Overcoming mental and physical blocks

Solid advice from an in-the-know gym owner and coach

crossfit kettlebell training in gym

By Justin Keane, June 2019 Issue.

Committing to your health is arguably the most important decision you’ll ever make. That doesn’t mean it’s always an easy decision — heck, that doesn’t mean it’s ever an easy decision. I’ve owned a gym for the last 10 years and I can say with confidence that the struggles most folks navigate before they take that first step are, as they say, very real.

Whether we’re talking group classes, personal training, or getting ready for a 5k, the most common roadblock most of us face is that most vestigial of fears: that we just aren’t good enough yet. This manifests in several different ways, but most often it’s pretty hard-wired — we worry that we’ll be laughed at, left behind, found out. We imagine the scene stopping, the record screeching to a halt, the air getting sucked out of the room and there we are, all by our lonesome in a gym that’s suddenly, secretly morphed into a middle school cafeteria. Becky doesn’t belong.

No one wants to feel that way, especially not while we’re trying to better ourselves. But we fight this in two ways. The first is practical, and it puts us in the driver’s seat: we do our homework. If you’re joining a new gym or starting a new routine, ask your trainers how they on-ramp new athletes into their program or what resources are available for folks who are new or just getting back into this fitness thing.

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Are there measures they take or help you take to ensure you’ll get a great workout, stay safe, and still feel like you’re part of the crew? Can they tell you what to do if something doesn’t feel right, or you’re unsure how to proceed? Are there steps you can take to get more assistance if your initial instruction doesn’t take, or you just need a helping hand? Awesome. You’re in a good place. Have fun and get to work.

If you’re coming up with your own routine, I’d still recommend seeking some professional guidance to get you started — often just a session or two with a licensed personal trainer can set you up with a great program that’s easy to follow and will help you make progress for several months at a time. An ounce of prevention beats a pound of cure here. The last thing you want just as you’re beginning to build momentum is to hurt yourself and have to start all over again.

The second measure we take to head off that voice in our heads is one we’re going to want to hang onto for the entirety of our fitness journey: we remind ourselves that we are the captains of our own ships.  No one gets to rent space in our heads free of charge, not least the voices we imagine jeering us to the sidelines. 

More still, we want to remember that most of the folks in the gym or on the trails are way too concerned with their own reps to spend all that much time worrying about ours.  They put mirrors in most gyms for a reason, after all.  Run your race and be confident that the folks around you are making like Fonzie in their own heads — checking themselves out in search of a nice thumbs up in the mental looking glass.  They might see you but they aren’t really seeing you, which is kind of ironic (and yeah I really do think): the gym, a place where we sweat and grunt and maybe show a little bit more of ourselves than we might like to, is often a place we can endeavor in relative anonymity. You do you.

From a physical standpoint, we need to talk about a few stumbling blocks you may encounter as you get started. If it were all wine and roses, well, it’d be wine and roses. Nothing is quite so discouraging as hitting the proverbial starting blocks and taking a few strides only to feel like you’ve set yourself back, so we want to make sure we’re setting our expectations correctly.

First, you’re going to be sore — “pretty, pretty sore,” as Larry David might say. This is a natural byproduct of getting into a new fitness routine, but there are some steps we can take to mitigate that soreness and focus forward on recovery into our next workout:

Drink your water. It’s a little bit of an old wives’ tale that we all need to be drinking eight glasses of water a day (for some that won’t be enough and for some too much), but we can confidently say that proper hydration helps with recovery, replacing the fluids you’ve lost while working out, and shuttling post-workout toxins and waste product through your system. 

Move! Movement is medicine. If you’ve had a hard leg workout, chances are you won’t feel so totally awesome about climbing stairs or getting in and out of your car. The temptation here is to lay low, but you’re going to want to move around to aid recovery between workouts. A 10 minute walk around the block, two or three songs on shuffle while you do some jumping jacks and butt kicks, or a simple mobility routine like Maxwell’s Daily Dozen — all of these things get your blood flowing, your heart kicked up a bit, and a nice healthy sweat, and that does a body good between gym days.

Contrast Showers. This is a simple trick that you can easily fold into your morning routine. After you’ve been in the shower for a minute or two, begin to alternate the temperature between pretty cold and pretty hot — about 20 to 30 seconds at each relative extreme. As you get used to the cold in particular, you can go even colder for a few seconds. Check out our friends at End of Three Fitness (endofthreefitness.com) for a nice explanation on the mechanics of contrast showers for recovery. Bonus: they feel great!

All that said, we want to learn to distinguish between productive soreness (“man that workout kicked my ass”) and signs that your body is telling you to take a little extra time before getting back at it. Here we are paying attention to excessive joint pain or fatigue, pain that feels sharp rather than dull, or wrong rather than sensical. 

At the very least these are reasons to pump the brakes on our next workout, and some may merit discussion with your doctor if they persist. (You will, of course, have already consulted the medical professional of your choice before beginning any new exercise program, yes?) Because, soreness is one thing and we can live through that quite well thank you, but injury is another story — even smaller injuries like minor strains can be demoralizing and worsen without proper healing and rest. 

None of this is to discourage good, hearty exercise or to indicate that injury is inevitable, but we want to honor the commitment we’ve made to our health by taking the right steps to maintain momentum. Momentum is contagious, and as with all we’ve discussed above, the golden egg here is a commitment to fitness that becomes habit and feeds itself!