted in the training nature of our fitness schemes. For example, athletes in training have good reasons for what they do, they have time-limited goals, and the work patterns associated with competitive preparation can be plotted on a calendar. It's much easier to do something hard if you know that it won't last forever. Conversely, the benefit of a fitness program comes from exactly the opposite of a training program i.e. it doesn't end, or at least it shouldn't. To some this may sound like an obvious difference but it can have a significant effect on how fitness programs are planned, and most importantly of all, how we conceptualize what fitness programs are for.

The main requirement for any fitness program is doing it everyday or almost everyday. Getting fit and maintaining it depends on this consistency. For sport practitioners this might require a shift in how we think about fitness. Instead of focusing on future goals as we would if preparing for sport performance we should concentrate on regular exercise. The numbers or intensity of what we do are not as important as simply doing the activity. Here are several tips to help make fitness a part of your daily routine:

  • Establish a daily time to exercise. This should be the same time every day so that your fitness program can become part of a daily routine. It should be time that you control. This is your fitness time. You might not exercise every day but the time is there for it. Protect it, don't fill it with other stuff.
  • Set a time limit. Activity periods should be short enough so that your fitness regime is something you enjoy and look forward to every day. If it's too long it will begin to feel like a chore and you'll find reasons not to do it. Start with an hour and see how it goes.
  • Pick several activities that are convenient, that don't require special equipment, and that you enjoy. For example, running and walking require the same equipment and can be done right outside your front door. Mix it up. Any walking program can be intensified with a bit of running or walking up hills, or on snow. Figure it out. But beware of activities that require special facilities or equipment. These will create friction in your daily routine and add time to your fitness program no matter how convenient they may seem when you start. This doesn't mean you shouldn't do them, just that you should have a backup plan for when the pool or the local gym is closed, or when you're traveling.
  • Days off are for psychological rest, if you need it. If you need days off because you are physically tired from fitness activities then you are working too intensely and are slipping into the training mindset. Remember, fitness is forever. Intensity should occur occasionally but if you reach a point where you can't face the effort some morning then you're working too hard. Too much intensity adds to psychological dread and may eventually doom your fitness routine. The thing about intensity is that we feel that we have to have it all the time, or else we're not getting any benefit from the exercise. Once again, this is the training mindset. When this happens you have to remind yourself that you're not training. Let your mood determine how hard you exercise. In a fitness program the point is that you do it, not how hard you do it.

These tips aren't meant to imply that the training mindset is wrong. Getting ready for a special event like a marathon or trekking adventure requires a training plan. But these plans are time-limited and when we're not preparing for some big event we must still be mindful of our fitness needs. Fitness is forever, and the more routine we make it the more likely we are to live longer and healthier lives.