“About a year into my career as a personal trainer, I joked with a client that I had never trained less since becoming a PT. It’s not that I didn’t have the time – I had more time than ever, most of it spent in the gym – it’s that I had too much time. Sessions that could have taken 45 minutes got drawn out to well over an hour, losing their potency and focus. Or, sessions kept being put off another hour at a time, until in the end they just never happened.”, says Claire, personal trainer, sports massage therapist, sports nutritionist, and a certified strength and conditioning specialist.
“A year or so later, I had my first 1:1 session with my yoga teacher. Of course, the yoga itself transformed me; I left feeling taller, lighter, energised, inspired. But it was the experience of having a 1:1 session that was the real eye-opener; I had no idea how much I needed an hour a week in which I could switch my brain off, and trust that someone else was looking out for me and could tell me what to do. It was such a treat.
Over the years, I have grappled with opposing beliefs: on the one hand, I deeply believe in listening to one’s body, in resting when that feels more appropriate than training; on the other, I know that sometimes I just do not want to train, but if I do, I often feel better for it. I’ve had moments of nostalgia for those days when I went to the gym every day not because I wanted to, but because it was just what I did (and what else would I do with myself if I didn’t go?); and yet I know that was a deeply unbalanced and unfulfilled life in which I neglected a lot of friendships and hobbies.
Fast-forward a few years, to last year when I tore my ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) and had the surgery to reconstruct it. For about six months or so, I did my rehab every single day, barring the first few days after injury and after surgery, and a few days off – no ifs, buts, or maybes. I had total trust in the protocol, so all that was left was to do the work. Whether I felt like it or not on any given day didn’t play into it; I had a job to do, and it would make me better, so all my energy went into getting on with it. After six months, however, I could no longer justify working only on my leg strength and knee stability – nor could I put aside admin and social commitments to prioritise my rehab – and I had to start going back to a certain amount of my sport, Brazilian jiu-jitsu. That was when the difficulties started.
A few weeks into the COVID-19 lockdown in London, it struck me that many people were feeling overwhelmed or stuck when it came to establishing new routines without the structure of a commute and a full week in the office. Every trainer, therapist, and fitness enthusiast was streaming free workouts and advice, and yet many of us still couldn’t find the right video or enough motivation – and ended up doing nothing at all.
Although we are now out of the lockdown, and even gyms have reopened, I thought it might be useful to share some tips and ideas that might help in your day-to-day, week-to-week fitness routine or general wellbeing habits.
I have no background in psychology, so I won’t pretend to know about the science behind “decision fatigue”. I just know it’s a real thing, and it’s the reason we are often encouraged to have a morning routine. Aside feelings of virtuousness (says this night owl with only a hint of envy), a set morning routine takes a bunch of early decision-making out of the start of your day, before you are likely to be called upon to make more complex decisions, in order to save bandwidth for decisions later in the day.
But even if, like me, you prioritise sleep over a comprehensive morning routine, you can save yourself some decision-making even later in the day. Here are a couple of approaches that you could try to structure your training routine.
The weekly plan
This might seem like the obvious approach – plan a whole week of training, in advance. This is essentially the approach used by sports coaches; there will be an overarching goal for the year (or longer), broken down into cycles of several weeks or months, which are further broken down into blocks of individual weeks, and subdivided into individual days and training sessions. This is ideal if you like to work towards a long-term goal, as you can set out an entire roadmap to reaching that target in whatever time you have available, and you know then that every session counts.
Even if you don’t have a set longer-term goal, you can still set yourself a training schedule one week at a time, if you believe that commitment to yourself will be enough to motivate you. Write out how many sessions of each type you’d like to do across the week (for example, 1 long run, 1 short run, 1 upper body strength training session, 2 core training sessions, and 2 whole-body circuit training sessions) and then plan out when is most appropriate to do those – you might prefer to do a long run on the weekend, and a short but higher-intensity session after a busy day of meetings. If you’re using exercise videos, maybe you spend some time on a weekend finding and lining up the videos you’re going to do, and you could even pencil the sessions into your calendar so you are more likely to stick to that timeslot. Nothing worse than having an hour to train and spending 15 minutes scrolling through YouTube videos trying to find one you like!
I love a set routine, and it’s what I thrived on for years. But with a work schedule that changes weekly, and sometimes requires one-the-day adjustments, that just isn’t feasible. I also don’t believe it’s the healthiest option for me.
The pick-and-mix approach allows you to list all the exercises or types of exercise you want to do in a week, and mix and match each day. I do this using a big whiteboard: I have individual exercises, as well as general categories like “foot mobility”, “cycling”, and “yoga” listed down the left-hand-side column, and the days of the week across the top row.
Then I tick the exercises off as I do them (or I write the amount of time I have spent cycling, or the type of yoga session I did, in their respective boxes). This approach allows me to do one or two exercises quickly in between clients if that’s all I have time for, and it encourages me to vary my daily activity whilst ensuring I still get everything done in the week that I want to. I can’t – and shouldn’t – do all my rehab exercises every day, so I ensure I do each one at least once a week. Having the whiteboard (rather than a list of exercises in a training diary) gives me instant visual feedback as to whether I am doing too much of one thing or avoiding an exercise for a whole week, and then I can adjust accordingly the following week.”