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Achieving Health Benefits While Training

I started my career in the fitness industry almost 15 years ago working with the general fitness population that desired to lose weight / tone up / get in shape.  What I quickly learned is that it is very difficult to get people to change their habits and that true motivation must come from within.  

Even the best road map to fitness will not necessarily be followed.  I was a competitive runner at the time and often encouraged my clients to join me for a 5k race.  Many of them had never completed a race in their lives, and I took it for granted that for them, simply finishing a race was an accomplishment in itself.

The Racing Attitude and Lifestyle

We are all familiar with the post race “glow.”  This is the blend of endorphins and achievement that so motivates us to keep racing and reaching new levels of fitness.  For many of my clients this 5k led to another, then a 10k, a half marathon, marathon, and a complete change in lifestyle.  

Not only were they able to achieve their fitness goals but they developed a change in attitude; a sense of pride and a new realization of their capabilities.  This also caused me to switch my coaching methods and ultimately to start my own endurance sport coaching company.

I noticed my athletes (no longer clients) began to immerse themselves in their race culture.  They enjoyed learning about their sport and studying new ways to improve.  We often discussed the latest equipment or an article in Triathlete or Runners World.  Participating and competing in endurance events became a hobby and way of life for them.  

Many planned trips around upcoming races and involved their spouses and families in their sport.  Others moved on to different endurance sports such as adventure racing, duathlon, triathlon, and road cycling.  Fortunately, today we have more options than ever before and participation in endurance sports continues to grow.

Setting Goals

Setting and achieving goals is a powerful thing.  If you tell someone to spend an hour on a stair stepper it is more of a sentence than a goal; but crossing a finish line is a real accomplishment– and you get a t-shirt.  People need challenge in their lives and endurance sports deliver.  

Unlike team sports the achievement is individualized and the individual gets to own their finish, PR, or placement.  Success can be found at any level and at any age.

There are very few physical barriers in life.  This was aptly demonstrated in my last race as I watched the double (leg) amputee briskly crossing the finish line.  Our barriers are mainly mental and we often need a small personal fulfillment to start the process of change.  Setting a reasonable and attainable race or event goal can jump start this process.  I have personally witnessed sedentary individuals achieve a complete physical transformation in as little as one year.

The Fittest of the Fit

Something else happened to my athletes along the way, they got fit; really fit.  Preparing for a specific event provides the motivation to train longer, more frequently, and more intensely.  

This intensity pays dividends off the race course as well as on.  There is recent evidence that shows those who exercise intensely have a significantly lower risk of many diseases compared to their moderately exercising counterparts, including diabetes and coronary heart disease (CHD).  

Training for Health Improvements

A recent study of 44,500 health professionals showed coronary heart disease risk was reduced by 18% in men that walked 30 min. per day, but men who ran for just one hour per week decreased their risk by 42%.  The men that engaged in ANY form of vigorous exercise enjoyed a whopping 30% risk reduction.  Unfit men that became fit had a 52% CHD reduction in risk.

A Stanford study of runners found that those who run habitually enjoy a relative disability free life.  Contrary to the popular belief that runners “wear out” their bodies, runners enjoyed a lower disability score at every age level and delayed disability in performing everyday activities by nine years when compared to non-runners.

It stands to reason that the more fit a person is the less risk they will have of developing certain diseases, but it appears that vigorous exercise has specific health benefits.  Intense exercise burns more calories and does a better job of keeping weight off.  Intense exercise also depletes glycogen stores; this in turn increases insulin sensitivity and decreases risk of type-2 diabetes.  High intensity exercise also increases cardio respiratory fitness which is directly linked to coronary heart disease risk reduction.

What about Sudden Death During Exercise?

What about the risk of sudden death during intense exercise?  It is very low when those with congenital heart defects are removed.  The risks associated with being overweight and sedentary are far greater.  

However, when starting an exercise program or increasing exercise intensity, it is important to visit your doctor first or when any cardiac symptoms occur when exercising.

Any exercise is good for the body but it would seem that like a lot of things in life the more you put in the more you will get out.  

I recently participated in a challenging race that included two rough trail runs up a very steep incline of almost one mile.  I was amazed at the fitness level of some of the athletes competing in their 50’s and 60’s and the disparity in mobility and fitness between these athletes and most persons in their age range.  If I had to pick one objective for my own training it would be to still be enjoying competition at their ages.  To have this quality of life is true athletic achievement.

Peak Performance; number 229: 8-11

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Matt Russ
Matt Russ
Matt Russ has coached and trained elite athletes around the country and internationally. He currently holds expert licenses from USA Triathlon, USA Cycling, and is a licensed USA Track and Field Coach. Matt is head coach and owner of The Sport Factory, and works with athletes of all levels full time. He is a freelance author and his articles are regularly featured in a variety of magazines and websites.


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